Encounters with whales

Posted: Friday, May 07, 2004

On the WaterfrontBy Elton Engstrom

Thar she blows," is the familiar call of the whale hunter in stories about the sea. But innocent encounters also happen.

John D'Wolf was the first American, in 1807, to cross the entire width of the Russian empire. He had sold his vessel, the Juno, to Nicolai Rezanov at New Archangel (Sitka) in 1805. After spending the winter with Alexander Baranov, he set out in a 40-foot vessel called the Rotislav, which the Russians had loaned him.

His object was to travel to St. Petersburg, the headquarters of the Russian American Company, to collect the bills of exchange owing on the sale of the Juno.

He sailed to Kodiak, then to Unalaska, from there to Petropavlovsk on Kamchatka Peninsula where he spent the winter of 1806-1807. In the spring, he sailed on to Okhotsk, where his land journey commenced.

While traveling between Petropavlovsk and Okhotsk, his boat struck a whale. The ship ran up on its back. It was as if it had hit a reef, bringing her to a standstill. The Rotislav was raised two or three feet out of water. The whale soon gave a spout, kicked its flukes and went down, leaving the boat undamaged, but crew and passengers shaken.

This incident was reported by D'Wolf's nephew, in one of the classics of American literature. His name was Herman Melville, and the story he wrote was "Moby Dick."

A similar encounter happened just last year to a Juneau resident, on the waters of Chatham Strait. Here, in his own words, Clifford Lobaugh tells of his experience:

"On Aug. 15, 2003, I was trolling around Point Retreat in my 19-foot, one-quarter-inch aluminum skiff. It was a misty, cloudy day. My son, Timber, was with me and a friend named Raleigh Davis from Walnut Creek, Calif. We had caught three coho salmon, and at 10 in the morning, we decided to pick up our gear and head down Chatham Strait in the direction of Funter Bay to fish around Cordwood Creek.

"What I saw next, right before the bow of my skiff, looked like a large piece of black cauliflower. That was my last memory, until I found myself floating in the waters of Chatham Strait.

"I had hit a humpback whale, and the collision rolled the skiff up and propelled me into the sea. I had on flotation pants and jacket, so for the few moments I was unconscious I stayed afloat.

"I didn't see the whale again, and after the engine was turned off on the skiff, I swam close and climbed aboard.

"My son was all right, but my friend suffered a broken back that fortunately only took a cast to correct and heal."

As a whaler might have said in a sea chantey long ago, it was either "a dead whale or a stove boat."

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