Eye of the Whale – Chapter Two


“…the large bays and lagoons, where these animals once congregated, brought forth and nurtured their young, are already nearly deserted. The mammoth bones of the California gray lie bleaching on the shores of those silvery waters, and are scattered among the broken coasts from Siberia to the Gulf of California; and ere long it may be questioned whether this mammal will not be numbered among the extinct species of the Pacific.”
—Charles Melville Scammon, 1874.

Atop a masthead hoop in the San Ignacio Lagoon, a lookout stood watch. “Whales ahead!”

A Gray Whale calf surfaced in the near-distance, its mother alongside. From the deck of Scammon’s Ocean Bird, three whale boats were lowered from davits, ropes and pulleys. Each craft held six men: the boat-header, the boat-steerer, and four “ship-keepers” – a bowman, midship-oarsman, tub-oarsman, and after-oarsman. Each craft was kept as light as possible, so it could move easily and quickly in the shallow lagoon waters. The equipment required was nonetheless considerable. Besides the oars, sails and paddles for propulsion, there were two harpoons at the head of each boat, alongside three hand-lances on the starboard side, designed to deliver the coup de grace. Near the stern was the loggerhead, which controlled the line once a whale was secured.

The ploy was to move the boat between the two whales if possible, as if the intent was to take the baby. This would bring the alarmed mother near enough to kill. A small flag, known as a “waif,” was raised by one of the whale boats. The whalers closed in slowly, using the paddles rather than the heavier oars. The boat-steerer braced himself by one leg against the “clumsy-cleat,” a stout seat with a rounded notch. He would throw the first harpoon, when they came within “darting distance” of about sixteen feet.

“Stand up!” the boat-header ordered as the mother Gray broke water. A harpoon ripped through the air. It made contact just behind the head. A foam of blood crested in the waters. The men threw the anchor. The steerer passed the harpoon to the headsman as they changed positions. “Stern all!” the headsman called out. The oarsmen worked feverishly to keep the boat astern of the wounded animal. The whale took out line and attempted to “sound” into the murky lagoon waters. The other two boats moved in close, in case she dashed her flukes against the one holding her fast.

This time, she didn’t. Within an hour, affixed to two harpoons and the hand-lances, the mother whale was floating lifeless at the surface.

After only two whaling seasons – yielding 8,200 barrels of oil, valued at $123,000 – San Ignacio Lagoon would be virtually devoid of Gray Whales. Scammon would look back upon a vista crowded with whale boats crisscrossing the lagoon waters, dead whales floating with flags planted in their backs to identify to whom they belonged, calves wandering aimlessly in search of their mothers, and a few native people scouring the shoreline for carrion.


Charles Melville Scammon “is primarily remembered as a whaler, a fact that would not please him,” writes Lyndall Baker Landauer in Scammon: Beyond the Lagoon, a doctoral thesis published as the first volume of a Pacific Maritime History Series in 1986. “He was a whaler by necessity, not choice…. He was a man who… ventured into new territory, both physical and intellectual, and left his imprint on his times and ours.”

Other than Landauer’s short and scrupulously detailed volume, Scammon’s protean accomplishments have been largely ignored by historians. He was a sea captain eventually elected to membership in the California Academy of Sciences. His book, Marine Mammals of the Northwestern Coast of North America, Described and Illustrated: Together with an Account of the American Whale-Fishery, published in 1874, has been drawn upon by all future zoological studies of the Pacific’s whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals, and sea otters. The book’s concluding section remains one of a handful of definitive nineteenth-century histories of the whaling industry, from its “origin and ancient mode” to its practice in America and Scammon’s own personal experiences, especially as related to “lagoon-whaling.” Everywhere he went, as commander of twenty different ships between 1848 and 1883, Scammon produced assiduous notes and sketches. He worked with a Darwin-like dedication to record the first complete descriptions of numerous marine mammals, foremost being the California Gray Whale. A century later, when scientists from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography compared Scammon’s drawings and mappings of Baja California to satellite imagery, they were astonished at his near-pinpoint accuracy.

