In the summer of 1926, museum naturalist Laurence Huey drove up the newly-opened Highway 101 to Trinidad, California, with colleague A. Brazier Howell of the Smithsonian Institute, to study whales at a commercial whaling station. Besides the whales, the other figures in this story were whaling station owner Frederick Dedrick and ship captain Louis Lane. Huey was an enthusiastic photographer and created a scrapbook of about 70 photos, which along with his field notes and letters provide us with a record of this expedition. In the following pages, Huey’s field notes are augmented with his photos, additional contemporary photos, and comments. Please see footnotes, references, and technical notes at the end of the page.
The Trinidad whaling station operated from 1920 to 1926. During the year of this expedition, 1926, the station recorded catches of 21 Humpback, 70 Finback, 25 Sei, one Sperm, and one Gray Whale (in 1924, there was one Blue Whale catch). During his visit Huey observed only the one Gray and several Finbacks. These two species vary in size, feeding and diving habits, and migratory patterns.
Finback whales (today known also simply as Fin whales) are the second longest whale in the world, measuring between 18 and 22 meters long and weighing 30-80 tons in adulthood. Finback whales are non-migratory, or their migration patterns are not fully understood, and they can be found all over the world, except at the poles, although they prefer offshore areas. Photo Credit.
Gray whales (photo credit) are smaller than Finbacks, measuring 12-14 meters long and weighing 15-35 tons, and prefer coastal areas, where they feed along the sea floor. Gray whales are typically found in the eastern pacific ocean (the west coast of North America) and do migrate with the seasons; Eastern Pacific Gray spend their summers in the arctic and winter around Baja California.
This was just one of many expeditions made by Huey in that year, only a couple of which were outside of Mexico. Although Huey often observed whales and other sea mammals on his numerous trips to the waters around Baja California, many of his expeditions centered around the observation and collection of birds and small mammals. The purpose of this expedition was to gather information about whale anatomy and behavior, and about whaling. Despite the unusual focus of this expedition, Huey still paid close attention to the birds and rodents of the area, and set numerous traps in order to collect specific types of mammals.
In reading Huey’s field notes of this trip, it is remarkable how he alternates between dispassionate descriptions of the often slow and obviously difficult deaths of the whales - “a long sharp perforated pipe was stuck into its rectals & soon it was bloated with air and died” – and admiration for the creatures: “Finbacks are rather pretty animals”. It is interesting to contrast the tone in Huey’s field notes with that in his contemporaneous letters to SDNHM director Clinton Abbott, which are much more informal and jocular.