Tracking Devil-Fishes and Friendly Whales

In this blog, Anna Guasco introduces her newly published article in Environment and History, (Online-first March 2023) From Devil-Fish to Friendly Whale? Encountering Gray Whales on The California Coast

This research started, as many whale stories do, with a ‘thar she blows!’ This work was born of salt water and sea spray, of stories told while floating above the depths of the Santa Barbara Channel. 

The Santa Barbara Channel refers to the mainland central-southern coast of California between Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, including the Northern Channel Islands and the stretch of water between the coast and these islands. This region is unceded Chumash land. It is part of what oceanographers call the ‘Southern California Bight’, a curve in the coastline that stretches hundreds of miles from Point Conception north of Santa Barbara, California (USA) to Punta Colonet, Baja California (Mexico). Within the Southern California Bight, the warm waters of the southern Pacific and the cold waters of the northern Pacific meet, and via a process of upwelling, create an immensely productive and diverse marine ecosystem. Among the many migrating oceanic creatures in this region is the gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus). 

Drone photography of a gray whale and her calf swimming north through Channel Islands and Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuaries. Public Domain/NOAA.

I came to study gray whales not by selecting an abstract, distanced case study, but by living and working in the Santa Barbara Channel. While working in my hometown as a park ranger at Channel Islands National Park, I learned about the behavioural ecology and seasonal patterns of the whales that swam through local waters. I talked to visitors about splashy summer humpbacks, quiet near-coastal winter grays, and boat-chasing year-round common dolphins.  

A gray whale swimming north near the surf line near Port Hueneme, California. Pacific Coast Highway and the Santa Monica Mountains (noticeably pre-Woolsey Fire) are in the background. Public domain

One winter day, during my time at the Park, I was on a boat in the Channel when I heard the story of gray whales’ famed transition from ‘devil-fish’ to ‘friendly whale’. As an undergraduate American Studies student at the time, I had to know more. What started as an undergraduate senior thesis analysing travel writing about touching gray whales in Baja California Sur evolved into years of deeper research interest, eventually comprising part of my doctoral dissertation on stories, histories, and justice issues surrounding gray whale migration and conservation along the North American Pacific Coast. 

* * *

As the story goes, gray whales became infamous in the heyday of Yankee whaling in the Pacific for their tendency to vigorously defend themselves and their calves against commercial whalers who entered their calving lagoons in Baja California Sur, Mexico. Their fierceness and tenacity earned them the nickname of ‘devil-fish’ among these whalers. Over time, successive rounds of commercial whaling in the lagoons as well as along the coasts brought gray whales nearly to the point of extinction. After being protected and recovering, gray whales emerged in the late twentieth century not as recovered devil-fishes, but as benevolent friendly whales. Instead of attacking boats, gray whales began allowing people to touch them. The first officially documented friendly whale encounter was with Pachico Mayoral, who launched a local whale-watching business in Laguna San Ignacio and inspired other enterprises that continue to this day. The devil-fish became the friendly whale.

Initially, my work focused on analysing interpretations of this transition, particularly around the notion that gray whales had ‘forgiven’ humans for sinful, inherited histories of commercial whaling. As I began to explore the story from a more historical perspective, I aimed to establish a clearer chronology for when exactly the devil-fish became the friendly whale. I anticipated the likelihood of finding two timelines: one for when whales began significantly changing their behaviour and another for when particular human observers began recognising this change in behaviour and describing it as ‘friendly’. 

As described in an article recently published in Environment and History, I found instead that the transition from devilfish to friendly whale didn’t really happen. Now, to be clear, gray whales were known as devil-fish in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and they did become known as the friendly whale starting in the 1970s. But they also were known as friendly among English-speaking settlers as early as the 1890s and they continued displaying ‘devilish’ behaviours well into the mid-twentieth century’ (n. 1). Not only were gray whales not exclusively seen as ‘devilish’ in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but a whole cadre of other species were better known by that name. Stories of octopuses, squid, cuttlefish, manta rays, and many other monstrously mysterious creatures of the ocean’s depths all graced pages of newspapers as ‘devil-fishes’. 


An illustration of a beached giant squid that appeared with the headline ‘The great devil-fish’ in Harper’s Weekly (3 November 1877). Public Domain

Instead of the linear transition from devil-fish to friendly whale, gray whales have long been part of complicated, varied, and even contradictory relationships with people. In the 1890s, burgeoning nostalgia for the fading glory days of Yankee whaling and the imagined ‘closing of frontiers’ promoted a surge of interest in looking back at past gray whales. The devil-fish emerged as a venerable foe, iconic of a wilderness imagined to be fading and tamed. As gray whales were drawn closer to the brink of extinction in the early twentieth century, mixed perceptions of gray whales as devilish villains attacking ships and sympathetic victims of both modern times and ‘bloodthirsty’ killer whales continued. In the mid-twentieth century, after broadscale protections were put in place, gray whales still exhibited their classic devilish behaviours towards photographic and cardiological expeditions. (n.2)‘Devil-fish’ and ‘friendly whale’ were never stock characters for particular eras of the species’ history; instead, relationships between gray whales and humans are and have been complex, negotiated, and dynamic.

* * * 

As an environmental historian and geographer, I am interested in what the stories people tell about wildlife, ecologies, and conservation do – the effects they have, the memories they include, the visions and policies they influence. But I don’t just bring my academic expertise to analysing the stories of gray whales. I also bring my experiences of living and working in the migratory path of these whales, of listening to stories and memories in this constantly shifting region of upwelling and coastal biodiversity. Being part of this community helps me see how these gray whale stories matter, not just as academic areas of enquiry, but for local, regional, and transnational ecologies. 

Original Caption: ‘Gray whale look-see’. R.M. Gilmore, 1953. Public Domain/NOAA Central Library Historical Fisheries Collection

Green OA author self-archived version of the article available here

[1] Because the dominant sources of the ‘devil-fish to friendly whale’ narrative are English-language settler materials, my analysis of historic primary sources focuses on these; these are certainly not the only ways of knowing and encountering gray whales. 

[2] For more on gray whale cardiology, see: A. Guasco, ‘“Weather Bad and Whales Un-cooperative”: The Misadventures of Mid-Century Whale Cardiology Expeditions’, Nursing Clio (October 2022) For more on the history of gray whale protection, see: S. Dedina, Saving the Gray Whale: People, Politics, and Place in Baja California (Tucson: University of Arizona Press (2000); L. Fleischer, La Ballena Gris: Mexicana Por Nacimiento (Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2002); J.L. Reid, The Sea Is My Country: The Maritime World of the Makahs (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015)

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