Where Mountains Meet The Sea: A Coastal History

Posted by Daniel on Sep 19, 2010 - 3 comments

Part Seven


The pioneers of the twentieth-century whaling industry in BC were G.W. Sprott Balcolm and his brother Reuben, transplanted Nova Scotians who operated a sealing company out of Victoria. In 1903 the Balcolms formed the Pacific Whaling Company. (Earlier attempts at commercial whaling at various locations around Georgia Strait were unsuccessful.) After much bureaucratic delay they obtained a license from the federal government and in 1905 built their first shore station at Sechart in Barkley Sound on the west coast of Vancouver Island.


The company obtained its first catcher boat, the Orion, in Denmark and brought it around Cape Horn to the west coast with a Norwegian crew. Vessels like the Orion were valued for their speed and maneuvrability but not for their comfort. Low in the stern, they were awash with water in heavy seas and their rounded bottoms, which made them easy to turn, caused them to roll and pitch like an angry bull. The boats swept up to a high bow where the gunner stood behind the cannon looking down on his target. Like the salmon canneries, whaling stations were staffed by Japanese and Chinese crews but the boats had crews mainly from Norway and Newfoundland. The gunners were the aristocracy of the industry; the success of the enterprise depended on their skill.


The Pacific Whaling Company went through several corporate restructurings as it expanded to include a station at Kyuquot, another, briefly, at Nanaimo, then two more in the Queen Charlotte Islands at Naden Harbour and Rose Harbour. In 1911, Balcom and his associates added five new vessels to their catcher fleet. Constructed in Norway, each boat was twenty-nine metres long with a 330-horsepower steam engine capable of producing a top speed of twelve knots. Together they were known as the “colour” or “rainbow” fleet. When two company executives could not agree whether to name the boats after rivers in Germany or Scotland they compromised by naming each one a different colour. For the next thirty-five years they formed the backbone of the whaling fleet until they were sold into retirement at auction in 1947.


Several of the captains and gunners on the catcher boats entered the seafaring lore of the coast. There was Willis Balcolm, son of Reuben, who once, off Kyuquot, harpooned three whales with one shot. Or Canute Halvorsen, who had a wounded sperm whale double back and ram his catcher, the Brown, so hard that it had to be run ashore to keep from sinking. Or Kris Kristensen, who died when his cannon snapped off and drove him backwards against the deck. But the most famous of all was William Heater. Heater, who was born in Newfoundland in 1865, came out to the west coast to work on a sealing schooner, then joined Sprott Balcolm’s whaling company as master of the catcher boat William Grant in 1910. He captained the Grant for more than three decades, during which time he earned a reputation for ill-temper towards both whales and crew. But he was also a legendary seaman. “It was uncanny the way he could bring us right back to shore in a heavy fog,” recalled one former shipmate, “and he’d name the rock or spot we should see first in making our landfall, and you know, he was right every time. It was like he had built-in radar.” Heater whaled until he was eighty-one years old, hobbling across the decks with a cane. When he was in his seventies he was so crippled by arthritis that his crew had to manhandle him up the ladder to his position on the gundeck. Finally his aim had become so bad that the crew refused to go to sea unless he handed over the gun to a mate.


By their nature, shore stations were short-lived. The whalers tended to slaughter whatever whales were in the area, then go out of business. “The war on the whale has been truly turned into a massacre in the interests of commerce,” observed a prescient writer in the British Columbia Magazine in 1911. The Sechart facility closed in 1918 while Kyuquot became a fish processing plant in the mid-1920s. The two Queen Charlotte stations lasted the longest, until the middle of World War Two, before they too shut down. Skilled workers were hard to find during the war, especially after the Canadian government interned the province’s Japanese-Canadians, many of whom worked at the stations. It looked as if whaling on the coast was finished.


But in 1947 a consortium that included BC Packers created a new company, the Western Whaling Corporation. Using a converted seaplane base at Coal Harbour as their headquarters, a fleet of three chase boats, one of which was the Nahmint, patrolled up to 250 kilometres offshore and along the coast between the Brooks Peninsula and Cape Scott and even as far north as Cape St James at the southern tip of the Charlottes. By this time, technology allowed every bit of the whale to be used. On one occasion lumber tycoon H.R. MacMillan, also president of BC Packers, downed a glass of waste water in a staged media event to prove that the only effluent the station left behind was harmless. In the early 1960s BC Packers collaborated with a large Japanese whaling concern to produce whale meat for the Japanese market. For a few years this revitalized the Coal Harbour operation. But at the end of the 1967 season the station closed for good, bringing an end to commercial whaling on the coast.