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Before whale watching at Port San Luis, there was whale killing

This whaling village located on mainland near Port San Luis operated from 1890-1896 when the operation was evicted in a dispute between whaler and lighthouse keeper. Point San Luis Lighthouse at left.
This whaling village located on mainland near Port San Luis operated from 1890-1896 when the operation was evicted in a dispute between whaler and lighthouse keeper. Point San Luis Lighthouse at left.

Oil spills have taken a toll on sea life. The pipeline break and spill in May near Refugio State Beach resulted in oiled birds and seals.

Whales likely have mixed feelings about oil development.

They were killed and boiled down to oil in the late 1800s, some species hunted to the verge of extinction.

The biggest whaling operations in San Luis Obispo County were at San Simeon and Port San Luis.

According to Avila Beach/Port San Luis historian Jack San Filippo, the average gray whale produced around 20 barrels of oil valued at $1,200 in the 1880s.

His research shows the first whaling station at Port San Luis was on Whaler’s Island from 1868 to 1890, when a landslide shut down the operation.

A second enterprise was onshore from 1890 until 1896 when the operator Antoine Silva and the lighthouse keeper disagreed, resulting in eviction of the whaler.

Today people flock to Avila Beach to see whales, not launch boats with explosive harpoons to kill them.

One of the first markets for petroleum oil was replacing whale oil in lamps.

According to the book “Unocal 1890-1990 A Century of Spirit”, the oil extracted in California was also high in gasoline content. It was an explosive, unmarketable, refining byproduct.

By 1906 there was a growing market for fuel oil and gasoline, and a six-inch pipeline was welded to Avila Beach from fields in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties.

Port San Luis would now be known for petroleum oil, not whale oil and energy would now come from long dead marine plants and animals, not living whales.

(It is an urban legend that oil was formed from dinosaurs.)

A note about the bowhead whale mentioned in the article below: That species is an Arctic whale; the whales hunted on the Central Coast were primarily gray and humpback whales.

On Nov. 13, 1969, longtime reporter Elliot Curry wrote about local whalers in his Telegram-Tribune column “After Deadline”:

Whaling at Port San Luis

For many years the sea gulls have held dominion over Whaler’s Island at the Port San Luis Harbor, but it was not always that way.

Whaler’s Island, which has been connected to the mainland by a breakwater for over 75 years, actually was once a whaling station, just as its name implies.

Smith Island, the smaller of the two, lies inside the breakwater and got its name in the same obvious way. Back in the 1880s it was occupied by Joe Smith and his wife, Mattie.

Vincent Canet of Avila Beach, who has been collecting photographs of the area for most of his long life, has known about the history of these two islands for a long time, but it was only recently that he was presented with a photo which shows, however dimly, both the whaling pier and the Smith home.

The picture was taken by A.N. Cunningham, an early day San Luis Obispo photographer, and was given to Canet by a granddaughter of the Smiths. Joe Smith was a fisherman and lived on the rock island from 1884 to 1894.

A son, Burritt Smith, was born on the island on Jan. 28, 1894. Smith died the following year on his small ranch in See Canyon.

The files of the Telegram-Tribune show that the whaling station on the larger island was operated by a Captain John Oliver, who had as many as 29 men working for him during the whaling season, which ran from November to February.

When a whale was sighted, a small boat took off in pursuit, and if the chase was successful, the whale was harpooned. The dead whale was beached at Port San Luis as quickly as possible, to avoid the sharks getting at it, and the men fell to work slicing up the blubber.

The whaling station was equipped with three 1,500 gallon pots in which the blubber was boiled, or “tried” as it was called. The largest whale taken at Port San Luis in 1887 yielded 70 barrels of oil, but the average was closer to 50 barrels.

The Whaler’s Island operation never became very profitable.

In 1886 only three whales were taken in the entire season. A similar station at Point Conception took 20 to 25 whales annually. The principal variety of whale here was called the “bowhead.” The more valuable sperm whale was seldom seen, although one was taken at San Simeon in the 1887 season.

Visitors to Whaler’s Island were rare because of what the editor of the Tribune once called “the rankest compound of villainous smells that ever offended human nostrils.” Guests were rewarded for their trouble, however, with gifts of whalebone and shark’s teeth.

The whaling industry on the California coast disappeared rapidly in the 1890s, and soon all that remained in San Luis Obispo bay was the name of a very small island.