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Gray whales are coming amid uncertainty, minus the harpoons

December 9, 2008 |  9:55 am

One of the last whaling operations in the U.S. was off Malibu, where 250 gray whales were harpooned in the mid-1930s.

The whales are coming. Spotters on the Palos Verdes Peninsula have already documented the passing of several Pacific gray whales en route from the Bering Sea to Baja California.

About 20,000 more will follow and it may be a painful journey for those passing through Southern California waters when the Navy begins a new round of training with submarine-detecting sonar early next year.

Whales and other marine mammals are experiencing hard enough times due to climactic changes that have altered their habitat and allowed noises -- including sonar -- to travel farther underwater, messing with their ability to communicate with song.

But at least nobody is intentionally slaughtering them. A new migration season brings to mind a story I came across last year in a 1936 issue of the Santa Monica Evening Outlook. Remarkably, whaling was still occurring off Malibu at the time.

The factory vessel California and its "killer ships," the Hawk and the Port Saunders, targeted gray whales as they rounded Point Dume. The crews killed at least 250 whales in two years in the mid-1930s.

One of the last whaling operations in the U.S. was off Malibu, where 250 gray whales were harpooned in the mid-1930s.

Reporter Emerson Gaze spent a day with the fleet and described a hunt:

"The harpooner swings his gun into position. The whale humps over, his back out of the water for a moment. The gunner aims. There is a terrible roar. The entire vessel vibrates. The harpoon finds its mark. A bomb attached to the harpoon explodes inside the mammal, wounding or killing it and opening four large claws designed to ensure a firm hold on the whale."

Each whale was valued at $1,500. That was a big prize during the Depression. Oil was cooked into soap. Meat became dog food and the rest fertilizer.

It was one of the last U.S. whaling operations. There were only a few thousand gray whales left when the International Whaling Commission awarded them protection in 1946.

They've mounted quite a comeback, but face difficult times ahead. Hopefully, they'll manage.

-- Pete Thomas

Photo: One of the last whaling operations in the U.S. was off Malibu, where 250 gray whales were harpooned in the mid-1930s. Credit: Emerson Gaze

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