Blows" Cristobal Harbor --
Panama Canal Review -- August 3, 1962
One early morning in November 1921, the master of the steamship Cedar Branch radioed Panama Canal authorities that his ship had passed an obstruction to navigation 28 miles north and 5 miles true east from the Cristobal breakwater.
The obstruction, the shipmaster said appeared to be about 120 feet long and 3 feet above water. There was not enough light to determine the nature of the obstacle, but he guessed it was a derelict with the poop deck raised.
The news was duly reported by Gov. Jay J. Morrow in a warning notice to mariners.
Several hours after the first report was received, two terrified San Blas Island coconut farmers found themselves swimming for dear life when their small "cayuco" loaded to the brim with coconuts, was overturned at the entrance of Cristobal breakwater by the backwash of a huge object which looked suspiciously like a whale.
The Indians climbed the breakwater to safety and, although the whale did not try to molest them, it seemed to be moving toward them, they said, when they tried to retrieve their boat. They stayed on the breakwater until he was well out of sight -- inside the breakwater.
Thus, the obstacle to navigation on othe high seas had become an obstacle to navigation inside the Cristobal harbor. Probably no one was more surprised than the master of the Eastern Prince, who spotted the big mammal from the bridge of his ship on the evening of November 17. The Eastern Prince was coming down the Canal channel to Cristobal, after making the northbound transit, when the whale was sighted.
For a time, it was a toss-up as to which would hit the channel bank, the whale or the ship. Luckily the whale swerved just as collision was imminent and the Eastern Prince continued down the channel under the command of a master who probably never again touched anything stronger than tea.
Whales, as this one soon learned, are not built for shallow water, and shortly after its near-collision with the Eastern Prince, it grounded in the water to the east of the Canal prism, about 1/4 mile south of the former Cristobal Coaling Plant. There the big mammal remained, with the top of its head and most of its back showing above water.
It wasn't long before the news that a whale had arrived in Cristobal harbor became generally known on both sides of the Isthmus. Spectators arrived in droves and while every available launch was being pressed into service, the situation received the official attention of the late Chief Admeasurer F. E. Williams, who measured the vistor at 104.97 by 15.63 by 8.67 feet and weighed 87.66 gross tons.
With a whale nearly as big as Moby Dick interfering with shipping operations in Cristobal, the Canal organization made plans for its immediate removal. The idea was furthered by Capt. Stirling Miller and Capt. John Wieshofer, two Panama Canal pilots, who volunteered to undertake salvage operations if they were permitted to take the whale to the Mount Hope abattoir for rendering.
The idea sounded perfectly reasonable to Port Captain F. V. McNair, who authorized an attempt to land the whale from the harbor flats by means of a 75-ton floating crane and two locomotives.
Captain McNair stipulated, however, that if the whale was not in cold storage by noon on November 20, "the Captain of the Port would tow the whale to sea with the understanding that the cost of returning said whale to the water would be borne by Captain Wieshofer and Captain Miller."
The whale was killed by machinegun fire, and towed by a tug to Pier 6 at Cristobal where three Panama Railroad flat cars waited to take it to Mount Hope.
Thousands of people from all over the Isthmus jammed Pier 6 to witness the salvage operations. At one point, excitement rose so high that a smartly dressed lady lost her footing and tumbled -- hat and all -- into the water. She subsequently was rescued by two members of the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps stationed at Fort DeLesseps and taken ashore aboard a launch.
Attempts to lift the whale from the water to the three flat cars were continued without success all day and finally abandoned shortly before the deadline set by Captain McNair. With failure of the operation went hopes of salvage and profit on sperm oil and whalebone by Captains Miller and Weishofer.
Removal of the whale from Cristobal harbor was simple and easy, compared to the complexity of the salvage operations which had preceded it. The Panama Canal tug Portobelo nosed into Pier 6, a stout tow line was made fast to the big mammal's tail, and out through the breakwater went the first whale ever kown to menace navigation at the Panama Canal.
Hoping this would be the last that local marine authorities would have to do with the whale situation, Captain McNair ordered Capt. A. B. Forstrom, master of the tug, to take the carcass well beyond the 12-mile limit. In the meantime, two hydroplanes from the naval base at Coco Solo were ordered out to bomb and sink the remains.
It was harder to dispose of a whale than originally thought, however. Several days later, Governor Morrow ordered the tug Portobelo to remove the carcass from the beach off Maria Chiquta, 10 miles north of Cristobal. It was done under supervision of Dr. Jesse Byrd, Panama Canal Health Officer, who provided the crew with gas masks against the stench.
The whole anti-whale operation was estimated to have cost $1,000, which was high finance in 1921. Officials expressed the hope that despite the tourist publicity, no other whale would ever visit Cristobal again.
And none has.
Last Update: October 7, 1998