National Geographic : 1956 Jul
The National Geographic Magazine inside Scammon Lagoon. Official charts show only an uncertain outline for much of it. Neither its twisting channels nor its wide shoals and tidal sand flats have been accu rately sounded or marked with buoys. We passed islands that old charts failed to note. One of these we later named Cardiac Island, and another became Geographic Island. Only an occasional turtle hunter visits Scammon's barren shores. No one lives there. We saw a few deserted weather-beaten shacks and the blackened remains of campfires sur rounded by charred mounds of turtle shells and bones. How such camps exist for more than a few days is hard to imagine. The nearest fresh water is a rabbit-haunted spring four miles from the head of the lagoon. This water hole gives Mexicans their name for Scammon Lagoon: Laguna Ojo de Liebre, or "Lagoon of the Jack Rabbit Spring." Years ago salt was dug from extensive flats near the lagoon's head, and large ships nego tiated these tricky channels. Now an aban doned pier and rusty remnants of a narrow gauge railway are all that remain. Long before the salt ships, however, Scam mon Lagoon knew the tall masts of sail-rigged whaling vessels and heard the cries of har pooners and oarsmen of open whaleboats. The first whaler to find and explore these waters was Capt. Charles Melville Scammon, a San Franciscan who sailed into the lagoon almost 100 years ago, in 1857. Whalers Found Abundant Quarry In the brig Boston, with a schooner as tender, Captain Scammon entered the lagoon along the same course that we had followed from Lagoon Head. He was trapped over night when the wind failed him on the shoalest part of the entrance, but a northerly breeze next day took him safely through "the turbu lent passage." Later, after a three-day gale had abated, "the brig and her consort made the best of their way up to the head of the hitherto un explored waters. Here the whales were found in great numbers," he wrote.* Like Scammon, we already were preparing our equipment for the pursuit. Our plan of attack was this: By using two hand-thrown harpoons, specially designed crossbows of pow erful construction, or lightweight shoulder guns, we would attempt to place two elec trodes beneath the tough black hide of an adult whale, penetrating its blubber layer but not deeply enough to cause serious injury. Slender nylon-insulated wires would trail from the harpoon heads. These would be attached to a watertight sea sled somewhat resembling a midget boat, carrying radio transmitting and telemetering equipment. The harpooned whale, we thought con fidently, would drag the sea sled behind it. From the instant the sled was attached, radio signals would broadcast the whale's heart beat back to a receiver aboard Dorado. A few minutes would be enough to obtain a useful recording. Ballena Draws First Blood That day we were first elated, then dis appointed. "Admiral" Douglas and Ted Conant low ered our harpoon boat, Ballena, and set off to reconnoiter the near-by channels and sand bars. Soon they were back, exultant. "We've poked a whale with an oar!" shouted Mr. Douglas. "Ballena's been blooded." And it had. Steering their boat right up to a roving whale, they had leaned out and prodded it sharply. The whale swerved, was nicked by Ballena's whirling propeller, and left a faint red trail of blood behind her. Jim Jenks, however, had bad news. The more powerful of our two radio sleds failed to work. Somewhere within its maze of tubes and wires something had gone awry. The other sled, though it sent a signal, proved too weak and also had to be given up. "Let's try to record directly from a whale," came Mr. Douglas's quick answer. "Ballena can carry the electrocardiograph. After we harpoon the whale, we'll stay close enough to it to let the wires lead straight to the machine." It had worked in Alaska-why not here? Next morning, beginning at sunrise, we chased whales-adult whales of mighty spout, mother whales with close-following calves, and pairs or trios of whales courting playfully. Many times our would-be harpooners came to close quarters. But each time they held their cast, for it was necessary that two har poons be thrown into the ponderous creature, as far apart on its body as possible. Only thus could a measurable signal be sent to the recording instrument. But a surfacing whale seldom exposes its entire length. There were no openings offered that day. * Marine Mammals of the North-western Coast of North America. San Francisco and New York. 1874.