Bruce Mate, one of today’s leading whale scientists, describes Scammon’s contribution as “our first enlightened look at whales. Obviously because he first had a commercial interest,” Mate adds, “but Scammon was also a very good observer and a pretty decent writer. So he left a legacy far beyond simply a record of how many barrels of oil were taken. In fact, his work is some of the first that pieced together the migratory habits of the Gray Whales. Much of what he wrote more than a hundred years ago about Gray Whales rings true today.”

I first became aware of Scammon on my trip to the San Ignacio Lagoon, reading a Monterey Bay Aquarium book about Gray Whales that contained a brief biographical sketch of the Captain. It noted that, during his extensive travels, Scammon “observed a vast array of animals, everything from the sea otters and whales in cold northern seas to the manatees in Florida’s warm channels and springs….Assisted by renowned naturalists Edward Drinker Cope, curator of the Philadelphia Academy of Sciences at the time, and William Healey Dall of the Smithsonian Institution, Scammon put his observations of marine mammals into print.” These included what was, for many years, “the most comprehensive portrait available of the gray whale.”

Even at first glance, this seemed a highly unusual shift in orientation for a whaling captain. I raised this point over the phone with Steven Swartz, the marine biologist whose Gray Whale studies at the San Ignacio Lagoon had provided a more recent “comprehensive portrait.” Swartz indicated that Scammon was indeed a fascinating individual, one whose career bore further scrutiny. A collection of Scammon’s papers, Swartz added, was available for research at the University of California’s Bancroft library in Berkeley, where his descendants had bequeathed them during the late 1940s. And, although he didn’t know her whereabouts, Swartz believed that one of those descendants – the Captain’s granddaughter, Mildred Scammon Decker – might still be alive.

Eventually I managed to locate Mildred Decker, then ninety-one, as well as her son and grandson, living in Citrus Heights, California, a suburb of Sacramento. I traveled there to meet with them in December of 1998. Mildred had known Scammon as a little girl, and her memories of him remained vivid.


Scammon was born in Pittston, Maine, a small community on the upper reaches of the Kennebec River, on May 28, 1825. His father, Eliakim, was a man of means and influence: Methodist preacher, postmaster, township treasurer and later state representative. Charles was the fourth of eight children, six brothers and an invalid sister. Several of Scammons siblings would go on to achieve prominence in nineteenth-century America. From an early age, Charles wrote poems to his sister and enjoyed reading and sketching. Yet he longed for the vastness of the oceans. When Scammon was fifteen, a Maine sea captain wrote to his father:

“Your son wishes to go with me to sea. I do not think myself a fit person to take charge of a young man, but if he is inclined to do right, I think I may be of service to him.

The first year he would be of no service to me; the second year he would. If he goes with me, I will take him in the cabin this voyage. It will be necessary for him to go in the forecastle if he intends to make it a business to be a sailor. I will take him for two years, send him to school when an opportunity offers; teach him navigation and give him a good chance to study on board the ship and forty dollars a year he finding his clothes or I will furnish his clothes and give no wages. If this is agreeable to your wishes please inform me.

Yours with respect,

This was not agreeable to Eliakim’s wishes. But, two years later, Charles thwarted his father’s desire that he attend college, and shipped out with Captain Robert Murray as an apprentice. From 1842 onward, Scammon would spend most of his life on one sector of ocean or another – from the tropical seas of South America to the ice-laden Arctic Ocean. Perhaps it was something in the ancestral blood. The Scammon family traced its origins to the Waldron clan of Normans, said to have settled in England with William the Conqueror after 1066. One of Scammon’s ancestors later captained a British ship in a seventeenth-century attack on the Barbary pirates. Others had scattered to the American colonies, first arriving in Boston around 1630.

By the time he was twenty-three, Charles Scammon had assumed his first command, as skipper of a vessel out of Bath, Maine, which traded for turpentine, resin, and peanuts with the Carolinas. That same year, he married a Pittston girl named Susan Crowell Norriss. She was pregnant when he departed without her, late in August of 1849, as the skipper of a merchant bark bound for the West Coast. The risky voyage was to cover over 17, 000 nautical miles and occupy 168 days. It would take Scammon from the Atlantic into the Pacific at the nadir of South America, and around the treacherous Cape Horn. “A place where gloomy weather prevails and storm follows storm in quick succession…the highest elevations ever wear a wintry garb,” Scammon would later write. At last, on February 21, 1850, Scammon would arrive in San Francisco. From all across America’s Eastern seaboard, up to twenty ships like his were docking along the “Barbary Coast” every single day; in 1850 alone, population swelled by some 36,000.

