Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Whaling for NASA on the Tom and Al

In last month’s column, I wrote about a 1914 expedition to the high arctic whose people were rescued by the King and Winge, a historic fishing vessel known to many in Kodiak as a crab fishing boat, from the 1970s until it sank in the Bering Sea in 1994.
Not quite as famous, but still well known in Kodiak, and similar in looks to the King and Winge, was the Tom and Al., which had its own colorful life. Launched as the Ragnhild in 1900, the vessel was renamed after themselves by Thomas J. King and Albert L. Winge when they purchased it some time after 1910.  The two men also owned the King and Winge Shipbuilding Company in West Seattle which built the King and Winge in 1914, making the two vessels shirt tail relatives, if not exactly sister ships.
The Tom and Al in Kodiak, about 1980.
Photo: Kodiak Maritime Museum, Roger Page Collection
Of note regarding the shipyard is that Albert Winge, originally from Boston and arriving in Puget Sound around 1880, learned the art of shipbuilding from Donald McKay, who in the 1850s, designed clipper ships, some of which, including the Lightning and the Flying Cloud, remain the among the fastest sailing ships the world has ever seen.
The Tom and Al however, sailed, if not particularly fast, at least gracefully, as a halibut schooner off the Northwest coast and in Alaska for decades, manned by dory men who rowed away each morning in their small flat bottomed craft to set and retrieve their longline skates before returning the ship at the end of the day.
Around 1960 the Tom and Al was acquired by Tom and Eben Parker,  a pair of colorful and imaginative siblings from the Oregon coast. Looking for a way to make the boat pay for itself, they contracted to deliver a very special kind of sea creature to the Bio Products processing plant on the Columbia River in Astoria. To get the venture going, Bio Products purchased a 90 mm harpoon gun from a Norwegian outfit, and gave it to Frank and Eben to mount on the Tom and Al’s foredeck. They set to sea looking for sperm whales.
Alva Elliot, ex-Navy Chief Gunner's Mate, and
Richard Carruthers, Jr., Bio Products Sales Manager, with harpoon gun. 
Photo: Oregonian April 23, 1961

In their later years the brothers would regale young fishermen in Kodiak’s watering holes with whaling stories, not all of them suitable for a family newspaper. Their listeners, products of the 1970s anti-whaling enlightenment, were aghast at the killing of these sentient creatures, but as fishermen themselves, were also fascinated at the thought of hunting the Leviathan, the ultimate fishery.
The thing to remember from where we sit now is that in 1961, when the Parkers went after whales, it was perfectly legal and socially acceptable to do so in the United States. In fact, Frank Parker’s son, Frank Jr., recalls seeing school groups touring the rendering plant after the boat had delivered, gawking at the dead whales laid out on the dock.
According to Frank Parker Jr., Bio Products sold the whale meat to Oregon mink farmers to feed their fur bearing livestock, and the whale oil to NASA, which had just sent the first American into space. While the notion of NASA buying whale oil seems bizarre now, in the context of the times, and given the exotic nature of the oil, it made sense.
Workmen cutting into a whale at Bio Products, Hammond, Oregon
 Photo: Oregonian, July 13, 1962

Once rendered down, whale oil burns with a clear white light, an extremely valuable property before electricity, and which made the fortunes of several New England seafaring towns until cheaper kerosene became widely available after the Civil War. But whale oil also maintains its viscosity in an extremely wide range of temperatures and pressures, a characteristic which made it useful for all kinds of earthbound mechanical applications well into the 20th century. In 1961 that special viscosity also made it invaluable for machinery headed into near earth orbit, where things get very hot in direct sunlight and very cold in shadow, and where the near vacuum of space causes most petroleum and vegetable based lubricants to boil into vapor.
These days, NASA denies using whale oil in its spacecraft, and certainly using any part of a whale was illegal in the United States after the 1971 Marine Mammal Protection Act became law. However, equally suitable synthetic lubricants didn’t come into use until the mid-1960s, and like other high technology items of the post war years, including watches and transmissions, it seems probable that whale oil lubricated some of the hardware NASA sent up in those early space flight years. It is likely that the oil was used by subcontractors rather than NASA directly, and probably without much discussion, given the general lack of empathy for whales at the time. Still, a lively online debate endures on this topic, easily accessible to the curious Google searcher.
For the Parker brothers however, it was economics rather than regard for cetaceans which ended the Tom and Al’s whaling days. NASA, or their suppliers, began using synthetic lubricants and stopped buying whale oil, which made Bio Products drop its ex-vessel price for whales, which made whaling un-profitable on the Tom and Al. Frank Jr. says the Parkers were forced to give back the 90 mm harpoon gun and replace it with a 60 mm weapon. The smaller harpoon bounced off the whales however, which made the whole venture even more pointless.
Frank and Eben went on to other fisheries, including Alaskan pink shrimp, which was blessed with an insatiable consumer market and a huge biomass, at least until the shrimp disappeared in the early 1980s. The shrimp fishery, like the Kodiak king crab fishery, was, depending on your viewpoint, the victim of overfishing, an oceanic regime change, or too many cod fish.  The Tom and Al missed all of that discussion by a couple of years. It sank off the Barren Islands on February 2, 1980, hauling a load of Kodiak shrimp to Homer.
 Sources: Off Beat Oregon, August 8, 2011, Alaska Historical Society Blog, January 13, 2014, Oregonian, various dates, 1961 and 1962