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San Pedro Bay’s Little-Known Whaling History

November 14, 2013

by Andrea Serna

913-AWhale carcasses on a barge near Berth 148, January 23, 1930. Image 913-A, Los Angeles Harbor Department Historical Archives, Materials Testing Laboratory Photographic Collection.

Whale watching has become one of the most popular pastimes in and around the South Bay and whales remain among the most beloved aquatic creatures in the harbor community. So it may come as a shocking surprise that the area was once home to a thriving whaling industry. Whaling within the vicinity of San Pedro Bay was prevalent in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Whaling vessels used the harbor area as a base and outfitting center.

Regional whalers practiced shore whaling, which differed from traditional East coast whaling in technique. Lookouts stood on high points along the shore and once they spotted a whale, they used flags to signal their company’s boat and guide them toward the whale. Southern California provided optimal conditions for shore whalers—sunny weather with excellent visibility, mild sea conditions, and access to flocks of migrating whales.

In the late 19th century, whales were hunted for their blubber, which was used to make soap, lamp oil, and axle grease. Whale bones were incorporated into fashion items like corset stays, combs, collar stiffeners, and parasol ribs. Additionally, whalers profited from displaying catches as tourist attractions for a few days, until the carcass began to emit an unbearable odor. It was then removed and processed.

931-ALifting a 50 ton whale at Los Angeles Shipbuilding Company, January 27, 1930.  Image 931-A, Los Angeles Harbor Department Historical Archives, Materials Testing Laboratory Photographic Collection.

Though catches brought attractive profits, whaling was a dangerous business. Whalers risked broken equipment, sunken boats, injuries, and death. In California Shore Whaling, 1854-1900, Thomas L. Nichols’ interviews a local whaler who admits, “It’s almost sure death to hunt. There were a good many graves in those days alongshore of men who had been killed by these whales. When I joined the Portuguese Bend fishermen I found that they were afraid of the whales, but they kept at the business until so many things got smashed that it didn’t pay.”

Whaling stations were located on Deadman’s Island and Portuguese Bend in the 19th century. Reports vary on the stations’ lifespans, though it appears the two operated simultaneously. The station on Deadman’s Island is believed to have been active from 1856 through 1879. Its most successful season was recorded in 1861-1862, with claims that 25 whales were caught in one month. Operations at the Portuguese Bend station appear to have been intermittent; its most successful season was recorded in 1883, when 35 whales were caught. Despite this feat, the station inexplicably closed the next year. The rise of Southern California’s petroleum industry at the turn of the century quickly displaced whaling. Depleted whale populations are also credited for ending 19th century whaling in San Pedro Bay.

88Deadman’s Island, shown here on April 24, 1923, was the site of a whaling station from 1856-1879.  Image 88, Los Angeles Harbor Department Historical Archives, Materials Testing Laboratory Photographic Collection.

Whaling activities in the vicinity of the Port resumed in the mid-1910s. Captain John D. Loop is credited for reviving commercial whaling. He is noted for pioneering new harpoon gun technology, patenting his own whale bomb, and for streamlining a process to pump air into the carcass to keep it afloat for easier shore towing. Loop also arranged expeditions for wealthy tourists, guaranteeing them a whale.

Various companies operated out of the Port as a home base. The most prominent enterprise was the Mexico Whaling Company. This company was based in the Port from 1923 through 1930, under the direction of Captain G.M Bryde. They were succeeded by the California Whaling Company, active in the Port from 1932 through 1937, under Captain F.R. Dedrick. In 1927, local investors attempted to start their own enterprise, the Los Angeles Whaling Company. This venture proved problematic and short lived due to customs issues and labor disputes.

In this second era of Southern California whaling, whales were sought after for consumer meat and soil fertilizer. Due to concerns over dwindling whale populations, in 1936 the Coast Guard was entrusted with protecting California’s whales by regulating whalers’ activities. However, exceptions took place during World War II, which saw a brief reanimation of the industry since whale meat was encouraged as wartime diet. Once austerity measures ended, whaling quickly declined.

Whaling was outlawed in California in 1972. Whale populations have bounced back since and these majestic creatures are now abundant and frequently spotted off our coasts.

Andrea Serna is a Student Professional Worker at The Port of Los Angeles Archives. She is currently working on her M.A. in History at California State University, Los Angeles.

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4 Comments
  1. “Whalebone” refers to baleen, not actual whale bones. The “50-ton whale” in the photograph is a gray whale and probably only weighed 30-35 tons. And it’s Frederick Kristian Dedrick, not F. R. Dedrick. He also operated a whaling company that worked out of San Francisco and the LA area from 1926 to 1930.

    • Thank you for your interest and feedback. We always appreciate new information. Would you kindly share your sources so that we may evaluate with our own?

      • Kris De Roo permalink

        The reference to the first sentence you can find in almost any book on whales. For the second sentence look up Christiana Lockyer’s 1976 paper entitled “Body weights of some species of large whales” and just google some photos of gray whales. For the third and fourth sentences you’ll have to look through various issues of Pacific Fisherman (1926-30) and C. H. Townsend’s 1930 paper “Twentieth-Century whaling”. Dedrick ran the California Sea Products Company, of San Francisco, from 1926 to 1930, sending his fleet to Alaska, San Clemente Island, and Baja California. They used San Pedro to obtain fuel and transship oil by rail.

  2. Craig Hendricks permalink

    Great source of new information–at least for me. I had no idea that a whaling industry, even a small one, existed in San Pedro bay. Good job!

    Craig Hendricks

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