Friday, September 11, 2015

Whaling off Fort Lauderdale ... a gruesome tale

By Jane Feehan

When most of us think about whale watching, Alaska and Cabo San Lucas in Baja California come to mind, not the waters off Fort Lauderdale and Southeast Florida.  

In 1935, The New York Times (Mar. 25) reported on a six-hour whale chase and its bloody outcome off Fort Lauderdale and Hollywood. Many today would consider it a gruesome tale.

Captain Frank Merritt, a fishing guide operating out of Port Everglades, spotted two whales a couple of miles off the coast one day at 9:30 a.m. In his tiny “cabin cruiser,” loaded with seven harpoons and 200 rounds of rifle bullets, Merritt set out to give chase and make a kill. His plan was to separate the two whales, which appeared to be a mother and her calf.

The fishing guide harpooned the eight-ton, 32-foot baby whale, which then dived into the blue and took Merritt’s 22-foot boat on a wild ride southward. The furious mother whale immediately attacked the vessel leaving several ribs of its bow slightly damaged.  Another fisherman, Captain Jack Weygant, came by to assess the smash up and his boat was also rammed.

The unfolding drama drew four more boats, including one from the U.S. Coast Guard. All performed maneuvers to chase off the 72-foot mother while her baby was being peppered with rifle shot and “stuck” with harpoons.  In all, three boats were rammed in the chase.

The hunt ended at 4 p.m. off Hollywood when the calf, bleeding profusely, died and the exhausted mother disappeared.  “It’s just a baby,” said Capt. Merritt, who described the chase as the most exciting and dangerous day of his long fishing career.
By the 1930s, more than 50 thousand whales were killed annually throughout the world. The whales in this story could have been grey whales or northern right (Balaenidae) whales, so-called as they
Southern right whale
 by MichaĆ«l CATANZARITI *
were the right kind to hunt: slow and large.  Because of their size, they don’t breach the water's surface often. Hunting of northern right whales was outlawed in 1937. Today they travel in shipping lanes, which may account for their near extinction.

Whales feed in cold waters and breed in warm waters during the spring. I asked legendary Fort Lauderdale angler and author Steve Kantner*, about his sighting of whales off South Florida.  He hasn’t seen them frequently but recalled one time that he did from a commercial airplane.

It was a few years back, but I still remember looking out the plane’s window as it started to bank. I’d say we were maybe five miles from shore and less than a mile from the surface.

I was scanning the water, like fisherman do, looking for weed lines—that sort of thing—when I first saw them. Frankly, I had trouble believing my eyes, although in those days my vision was perfect, yet here were two huge whales swimming in tandem. I made them out to be between 30 and 50 feet long. They kept tooling along and their flukes were visible. I watched the whales as we continued our turn and until our position changed. I’ve seen a whale shark before; this time was different.

Kantner also said whales of many species travel the globe; their presence near Florida during the 1930s or now would not be a rare occurrence. 

Commercial whaling is outlawed in many parts of the world with exceptions, one being for nine indigenous communities of Alaska that hunt with limits on the number they can kill.

Fort Lauderdale residents who don’t want to travel to Alaska or Cabo to see a whale may be as close to a sighting as a fishing boat ride off our coast. Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. Jane Feehan.

The New York Times, Mar. 25, 1935

* Steve Kantner's most recent book ...

Tags: Steve Kantner, whales off Florida, Florida whales 

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