Since the 1960s the most visible whale along the BC coast has been the killer whale, which is actually a member of the dolphin family of marine mammals. With exceptions, grey whales migrate off the outer coast between their summer feeding grounds in Alaska and their southern breeding grounds in Mexico and humpbacks have been poking their prodigious snouts into northern inlets with increasing regularity, but for the most part the larger species keep clear of inside waters.
This was not always the case. Large whales used to be a common sight in Howe Sound and the Strait of Georgia until they were hunted to extinction. “Used to be humpbacks all over the place here,” recalled Billy Proctor, the venerable sage of Echo Bay, referring to his home base, the Broughton Archipelago. According to Proctor, a veteran salmon troller and logger, it was in 1952 that a catcher boat arrived in Knight Inlet to kill off the last of the big whales that used to be found there. A half dozen humpbacks lived in the Inlet and the same number in Kingcome Inlet. “I will never forget that day. It was in August. I was trolling in the mouth of Knight Inlet, and I seen the old Nahmint coming out towing all the old whales alongside. I just about cried...That was the last of the humpbacks in the mainland.”
The Nahmint was a thirty-metre steel predator belonging to the last whaling station on the coast, indeed the last in Canada. Located at Coal Harbour in Quatsino Sound on the northwest coast of Vancouver Island, the station opened in 1948 and was the only shore facility in operation post-World War Two. Most of the whales it relied on came from outside waters, but during the 1950s it mopped up the remnant populations in the inner waters inlet by inlet until there were no survivors.
Shore stations were the land-based variant of the ships that roamed the world’s oceans in search of whales. This pelagic industry was as old as the Basque sailors who by the eleventh century were hunting right whales in the Bay of Biscay. During the great age of wind and sail of the nineteenth century, whalers from Europe and then the eastern United States rounded Cape Horn into the Pacific Ocean, extending the hunt as far east as Japan and as far north as the Beaufort Sea and through the Bering Straits. This was the heroic era described by Herman Melville in Moby Dick. Whalers sought the valuable oil contained in the animal’s thick coat of blubber. Whale oil was the fuel that illuminated homes and streets in the days before gas and electricity, as well as being a high-quality lubricant, a cleanser in the woolen textile industry and a basic ingredient in the manufacture of soap and margarine. Along with the oil, some whale species, the Mysticeti or “mustached whales”, produce baleen, a horny substance growing in strips from the animal’s upper jaw. Baleen acts as a filter to sift out small fish and plankton from the seawater. When heated, it becomes extremely flexible and it was used to make all manner of products before the invention of plastic and spring steel, most famously the corset stays inside female undergarments.
During the last half of the nineteenth century, industrialism transformed the whale hunt. In Melville’s day, whalers armed with handheld harpoons and rowing wooden longboats had matched themselves against the mighty mammals. With the advent of steam power and exploding harpoons shot from cannons, the chase became a slaughter. Modern-style hunting using huge factory ships ravaged the world’s whale populations. Between the 1920s and the 1970s, more than two million were killed and several species teetered on the verge of extinction. It was during this modern period that whalers became active on the BC coast.
Shore whaling involved a land-based factory where the animals were butchered, serviced by a fleet of catcher boats, like the Nahmint. Each of these speedy, steel-hulled vessels, about thirty metres long and powered by steam and later diesel, was fitted with a cannon mounted on a swivel in the bow. The gunner fired a harpoon armed with a grenade that exploded after contact, killing or maiming the whale. When several animals had been killed, the boat towed the carcasses back to the station for processing. (The photo above shows a family posing with a carcass at the station in Kyuquot about 1916; courtesy BC Archives A-09222.)
After a whale dies, its body grows warm beneath the insulating layer of blubber. Internal organs begin to decompose and gas swells the carcass like a balloon. When a dead animal was hauled up the ramp out of the water and pierced by the flenser’s razor-sharp knife, the stench from the escaping gas and rotting flesh made strong stomachs heave. Inured to the smell, flensers made several longitudinal cuts through the blubber down the length of the whale. Metal cables were attached to each piece and winches slowly drew off the fatty tissue in long strips, like the skin off a banana. All that was left was a torpedo-shaped mass of bloody meat, viscera and bones.
In the early days of the industry, it was the blubber alone that the industry processed. After being sliced up into small pieces it was exposed to high heat to extract the valuable oil. The rest was thrown away. But as time passed, every bit of the animal went into the cookers, and the waste product was pulverized to make fertilizer. During World War One whale meat from the stations was offered to North American consumers for the first time but it did not catch on and disappeared from the market with the end of the war.
Next time: more on whaling