The motivation for the exodus was summarized in a four-page newspaper, The Californian, which Scammon would save to include in his scrapbooks. Dated March 15, 1848, it described a gold-mine found “in the newly made raceway of the sawmill recently erected by Captain Sutter….California no doubt is rich in mineral wealth, great chances here for scientific capitalists. Gold has been found in almost every part of the country.”

Scammon never recorded whether gold-seeking was his own original intention but, if so, he did not pursue it. He soon set sail again on trading vessels, venturing as far as Valparaiso, Chile. “The Andes…shade the fertile valleys…diversified here and there by the retiring hills which are relieved by belts of timber,” he would write. But berths were generally scarce on merchant or clipper ships. Scammon recalled: “The force of circumstances compelled me to take command of a brig, bound on a sealing, sea-elephant and whaling voyage or abandon sea life, at least temporarily.” He went to work for a San Francisco ship’s chandler, A.L. Tubbs, who owned a number of seafaring vessels.

In 1852, Scammon traveled for the first time down the Baja coast, then known as Lower California. His quest was the sea elephant. So named for its massive, hooked nose, it was the largest of all the seals, weighing more than two tons and sometimes reaching a size over twenty feet long. Sea elephant oil was considered “next to sperm [whale oil] for lubricating purposes,” as Scammon described it. Later that same year, he captained a ten-month cruise to the Gulf of Panama, Ecuador, and the Galapagos Islands in pursuit of the lucrative Sperm Whales.

As the “gold fever” subsided, many other newcomers turned to whaling. It had commenced out of San Francisco in 1851 – the year Moby Dick was published – with two former New Bedford vessels as the initiators. By the time Scammon started, the city’s fleet had increased to eight. In the pre-industrial era, whale oil was used mainly for lighting and, in some cases, heating or lubrication. And whaling was an enterprise of staggering proportions. Around the time Scammon entered the “fishery,” an immense fleet of 650 ships and 15,000 men were engaged in whaling in the Pacific Ocean alone. Altogether some 70,000 people derived their primary income from whaling-related business, which bore an investment of at least seventy million dollars.

During the spring of 1854, Scammon’s wife and their four-year-old son Charles – who had yet to meet his father – sailed from Maine to join the Captain for a voyage to China on a trading schooner. Their return cargo included 169 Chinese passengers. The round-trip took nine months. Less than a month after they arrived home, Tubbs dispatched Scammon to Baja’s Magdalena Bay, then known as Marguerita Bay. This time, his target was to be the California Gray Whale.

Until mid-century, Gray Whales had not been widely sought. For one, their oil was not as plentiful and was considered inferior to that of the Sperm Whale or Humpback. Besides, large whaling vessels tended to avoid the near-shore waters through which the grays migrated. And nobody yet knew about any calving lagoons in Baja. But with all the ships arriving from the East Coast, shore-whaling stations quickly arose along California. So-called “whalebone” from the Gray’s baleen could be utilized for things like corset stays, umbrella ribs, and carriage whips. For the Gray Whale, it was only a matter of time.

It was Scammon who, in the winter of 1857-58, would discover the existence of the lagoons where hundreds of Gray Whales came annually to give birth. It was Scammon who would initiate the whalers’ brutal slaughter of pregnant or nursing females. Without their mothers, the calves could not survive to make the northern journey. During the early 1850s, there may still have been upwards of twenty thousand California Gray Whales. Within two decades, probably less than two thousand remained to keep the species alive.

As Wesley Marx wrote in an article for American Heritage magazine in 1969: “Most whalers forgot about the gray whales. But not Charles Scammon. Even as his adventurous instincts had delighted in recording the color and excitement of lagoon whaling, the reflective side of his nature had been fascinated with the whales themselves. At the same time he had been ordering his harpooners to bomb the whales and his flensers to strip the blubber, Scammon was also measuring the girth of dead whales, inspecting the contents of their stomachs, and executing precise drawings of their conformations. The Captain jotted down his detailed observations alongside log entries that recorded the number of whales struck and barrels filled.”

