Mendocino Whale Wars of 1976

I have lived here since 2000. In the years since then I have never heard of the Mendocino Whale War (MWW). That is until I came across the article below (which I have excerpted.)

“The town of  Mendocino, California) is located about 160 miles north of San Francisco. It has long been a hotbed of activism for various causes. 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, 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. 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 Baker with whale sculpture

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.  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.

There was a search for the right boat to go after the whalers. 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.

The Phyllis Cormack

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.

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.

Mendocino Whale War and Greenpeace vessels rendezvous 100 miles off Cape Mendocino

The Phyllis Cormack didn’t spot any whalers off the coast, but did find a large fleet of 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. The Phyllis Cormack came  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, the Phyllis Cormack found and photographed a Russian mother ship servicing two of the draggers.

The Phyllis Ccormack 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.

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.”

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