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So many grey whales killed off Point Loma

Camps at Ballast Point and La Playa extracted the oil

They were nicknamed devil fish — a term coined by whalers who saw firsthand the damage a 40 foot gray whale could wreak on frail wooden boats.
They were nicknamed devil fish — a term coined by whalers who saw firsthand the damage a 40 foot gray whale could wreak on frail wooden boats.

On February 16, 1856, George P. Tebbets, the third mayor of San Diego, killed a right whale off the coast of Oceanside. In the course of his efforts to profit off some 28 tons of blubber converted into whale oil, he met Alpheus and William Packard, brothers who had moved from Massachusetts to San Diego that same year. That meeting led the Packards, fueled either by brazen stupidity or entrepreneurial genius, to become trailblazers in the San Diego whaling industry.

Gray whales, the whales most often found in San Diego’s waters, travel between their warm calving grounds off the coast of Mexico and their feeding grounds in the cold Arctic. It was this 10,000 mile commute that often left them skewered at the end of harpoons — and so sustained the California whaling industry. In winter and early spring, the whales would make their way along the kelp beds outside the mouth of San Diego Harbor, and this became a favorite spot for whalers to intercept them. Philip Crosthwaite, an otter hunter who came to San Diego in 1845, would later reminisce of a time when “great numbers of whales entered [San Diego Bay] to deliver their young, and rarely was there a day when scores of these mammals could not be seen spouting and basking in the warm sunlight”.

Ballast Point was a small cobblestone spit that jutted out from Point Loma into San Diego Bay. High tide and storm surges would cover most of the point except for a small island at the eastern tip — the former location of the Spanish Fort Guijarros. The whaling camp was built on top of the fort’s ruins.

They were nicknamed devil fish — a term coined by whalers who saw firsthand the damage a 40 foot gray whale could wreak on frail wooden boats. In 1857, captain Charles Scammon was whaling off Cedros Island in Mexico when a bull whale hit one of the boats with its tail flukes, smashing the boat into splinters, breaking one man’s leg and another man’s arm, and injuring three more. A rescue boat was sent out, but as the whale approached it, every man jumped overboard, “utterly overcome with fear.” In the early 1840s, there were so many of these devil fish that they posed a threat to small boats in San Diego Bay.

Despite the perils of whaling, demand for whale oil kept profits high, and so many found it worth the risk. Whale blubber, refined into oil, was the ticket to a quick fortune in the 1800s. It made its way into miner’s headlamps, lighthouses, soaps, and candles, and was used as a lubricant to keep machinery running smoothly. Gray whales provided 80% of the oil harvested off the California coast (the other 20% came from humpback, blue, and right whales). It’s quite possible that only the advent of petroleum-based subtitutes for whale oil in the late 1860s prevented the whales’ extinction.

Ballast Point was chosen as the primary operations headquarters for the Packards due to its ease of access to the western kelp beds where migrating gray whales passed. Prior to the arrival of the Packards, the Point was a small cobblestone spit that jutted out from Point Loma into San Diego Bay. High tide and storm surges would cover most of the point except for a small island at the eastern tip — the former location of the Spanish Fort Guijarros. The whaling camp was built on top of the fort’s ruins. Within their first year, the Packards had killed 12 whales — although they managed to recover only five. Besides being dangerous, whaling was also highly wasteful, with many killed whales sinking before they could be towed ashore. The February 1859 edition of the Herald, referring to San Diego whaling, commented that, “If some means could be devised to prevent the whales from sinking, three or four parties could do a good business during the season, by catching whales within ten miles of the entrance to the harbor.” However, the suggestion never came to fruition; no device was ever invented that could keep dead whales afloat. Still, those five whales produced 150 barrels of oil, worth about $2000 when sold to buyers in San Francisco and along the east coast. Adjusted for inflation, the Packard’s 150 barrels of oil would be worth $63,000 dollars today. And in 1860, they produced six times as much oil, worth about $375,000 in today’s dollars.

Harpoons were fired from swiveling guns mounted on the boat, causing the whale to submerge and make a direct course for the open ocean, dragging the boat behind it. Eventually, it would tire and come to the surface to breathe, and the crew would haul it in close enough to fire bomb lances.