Shortly after the outbreak of the Civil War in April 1861, Scammon enlisted in the United States Revenue Marine Service, the predecessor of today’s Coast Guard. He did embark on two more whaling voyages before retiring permanently from the business early in 1863. Then he became a full-time Revenue Marine commander of the only official U.S.guardship patrolling the West Coast against Confederate raids during the remainder of the Civil War.

Patriotism was much in evidence among two of Scammon’s older brothers, who were the subject of several newspaper accounts in his scrapbooks. Thirteen years older than the Captain, Jonathan Young Scammon was a “strong Union man” and longtime friend in Illinois of Abraham Lincoln’s. Starting out there as a lawyer, Jonathan had founded the first railroad west of Lake Michigan, established Chicago’s first bank and laid the groundwork for its public school system, and helped start the Chicago American newspaper. As the first President of the Chicago Astronomical Society, he built the Dearborn Observatory – which had the largest refracting telescope in the world – and he was also among the founders of the Chicago Academy of Science. In 1865, Jonathan’s son, Charles T. Scammon, would form a law partnership with the President’s son, Robert T. Lincoln.

Another brother, Eliakim Parker Scammon, was a Brigadier General in charge of the volunteer 23rd Ohio Regiment during the Civil War. Under his command at different times were two future American Presidents, James Garfield and Rutherford B. Hayes. One article recounted what happened on a night in 1864, when Scammon’s steamer was anchored on a river in Ohio: “thirty-five guerrillas appeared on the opposite side, thirteen of whom crossed in a skiff and took possession of the boat, capturing Gen. Scammon and forty officers and soldiers, all of whom were asleep. The guerrillas burned the boat and paroled all the prisoners, except Scammon and three other officers. These were mounted and started for the interior. Forces have been sent in pursuit.” Eliakim survived to be elected president of the Ohio Military Academy when the war ended. He went on to excel as a mathematician and teach at West Point.

The eldest Scammon sibling, Franklin, was a medical doctor who had also ended up settling in Chicago. Upon his retirement, his obituary from 1869 noted, “He was a very accomplished botanist, the West knowing no superior. His collections in this department of natural history are extensive and valuable.”

Three of the brothers, including Captain Scammon, were followers of the teachings of an eighteenth-century mystic, Emmanuel Swedenborg. Jonathan instituted Chicago’s Swedenborgian Church of the New Jerusalem, and introduced homeopathic medicine to the Midwestern city through a new hospital. One of Swedenborg’s most comprehensive works was called The Economy of the Animal Kingdom. There he described all of life as a marvelous unity, tautly structured according to a grand design. “Certain animals seem to have prudence and cunning,” Swedenborg wrote, “connubial love, friendship and seeming charity, probity and benevolence, in a word, a morality the same as with men.”

After the Civil War ended, Charles Scammon received a government appointment as flagship commander for the Western Union Telegraph Expedition. Its primary mission was to lay a cable that would link North America with Europe. Starting overland across British Columbia and then-Russian Alaska, the goal was to run a telegraph line underwater across the narrow Bering Strait into Siberia and ultimately all the way to St. Petersburg. This was also to be a scientific voyage, since the U.S. government was keen on surveying the potential resources of Alaska. Although the eventual success of an Atlantic-laid cable saw the Western Union Telegraph Expedition end in failure, its discoveries were instrumental in paving the way for America’s purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867 for $7.2 million. By then, for more than two years, Scammon had cruised the Northern Pacific waters between San Francisco and Siberia. His resulting friendship with expedition scientists dispatched from the Chicago Academy of Sciences and the Smithsonian Institution, in particular William Healey Dall, would inspire him to begin to write.

The first of Scammon’s seventeen travel and natural history articles for San Francisco’s Overland Monthly magazine began appearing in 1869. The titles include: “On the Lower California Coast,” “About the Shores of Puget Sound,” “The Aleutian Islands,” “Seal Islands of Alaska.” They appear alongside pieces by a number of new writers who’d settled in San Francisco and who would go on to widespread fame. Several of the earliest stories by Mark Twain first appeared in the Overland Monthly. So did Jack London’s Klondike stories and “The Luck of Roaring Camp” by Bret Harte, who served as the magazine’s literary editor. Poems by Joaquin Miller, and John Muir’s account of the wonders of Yellowstone, came to grace its pages. A kind of New Yorker of its day, the Overland Monthly offered a new Western style of literature, one that brought critical acclaim from the East Coast and Europe during the six years when Scammon was among the magazine’s regular contributors. Charles Dickens, it was reported, eagerly anticipated each issue’s arrival in London.

