Who owns the ocean, and the creatures that swim throughout it? How should the right to harvest the bounty of the sea be bestowed? These questions are as politically contentious now as they were centuries ago, when American whalers prowled Russian waters. Those Russian waters were the Kodiak Grounds. Indeed, it was partially due to the incredible number of American whalers throughout the waters of Russian America during the mid-nineteenth century that the Russians began to see the sale of Alaska to the U.S. as a sure eventuality.
In the meantime, the Russians belatedly tried to profit from commercial whaling, entering the industry in 1851 when the Russian-Finnish Whaling Company launched its first whaling vessel. Several Alutiit from Three Saints Bay even worked as crew on the Turku.
By the 1850s, whales were scarcer in the over-harvested Kodiak Grounds, and soon the Crimean War broke out, meaning British vessels could seize Russian whalers at any point.
The crew of the Turku frantically buried their whaling equipment somewhere on Kodiak Island in fear that a British ship would confiscate it, and mass defection followed.
The Russians didn’t profit from whaling the Kodiak Grounds, but whales were a crucial resource in Kodiak during the Russian era. Boiled and pickled whale meat and oil were important food items for Russian American Company employees and the Alutiiq.
Whale oil provided light, lubricated the grist mill at Mill Bay, was used in making caulking, paint, and a wide variety of other goods.
Alutiiq whalers, or ar’ursulek, surrendered from one-third to half of a whale for colonial use. Alutiiq whalers at Kodiak killed between 150-300 whales a year during the 1830s. At Three Saints Bay, several individuals were employed in butchering and processing whales that floated south from Afognak and St. Paul (modern Kodiak). According to an 1833 report, the settlements that provided the most whales were Karluk, Afognak, Alitak, Old Harbor, St. Paul, Igak (possibly Ugak or Ugat) and Angiskoe (between Kodiak and Spruce Islands).
By the 1850s, Alutiiq whaling had seriously declined, a drop that can be attributed to the smallpox epidemic as well as the rapid shrinking of the whale population due to the intensity of American whaling.
In the 1920s, there was a resurgence of whaling in Kodiak. It was during this decade that the American Pacific Whaling Company constructed Port Hobron on Sitkalidak Island.
From this shore station, three catcher boats were dispatched to hunt the waters around Kodiak.
Bomb-loaded harpoons were mounted to the bows of the vessels. Once a whale was killed, the catcher vessel would pump it full of air, mark it with a flag, and continue hunting for the rest of the day before tugging the day’s catch to Port Hobron. Once in port, steam winches dragged the carcasses onto flensing platforms, where several of the hundred or so employees butchered the whales. Every part of the whale, including the bones, was rendered into oil.
The whale oil was sold to Proctor & Gamble, the company that makes Ivory soap. Alaska Steamship Company vessels made weekly stops at Port Hobron to drop off supplies and pick up oil, and tourists and other passengers disembarked and got to witness shore whaling first-hand.
Port Hobron was even included in travel literature as a destination in the 1930s. After nearly a dozen years of operation, Port Hobron closed due to financial issues.
Also during the 1920s, the Carolyn Frances, the Erskine family charter vessel, whaled around Kodiak. Captained by Louis Lane, the Carolyn Frances was a modern incarnation of the offshore whaling vessel of a century before. Alongside the boat, whales were butchered and on deck the blubber was rendered into oil.
Whenever Captain Lane was in town, the Erskine family would join him on a whaling trip. Ever the photographer, local businessman W.J. Erskine brought his camera to document the action. Within the Baranov Museum photograph collection are pictures of the vessel whaling off Spruce Cape, including photographs depicting each step in the hunt, from preparing the dories to flinging the blubber into the melting pots.
After the Carolyn Frances was sold, Captain Lane returned on other vessels to whale around Kodiak, and even sold whales at $500 a pop to local fox farms, where the whales were converted into fox feed.
Whaling did not end in the waters around Kodiak after international agreements curtailed the practice, beginning in the 1930s. Soviet and Japanese whalers continued to hunt for whales beyond the 3-mile limit that at the time designated international waters.
Kodiak fishermen recall watching industrial whaling ships as they hunted and processed whales right off Kodiak. In an ironic twist, it was Russian whalers who were not welcome in American waters, while 100 years earlier it was American whalers who angered the Russians for whaling the Kodiak Grounds.
Anjuli Grantham is curator of collections at Kodiak’s Baranov Museum. Part 1 of her account of Kodiak whaling history was published in Thursday’s Daily Mirror.