The Last Whale:

What We Lost and What We Saved

By Elizabeth Moore


April 2022

On a clear, mild 3rd of November, 1971, about 70 miles northwest of the entrance to San Francisco Bay, the whaling catcher Donna Mae from the Del Monte Fishing Company patrolled the waters in search of its prey: whale. The crew had already taken a male sperm whale earlier in the day and was after another. When the whale was sighted, the whalers used a harpoon gun; the harpoon had an exploding head designed to kill a whale instantly. The harpoon struck true, in what whalers called a kill shot, hitting the heart of the second whale1. The log (see image below) would identify it as a male sperm whale, 39 feet long, and with a stomach full of squid. He was, to the best of our knowledge, the last commercially-killed whale in American waters.

Whaling stretches far back in human history. The Thule, the ancestors of the Inuit of Alaska, lived in whale bone houses, which anthropologists believe was a symbolic and symbiotic way of showing the relationship between humans and whales.2 Neolithic communities in Norway hunted killer whales, and Viking colonies in Iceland and Greenland included whaling stations. Japanese whaling was a major industry by the 1600s. According to the New Bedford Whaling Museum, Native Americans made use of whales that became stranded on shore and later joined European colonists in shore-whaling operations that began in the 1640s. As the whale populations close to the Massachusetts shoreline waned into the 1720s, whalers began constructing vessels that extended their reach to offshore waters, laying the foundation for the Yankee whaling enterprise that grew rapidly afterward.

a map with a red circle showing the location of where the last commercially harvested whale was taken in US waters
Commercial whaling in American waters came to an end on Dec. 31, 1971, and the last whale to be taken for commercial harvest was a sperm whale taken near San Francisco Bay, in what is today Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary. Map: NOAA; List of whales: Del Monte Fishing Company January 27, 1972 , report to National Marine Fisheries Service

The advent of commercial whaling in the late 1700s signaled whales as valuable commodities for an age of economic development. For two centuries, whaling supplied meat for consumption by humans, pets, and livestock; blubber for lamp oil, perfumes, and candles; whale bone for corsets, baskets, and other products; and lubricants that greased the machinery of the Industrial Revolution. Whaling was stunningly profitable, one of the most lucrative industries of the time, at least while there were enough whales to hunt. The grim efficiency and sheer rapidity of whaling, however, took its toll (first in the era of sail and then during a second and far more devastating era of pelagic industrial whaling), ruthlessly stripping the ocean of millions of whales, 2.9 million large whales between 1900 and 1999.3

In 1995, scientists noted in an article in “Science”: “Ingenuity can replace a whale-oil lamp with an electric light-bulb, but not the whales we may hunt to extinction.”4 Technological advances, socio-economic changes, and dwindling whale populations made commercial whaling increasingly economically unviable in the 20th century. Recognizing overexploitation of whale stocks around the globe, the International Whaling Commission was established under the 1946 International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling to provide for the management of whaling and conservation of whale stocks. Commercial whaling in American waters came to an end on Dec. 31, 1971 when Maurice Stans, the secretary of commerce, NOAA’s parent agency, issued a ban under the Endangered Species Conservation Act of 1969 (a predecessor to the Endangered Species Act passed in 1973) to protect threatened whale species. When the Marine Mammal Protection Act was signed in October 1972, protection was extended to all marine mammals, including whales. In 1986, a global moratorium on commercial whaling was adopted by the International Whaling Commission.

A historic chart from 1880 shows a world map with some parts of the ocean highlighted in light gray, representing whaling areas that have been abandoned, and in dark gray, representing areas where whaling was conducted at the time.
A map prepared by A. Howard Clark showed the extent and distribution of the active and abandoned whaling grounds in 1880. Image courtesy of the NOAA Photo Library Historic Fisheries Collection.

The Del Monte Fishing Company, based at Point San Pablo inside San Francisco Bay, was the only commercial whaling company left in the U.S. by 1971, the Golden Gate Fishing Company and its two whale catchers Lynnann and Sioux City having closed up shop by 1965. After the ban, when the Del Monte Fishing Company knew they could no longer continue whaling, their four whale catchers–Donna Mae, Allen Cody, Pacific Raider, and their favorite, Dennis Gayle–were rigged for and became traditional fishing vessels. The whaling crew of five men began to look for other jobs. The ban ended whaling as a career and as an economic activity. The ban also came none-too-soon for sperm whales and other large whales. The Atlantic gray whale was already gone by about 1740, likely driven to extinction by whaling. The population of other species had plunged, driving some to the brink of extinction, such as the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale, which today numbers fewer than 350.

A photo from 1951 shows a man wearing a cap, jacket and pants tucked into rubber boots standing at a large whaling harpoon getting ready to fire it.
A gunner at a harpoon on a whaler in 1951. Image courtesy of the NOAA Central Library Historical Fisheries Collection.
A historic photo shows the carcass of a large whale, with about three dozen men standing on top of and in front of the carcass. Whale bones and a large anchor lay on the sand in front of them.
Members of a commercial whaling station and crew in Trinidad, California in August 1923 with a baleen whale carcass. Image courtesy of Humboldt State University, Katie Boyle Collection.

The remarkable research on the whaling stations at Point San Pablo conducted by Dr. Sarah Mesnick and her colleagues at NOAA Fisheries’ Southwest Fisheries Science Center and presented at this year’s Beyond the Golden Gate Research Symposium also described how these whales impacted the ecosystems in which they lived as well as the social and economic fabric of the Bay Area. No animal exists in a vacuum; each has multiple roles to play in the complicated and interconnected ecosystems in which they live.

