Monday, March 19, 2012

Kodiak's Whaling History

The recent spotting of the rare right whale in Uganik Bay, the recent return of a familiar orca pod, and the recent release of the Alaska-flimed, feel-good whale movie, “Big Miracle,” all point to whales receiving wide attention this winter. Add to this the highly rated reality t.v. show, “Whale Wars,” in which activists prowl the waters of the Antarctic for Japanese whaling vessels, risking their own lives in order to halt the hunt, and it’s clear that whales are on the mind, and the conservation of their species receives wide support.

But for centuries, humans did not view whales as sentient creatures worthy of conservation. Rather, whales were floating oil reserves, and the products that came from whales were essential to daily life. Rendered whale blubber and spermaceti from the head of the sperm whale illuminated American and European cities. Whale oil lubricated the gears of the Industrial Revolution (and later, our forays into space, where sperm whale oil continues to be used as a lubricant). Whale oil was used in soap, in cosmetics and cleaners. Ambergris, another sperm whale product, was essential in the making of perfume. Whale meat was turned into fertilizer. Baleen was used where we employ plastic today- not only in outmoded products like corsets, but also in umbrellas and other goods that required a durable and flexible material. In general, consider the wide array of goods made from petroleum now, and there is a good likelihood that if a similar product was around in the 1800s, whale was used instead of petroleum in its manufacture.

Telescope, Kodiak Historical Society, 81-4-1.
The waters of Kodiak were central to this whale oil boom. In 1835, Yankee whalers from Nantucket “discovered” the Kodiak Grounds, also known as the Northwest Coast Right Whaling Grounds. The Kodiak Grounds encompassed more or less the Gulf of Alaska, including the waters that fall north and west of Vancouver Island. Soon after the discovery, hundreds of Nantucket and New Bedford whaling vessels crowded the waters around Kodiak, inaugurating what historians now call the Golden Age of Whaling. During the height of whaling intensity on the Kodiak Grounds, it was our waters that provided 60% of the whale oil that pumped back to East coast home ports, making the towns of Nantucket and New Bedford very wealthy.

However, these American whalers were hunting in Russian waters. Indeed, it was the partially due to the incredible number of American whalers throughout the waters of Russian America that the Russians began to see the sale of Alaska to the U.S. as a sure eventuality. In the meantime, the Russians belatedly tried to profit from commercial whaling, entering the industry in 1851 when the Russian-Finnish Whaling Company launched its first whaling vessel. Several Alutiit from Three Saints Bay even worked as crew on the Turku. However, by the 1850s it was harder and harder to hunt whales in the over-harvested Kodiak Grounds, and soon the Crimean War broke out, meaning that British vessels could seize Russian whalers at any point. The Russians never profited from whaling in the Kodiak Grounds.
This ceremonial bowl from Woody Island continues to ooze
what is likely a mixture of seal and whale oil.
Kodiak Historical Society, 70-167-9.
Whales were not a source of profit for the Russian American Company, but they certainly were a crucial resource in Kodiak. Boiled and pickled whale meat and oil were important food items for RAC employees as well as the Alutiiq, and whale oil provided light, lubricated the grist mill at Mill Bay, was used in making caulking, paint, and a wide variety of other goods.  Alutiiq whalers, or ar’ursulek, surrendered from 1/3-1/2 of a whale for colonial use. According to an 1833 report, the settlements that provided the most whales were Karluk, Afognak, Alitak, Old Harbor, Angiskoe (between Kodiak and Spruce Islands), St. Paul (modern day Kodiak) and Igak (possibly Ugak or Ugat). Alutiiq whalers at Kodiak killed between 150-300 whales a year during this time. At Three Saints Bay, several individuals were employed in butchering and processing whales that floated south from Afognak and St. Paul.

In the early 1830s, Russians hired an American whaler to try to modernize the whale hunt, only to find that the traditional methods were more effective. Alutiiq whale hunting methods were dangerous, secretive, and efficient. Rituals surrounded each aspect of the hunt, from preparation to processing. Whalers seemed to live separately from the rest of their community. Whaling was a hereditary occupation that involved such secretive rituals that even apprentices were not allowed to participate fully. Within caves, whalers kept totemic objects and talismans that helped to insure the success of a hunt. In these caves, whalers sequestered the bodies of recently dead, prominent community members in order to render the fat from the corpses. Sometimes the bodies were turned into mummies. In fact, a whaler reportedly told Aleksandr Baranov that he would try to steal Baranov’s corpse once he died.

