"The scene of slaughter was exceedingly picturesque."

A downward facing arrow

"Whaling Scene in the California Lagoons," Charles Scammon, Marine Mammals of the Northwest Coast of North America, 1.

In the early 1800s, Yankee whalers from US whaling centers in New England rounded Cape Horn and entered the Pacific in search of sperm and right whales. Searching for targets during the winter months, they discovered the gray whale calving lagoons along the Baja peninsula in 1845. Hunting the immense mammals from fragile wooden whaleboats, they soon found that gray whales were no easy prey.

A whaling logbook, depicting two illustrated whales.

Many "Yankee" whalers kept illustrated records of whales killed and lost in the ships' logbooks. William H. Chappell, "Journal of the Saratoga," 1852.

Determined to protect their calves, gray whale mothers lashed out at their tormentors, stoving boats and maiming and killing whalers by the scores. Such behavior earned the species the label "devilfish" from their frightened hunters. Ships' crews were lucky to leave the lagoons unscathed. More often than not, broken limbs and empty oil casks were the result of these "between seasons" expeditions to Baja. Yet despite this cetacean resistance, the whalers quickly decimated the eastern North Pacific gray whale population, killing thousands of males, females and calves in the lagoons and nearshore waters of Baja California.

A map depicting the whaling areas of Baja California, extending nearly the entire length of the peninsula

Whalers based in San Francisco, as well as "Yankee" whalers making the voyage around Cape Horn, hunted gray whales along nearly the entire length of the Baja California peninsula through the 1860s. The slaughter was concentrated on Magdalena Bay, Laguna San Ignacio, and Laguna Ojo de Liebre. Image generated via Devilfish map.

By the late 1850s, the whalers spread along the coast of the peninsula, raiding calving areas from Magdalena Bay in the south to Bahia Sebastian Vizcaino in the north. Men such as Charles Melville Scammon, a whaling captain based in the growing city of San Francisco, made their names and fortunes through this relentless slaughter, bringing thousands of barrels of whale oil to market as they pursued their dangerous quarry.

By the mid-1860s, a gauntlet of seasonal Portuguese-American and Azorean shore whaling stations stretched from Punta Banda, Mexico to northern California. Utilizing a system of lookouts and and increasingly sophisticated harpoon guns, shore whalers targeted gray whales on both their "up" and "down" migration routes, killing hundreds per year.

By 1890, the last of the shore whalers had abandoned their trypots and whaleboats, giving a critically dwindling population of eastern Pacific gray whales a temporary reprieve. The calving lagoons had long since been forsaken as whaling grounds - there were simply too few gray whales to warrant a voyage. From their tropical layovers in the Sandwich (Hawaiian) Islands, ship-based whalers instead ventured into the Bering, Chukchi, Okhotsk, and Beaufort Seas, pursuing plentiful and oil-rich bowhead whales amid the polar sea ice.

A chart depicting annual catches of Eastern North Pacific gray whales

Estimated annual catches of eastern Pacific gray whales, 1846-2008. Dataset courtesy of Allison, Reeves, Smith, and Hughes, "Eastern North Pacific Gray Whale Catch Numbers," in Journal of Cetacean Research and Management 12, Supplement, Appendix 3 (April 2011): 157-159. Click to view fullscreen image.

Meanwhile, a new resource was discovered on the California coast: oil. Naturally seeping crude petroleum, used by native Chumash peoples for centuries as a waterproof caulking material for canoes known as tomols, was quickly tapped by unregulated, "wildcat" drillers.

This first oil boom saw prospectors construct large piers stretching into the whales' migration path, and set the stage for the advent of nearshore and deepwater drilling platforms to come in the mid-twentieth century. The first decades of the 1900s also brought expanding commercial fishing to the California coastline, as well as growing naval infrastructure and a rapidly climbing coastal population.

Yet despite changes to the California coast, continued whaling by Indigenous groups in Washington, British Columbia and Alaska, and the consistent killer whale predation, the eastern Pacific gray whales slowly began a comeback.

A black and white photograph of a whaling shore station, with several men posed in front of a partially flensed whale carcass.

The Norwegian- and U.S.-financed Akutan shore station in Alaska's Aleutian Islands was one of the new generation of shore-based whaling stations, using steam-powered winches, long slipways and industrial infrastructure to flense and process thousands of whales. FMIV 34852 Shore Whaling Station, Akutan, Alaska by Ward Bower, 1919. Public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The respite was to be short-lived, however. Norwegian whaling companies sought new whaling grounds across the globe, deploying deadly technological advancements in the process. A string of Norwegian-financed shore stations erupted along the Pacific Coast between 1900 and 1930, stretching from Akutan in the Aleutian Islands through British Columbia to northern California. Armed with steam-powered killer boats and exploding harpoons, Norwegian whalers operating from these stations primarily targeted large, fast-moving rorquals, such as fin and blue whales. Gray whales were still too scarce to tempt industrial whalers. Yet this would soon change.