strawberry isle research society

Strawberry Isle Research Scuttlebutt

by Rod Palm, Tofino


Now here’s something interesting. The attached image was found by historian David W. Griffiths while researching the wreck of the Tonquin.


image of humpback whale (iihto) harpooned in traditional first nations fashion at echachis in 1909

The year is 1909. Father Moser from the Christie Indian Residential School (Kakawis) is at Echachis at low tide looking towards Mount Colnet. With his handy-dandy tripod mounted, 50mm fixed lens, glass plate negative camera, he is making an image of what may be the last Humpback whale (iihtoop) taken in the traditional first nations fashion. Ya-sshin Jack (Alice Jack’s grandfather) killed this whale and they towed it to Echachis in 1909.

The harpoon used would not have been constructed in the old manner of bone, mussel shell, spruce root and yew wood. At this time they were using steel harpoons with a pivoting barb that toggled inside the whale. This devise had a line fixed to it and a wooden socketed shaft that released once the strike had been made. Sealskin bladders were likely still used as floatation drag for tiring the animal. The killing stroke would have been made with a meter long sharpened steel shaft without barbs. Though there are no obvious canoes (chupits) in the image, the skid marks where they were dragged up above the high tide are clearly visible on the beach. The stern of one chupits can be seen still in the water behind the whales head.

The large pectoral wings of the whale have been lashed tightly to the animal’s side to cut down on drag and the unnaturally closed mouth tells us that it was secured shut with the tow line being fixed through the blubber in the animal’s snout. The European fashion was to cut the flukes off and tow the animal by the tail. I have tried towing a dead whale using both methods. Towing head first works fine at slow speeds as would be the case using several chupits. When you put the pedal to the metal with a power boat, the animal dives under water creating tremendous drag. Even towing from the tail, an 8 meter Killer Whale (Kawkawin) took us 11 hours from 10 miles off Hot Springs to Strawberry Isle (see Scuttle Butt Oct. ‘97).

The man holding a line in the left foreground appears to be waiting for a man at the whale’s tail to fasten a line. I believe that the intent here is to pull the animal higher up the beach on the next high tide. This makes sense as the whales head sits much lower in the water so the rest of the body can get further up the beach. The line is too thin to have been used as a tow line.

A man standing between the whale’s tail and the people sitting on the beach appears to me hold a long curved flencing knife in anticipation of the butchering job in front of him.

In the old days, the tribe would get together and haule on a stout lines fastened to the opposite side of the whales body thus rolling the carcass onto its stomach. This made for easier access to all of the meat and blubber. There is no evidence of this preparation being made in the photo.

Echachis was the place to bring a whale as it has a pea gravel beach, much nicer than a sand beach as beach picnic people will attest.

Rod Palm is a marine researcher and historian. For more information visit his website at

Tofino Time Magazine October 2004

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