Alutiiq whalers went out in single hatch kayaks and targeted smaller, humpback and fin whales. Slate whaling lances were smeared with monkshood, a local flower that contains the poison aconite, and human fat. The fat acted as a bonding agent. Aiming at the fins or tail, once the whaler had lodged the lance in the whale, it took several days for the poison to paralyze the targeted region. Around three days later, the whale died and washed ashore. In order to assure that a hunter would claim his whale, the whaler drew a line with human fat across the mouth of the bay in which the whale swam, creating a spiritual border through which the whale could not pass. He also marked his slate spears with personal, identifying marks. During the Russian period, slate lances were sometimes marked with Cyrillic initials, and sometimes contained both symbols as well as initials. Examples of such lances are on exhibit at the Baranov Museum.

Look closely and you will see the Cyrillic initials inscribed on this slate whaling lance. Kodiak Historical Society, 85-24-1.
Alutiiq whaling methods were so effective that the RAC dispatched Alutiiq whalers throughout the region in order to teach other Native groups. Rewards were offered to whalers who successfully apprenticed others. Although Alutiiq whaling persisted into the early 20th century, many of the sacred rituals were no longer practiced after the 1838 smallpox epidemic ravaged the archipelago. By the 1850s, Alutiiq whaling had seriously declined, a drop that can be attributed to the epidemic as well as the rapid shrinking of the whale population due to the incursion of Yankee whalers in the Kodiak Grounds.
Port Hobron shore whaling station, located on Sitkalidak Island in the Kodiak
archipelago, Kodiak Historical Society P 552-6.

In the 1920s there was resurgence of whaling in Kodiak. It was during this decade that the American Pacific Whaling Company constructed Port Hobron on Sitkalidak Island. From this shore whaling station, three catcher boats were dispatched to hunt the waters around Kodiak. Large, bomb-loaded harpoons were mounted to the bow of the vessels. Once a whale was killed, the catcher vessel would pump it full of air, mark it with a flag, and continue hunting for the rest of the day before tugging the day’s catch to Port Hobron. Once at port, large steam winches drug the carcasses onto flensing platforms, where several of the hundred or so employees went to work butchering the whales. Every part of the whale, including the bones, was rendered into oil that was separated into three grades. The whale oil was sold to Proctor & Gamble, the company that makes Ivory soap. Alaska Steamship Company vessels made weekly stops at Port Hobron to drop off supplies and pick up oil, and tourists and other passengers disembarked and got to witness shore whaling first hand. Port Hobron was even included in travel literature as a destination in the 1930s. After nearly a dozen years of operation, Port Hobron closed due to financial issues.

The Carolyn Frances is photographed whaling near what
appears to be Monashka Bay in the city of Kodiak.
Kodiak Historical Society, P 368-5-34
Also during the 1920s, the Carolyn Frances, the Erskine family charter vessel, whaled around Kodiak. Captained by Louis Lane, the Carolyn Frances was a modern incarnation of the off-shore whaling vessel of a century before. Alongside the boat, whales were butchered and on deck the blubber was rendered into oil. Whenever Captain Lane was in town, the Erskine family would join him on a whaling trip. Ever the photographer, local businessman W.J. Erskine brought along his camera to document the action. Within the Baranov Museum photograph collection are pictures of the vessel whaling off Spruce Cape, including photographs depicting each step in the hunt, from preparing the dories to flinging the blubber into the melting pots. After the Carolyn Frances was sold, Captain Lane returned on other vessels to whale around Kodiak, and even sold whales at $500 a pop to local fox farms, where the whales were converted into fox feed.

Whaling did not end in the waters around Kodiak after international agreements curtailed the practice, beginning in the 1930s. Soviet and Japanese whalers continued to hunt for whales just beyond 3 miles offshore, which were considered international waters. Kodiak fishermen recall watching large, industrial whaling ships as they hunted and processed whales right off Kodiak. In an ironic twist, now it was Russian whalers that were not welcome in American waters, while one hundred years earlier it was American whalers who angered the Russians for whaling the Kodiak Grounds. 

The Kodiak Grounds are no longer the domain of whalers, but whales continue as an important local resource. Rather than being a source of oil and food, they are a source of tourism and scientific dollars. Kodiak has a complex relationship with whales and whaling, a relationship which is explored in the new temporary exhibit at the Baranov Museum, Whaling the Kodiak Grounds. Please stop by to learn more about this fascinating story.


  1. Can't wait to see it! And great historical overview Anjuli - I learned a lot.

  2. This was fascinating and well worth reading. Is this taught in the Kodiak schools? I would like to know if my grandfather, Kristian Leite is mentioned in any of the entries in the Kodiak Mirror or in the history books about Kodiak, in relation to whaling. I have learned recently that the Leite-Muller family owned a whaling operation somewhere in the Kodiak region and would like to learn more about him and his operation. Thank you for reading this.

    Candyce E Fread-Harman