La Playa, two miles north of Point Ballast, was by that time a desolated ghost town. The hide houses that were once used to process cattle hides for shipment to the east coast, described by Richard Henry Dana in his memoir Two Years Before the Mast, were in an ever-increasing state of deterioration and abandonment. Their ruins eventually gave way to a secondary whaling camp, run by Captain Miles A. Johnson and his cousins from Massachusetts. Dr. Fred Baker, a marine biologist and co-founder of the Zoological Society of San Diego. has said that by 1868, “the business [of whaling] had grown so that there were two companies with twenty men at work in the boats and a dozen rendering the oil. It had become a favorite diversion of San Diegans to go out to the lighthouse and watch the chase”.

To capture a whale, thirty-foot boats crewed by six men were kept ready to be launched from the beach. If a gray was sighted by a lookout in the lighthouse, he would fire a pistol, and the crew would row out to pursue it, like cruel forerunners of the whale watching boats that would launch into those same waters over a century later. “The San Diego station is the most completely equipped of any on the coast and its crew the most skillful to be had,” read an 1860 description by the San Diego Daily Union. And on January 11, 1872, the San Diego Union reported that “the last and largest whale captured this season made an interesting chase. Her blowing was observed by the crews of the four boats almost simultaneously. The moment she was seen the orders came quick and sharp from the boatswain in command, and at once the men bent to their oars with a will, making their boat bound over the water with such speed as would astonish a green hand.” When the boat caught up to the beast, harpoons were fired from swiveling guns mounted on the boat, causing the whale to submerge and make a direct course for the open ocean, dragging the boat behind it. Eventually, it would tire and come to the surface to breathe, and the crew would haul it in close enough to fire bomb lances. These bomb lances were designed to explode upon impact with the whale and kill it. But if one bomb lance didn’t work, the whale would dive and resurface, and a second would be fired. Two or three bomb lances were usually enough to kill a whale. However, they were sometimes duds and failed to explode, and it was common to take a whale bearing scars from one or more bomb lance or harpoon.

Following the 1868-69 hunts, reporters from the San Diego Union wrote that, “The season has proven to be better than any known for years. We enjoyed the explanation given to us by the ‘old salts’ of the use of bomb guns, pivot lances, and other deadly machinery for the capture of whales, and relished muchly everything except the intolerable stench arising from the decomposing carcasses of whales and boiling oil”. That same season, 39 whales were taken off of Ballast Point. If whalers were skilled and lucky enough to both kill a gray and haul it back to shore, they would then beach the carcass at high tide and cut off the blubber in large slabs. The blubber would then be carried inside, cut into smaller pieces, and boiled out in 150 gallon cast iron cauldrons to produce whale oil, the final export. Two such cauldrons were maintained at Ballast Point. The entire process could take a dozen men twelve hours for a single whale, with an expected yield of 30 to 40 barrels per whale. But the byproduct, rotting whale carcasses on the beach, produced a “villainous stench.”

But stench or no stench, business was booming. George Goode, an American ichthyologist remarked, “The returns from the whale fishery of California amount to $202,000. No whaling is done in Oregon or Washington Territory, and $500 worth of oil is the only contribution from the bulky cetacean towards the wealth of Alaska.” Ballast Point was riding this wave of glorious prosperity. In March of 1859, within the span of a few weeks, twenty whales were taken, and oil was being shipped to the Atlantic, going for sixty to sixty five cents a gallon in Boston and New York, or 32 cents in San Francisco. A decade later, the 1870-71 season yielded 21,888 gallons, and the following season doubled that amount. Miners who had failed to make a fortune in the gold rush eagerly provided a source of labor for Ballast Point. But by then, the industry was facing a shortage. Once nearly ubiquitous, the whales upon which Ballast Point depended were far from inexhaustible. The late 1870s marked the beginning of the end of California’s shore whaling stations, Ballast Point included. The reckless harpooning of earlier decades had beaten dents in the population from which some species of whales still haven’t completely recovered. Gray whales had been hunted with such fervor and enthusiasm that, according to Captain Scammon in his book Marine Mammals of the Western Coast of North America, they had become sensitive to the threat posed by men. Wrote Scammon, “Having been so long and constantly pursued,” the whales “are exceedingly wild and difficult to approach.” But the truth that gray whales were a finite resource was a tough pill to swallow, one exacerbated by the crippling blow it dealt to the economy and whaling cities like San Diego and Monterey. Perhaps it is no surprise that it wasn’t until 1949 that legislation was passed to protect the marine mammals.

In 1869, the government took Ballast Point to construct “storehouses in connection with the fortification of Point Loma,” the first steps toward repurposing the area as a military base. Despite this, whaling continued, and either Ballast Point or the second station at La Playa was kept operational, possibly under illegal circumstances. But in 1873, with both gray whale numbers and oil prices falling, whaling operations at Ballast Point came to an end once and for all.

