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[The following article was first published in the Fall/Winter 1990 edition of Sea Letter, a publication of the San Francisco Maritime National Park Association; it appears here with the kind permission of its author. ---Lynne Landwehr]
Shore Whaling at San Simeon Bay
The procurement of whales for food and materials along the central California coast has its antecedents in prehistory. Although the resident Chumash Indians had the ability to venture into the open ocean in canoes, they did not hunt and kill whales at sea. Instead, they (along with the grizzly bear and condor) harvested the dead animal’s flesh after it had washed ashore, a considerably easier (and less dangerous) way to whale.[i]
Half a world away, in the North Atlantic, the Basques were among the first to begin whaling from shore, some eight or nine hundred years ago. As the waters near shore were depleted, the whalers developed larger boats and new methods for venturing farther out to sea. This same progression occurred on North America's shores, when the colonists brought the whaling industry with them from Europe. When the Yankees and Europeans had fished out the North Atlantic, they ventured halfway around the world to exploit the whale fisheries in the Bering Sea, and the Arctic and North Pacific Oceans. By the mid-nineteenth century, Hawaii had become the focus of the Pacific whaling fleet's operations.[ii]
Following the discovery of gold in California in 1848, thousands of argonauts in search of untold wealth flocked to the Golden State’s shores. Some of the men who could not afford the price of passage to California would sign aboard whaling ships, only to jump ship in San Francisco and scurry for the diggings. Some semblance of economic stability and common sense returned to the populace within a few years, and an interest in other industries, including whaling, resumed.
It is generally agreed that the first shore whaling station in California was established by Captain J.P. Davenport at Monterey in 1854. Shortly thereafter, a company of Portuguese whalers established a station at Monterey. That company included Captain Joseph Clark (né Machado), a young man from the Cape Verde Islands. Clark worked for Davenport at Monterey for a few years, relocated to San Diego and San Pedro, and eventually settled at San Simeon in 1864, where he spent the remainder of his 56 years.[iii]
Clark was assisted in his endeavors by his fellow countrymen. He provided them with living quarters, as many of his employees were seasonal residents. Aside from whaling, most whalers worked as farmers or laborers in the off-season.[iv]
The San Luis Obispo County Assessor’s Records lists Joseph Clark for the first time in 1865. At that time, his only property was listed as three boats, worth $90. The following year he had acquired two saddle horses, one “she” and four “he” dogs. As his whaling outfit prospered he added to his cache of personal property 12 acres of land on San Simeon Point, half interest in a wharf, two milk cows, a wagon, two Greener’s bow guns, and a substantial amount of cash.[v]
The addition of Greener’s guns to his whaling arsenal in 1872 is an important event. It allowed Captain Clark and his crew to pursue their prey with more deadly power and accuracy than their hand-thrown harpoons would give them. The guns also meant a negative impact on the whale population, as the whalers increased the odds in their favor considerably. The whales reacted, however, by becoming more wary of the men in boats. The whales would stay farther offshore, out of range of the tiny craft.
The hunting of whales was a seasonal occupation, dependent on the annual migration of gray and humpback whales to and from their summer feeding grounds at Baja California. Clark’s crew utilized the natural extensions of land at Piedras Blancas and San Simeon points to spy for whales as they passed by. The lookouts would signal the boat crews, either with a semaphore or a loud call of “Whale, ho!” The crews would put out to sea in traditional whaling boats, approximately 30 feet long and six feet wide. Using human-powered oars and a lateen (triangular) sail, and equipped with harpoons, bomb lances, ropes, and the Greener’s gun, the boats would range up to ten miles offshore. The whaling boats always traveled in pairs, due to the dangerous nature of their undertaking.
Approaching the whale, a harpoon was shot into the animal, whereupon the whale dove, taking the tethered boat on what is commonly known as a “Nantucket sleigh ride.” As the behemoth weakened and surfaced for air, a bomb lance was fired into its body, almost invariably killing the animal. On one such hunt in the spring of 1880, Captain Clark’s crew fired 25 bomb lances into a whale, all to no avail. With a lash of its mighty tail, the whale “stove” one of the boas, forcing the crew’s evacuation. They were rescued by their companion boat, and sailed home.[vi]
The whale, no doubt, died of its wounds; it has been estimated that this method of whaling resulted in a 20 per cent loss of all animals hit. One whaler in San Diego estimated the loss as high as two-thirds. Combined with the fact that many of the whales taken were females, one can readily see why their population went into such rapid decline.
