On December 27, 2017, a juvenile fin whale was found dead near Pier T in Long Beach. There was debate as to how to get rid of the carcass, but ways could be found by looking back into Long Beach’s past.
Would you pay to see a dead whale? Folks back in 1911 would, paying 25 cents ($6.50 in today’s money) for that honor. Back then seeing a whale, even a dead one, was quite a novelty. As many as 2500 would flock to Long Beach to catch a glimpse of one of the leviathans captured by Captain John D. Loop, who vowed to resurrect the whaling industry in Southern California. When he harpooned a whale he would place them on a big barge and tow them to the Pine Avenue Pier for exhibition. To give visitors a good view, Captain Loop connected a rubber tube, connected with the pump of his ship, to the lungs of the whale, which allowed the body to float on the surface.
The public had to come quickly to view these wonders of the sea, because they would only be there for a limited time. There was the problem of the stench, you see. But you needn’t worry too much, for Captain Loop would be sure to take you to the side the wind was blowing from, so the odor would be hardly
noticeable. Not so pleasant, however, for those living downwind from the rotting carcass. A week at the most was all locals could stand before city officials would order the remains towed out to sea or cut up for fertilizer. In making fertilizer, Loop cut the leviathan into pieces and then cooked it. The flesh was ground up and pressed in order to get all the grease products. After this the ground flesh was pressed into bales, somewhat similar to bales of hay. These bales were then sent to various local orange groves to be used as fertilizer. Loop estimated the profits from an ordinary whale to be $1,000 ($26,100 today) after all expenses had been paid. His invention, the whale bomb was what kept the overhead down. Firing bombs at whales was much more efficient than harpooning or shooting them with regular rifles.
Always an innovator, Loop came up with other ideas for using whales. By 1916, after five years of research, he perfected a way to embalm any whale he captured. This didn’t affect his fertilizer business, because he would only embalm the really big catches. He promised visitors that the creatures would be absolutely free of any unpleasant odor and would keep indefinitely. That same year Loop and his crew also worked out details for a whale-meat preservation system. When he caught a small whale (not large enough for exhibition), Loop cut a few choice tons of “porterhouse”, treated the slices to his preservatives while still at sea, and then took the filet cuts to the fish stands on Pine Avenue or to local tuna packing plants. He said those fortunate to have received samples of the meat said that it was similar to beef, venison and buffalo, except for a peculiarly gamy flavor.
In November 1918, after twenty-six years immersed in whales and whaling, the man who had also invented a harpoon gun to inflate downed whales and developed the sport of sky whaling (read more about these in my book Strange Sea Tales Along the Southern California Coast), told Sunset Magazine that he was concerned about the future of his favorite beast:
Nothing in the realm of natural history is so absorbingly interesting as whales. If the present rate of killing them keeps up thirty years longer, it is the opinion of every whaling man I know that the last of the sea monsters will have passed. The next generation will see precious few whales anywhere, and the following generation will never find one. Last year the whale catch in the Pacific was over 470. The Japanese are the most diligent whale hunters in the world at present and the greatest consumers of whale-meat. It is good food. I have eaten hundreds of pounds. I have myself caught about thirty whales off Long Beach but there’s little of scientific value in that, so I have given it up.
Instead, Loop turned his interests to other hobbies, such as investing in real estate, mining and performing acrobatic stunts on his trampoline (which he had to curtail soon before his death in March 1949 at the age of 80).
What about his beloved whales? By the end of the 20th century, an international moratorium on whale hunting was initiated by the International Whaling Commission. Japan was the only country exempted from the 1986 I.W.C. ruling, restricted to hunting whales in its local waters for research purposes only. Norway and Iceland ignored the regulations altogether. Captain Loop had been right about the delicious taste of whale meat. In 1998, an international black market in whale flesh was flourishing in Japan and South Korea. Japan claimed that the meat they sold came from whales captured for research, yet a piece of whale meat, obtained from a Japanese fish market, was found to be from a variety of humpback whale found only in Mexican coastal waters. Investigators also found southern hemisphere sei whale, Bryde’s whale, North Pacific minke, fin and blue whale meat on sale in Japanese markets, thirty years after they were supposedly protected from hunting.
Though he would have been saddened to learn the moratorium on whale hunting was not being followed by all, Captain Loop would have been pleased to learn what additional steps California was taking to save whales. On June 1, 2015, the mile-wide shipping lanes that funnel ocean vessels were officially changed at the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles to reduce the number of ships in areas whales were known to frequent. Simple steps can lead to big results.