|THE WHALER WHO BECAME A NATURALIST|
"...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.
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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.