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The Story of the Mendocino Whale War

Words and photos by Nicholas Wilson

The little Pacific Coast town of Mendocino, California, has long been a hotbed of activism for various causes. Thirty years ago, in 1976, the cause was saving the remaining great whales from slaughter by Russian and Japanese commercial whaling fleets. 

In June, 1975, a Greenpeace Foundation patrol boat located a Russian whaling fleet killing sperm whales off Cape Mendocino. The Greenpeacers used the then novel tactic of launching a high-speed Zodiac inflatable and maneuvering themselves between the Russian harpooners and the whales. They captured dramatic film footage of a cannon-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 and whale sculpture at MacCallum House 
Inn in Mendocino in 1976. The carving is still there.

Byrd Baker, a local wood sculptor, was probably the one who came up with the name "Mendocino Whale War," and it was war in contrast to the peace in Greenpeace. (At the time, Greenpeace was a small nonprofit foundation based in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, before it grew into the big international environmental organization that is now known the world over.) Byrd and friends began campaigning to save the whales, and many other locals joined the effort. California Gray Whales swim past Mendocino twice a year on their migration between the Bering Sea where they feed and Baja California lagoons where they breed and give birth. Whale watching from the rocky headlands of Mendocino has long been a popular pastime, and people are very fond of the whales. 

Byrd and other locals formed the Mendocino Whale War Association in December 1975, with Byrd as one of the founding trustees. He was a charismatic fellow who could spin a good yarn, and he looked the part of an old-time sea captain. With the help of media-savvy locals like John Bear, an advertising man who was the first president of the MWW Association, and magazine writer Jules Siegel, 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 a small California coastal town declaring war on Japan and the Soviet Union. This was at the height of the Cold War! 

The story led with the tale of "Mendocino Rose" broadcasting radio messages in Russian urging the whalers to quit killing whales and defect to the U.S.  It was based on Tokyo Rose, who broadcast Japanese propaganda to U.S. troops in World War II. Whether there really were any Mendocino Rose broadcasts remains in dispute, but it made a good story that caught the media's and the public's attention. The Associated Press picked up the story, and then many other newspapers, including the New York Times, published their own versions, virtually all of them leading with "Mendocino Rose." 

There was also a call to boycott Russian and Japanese goods until they stopped killing whales. This tactic was adopted directly from the Fund For Animals, which already was producing boycott bumper stickers and flyers. The fact that there were virtually no Russian products sold in the U.S. at the time didn't matter. It was the message of the boycott that counted.

The MWW Association organized the 1st Annual Whale Festival in Mendocino in March 1976. The goal was to make the public aware that whales were still being hunted and turned into dog food, lipstick and lubricant for nuclear missiles. 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.

Mendocino Whale Festival organizers outside Crown Hall with J.D. Mayhew's poster
Organizers of the first Whale Festival in March 1976: Ellen Findlay, Bill Wilson, 
Sue Golden, Brendan, Heidi and Barry Cusick, Sally and Lee Welty.

There was a search for the right boat to go after the whalers. One intriguing possibility was the Sioux City, a former whaling ship with a harpoon cannon still mounted on its bow, docked in Richmond, next to the ruins of the last whale processing plant in California. But the Sioux City needed too much work to make it seaworthy, so the search continued. Byrd traveled to Vancouver, and with help from Greenpeace he was able to charter the same boat Greenpeace had used in 1975. The Phyllis Cormack was a 66 foot wooden fishing boat built in 1941, owned and captained by John Cormack and named for his wife. Capt. Cormack, a Scots-Canadian, was a seasoned Gulf of Alaska fishing skipper who was eager to take on the Russian whalers again. Greenpeace had acquired a former Canadian Navy mine-sweeper named the James Bay, and they would be using the bigger, faster ship in 1976.

So, in late June, the Phyllis Cormack anchored briefly in Mendocino Bay to take on some gear before heading down the coast to San Francisco, where the Mendocino Whale War's save-the-whales patrol voyage would be launched. After loading up two Zodiac inflatables, fuel and provisions for the voyage, the Mendocino Whale War headed out under the Golden Gate Bridge with four Mendocino people aboard: Byrd Baker, J.D. Mayhew, John Griffith and Nicholas Wilson, the official photographer, who thirty years later is the only one of the four left to tell the tale.


