“The heroic and often tragic stories of American whalemen were renowned. They sailed the world’s oceans and brought back tales filled with bravery, perseverance, endurance, and survival. Many whalemen died from violent encounters with whales and from terrible miscalculations about the unforgiving nature of nature itself. And through it all, whalemen, those “iron men in wooden boats” created a legacy of dramatic, poignant, and at times horrific stories that can still stir our emotions and animate the most primal part of our imaginations.”
― Eric Jay Dolin, Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America
Standing there today you can imagine it. Just walk outside the Seascape Restaurant near Trinidad Pier and you are on hallowed ground. Ground consecrated by the blood and guts of thousands of magnificent whales and brave whalemen. Those creatures of the shores and high seas that we marvel at from afar. We are awed by their beauty, inspired by their songs, and humbled by their majestic presence. Here, for six years in the 1920s, whales were brought ashore and butchered by men for their oil, their baleen, for their very bones. With their bodies we lit our lights; lubricated our machines; made sugar, candles, soaps, cosmetics, perfumes, corsets, and umbrellas; ate their meat, and made fertilizer. And lest we judge these men for their actions, back then it was no different then catching fish. Of bringing a commodity to market; a way of making a living; albeit a hard one with many risks.
In the 1920s Trinidad was part of a network of whaling stations along the California coast. Shore whaling in California had been around since 1854 at many sites including Crescent City, Bolinas Bay, Halfmoon Bay, Pigeon Point, Santa Cruz, Moss landing, Monterey Bay, Carmel Bay, Point Sur, San Simeon, Port San Luis, Goleta, Portuguese Bend, Dead Man’s Island, and San Diego Bay (Starks, 1922). These old-style stations, which used hand-thrown harpoons from small boats à la Moby Dick, gradually gave way at the turn of the century to modern whaling, which used harpoon cannons on motorized boats, and continued up until the 1970s. By then most whales had been hunted to near-extinction and commercial whaling was ended by Federal Law in 1971 and in 1986 internationally.
But from 1920-1926, 1,140 whales were killed and processed at the whaling station in Trinidad, California which was owned by the California Sea Products Company. Whales were caught by steam-powered whaling vessels — the SS Hawk, SS Hercules, and SS Port Saunders — and their crews, which were largely from Scandinavia, the Mediterranean, New Zealand and Canada. These vessels and their men, hunted the seas along the north coast and made 1-3 trips per day to catch local whales. Using steam-driven harpoons they would capture their prey and quickly fill them with air to keep them afloat for the trip back to Trinidad.
Laurence Huey, a naturalist visiting from San Diego, wrote the following description of a whale hunt on July 29, 1926:
These two Finbacks proved very tame and were undoubtedly the same pair we were working with last night. Approach was easy and the chance for a shot came very soon. The projectile did not hit a fatal spot but it did hit a spot just back of the dorsal fin and where it could not pull out. Then the fun began. The huge beast sounded taking out 200 feet of cable so quick the winch almost caught on fire. The ship was put on full speed while the winch took in the slack. Back & forth the cable was drawn & withdrawn and for an hour or more no one on board the ship was certain who would win. However, the poor animal thru loss of blood – for with every rise the sea was red for yards around – began to weaken & he was drawn up close to the ship. So close that the great 12 foot flukes slapped violently against the ship’s bow & the whale blew & snorted with its violent attempts to free itself of the torturous projectile. The air pump was now brought into play & a long sharp perforated pipe was stuck into its rectals & soon it was bloated with air and died.
After capture the whales were towed back to Trinidad and hauled up the ramp into the whaling station where they were processed by the 35+ local workers. Laurence Huey describes the process:
Two more Finback Whales were brought in this morning & we spent about half the day making photographs & observing the operations about the factory. Oil of course, is the chief product & is used by Procter & Gamble Co. in manufacturing their finest soaps. The Standard Oil Co. uses some to fuse with mineral oil for making lubricants. The 1st grade from the blubber, 2nd from the muscles, 3rd & 4th grades from intestines & bones & is graded according to the condition the whale reaches the station. Oleo margarine is made from the lowest grades.The meat is made into chicken feed if brought in fresh condition. A double floor under the cutting room floor catches all the excrement & blood which is boiled down with the intestines & made into fertilizer. The bones are run thru pressure cookers where all the oil is extracted & the bones, after being dried, are sent to the sugar refineries to be used in refining sugar.
To the residents of Trinidad the whaling station was a smelly nuisance that made it difficult to live in the area. The smell was “vile” and as Huey wrote in a letter from Trinidad: “I do not need to mention the fact that this whaling station is “on the air” for miles; in fact, we were so permeated with “whale” that fried pototates tasted “whaley” this evening and a delicious mess of fresh salmon steaks tasted too much like whale to be eaten – so suppose I’m spoiled for salmon from now on.” They say you could smell Trinidad before you could see it, in some cases from as far away as Orick — 20 miles away.
However, the Trinidad station was catching the tail-end of the coastal whaling boom: most of the nearshore whales had been killed by the 1920s and the whalers were living off the survivors of their once large populations. Gray whales, being a nearshore species, had been all but extirpated by that time (only one was ever caught off Trinidad), as had blues (one) and sperm whales (five). Indeed most of the catch consisted of Humpback, Fin and Sei whales which continued to be hunted well into the 1940s and 1950s in pelagic (offshore) fisheries.
Now, almost 100 years later, when you stand on the location of the whaling station there is nothing to remind you of that history. The factory is gone, the steep wooden ramp is gone, the whole area is paved over. The only remnants of those days are a few concrete blocks near the pier used for sliding the whales up the ramp. And just offshore the whales pass peacefully by, the fortunate descendants of those who died in days past, their spouts a delight for all to see.
- Clapham, P.J., S. Leatherwood, I. Szczepaniak, R. L. Bownell. 1997. Catches of Humpback and other Whales from Shore Stations at Moss Landing and Trinidad, California, 1919-1926. Marine Mammal Science 13(3): 368-394
- Starks, E. C. 1922. A History of California Shore Whaling. CA Fish & Game Commission Bull 6: 1-37
- The Last Whaling Station by Mary Swift-Swan (in San Pablo Bay)
- Trinidad Whaling Station, 1920-1927. Trinidad Museum.
One response to “Shore Whaling at Trinidad, California in the 1920s”
[…] not sure the trade will last in the long run. A hundred years ago we thought nothing about hunting whales, which is considered abhorrent to most these days. As our empathy for other creatures grow we are […]