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Finback whale skeleton erected by Japanese abalone divers at Point Lobos. Photo taken circa 1906.

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Secret History

Dead Whales Make Good Tourist Bait

Quiz Question:

There are at least two complete whale skeletons on display in the Monterey Bay Region, and at least two life-size models. Can you name them? (Answer given below.)

The public fascination with whales goes back well into the nineteenth century here in the Monterey Bay region. Beginning in the 1850s, crowds would usually gather to watch the Monterey shore whalers cut up a whale carcass, and anytime a dead whale drifted ashore, those who could stand the smell would gather in wonder at the huge creature. Since the smell of the rotting carcasses was often too much even for an adoring public, the whales were often towed out to sea and allowed to drift-hopefully!-away.


Members of this Point Lobos Japanese abalone diving crew cut up the finback whale, buried the bones, and reassembled the whale skeleton..




The Whaler's Cabin at Point Lobos..




Part of the whale bones now gathered behind the Whaler's Cabin at Point Lobos. Three species of whales are represented here.

The first regional entrepreneur to realize the tourist value of a complete whale skeleton was Alexander M. Allan, the owner of Point Lobos. After a dead finback whale drifted ashore at Point Lobos in 1900, Allan decided to have the skeleton mounted at the point to attract admission-paying visitors. The Japanese abalone divers who lived at the point were asked to do the work. After cutting up the carcass and stripping as much meat off the bones as possible, the huge bones were buried in the meadow above the cove, and the natural processes allowed to clean the remaining meat off the bones.

The Japanese manager, Gennosuke Kodani, said that the odor of the rotting whale meat could be detected in the meadow for years following their exhumation. In the spring of 1901, the Japanese crew carried the bones up to an adjacent hilltop and mounted the bones on a wooden scaffold.

The whale skeleton remained at Point Lobos for over fifty years, amazing and delighting all those who came to see it. The California Department of Parks and Recreation acquired Point Lobos in 1933, and they eventually moved it down to the flat area beside Whaler's Cove. Even the History Dude remembers climbing on the skeleton in the 1950s. Finally, concerned for the public safety, the Parks department took the skeleton down and deposited it in a pile out of public view. Finally, in the mid-1980s, what remained of the old finback skeleton was put on display at the Whaler's Cabin.

Whalebone is quite porous and, over time, it will dissolve in the elements. Today, over a century after it was put on public display, the only identifiable part of the old finner is the skull that slowly but surely is dissolving into the soil. In recent years several whale carcasses that have drifted ashore south of Point Lobos have added their bones to the pile, and there are now humpback and gray whale bones added to the mix.

And, even when disassembled and piled without any order, the whalebones continue to attract those who are curious about the wondrous creatures that migrate just off Point Lobos.

Answers:

The two skeletons are located at the UCSC Long Marine Lab on the west side of Santa Cruz, and hanging from the ceiling on the ground floor of the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey. The two life-size models are located in front of the Santa Cruz Natural History Museum, Santa Cruz, and the Pacific Grove Natural History Museum, Pacific Grove.

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