If the men were successful in killing and retrieving their prey, they would tow the carcass back to the wharf, where the animal was “flensed,” or cut up. Large cakes of blubber were sliced into “bible leaves” to facilitate their reduction. The great iron cauldrons, known as “try-pots,” were fueled with the depleted “bible leaves,” producing great clouds of inky black smoke. The smell has been described as a “villainous stench,” only bearable to those who had grown accustomed to it on a daily basis. Apparently this did not discourage the whalers’ wives from using the boiling vats for cooking doughnuts. No original documents exist that describe this practice, nor what the cakes may have tasted like.[vii]
Most of the whales taken at San Simeon were grays. Some humpback whales were also captured. Gray whales measure between 35 and 50 feet in length and weigh 20 to 40 tons; humpbacks are slightly larger. One whale yielded 25 to 35 barrels of oil. After the animal was cut up, its oil rendered, and any other saleable material (such as baleen) removed, the carcass was allowed to sink to the bottom of the bay. The oil was ladled into wooden casks for transport to market. It was used for illumination, lubricants, in paints and soap making; the baleen went into women’s corsets and men’s buggy whips.
In the first the years of operation, an average of twenty-two whales was taken at Clark’s station each year. After 1874, the take declined considerably, and hit a low of three whales in 1878. The whalers were contributing to their own demise by improving upon their techniques by more quickly killing their source of livelihood. As the whale supply began to decline, the increased needs of a rapidly growing society could not be met by the industry. The discovery of petroleum oil in Pennsylvania in 1860 signaled the beginning of the end of the whale oil industry[viii]
Captain Joseph Clark died at his San Simeon station in 1891. His relative, Hipolite Marshall, whaled for two more years, before selling his property to Phoebe Apperson Hearst in 1894. Thus, the era of shore whaling at San Simeon came to an end.
By the early twentieth century, Americans were beginning to understand what had almost come to pass: the extinction of an intelligent and truly awesome creature. Some scientists recommended protection of certain species of whales, and international regulation was a topic of discussion for the League of Nations in 1927. The International Whaling Commission was established in 1949, and changes in federal laws in the United States in the early 1970s caused the closure of Del Monte Seafoods and Golden Gate fisheries at Pt. Molate in San Francisco Bay—the last of the commercial whaling operations in California.
Less than one hundred years ago, whales were regarded not as gentle, intelligent creatures deserving of our care, but as dangerous leviathans that brave men risked their lives to capture and kill, for the purpose of converting the massive mammal into products for human use and consumption. Over the past century, a gradual change in our attitudes toward these truly marvelous sea creatures is the result of a variety of factors, including the nation’s industrialization, the decimation of the whale population by the whalers, and a growing environmental awareness. Strange as it may seem, both environmentalism and technological advances contributed to saving the whale from extinction.
[i] William C. Sturtevant, general editor. Handbook of North American Indians. Volume 8: California. Robert F. Heizer, volume editor (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1978), 491, 517; Robert F. Heizer and Albert B. Elsasser. The Natural World of the California Indians (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980) 119.
[ii] A.B.C. Whipple. The Whalers. (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1979).
[iii] There is a discrepancy regarding Clark’s homeland. Bohme places it in the Azores, while Mary Lou Jones et. Al. attribute his birthplace to the Cape Verde Islands. See Frederick G. Bohme, “The Portuguese in California,” California Historical Society Quarterly Volume 35 (1956), 233-252; Mary Lou Jones, Steven L. Swartz, and Stephen Leatherwood. The Gray Whale. (Orlando: Academic Press, 1984), 133.
[iv] Coast County Directory, 1884-5 [Includes San Luis Obispo County] (San Francisco: L.M. McKenney and Co., 1884).
[v] San Luis Obispo County. Records of the County assessor, 1865-1890. Courtesy, San Luis Obispo County Historical Society; currently housed at the Special Collections Department, Kennedy Library, California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. See also Edwin C. Starks, A History of California Shore Whaling (Sacramento: Fish and Game Commission, Fish Bulletin No. 6, 1922), 9. Numerous items from Captain Clark’s whaling days, including his Greener’s guns and bomb lances, can be seen in the historic Sebastian’s Store in San Simeon; a try-pot is on display at Hearst San Sim3on State Historical Monument, San Simeon.
[vi] Captain Clark described this harrowing event to the San Luis Obispo Tribune, May 8, 1880.
[vii] Herman Melville includes a graphic and detailed description of the try-works in Moby Dick. The story of frying doughnuts in boiling whale oil can be found in Geneva Hamilton, Where the Highway Ends (San Luis Obispo: Padre Productions, 1974), 174.
[viii] Details of the whale catches at San Simeon can be found in Myron Angel, History of San Luis Obispo County (Oakland: Thompson and West, 1883, 333. Bancroft lists the total value of California whaling operations in 1880 as $202,000. H. H. Bancroft. History of California. (San Francisco, The History Company, 1890), volume 7, 82-83. Charles M. Scammon remarked on the decline of the shore whaling industry in his 1874 account of the American whale fishery. See Scammon, The Marine Mammals of the North-western Coast of North America (San Francisco: John H. Carmany and Co., 1874), 251.
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