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They were nicknamed devil fish — a term coined by whalers who saw firsthand the damage a 40 foot gray whale could wreak on frail wooden boats.
They were nicknamed devil fish — a term coined by whalers who saw firsthand the damage a 40 foot gray whale could wreak on frail wooden boats.

On February 16, 1856, George P. Tebbets, the third mayor of San Diego, killed a right whale off the coast of Oceanside. In the course of his efforts to profit off some 28 tons of blubber converted into whale oil, he met Alpheus and William Packard, brothers who had moved from Massachusetts to San Diego that same year. That meeting led the Packards, fueled either by brazen stupidity or entrepreneurial genius, to become trailblazers in the San Diego whaling industry.

Gray whales, the whales most often found in San Diego’s waters, travel between their warm calving grounds off the coast of Mexico and their feeding grounds in the cold Arctic. It was this 10,000 mile commute that often left them skewered at the end of harpoons — and so sustained the California whaling industry. In winter and early spring, the whales would make their way along the kelp beds outside the mouth of San Diego Harbor, and this became a favorite spot for whalers to intercept them. Philip Crosthwaite, an otter hunter who came to San Diego in 1845, would later reminisce of a time when “great numbers of whales entered [San Diego Bay] to deliver their young, and rarely was there a day when scores of these mammals could not be seen spouting and basking in the warm sunlight”.

Ballast Point was a small cobblestone spit that jutted out from Point Loma into San Diego Bay. High tide and storm surges would cover most of the point except for a small island at the eastern tip — the former location of the Spanish Fort Guijarros. The whaling camp was built on top of the fort’s ruins.

They were nicknamed devil fish — a term coined by whalers who saw firsthand the damage a 40 foot gray whale could wreak on frail wooden boats. In 1857, captain Charles Scammon was whaling off Cedros Island in Mexico when a bull whale hit one of the boats with its tail flukes, smashing the boat into splinters, breaking one man’s leg and another man’s arm, and injuring three more. A rescue boat was sent out, but as the whale approached it, every man jumped overboard, “utterly overcome with fear.” In the early 1840s, there were so many of these devil fish that they posed a threat to small boats in San Diego Bay.

Despite the perils of whaling, demand for whale oil kept profits high, and so many found it worth the risk. Whale blubber, refined into oil, was the ticket to a quick fortune in the 1800s. It made its way into miner’s headlamps, lighthouses, soaps, and candles, and was used as a lubricant to keep machinery running smoothly. Gray whales provided 80% of the oil harvested off the California coast (the other 20% came from humpback, blue, and right whales). It’s quite possible that only the advent of petroleum-based subtitutes for whale oil in the late 1860s prevented the whales’ extinction.

Ballast Point was chosen as the primary operations headquarters for the Packards due to its ease of access to the western kelp beds where migrating gray whales passed. Prior to the arrival of the Packards, the Point was a small cobblestone spit that jutted out from Point Loma into San Diego Bay. High tide and storm surges would cover most of the point except for a small island at the eastern tip — the former location of the Spanish Fort Guijarros. The whaling camp was built on top of the fort’s ruins. Within their first year, the Packards had killed 12 whales — although they managed to recover only five. Besides being dangerous, whaling was also highly wasteful, with many killed whales sinking before they could be towed ashore. The February 1859 edition of the Herald, referring to San Diego whaling, commented that, “If some means could be devised to prevent the whales from sinking, three or four parties could do a good business during the season, by catching whales within ten miles of the entrance to the harbor.” However, the suggestion never came to fruition; no device was ever invented that could keep dead whales afloat. Still, those five whales produced 150 barrels of oil, worth about $2000 when sold to buyers in San Francisco and along the east coast. Adjusted for inflation, the Packard’s 150 barrels of oil would be worth $63,000 dollars today. And in 1860, they produced six times as much oil, worth about $375,000 in today’s dollars.

Harpoons were fired from swiveling guns mounted on the boat, causing the whale to submerge and make a direct course for the open ocean, dragging the boat behind it. Eventually, it would tire and come to the surface to breathe, and the crew would haul it in close enough to fire bomb lances.

La Playa, two miles north of Point Ballast, was by that time a desolated ghost town. The hide houses that were once used to process cattle hides for shipment to the east coast, described by Richard Henry Dana in his memoir Two Years Before the Mast, were in an ever-increasing state of deterioration and abandonment. Their ruins eventually gave way to a secondary whaling camp, run by Captain Miles A. Johnson and his cousins from Massachusetts. Dr. Fred Baker, a marine biologist and co-founder of the Zoological Society of San Diego. has said that by 1868, “the business [of whaling] had grown so that there were two companies with twenty men at work in the boats and a dozen rendering the oil. It had become a favorite diversion of San Diegans to go out to the lighthouse and watch the chase”.

