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WHALE OF A SALTY TALE SWIMS THROUGH PAGES OF OLD PAPER

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 3 1995 12:00 a.m. MDT

A family of whales - mama and papa and a couple of hundred little ones - in the Great Salt Lake? Was it a rumor based on fact, or is the account of 60-foot leviathans in the lake just a whale of a tale?

In the 1994 Deseret News story listing the various life, real and imagined - mostly imagined - that has inhabited the Great Salt Lake, brief mention is made of whales.A search of both the Utah State Historical Society files and the LDS Church journal history leads to a single June 24, 1890, article in the Utah Enquirer, a now-defunct Provo newspaper, as the source of the whale tale.

"Intelligent newspaper readershave not forgotten the inauguration fifteen years ago by Mr. James Wickham, a scientific English gentleman, of the whale industry in the Great Salt Lake," the newspaper opened its account. But a scan of the Deseret News files for 1875 - 15 years earlier - does not produce any further evidence, at least for that year, that whales had been planted in the lake. If they were, the News ignored the matter.

"The subject has passed out of the public mind, but is has by no means been forgotten by naturalists or capitalists interested in the whale fishery," the Enquirer said.

Then in great detail, the Provo newspaper went on to describe whales and how a pod of the great mammals came to be in Great Salt Lake.

Whales have been known to grow to 100 feet in length and live to the age of 400 years, the article said. And that might offer the first clue to the newspaper's accuracy - or lack of such. World Book Encyclopedia says the largest whales may, in fact, grow to 100 feet, but the average life span of the various whale species is only 15 to 60 years.

Undaunted, the newspaper continued with a detailed account of how hunters spent two years trapping two young "southern or Australian" whales off the coast of that continent, since it was assumed this particular species would fare best in the Great Salt Lake.

Initially, the challenge of obtaining "whale eggs" from the deep seas was "at once apparent," the story said, neglecting the fact that whales are mammals and give birth to live young.

Over the two years, however, Mr. Wickham's search party was able to capture two "beasts, each about thirty-five feet long," the newspaper informed its readers. The whales were shipped to San Francisco in 1873 (two years earlier than the 15 mentioned in the first paragraph of the story) in tanks built expressly for them. After they arrived in the California port, the article fails to explain how the mammals were transported to Salt Lake City, beyond saying that "fifty tanks of sea water accomplished their overland shipment to insure plentyful supplies of the natural element." Railroad lines from east and west had met in Utah in 1869, so perhaps the newcomers to Great Salt Lake traveled by "whale rail" - if they came at all. How the transfer was made from train station to lake is another question mark.

Wickham himself came from England to superintend the "planting" of his whales, the Enquirer reported. The sea creatures were to be contained in a pen created by wire strung about a half mile across a "shallow strait" in the lake.

"After a few minutes' inactivity, they disported themselves in a lively manner, spouting water as in mid-ocean," the Enquirer said. "But as if taking in by instinct or intention, the cramped character of their new home, they suddenly made a beeline for deep water and shot through the wire fence as if it had been made of threads. In twenty minutes, they were out of sight and the chagrined Mr. Wick-ham stood gazing helplessly at the big salt water."

A disappointed Wickham returned to England, leaving an agent to "look after his floating property," the newspaper said.

Six months later, Wickham's representative came upon the whales fifty miles from the bay where they had broken away and from that time to the day the article was written, they had been observed at intervals by him and the watermen who ply the lake, spouting and playing, the account continued.

Within just a few days of the Enquirer report, Wickham reportedly had "cabled directions to make careful inspection and report the developments." In response, the agent followed the whales for five successive days and nights, the report said.

The agent was amazed to find that the "original pair are now sixty feet in length and followed about by a school of several hundred young," the newspaper said. Amazing, given the fact that the normal gestation period for whales is 10 months to a year!

"The scheme is a surprising and complete success and Mr. Wick-ham has earned the thanks of mankind," the report claimed.

But, it cautioned, "catching whales in Great Salt Lake and following that business on the dangerous Greenland coast are two quite different things. The enormous value of the new industry can be better appreciated by remembering that a single whale produces twenty tons of pure oil."

All that anticipated "whale oil" turned out to be a whole bunch of banana oil, it appears. If there actually were whales in the Great Salt Lake, just waiting to supply the oil lamps of pioneering Deseret Territory residents, no mention is made of them in any source the Deseret News could find.

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