By Erika Anderson
In 1792, when Captain Vancouver visited these waters, they abounded with whales of many species.
On sailing past Cortes Island, Vancouver wrote in his journal, “Numberless whales enjoying the season, were playing about the ship in every direction.” Vancouver didn’t mention what kind of whales these were but given the time of year it’s likely that they were humpbacks.
Newcomers immediately looked to make a profit from the whales as they did with any abundant resource. In 1867, Governor James Douglas selected a deep cove on Cortes Island as a whaling station to render the whales caught in the Gulf of Georgia. It is now the community of Whaletown. From 1869 to 1870 the Dawson Whaling Company owned by James Dawson operated a ‘tryworks’ (rendering station) there. In 1871 they relocated to Hornby Island (Whaling Station Bay). In those days whaling continued on a year-round basis – there was no closed season. As a result, only four years after the company was established, the huge creatures had virtually been wiped out of the Gulf.
On the East Coast of Vancouver Island, First Nations did not normally hunt whales. Whales were culturally important, and the only known petroglyph on Cortes Island is a nine-foot-long carving of a whale pecked on a huge granite boulder.
When Franz Boas was in our region recording First Nations stories in 1916, the Comox-speaking people he interviewed told a legend of a whale who swallowed a mink. The mink lit a fire in the whale’s stomach and was drying the herring that the whale ate. It became too hot inside the whale, so he killed the whale by cutting his throat. The whale drifted ashore close to a village, where the villagers cut him up. When they opened the whale’s stomach, out sprang the mink, who had now lost all of his hair. The whale became the landmark now known as “Big Rock” in Willow Point.
It was different on the west coast of the Island. Whales and whaling were an important part of Nuu-Chah-Nulth culture for thousands of years, with evidence of the use of whale bones and beached whales by approximately 4,000 years BP (before present) and evidence of active whale hunting 2,500 BP. Excavations in Nuu-Chah-Nulth territories almost always contain whale bones. The preferred species were humpback and gray, although right, fin and killer whales were also taken. Nuu-Chah-Nulth art, stories and songs often depict whales and whaling, confirming their importance to these people. The fact that whaling occurred on the West Coast of Vancouver Island for thousands of years indicates animals were taken in smaller, more sustainable, numbers. To this day whales and whaling are still an important theme in Nuu-Chah-Nulth art and culture.
The Museum at Campbell River’s historic boat tours will be exploring the region’s whaling history as part of their tours to Cortes Island June 3, July 8, and August 5. Contact the Museum at 250-287-3103 for more information or go to www.crmuseum.ca/historic-boat-tours.