The Whale


A day or two after Christmas,1806, the captains were informed by some Indians that a whale had died on the beach near a Tillamook village southwest of the fort. Captain Lewis was eager to go and see it, but high wind delayed his trip. On January third some Clatsop Indians brought foodstuffs to sell to the Americans: "some roots buries and three dogs also a small quantity of fresh blubber." It was finally Clark who, on January sixth, left with 12 men in two canoes out of Youngs Bay and up the comparatively placid Skipanon River,1 then by land to the saltmakers' camp, and over Tillamook Head.

By that time the whale's bones had been picked clean, and the Indians were seen "boiling whale in a trough of about 20 gallons with hot Stones, and the oyle they put into a Canoe." Clark succeeded in bargaining for about 300 pounds of whale blubber and a few gallons of oil. "Small as this Stock is I prise it highly," he wrote, "and thank providence for directing the whale to us; and think him much more kind to us than he was to jonah, having Sent this monster to be Swallowed by us in Sted of Swallowing of us as jonah's did."

Lewis, at least, seems to have swallowed it with relish. "It was white & not unlike the fat of Poark," he judged, "tho' the texture was more spongey and somewhat coarser. I had a part of it cooked and found it very pallitable and tender, it resembled the beaver or the dog in flavour." For them, dog meat was . . . but that's another story.

Judging from the skeleton's length, estimated at 105 feet according to the journalists, it could have been that of a blue whale, Balaenoptera musculus (bay-lay-uh-NOP-ter-uh = whale; MUSS-koo-lus = mottled, from its mottled gray-spotted blue back), the largest of all living animals. The average length of an adult blue whale is 100 feet (30m); its average weight is 165 tons (150 tonnes). Blubber is a thick layer of fat between the skin and the flesh. Baleen (buh-LEEN; Latin for "whale"), is the name for the horny black plates on the sides of the whale's upper jaw, through which it filters plankton and small shellfish for food. Flexible and practically unbreakable, baleen was once used for stays in women's (and men's) corsets, to help shape flesh on the human skeleton.

Whales do not beach themselves. They are driven ashore by tides and storms, where they suffocate from the weight of their own bodies.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries the blue whale was hunted nearly to extinction. Today it is protected by international agreement, but the Red Data Book, published by the Survival Service Commission of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), lists it as critically endangered.

The Chinook word for whale is Ecola, or E-cu-lah. The place where Clark found the E-cu-lah is in today's town of Cannon Beach. Clark's Point of View and most of Tillamook Head are part of Ecola State Park.

1. Charbonneau and Sacagawea—presumably carrying baby Jean Baptiste—also went along. "The Indian woman was very importunate to be permitted to go," wrote Lewis, "and was therefore indulged; she observed that she had traveled a long way with us to see the great waters, and that now that monstrous fish was also to be seen, she thought it very hard she could not be premitted to see either (she had never yet been to the Ocean)."