Greenpeace and Mendocino Whale War rendezvous at sea July 1, 1976.

After a few days at sea, on July 1 the Whale War boat had a planned rendezvous with Greenpeace's James Bay about 100 miles off Cape Mendocino, near where they had found the Russian whalers the year before. There was much excitement as both ships launched Zodiacs bearing their leaders for a secret strategy meeting. They agreed that the MWW would stay in the vicinity patrolling for whalers while the James Bay went on to San Francisco to do media work and fundraising for their own voyage. We were to return to San Francisco July 5 for a big media welcome to be arranged by Greenpeace.

We didn't spot any whalers off the coast, but we did find a large fleet of big 300 ft. Soviet trawlers scraping the ocean bottom with huge nets just outside the 12-mile limit that was then in place. Up to ten of these Russian "draggers" could be seen at one time, each dragging a net as wide as a football field is long. We came in close and shot photos and film of the big ships hauling in nets loaded with tons of fish. The Russians processed and froze the fish aboard the large ships, and later transferred it to a big mother ship that carried it back to the Soviet Union's Pacific port of Vladivostok. Late on the night of July 3, we found and photographed a Russian mother ship servicing two of the draggers.

We saw and photographed a 150 ft. Korean crabber out of Pusan that had just arrived and began putting out a couple hundred crab pots within sight of the California Coast, but just outside the 12-mile limit. The U.S. Coast Guard was on scene observing, but there was no law being broken. There was agitation for extending the 12-mile limit much further out so as to prohibit, or at least regulate, the taking of resources off the coast. 

We also saw one little U.S. fishing boat, the Eagle out of Bodega Bay, about 35 ft. long.

The photos of the Russian and Korean fishing boats were bought and used by the San Francisco papers, UPI wire service, and Oceans magazine, helping add to political pressure that brought about the present 200 mile limit.

The Mendocino Whale War voyage ended with a brief courtesy call to Mendocino the morning of the 4th of July, 1976, the Bicentennial Day, and then a return to San Francisco the next morning. The big media welcome promised by Greenpeace ended up being me and my camera in a Zodiac piloted by Paul Watson. I had gone ashore in Mendocino, stayed up all night developing film and making prints to distribute to the media, and then driven to San Francisco. There I found the Greenpeacers mostly still asleep aboard the James Bay. But Paul Watson, who later split from Greenpeace and formed his own Sea Shepherd organization, was ready for action. He fired up a Zodiac and ran me out at high speed to meet and photograph the Phyllis Cormack just as it cleared the Golden Gate Bridge.


The Mendocino Whale War boat comes in under the Golden Gate Bridge July 5, 1976.

After a few more days dealing photos to media outlets, that was the end of the Mendocino Whale War for me. Byrd located an old school bus and converted it into a Mendocino Whale War tour bus. He campaigned around the country, talking at schools and civic organization meetings for some time after that, spreading his message to "save God's whales."

With the help of a benefit concert by the Jerry Garcia Band, Greenpeace was able to fuel and provision the James Bay in San Francisco, and they went on to find and engage the Russian whalers in the central Pacific that summer. It came out later that Greenpeace had received secret U.S. government intelligence about where to find the whalers. Because the ocean is a huge place, it's not surprising that the Mendocino Whale Warriors didn't find the whalers without that kind of help.

The next year, 1977, Greenpeace recruited me to go to sea with them as photographer aboard their anti-whaling ship Ohana Kai out of Honolulu. But that's another story.

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. Japan still kills hundreds of whales annually under the pretext of "scientific research," then sells their meat in Japan. Both Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd harassed the Japanese whalers in Antarctic waters this past January, 2006.

In the summer of 2005, Ellen Findlay Herdegen, a kindergarten teacher then and now, 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. They are now on public exhibit.

View the Mendocino Whale War Photo Gallery

Prints of some of the photos are available by special order. Send email to mail (at) nwilsonphoto.com for prices and availability. Please identify the photo by the file number displayed below the photo on its page in the gallery.


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Last updated 9/16/06