Oct 24th, 2011 by bachmann
Charles Melville Scammon, was an unconventional man for the 19th century, being both a naturalist and a whaling captain. Scammon was born in Maine, where he skippered a number of merchant vessels across the Atlantic. Like many other Americans in 1849, he turned his attention westward with the Gold Rush in hopes of gaining a better living. In California, he commanded a number of whaling vessels during the 1860s and 1870s, becoming the first to hunt the gray whales off the California/Baha coastline and eventually contributing to the near extinction of the species. Ironically, he was not just an accomplished hunter, but also a careful and passionate observer of marine life and behavior, filling up numerous journals and sketchbooks during his voyages, as well as, finding opportunities to engage with prominent scientists and naturalists, such as William Healy Dall. After decades of hunting voyages, he wrote the book The Marine Mammals of the North-western Coast of North America, which covered not only whales, but dolphins, porpoises, seals, walrus, and otters. Though unsuccessful from a financial standpoint, the work is now considered one of the great volumes on marine life along the Pacific Ocean from this time period. The work also remains a valuable resource on various aspects of the whaling industry during the 19th century, often foreshadowing the precipitous decline in marine mammals due to hunting and the economic factors driving the industry. Early on, Scammon explains his motivation for writing and illustrating the book.
“The objects of our pursuit were found in great numbers, and the opportunities for studying their habits were so good, that I became greatly interested in collecting facts bearing upon the natural history of these animals….I was the more encouraged to pursue these investigations, because, among the great number of intelligent men in command of whaling-ships, there was no one who had contributed anything of importance to the natural history of the Cetaceans …When one of these animals is first captured, but a small part of its colossal form can be seen, as, usually, only a small portion of the middle section of the body is above the water; and when the process of decomposition has caused the animal to rise, so that the whole form is visible, it is swollen and quite distorted in shape. Again : these animals change their appearance in the most remarkable manner with every change of position, so that it is only from repeated measurements and sketches, and as the result of many comparisons, that I have been able to produce satisfactory illustrations of these monsters of the deep. “
In another passage he speaks with sensitivity to the plight of the Walrus and the Native Americans who depend upon the animal for survival.
“Among the numerous enemies of the Walrus, it is to be regretted that the whalers are included, they having been driven to the necessity of pursuing them on account of the scarcity of Cetaceans. Already the animals have suffered so great a slaughter at their hands that their numbers have been materially diminished, and they have become wild and shy, making it difficult for the Esquimaux to successfully hunt them, in order to obtain a necessary supply of food. It is stated that there has been much suffering among those harmless people of the far north, on account of this source for supplying themselves with an indispensable article of sustenance being to an alarming extent cut off. “
- Scammon, Charles Melville. The marine mammals of the north-western coast of North America :described and illustrated : together with an account of the American whale-fishery. San Francisco : J. H. Carmany ; New York : G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1874.
- Persistent Link:
- Widener Library
- Harvard University