To capture a whale, thirty-foot boats crewed by six men were kept ready to be launched from the beach. If a gray was sighted by a lookout in the lighthouse, he would fire a pistol, and the crew would row out to pursue it, like cruel forerunners of the whale watching boats that would launch into those same waters over a century later. “The San Diego station is the most completely equipped of any on the coast and its crew the most skillful to be had,” read an 1860 description by the San Diego Daily Union. And on January 11, 1872, the San Diego Union reported that “the last and largest whale captured this season made an interesting chase. Her blowing was observed by the crews of the four boats almost simultaneously. The moment she was seen the orders came quick and sharp from the boatswain in command, and at once the men bent to their oars with a will, making their boat bound over the water with such speed as would astonish a green hand.” When the boat caught up to the beast, harpoons were fired from swiveling guns mounted on the boat, causing the whale to submerge and make a direct course for the open ocean, dragging the boat behind it. Eventually, it would tire and come to the surface to breathe, and the crew would haul it in close enough to fire bomb lances. These bomb lances were designed to explode upon impact with the whale and kill it. But if one bomb lance didn’t work, the whale would dive and resurface, and a second would be fired. Two or three bomb lances were usually enough to kill a whale. However, they were sometimes duds and failed to explode, and it was common to take a whale bearing scars from one or more bomb lance or harpoon.

Following the 1868-69 hunts, reporters from the San Diego Union wrote that, “The season has proven to be better than any known for years. We enjoyed the explanation given to us by the ‘old salts’ of the use of bomb guns, pivot lances, and other deadly machinery for the capture of whales, and relished muchly everything except the intolerable stench arising from the decomposing carcasses of whales and boiling oil”. That same season, 39 whales were taken off of Ballast Point. If whalers were skilled and lucky enough to both kill a gray and haul it back to shore, they would then beach the carcass at high tide and cut off the blubber in large slabs. The blubber would then be carried inside, cut into smaller pieces, and boiled out in 150 gallon cast iron cauldrons to produce whale oil, the final export. Two such cauldrons were maintained at Ballast Point. The entire process could take a dozen men twelve hours for a single whale, with an expected yield of 30 to 40 barrels per whale. But the byproduct, rotting whale carcasses on the beach, produced a “villainous stench.”

But stench or no stench, business was booming. George Goode, an American ichthyologist remarked, “The returns from the whale fishery of California amount to $202,000. No whaling is done in Oregon or Washington Territory, and $500 worth of oil is the only contribution from the bulky cetacean towards the wealth of Alaska.” Ballast Point was riding this wave of glorious prosperity. In March of 1859, within the span of a few weeks, twenty whales were taken, and oil was being shipped to the Atlantic, going for sixty to sixty five cents a gallon in Boston and New York, or 32 cents in San Francisco. A decade later, the 1870-71 season yielded 21,888 gallons, and the following season doubled that amount. Miners who had failed to make a fortune in the gold rush eagerly provided a source of labor for Ballast Point. But by then, the industry was facing a shortage. Once nearly ubiquitous, the whales upon which Ballast Point depended were far from inexhaustible. The late 1870s marked the beginning of the end of California’s shore whaling stations, Ballast Point included. The reckless harpooning of earlier decades had beaten dents in the population from which some species of whales still haven’t completely recovered. Gray whales had been hunted with such fervor and enthusiasm that, according to Captain Scammon in his book Marine Mammals of the Western Coast of North America, they had become sensitive to the threat posed by men. Wrote Scammon, “Having been so long and constantly pursued,” the whales “are exceedingly wild and difficult to approach.” But the truth that gray whales were a finite resource was a tough pill to swallow, one exacerbated by the crippling blow it dealt to the economy and whaling cities like San Diego and Monterey. Perhaps it is no surprise that it wasn’t until 1949 that legislation was passed to protect the marine mammals.

In 1869, the government took Ballast Point to construct “storehouses in connection with the fortification of Point Loma,” the first steps toward repurposing the area as a military base. Despite this, whaling continued, and either Ballast Point or the second station at La Playa was kept operational, possibly under illegal circumstances. But in 1873, with both gray whale numbers and oil prices falling, whaling operations at Ballast Point came to an end once and for all.

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