Whaler Island, Crescent City

Whaler Island, Crescent City

by | Jun 29, 2022

Whaler Island is about 700 feet (215 m) across and situated about 0.4 miles (.65 km) offshore and is now connected to the mainland by a paved road on an artificial breakwater that together with Lighthouse Jetty forms a small protected harbor, about 16 miles (26 km) north-northwest of Klamath and 1.4 miles (2.3 km) southeast of Crescent City, California. The island is named for a historical shore whaling station that operated from about 1855 to 1857. The coastal geology consists mostly of the Battery Formation that formed during the Late Pleistocene and forms marine terrace deposits with dune sands and alluvial gravels. The offshore islands including Whaler Island are composed of rocks in the Franciscan Complex that formed during the Jurrasic and Cretaceous, or 150-66 million years ago. The Franciscan Complex is an assemblage of metamorphosed and deformed rocks that formed prior to the creation of the San Andreas Fault when an ancient oceanic trench existed along the California continental margin. This trench resulted from the subduction of oceanic crust of the Farallon tectonic plate beneath the continental crust of the North American Plate. The rocks exposed offshore consist of tectonically disrupted blocks of greywacke, shale, conglomerate, chert, limestone, phyllite, greenstone, and serpentinite. Whaler Island is mostly greenstone, with some felsic tuff and pillow basalt which was quarried to supply rock to construct and reinforce harbor breakwaters. In 1939,  a rubble-mound sand barrier was constructed connecting Whaler Island to the shore. The barrier was 17 feet (5 m) wide at its crest with an elevation of about 10 feet (3 m) and an armor layer of stones protected the ocean side. In 1946, the breakwater was rebuilt with an elevation of 18 feet (5.5 m) to provide protection to a small-craft basin. Over the years, the breakwater connecting Whaler Island to the mainland has been widened and reinforced substantially. Today, the breakwater is over 160 feet (50 m) wide and is used regularly by vehicles. There is a public boat launch and several buildings including a U.S. Coast Guard duty station. The outer breakwater, also known as the Lighthouse Jetty, was built in 1957 with 1,836 twenty-five-ton tetrapods. The main stem is 3,670 feet (1,120 m) long and the easterly extension is about 1,000 feet (305 m) long.

The Native American culture of northwest California is regarded as the southernmost extension of the Pacific Northwest culture and is thought to be of relatively recent origin, in that the existing ethnic groups migrated into the area not later than 1,000 years ago. The Tolowa people inhabited the northwestern corner of present-day California and are connected with the Athabascan tribes of Oregon immediately to the north. They were historically hunter-gatherers, mostly relying on deer, fish, and the acorn of the tanoak tree. Like most other tribes of the Pacific Northwest, personal value was heavily based on material wealth and social prestige. Prestige could be bought or obtained through shamanship and a wise shaman usually became wealthy. Wealth was measured in terms of material possessions such as dentalium shells and bird scalps. Materialism extended to the value of human life. Since the materials of wealth were acquired through patrilineal inheritance, materialistic competition led to an economic social stratification where aristocrats enjoyed living patterns not available to others. Perhaps the greatest manifestation of this was the ownership of slaves or bondmen, which were manipulated, bought, or sold at the discretion of the owner. Poor people often sold themselves into slavery in order to pay debts or to gain a wife. The first European American to explore this land was pioneer Jedediah Smith in the early 19th century. The arrival of large numbers of Euro-American prospectors, timbermen, and settlers began in the 1850s and brought devastation to all the coastal tribes. Both the Tolowa and the coastal Yurok were either killed, succumbed to diseases, or were dispersed to various reservations. The Tolowa numbered about 1,000 at the time of Euro-American settlement, and by 1910, there were reportedly about 150. Today, over 1,000 Tolowa are members of the federally recognized Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation, Elk Valley Rancheria, Confederated Tribes of Siletz, Trinidad Rancheria, Big Lagoon Rancheria, and Blue Lake Rancheria.

Shore whaling was a profitable commercial enterprise along the California coast in the 1800s. Whaling stations existed, from north to south, at Crescent City, Trinidad, Bolinas Bay, Half Moon Bay, Pigeon Point, Santa Cruz, Monterey Bay, Carmel Bay, Point Sur, San Simeon, Port Harford, Point Conception, Goleta, San Pedro, and San Diego. The California shore whaling industry was operated mostly by Portuguese immigrants from the Azores and Cape Verde. These islanders had been active on board Yankee whaling ships where they sought berths to escape poverty or military service at home. Many crewmen signed on in New England just to secure passage to California and its promise of instant prosperity following the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill. Desertion by ship’s crews at California ports was a well-documented phenomenon that reached its peak in the late 1840s and early 1850s. When the pursuit of gold proved fruitless, these whalers returned to their former occupation. Shore whaling was a seasonal pursuit that allowed whaling crews to have small farms and a family life as well as the excitement of the whale hunt. The Azoreans and Cape Verdians were attracted by this combination lifestyle, as their own culture also embraced farming and fishing. The early California shore whalers were limited in their hunting range to about 10 miles (16 km) and pursued gray whales and humpback whales that migrated along the coast. The two species migrated annually at different times, grays from December to February and humpbacks from August to December. By taking advantage of both migrations, the northern California shore whalers were able to extend their hunting season to 8 months each year. The whales were pursued in boats from shore, and when captured were towed to the beach and flensed. The fat was rendered in try-pots fired by crude furnaces. At Whaler Island, a small shanty with four compartments served the purpose of the washroom, drying room, storeroom, and cooper’s shop. A whaling ‘company’ usually consisted of one captain, one mate, a cooper, two boat steerers, and eleven laborers. From this crew, two whaleboats were provided with six men each, leaving four on shore who would take their turn at the lookout station and maintaining the try-pot fires. Read more here and here. Explore more of Whaler Island and Crescent City here:

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About the background graphic

This ‘warming stripe’ graphic is a visual representation of the change in global temperature from 1850 (top) to 2021 (bottom). Each stripe represents the average global temperature for one year. The average temperature from 1971-2000 is set as the boundary between blue and red. The color scale goes from -0.7°C to +0.7°C. The data are from the UK Met Office HadCRUT4.6 dataset. 

Credit: Professor Ed Hawkins (University of Reading). Click here for more information about the #warmingstripes.

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