PAT NEAL: A short history of whaling

It’s always fun to look back at this day in history to measure the changes brought to the Olympic Peninsula.

These changes can be discovered in newspaper articles written by James Swan in the latter half of the 1800s.

It was on this day in 1859 Swan was invited to go on a cruise on a schooner with two old sea captains who were trading with the Native Americans along the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Swan would go on to become an ethnologist, documenting the fast-disappearing cultures of the indigenous people of the Olympic Peninsula and the Queen Charlotte Islands, now Haida Gwaii.

Swan traveled safely and made friends among these warlike nations with three basic rules that hold true today. He ate the foods his hosts provided. He never carried a gun, and he never told a lie, even as a joke.

Initially, Swan was obsessed with the idea of turning kelp into parchment paper.

It was an industry for which he could obtain no financing. For which we can thank our lucky stars, since the kelp forests are the nursery of our fisheries. We should really let them be.

Swan switched to real estate promotion, guessing the terminus for the Northern Pacific Railroad would be in Port Townsend. He guessed wrong. Tacoma got that prize.

Swan was from Boston, the headquarters for much of the American whaling fleet that sailed the world, rendering whales for oil, spermaceti and baleen. Swan had been a chandler, provisioning and outfitting ships engaged in trading and whaling.

Naturally, Swan thought the Strait of Juan de Fuca would be a good location for a whaling station.

At the time, the Strait of Juan de Fuca was lousy with whales of the largest kind.

The abundance of whales was seen as evidence by Spanish and English explorers that the Strait was connected with a larger body of water such as Hudson Bay or the Atlantic Ocean.

This fueled the search for the Northwest Passage, an imaginary shortcut across North America.

Swan was never able to establish a whaling station in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The Canadians did.

In 1905, they built four whaling stations on Vancouver Island. While there were few right and grey whales left after being slaughtered by the American fleet, the humpback whales were ripe for the picking — for a while.

The whaling station in Nanaimo had to shut down after killing the entire local population of 95 humpback whales.

The last right whale was killed in an accidental collision with a whaling vessel in 1951.

The ship towed the whale to the station for rendering anyway.

Whaling continued in British Columbia until 1967 after killing an estimated 25,000 whales.

Not to be outdone, the Americans built a whaling station in Grays Harbor in 1910, rendering an average of 300 sperm, humpback and fin whales per year.

It was said you could smell the operation 20 miles out to sea.

A hundred years later, we are trying to save the whales.

We are all familiar with the plight of the remaining Southern Resident Puget Sound Orca.

The visceral image of a female orca swimming along the surface of the Salish Sea, keeping her dead offspring afloat back in 2018 created an overwhelming groundswell of support among environmentalists, politicians and the general public to save this iconic species.

An Orca Task Force was set up to identify threats to the orca and what can be done to save them.

In next week’s column, we will form another task force to examine the accomplishments of the Orca Task Force.

_________

Pat Neal is a Hoh River fishing and rafting guide and “wilderness gossip columnist” whose column appears here every Wednesday.

He can be reached at 360-683-9867 or by email via [email protected].

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