Scammon would draw upon many of his articles for the Overland Monthly in assembling his book on marine mammals, which was described thirty-five years after it appeared as “the most important contribution to the life history of these animals ever published.” As an article in the San Diego Union put it in 1872: “No more devoted investigator of the whale and its habits ever existed, than Captain Scammon.” By then, he had been elected to membership in the California Academy of sciences. “That was very unusual for a non-scientist, especially a whaler and ship’s captain,” according to California whaling historian Alan Baldridge. “Besides obviously being a leader when it came to handling a crew, Scammon was a brilliant navigator and map-maker. If he were a modern-day skipper, he’d be captain of a research vessel.”

Not long after his book came out, Scammon took up the life of a gentleman farmer in Sebastopol, California, but didn’t officially retire from the Revenue Marine until the 1890s. He died in 1911 at the age of eighty-six, within twenty-four hours of his wife, leaving behind their three sons. Almost forty years would pass before his boxes of memorabilia emerged from an attic and into a university library. The life-and-times of this self-taught sailor, whaler, explorer, serviceman, scientist, historian, writer, and artist could now be resurrected.

What Scammon set down about the Gray Whale in the lagoons of Baja and along its migratory route offers the first perspective we have. The frontispiece of Marine Mammals of the Northwestern Coast of North America is a Scammon drawing of the San Ignacio Lagoon. It depicts Gray Whales being set upon by whale boats, while larger ships wait at anchor nearby. Indeed, the Gray Whale was the volume’s dominant character, starting with a fourteen-page first chapter and appearing at numerous junctures in Scammon’s tales of his whaling years. He wrote of the Gray’s migration patterns, and its approximate distribution between twenty and seventy degrees of northern latitude. He knew that the whales congregated in the Arctic Ocean as well as the Sea of Okhotsk. He reported that females are larger than males, and described the barnacle-forming parasites that cover the whale’s skin. He didn’t shy from tackling the difficult questions – the length of a female’s gestation period, what the Grays eat – and he honestly cited lack of available data for what he couldn’t answer. It’s all held up. Nothing Scammon wrote has ever been contradicted in any critical way by marine scientists of the future. His observed size figures for males, females, and embryonic calves are very close to the statistical norms measured in the years since.

Pietr Folkens, who is considered one of the finest contemporary illustrators of marine mammals, calls Scammon’s renderings “the best of his time, compromised only because they had to be done from memory. I used some of his wonderful illustrations as examples of field sketching when I was teaching. I remember one in particular, which has rarely been better captured. It was a little pencil drawing, of the eye of a whale.”

What did Scammon see when he looked into that eye? That is very much the underlying question which his own life-portrait conjures. It is the question which, as this book progresses, we shall see unfolding in a man who could write that “the scene of slaughter was exceedingly picturesque” and yet go on to describe his victims in the most haunting and evocative of terms: “This species of whale manifests the greatest affection for its young, and seeks the sheltered estuaries lying under a tropical sun, as if to warm its offspring into activity and promote comfort, until grown to the size Nature demands for its first northern visit.”

In Scammon’s era, such observations of the natural world were not only unusual, but extremely rare. At the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, nature would be represented by a few cases of stuffed birds and animals. The bison and the passenger pigeon had already been hunted into extinction. Even John James Audubon generally shot the birds he then took home to paint, and only hinted at the need for conservation. Certainly in terms of marine life, the word had scarcely entered the lexicon. Only a few voices in the wilderness, such as Henry David Thoreau in 1864, raised questions like: “Can he who has discovered only some of the values of whale-bone and whale oil be said to have discovered the true use of the whale? Can he who slays the elephant for his ivory be said to have ‘seen the elephant’? These are pretty and accidental uses; just as if a stronger race were to kill us in order to make buttons and flageolets of our bones.”

So Scammon’s metamorphosis, from killer to chronicler, is a mysterious one. His book, like Moby Dick in its time, was a financial failure. His legacy, among those who study the great whales today, remains both a puzzle and a treasure.