San Diego Natural History Museum--Your Nature ConnectionHistory of the Museum

Trip to Trinidad Whaling Station, July-August 1926

A Conversation with Captain Lane
July 29 (PM)

On arriving at camp I found Bray [A.B. Howell] had put up 31 skins for me during my week’s absence. Amongst the lot were two Phenacomys albipes, one of the rarest of California mammals. We had a very pleasant hour with Capt. Lane after dinner & got some very interesting data from him in conversation. He said that Humpbacks & Calif. Gray Whales are apt to be found close inshore but never Finbacks. They feed in the deep clear water & are seldom within 20 miles of shore. This same feature holds true of Sperms tho their food is entirely different from that of other whales.

Note that the Sperm whale is toothed ("Odontocete"), while the others mentioned here are baleen whales ("Mysticete").

Humpbacks are very slow swimmers and when sounding always show their flukes. It is possible to identify them at a long distance by this habit tho the Calif. Gray shows his flukes at times but they are not elevated to such a vertical position. Lane says that they come up underneath a school of fish, standing on their tail in the water, open their mouths wide & use their very long flippers to scare the fish into their open mouth. The Humpback is the only whale that breaches or jumps out of the water, sometimes clearing the surface 10 feet, when landing after such a leap they always fall on their side or back. This is done to protect the abdominal regions from shock.

The feeding habits of the Calif. Grays is not well know in the Captain’s experience tho they much prefer shallow water & even the close proximity of rocky shoals & beaches. They are the most vicious of all the whales and will attack small boats without any apparent provocation.

Although often appearing curious of humans in a harmless way, the Gray Whale has been known to ram into boats and also lift them out of the water. Whalers called them the "devil fish".

The speed of different whales was discussed and Capt. Lane said that usually whales traveled from 3 to 6 miles per hour when not excited or molested, but that Finbacks were capable of a maximum of 30 miles per hour, while Humpbacks & Sperms were not good for more than 18 & that for a short distance only.

The speed of the Finbacks accounts for the lack of parasites on them while the slow old Humpback is sometimes covered with barnacles & other parasites, fish lice, leeches, etc.

Cal. Grays can attain a 25 mile per hour speed for short spurts but they too are chunky & have a few parasites. The depth to which a whale can dive was discovered & Lane said that he had a Sperm Whale take out 1500 fathoms (=9000 feet) of line without moving the boat, the animal going straight down. This seems almost incredible – but considering their food – huge octopuses – they surely have to go very deep for them. The length of time of submergion [sic] too was talked of & sperms stay down from 45 mintues to 1 hour & 45 minutes, then on rising to the surface take a half hour or longer time to blow. Lane says that Finbacks & Humpbacks can go down 250-300 fathoms & that he had had Humpbacks break their necks on the bottom at 250 fathoms.

Bray and I talked over the prospects of more pictures of capturing whales & on Mr. Lane’s invitation on the morrow. Wrote a few notes & went down to take the ship at midnight, couldn’t find a skiff with oars in it so unfurled my blanket & slept or tried to sleep on the dock. I was warm enough but every time I drew a breath I was plumb awake for the wind was blowing directly from the cutting shed a hundred feet away & the stench was almost unbearable. That is the first time in my life that foul air has even kept me awake!