Whales, for example, play complex roles as part of ocean ecosystems, from what they eat to how their wastes fertilize the ocean and increase its productivity. We are still learning how the removal of whales and other keystone species and predators in the Pacific like seals, otters, and sharks impacted the dynamics of the ecosystems along the West Coast, and how we might use that knowledge to not only restore those depleted populations but rebuild the ecosystems of which they are a part.

A photo from the 1960s shows three whale carcasses floating in the water beside a dock. A number of people are standing on the dock looking down at the carcasses.
Sperm whales killed by commercial hunting attracted the attention of onlookers in Moss Landing, California in the 1960s. In the foreground is a commercial hunting chase boat with a harpoon mounted to the front. Image: Dorothy Carine.

“Whales hunted just outside the Golden Gate were taken to Pt. San Pablo while I was in junior high school, just a few miles away,” says Sarah. “The records from the whaling station there are valuable parts of our history. We can learn a lot about the animals, such as their ages, sizes, sex, and what they ate, as well as about the people that made their living as whalers.” Sarah’s work reminds us that whales are important to humans as icons of the ocean and have largely shifted from animals hunted for commercial gain to supporting a major element of the Blue Economy by way of ecotourism and whale watching. Sarah continues: “Most amazing to me is the little known fact that commercial whaling in the U.S. essentially ended right here in the San Francisco Bay Area. This marked the beginning of a new era of appreciation for healthy ocean ecosystems. Today, whales are protected off our waters, and their continued health and recovery is in our hands.”

There are several laws in the U.S to protect whales today. The Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) protects all marine mammals in U.S. waters from harassment, hunting, capture, collection, or killing without specific authorization. The MMPA ensures that marine mammals continue to be significant and functioning elements of their ecosystems by restoring declining species and conserving sustainable populations. All whales are protected under the MMPA, and threatened and endangered whales are also protected by the Endangered Species Act. The National Marine Sanctuaries Act provides for the creation of underwater parks to protect and restore entire ecosystems. All of these acts are vital to conserving whales as key members in marine ecosystems for decades to come.

A dolphin is caught upside down mid-flip above the surface of the water.
A Pacific white sided dolphin jumps out of the water in Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary. Image: Sage Tezak/NOAA
An aerial photo shows a pod of six sperm whales at the surface of the water, five of whom are facing nose to nose.
A pod of sperm whales. Image: NOAA Northeast Fisheries Science Center.

Today, the National Marine Sanctuary System protects 620,000 square miles of ocean and Great Lakes waters in 15 national marine sanctuaries and two marine national monuments. The waters where the last whale was killed commercially are now part of Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary, which was designated in 1989 and protects soft seafloor habitat, a rocky bank, deep-sea canyons, and communities of wildlife (including blue, humpback, gray, and minke whales and five species of seals and sea lions) throughout its 1,286 square miles. The National Marine Sanctuaries Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act, as well as the Coastal Zone Management Act and the Clean Water Act, were all signed in one extraordinary week in October 1972 and together with other laws like the Endangered Species Act and Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act form the foundation for our modern conservation programs and projects today.

In 1971, a research biologist with NOAA’s National Marine Mammal Lab told the New York Times that the newly approved ban was to allow whales to replenish their populations; he thought that might take 50 to a hundred years to do so.1 But he underestimated the scope of the decimation and the threats on the horizon: NOAA estimates that whaling removed at least 436,000 sperm whales from the North Pacific between 1800 and the end of legal commercial whaling. And the recovery of the sperm whale has been slower than anticipated fifty years ago. Today, sperm whales are still considered an endangered species, with only an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 sperm whales along the West Coast of the U.S., a population that is stable but perhaps not increasing. The 2010 Recovery Plan for the sperm whales identifies ongoing threats to its recovery as “collisions with vessels, entanglement in fishing gear, reduced prey due to overfishing, habitat degradation, disturbance from anthropogenic noise, and the possibility of illegal or resumed legal whaling at biologically unsustainable rates.”

A historic illustration shows a large sperm whale lying on a snowy, rocky beach, with  a flock of birds flying overhead and four men with spears standing near the whale.
An illustration of a sperm whale from “Johnson’s Household Book of Nature” by Henry J. Johnson in 1880.

The lingering impacts of commercial harvest on sperm whales show that there is still much work to do. But if the waters that were once killing grounds for whales are now a haven for wildlife of all kinds, we’ve shown that we can change as a society and can move into the future with hope and fortitude.

Elizabeth Moore is a senior policy advisor at NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries


References

1. “Last of U.S. Whalers Call It Quits as Era Ends” by Earl Caldwell, New York Times, December 19, 1971.

2. Patton, A.K., and Savelle, J.M. “The Symbolic Dimensions of Whale Bone Use in Thule Winter Dwellings.” Études/Inuit/Studies 30 (2) (2006): 137-161.

3. Rocha, R.C., Clapham, P.J., and Ivashchenko, Y.V. “Emptying the Oceans: A Summary of Industrial Whaling Catches in the 20th Century.” Marine Fisheries Review 76 (2014): 37–48.

4. Pimm, S.L., Russell, G.J., Gittleman, J.L., and Brooks, T.M. “The Future of Biodiversity” Science 269 (5222)(1995): 347-350.