Santa Monica Bay was once the site of one of the worst examples of wildlife exploitation in world history, according to the late photographer Emerson Gaze.
Marine life was lost in the bay and its outer waters as whales were harpooned and slaughtered for various commercial markets at a time when experts said their populations were dramatically dwindling.
Gaze, a reporter and photographer for the Santa Monica Evening Outlook, chronicled whaling in the bay for a story published January 30th, 1936.
This piece of Santa Monica’s history was recently unveiled by the Santa Monica Public Library’s exhibit of microfilm copies of Gaze’s story and photographs with assistance from the Santa Monica Historical Society Museum.
The Historical Society holds more than 70,000 negatives from the late 1920s through the early 1960s that were donated by Gaze and his Pacific Press Photos staff.
In 1935, at least 189 whales were harpooned in waters off Point Dume in Malibu and in the outer edges of Santa Monica Bay.
The year was the first of a two-year schedule by two “killer boats” the Hawk and the Port Saunders in conjunction with a 953-ton factory ship the California.
Historians said the California was the first whaling vessel to have on-board refrigeration to preserve whale meat before it reached the factory.
The California Whaling Company of San Francisco owned and operated the three ships and based them in Paradise Cove in Malibu.
The whaling company maintained a second base of “killer boats” in San Pedro.
Most of the whales harpooned in 1935 were gray whales, with fishermen also slaughtering two humpback whales and one sperm whale.
In 1936, Hawk and Port Saunders crewmen slaughtered 50 whales before the last week of January, when Gaze’s story and photographs were published.
“A day aboard one of these ships is an experience not easily forgotten by the newcomer,” Gaze wrote. “The suspense reaches a climax. The harpooner swings his gun into position. The whale humps over. There is a terrific roar. The entire vessel vibrates. The harpoon finds its mark.”
Gaze wrote that the pursuit of a whale often took as much as four hours before the mammal swam within range of a harpoon.
Bombs were attached to harpoons and designed to explode inside the whale to ensure that harpoons got a firm hold on the mammals.
However, harpoons sometimes failed to kill a whale.
“Sometimes it is necessary to shoot two harpoons into the sea leviathan, and sometimes more, before it dies,” Gaze wrote. “On occasion, the killer boat is towed for some distance by the battling giant.”
Once a whale was killed, the carcass was attached to the boat’s side while Hawk and Port Saunders crewmen resumed their search for a second or third whale.
A slaughtered whale was delivered to the California for processing.
On the California, lancers with long-handled knives would cut blubber from the whale and remove its tongue and head.
Blubber was dumped into gigantic tanks called “digesters” and steamed for up to 24 hours to get 60 barrels of oil.
Oil from blubber could be sold for more than $20 per barrel. The oil was used to make soap, shortening, and margarine.
Most of the remaining whale meat was frozen and sold to the Ross Canning Company in Los Angeles for dog food, according to Robert Brownwell Jr., a senior scientist for the International Protected Species office at NOAA Fisheries.
The canning company’s advertising slogan was, “Dr. Ross dog food is dog gone good.”
Whale meat was sold for $30 per ton.
Whale bones and baleen sold for $3.50 per pound and were used to make corset stays, skirt hoops, and whips.
Crewmen from the “killer boats” told Gaze that a whale could bring in $500 to $2,000, depending on its size and blubber content.
Peter J. Bryant, author of Biodiversity and Conservation: A Hypertext Book, said California gray whales were hunted to near extinction in the late 1800s.
Bryant works at the University of California Irvine School of Biological Sciences.
The California gray whale population recovered, but they were hunted once again to the point of near extinction in the 1930s and 1940s.
Prior to the formation of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in 1946, an agreement to regulate the harvesting of gray whales was made in 1931 but was not signed by nations with whale industries.
A second attempt to reach an international agreement also failed in 1937.
Because of the possibility of gray whale extinction, an agreement was reached in 1946 to ban commercial whaling.
The International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling — a group of signatory nations — reached the agreement.
In 1969, eastern Pacific Ocean gray whales were listed as endangered in the U.S. Endangered Species Conservation Act, the predecessor of the 1973 U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA).
The gray whale population was listed as recovered and removed from the ESA list in 1994.
From 1998 to 2002, the IWC authorized the hunting of gray whales for traditional aboriginal subsistence and cultural uses.
Since then, bans on killing gray whales were again put in place as a result of a federal appeals court decision and a lawsuit by two environmental organizations.
Another federal court upheld the appeals court decision and cited the killing of gray whales as a violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Copies of Gaze’s story and photographs can be purchased from the Santa Monica Historical Society Museum, 1539 Euclid St., Santa Monica.
Information, (310) 395-2290.