Details of Malibu whaling boats reemerge

The whale killer vessel Hawk, with a gray whale it had just killed, is reported to have killed as many as three of these whales in a single day in waters off Malibu during 1935-36. Photo taken by Emerson Gaze for the Santa Monica Evening Outlook, Jan. 30, 1936

A floating factory ship in Paradise Cove slaughtered hundreds of gray whales in the 1930s.

By Hans Laetz / Special to The Malibu Times

The azure waters of Paradise Cove are home these days to a small fleet of buoyed sailboats, and an occasional covey of kayakers. Almost lost to history is the cove’s role as the site of the United States’ last commercial whale harvesting operation.

There were few witnesses along the almost uninhabited Malibu coast to watch the bloody harvest: For two years in the early thirties, more than 250 California gray whales passing Point Dume were shot with exploding harpoons, chopped into cubes and steamed for their valuable oil. The practice was cruel by present standards, but was considered commerce and smart use of a wild resource generations ago.

The activities of the whaling ships at Malibu would be totally forgotten today were it not for an article written by pioneering Santa Monica newsman Emerson Gaze, who chronicled the whaling fleet prospering off Point Dume in the Jan. 30, 1936 edition of the Santa Monica Evening Outlook.

Gaze’s article and photos have been preserved by Bill Beebe, a protégé of Gaze who himself wrote and photographed for the Outlook for 30 years. Beebe, a Pulitzer Prize-nominated photographer and award-winning outdoors writer, brought Gaze’s work to The Malibu Times’ attention in an effort, he said, to keep the history as told by Gaze alive.

“A day aboard one of these ships is an experience not easily forgotten by a newcomer,” Gaze wrote a half century ago.

Despite the proximity of this fleet, few other than the fishermen at the Malibu Pier were sufficiently close to see the operations, he wrote.

It was in 1935 that a commercial whaling operation anchored off Malibu, in the leeward calm waters east of Point Dume. The main processing boat, called the California, was accompanied by two “killer boats,” the Hawk and the Port Saunders. A crew of 57 men worked on the ships.

For four months a year, the whalers would target California gray whales as they migrated down the coast from Alaska to winter calving grounds in Baja California.

By 1935, the whaling fleets of the Pacific had decimated the once plentiful pods of humpback, blue and sperm whales. The California Whaling Co. of San Francisco turned its attention to the smaller gray whales, and picked Point Dume as the spot for its factory ship because of the relatively calm waters and the habit of whales to pass near the point.

Tended to by the Malibu Pier’s water taxi, the three ships were based a half mile off the beach. One of Gaze’s photos shows the Hawk towing a whale with a vacant stretch of Latigo and Escondido beaches behind it, including May Rindge’s railroad trestle across Escondido Creek.

Gaze spent a day aboard the California fleet, and wrote for the Outlook about the killing of one whale:

“The suspense reaches a climax for visitors and sailor alike when the whale rises within 100 feet or so of the ship’s bow. The harpooner swings his gun into position. The whale humps over, his back out of the water for a moment. The gunner aims. There is a terrible roar. The entire vessel vibrates. The harpoon finds its mark. A bomb attached to the harpoon explodes inside the mammal, wounding or killing it and opening four large claws designed to insure a firm hold on the whale.”

Once the whale was towed back to the mother ship, it was sliced into cubes. The blubber was steamed to extract valuable whale oil, which was cooked into soap at San Pedro. Meat was used for dog food, and the bones and other “residue” was delivered to a fertilizer factory.

Each whale was worth about $1,500 – big money during the Great Depression.

Modern-day awareness of the whales’ intelligence and scarcity was not a concern then. The need to hunt the smaller gray whales as a result of the depredation of the larger species was viewed as an inevitable and sound business policy, Gaze wrote.

The California was the last U.S. whaling ship other than one in Seattle that fished Canadian waters, he wrote. That made the Point Dume whaling station the last commercial whale harvester operating in U.S. waters, the end of an industry that had made Americans rich since colonial days but nearly wiped the largest mammals off the face of the earth.

International recognition of the overharvesting of whales lead to a temporary ban on whaling in U.S. waters in 1936, followed by an international ban shortly thereafter, Beebe said. This put an end to the Point Dume whaling enterprise after two seasons: at least 250 whales were butchered.

Gaze’s shots of his day aboard the California are clearly preserved amongst the thousands of valuable, historic negatives that Beebe maintained after Gaze died. They are now in the permanent custody of the Santa Monica Historical Society, which is computerizing and cataloging them as time and funding permits.

The whaling photos have been printed and will be put on display later this month at Bob Morris’ Paradise Cove Beach Cafe, Beebe said.