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The Story of Northwest Whaling

Cathy Duchamp

Before there were programmers and machinists, there were loggers and fisherman - people who built the Northwest economy by harvesting from the forest and the sea. But many of the men and women who did that work are gone. Their stories are seldom told. Today, we look at a part of local maritime history that’s almost completely vanished. The story of Northwest whaling from KUOW’s Cathy Duchamp.

HOLLYWOOD HAS CONJURED UP DRAMATIC IMAGES OF WHALING. Pull yee men closer he’ll not escape VIVID SCENES OF ADVENTURE AND DANGER. GREGORY PECK AND MOBY DICK [voice comes up] oh yee whal dag nab it whale BUT WHEN YOU LISTEN TO 84 YEAR-OLD NATE JENSEN, THE MOVIE VERSION OF WHALING DISAPPEARS. NO PEG-LEGGED CAPTAIN AHAB. NO WHITE WHALES TO CHASE. And you don’t holler thar she blows either. That doesn’t tell you anything. You gotta know where the blow is. JENSEN SPOTTED HIS FIRST WHALE IN THE SUMMER OF 1936, AS A SEAMAN WITH THE AMERICAN PACIFIC WHALING COMPANY. THE OUTFIT WINTERED IN THE FRESHWATER OF BELLEVUE’S MEYDENBAUER BAY. JENSEN WAS 20 YEARS OLD. IT WAS THE DEPRESSION. JOBS WERE HARD TO COME BY. JENSEN AND A BUDDY FOUND DOCK WORK WITH THE WHALING COMPANY: We had the filthiest jobs that were. One of the jobs was cleaning the bilges out by hand. The slimy stuff. Anyway, we worked hard because we didn’t know any better. Ha Ha. So they hired us to go up north. “UP NORTH” WAS AKATAN ALASKA. A REMOTE VILLAGE IN THE ALEUTIAN CHAIN. THE CENTER OF BERING SEA WHALING IN THE 1930'S. [CHANGE GEARS] JENSEN’S MEMORIES COME ALIVE IN THE SALT THAT LINGERS IN HIS VOICE. AND THROUGH SEPIA TONE PHOTOGRAPHS HE KEEPS IN A SCRAPBOOK: Well you’re seeing a blue whale that’s being flenched. The blubber is being pulled off.. See this line going here? They’d just peel the blubber off. Kind of the way you’d peel an apple or something. GRUESOME AS IT SOUNDS, JENSEN DIDN’T THINK MUCH ABOUT IT. AFTER ALL, IT WAS A JOB. AND GREAT PAY FOR THE DEPRESSION. 60 DOLLARS A MONTH, PLUS BONUSES FOR EACH WHALE CAUGHT. FIVE DOLLARS FOR A BLUE WHALE. THREE FOR A HUMPBACK OR FIN.. [] JENSEN RECALLS THAT THE BOATS WERE FILLED WITH ODD CHARACTERS. LIKE A HARPOON GUNNER NAMED FRANK: I don’t know if his descendents want to hear about this or not but when he come up in the spring he’d have a nice suit and nice white underwear and he’d never changed that underwear. That underwear by the time we were ready to come back was black and then he’d finally go ashore and throw away that underwear and put on a fresh pair to go home in. [so he probably stunk] he probably didn’t care but of course he had probably the most important job in the boat [music up] NATE JENSEN WAS NOT THE FIRST NORTHWESTERNER TO HUNT FOR WHALES. HE WAS ONE OF THE LAST. IT WAS THE BEGINNING OF THE END OF COMMERCIAL WHALING. AND TO HISTORIANS, NATE JENSEN’S EXPERIENCES REVEAL HOW WHALING WAS NO LONGER A HEROIC BATTLE BETWEEN MAN AND BEAST. MARITIME SCHOLAR ROBERT WEBB. We look at this business very emotionally. We think romantically about going out in a small vessel, and fighting the seas, and fighting the whales. And then being successful or failing. But in the 20th century the business was very cut and dry. It was very unemotional. It was very technological. The men would just simply get on the boats. They’d go out each day. They would do their hunting. And come back exhausted at night or the next morning or whenever they could get back. And it was just a business. BY THE 19-30S, THE PROCESS OF WHALING HAD BECOME INDUSTRIALIZED. SAILING SHIPS WERE REPLACED BY STEAMERS. HAND THROWN HARPOONS GAVE WAY TO HARPOON CANNONS, WITH EXPLODING TIPS. AND THE REASONS FOR WHALING CHANGED TOO. HOUSEHOLDS NO LONGER NEEDED WHALE OIL TO LIGHT LAMPS. KEROSENE DID THE JOB. WHALES INSTEAD WERE PROCESSED INTO SOAP, PET FOOD AND FERTILIZER. A LOW MARGIN, HIGH VOLUME INDUSTRY SAYS ROBERT WEBB… THAT NEARLY WIPED THE WHALES OUT: and just like the codfish in the Altantic, and like Swordfish and just like the abalone on the California coast, we assumed up until very recent times that these animals were numerous and that we could take as many as we wanted without endangering the fishery we were engaged in. THE FIRST PROTECTIONS WERE PLACED ON THE CALIFORNIA GRAY WHALE IN 1937. BUT WHALING ALONG THE WEST COAST CONTINUED UNTIL THE 19-70S, WHEN THE UNITED STATES AND CANADA AGREED TO MORATORIUMS. WEBB SAYS THAT TO SOME PEOPLE, WHALERS LIKE NATE JENSEN MAY BE ANTI-HEROS, OR JUST PLAIN ENEMIES. But I look upon him as one of those adventurous souls. Who made the west coast what it is. Someone who was willing to go out to the edge of it where there wasn’t anything to see what could be made of this wilderness experience. [amb of pier/rain] TODAY RAIN POURS OVER THE PHYSICAL REMAINS WASHINGTON’S WHALING HISTORY: A SOGGY PIER AND TWO SMALL WAREHOUSES ON MEYDENBAUER BAY IN BELLEVUE. STRUCTURES BUILT BY THE AMERICAN PACIFIC WHALING COMPANY. NOW PART OF A PRIVATE MARINA. ONCE THERE WERE 100-FOOT STEAM SHIPS HERE. NOW THERE’S A 100-FOOT YACHT. THE ONLY TRUE RELICS OF NORTHWEST WHALING ARE MEN LIKE NATE JENSEN: I think it was kind of a sense of freedom. Wide open country. You’re away from home. [fade amb] Your own your own your really enjoying it. You’re young. You’re feeling well. It’s a good feeling. Its an