Mendocino Whale War

Posted on

California Gray Whale

The inspiration started in June, 1975, when a Greenpeace Foundation patrol boat located a Russian whaling fleet killing sperm whales off Cape Mendocino. They captured dramatic film footage of a canon-fired explosive harpoon flying over their heads and striking a whale. When the film was broadcast on national TV news, some Mendocino locals were inspired to get involved in stopping the whale slaughter off our shores.

Byrd Baker, a local wood sculptur, was probably the one who came up with the name “Mendocino Whale War”. Byrd and friends began campaigning to save whales, and many other locals joined in on the effort. The California Gray Whales swim past Mendocino twice a year on their migration between the Bering Sea and Lagoons of Baja California. Whale watching from the coastal headlands of Mendocino has long been a popular pastime.

Byrd with other locals formed the Mendocino Whale War Association in December 1975, with Byrd as one of the founding trustees. Byrd looked the part of an old-time sea captain with a lot of charm. With the help of media-savvy locals like John Baer, an advertising man who was the first president of the Mendocino Whale War Association, and magazine writer Jules Siegel, and the media soon picked up the story. Major coverage began early in 1976 with a big feature in the Detroit Free Press which hyped the idea of Mendocino, a small coastal town in California declaring war on Japan and the Soviet Union. This was especially impotant since this was the height of the Cold War.

The Mendocino Whale War Association organized the 1st Whale Festival in Mendocino in March 1976. The goal was to make the public aware that the whales were still being hunted. The festival was also a fundraiser for an ocean voyage to challenge the whalers off the Mendocino Coast, as Greenpeace had done the previous summer.

Byrd traveled to Vancouver, and with the help from Greenpeace he was able to charter the same boat Greenpeace used in 1975, the Phyllis Cormack. Greenpeace had acquired a former Canadian Navy mine-sweeper named the James Bay, and they would be using the bigger, faster ship in 1976.

In late June, the Phyllis Cormack went heading down the coast to San Francisco, where the Mendocino Whale War’s save the whales patrol voyage would be launched. The four Mendocino people aboard the Phyllis Cormack was Byrd Baker, J.D. Mayhew, John Griffith and Nicholas Wilson the official photographer.

After a few days at sea, on July 1, the Mendocino Whale War boat and the Greenpeaces’s James Bay boat were about 100 miles off Cape Mendocino, near where they had found the Russian whalers the year before.

They didn’t spot any whalers off the coast, but they did find a large fleet of big 300 foot Soviet trawlers scraping the ocean bottom with huge nets. They also saw and photographed a 150 foot Korean crabber just outside the 12 mile limit.

The photos taken of the Russian and Korean fishing boats were bought and used by the San Francisco papers, U.P.I. Wire Service, and Oceans Magazine, helping add to political pressure that brought about the 200 mile limit.

The Mendocino Whale War voyage ended with a brief courtesy call to Mendocino the morning of the July 4, 1976, the Bicentennial Day, and then returned to San Francisco the next morning.

After a few days dealing photos to media outlets, another chapter ended with the Mendocino Whale War. Byrd located an old school bus and converted it into a Mendocino Whale War tour bus. Byrd campaigned around the country, talking at schools and civic organization meetings for some time after that, spreading his message to “Save God’s Whales”.

 In 1977 “The Boy Who Talks to Whales” starring Byrd Baker, Victor Jory, Andy Gordon, and “Gigi” the whale, brought more attention to the whales.

In 1986 the International Whaling Commission finally yielded to growing public pressure and diminishing numbers of whales and passed a moratorium on commercial whaling that continues today.

In the summer of 2005, Ellen Findley Herdegen, a kindergarten teacher, who was Secretary of the Mendocino Whale War Association turned over the group’s archives to the Kelley House historical museum in Mendocino. Ellen provided five ring binders of carefully organized media clippings, photos, flyers, meeting minutes and other documents.

Story by Nelson Symes