Part of a continuing weekly series on Alaska history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage or Alaska history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.
“Retribution, swift vengeance, eternal malice were in his whole aspect, and spite of all that mortal man could do, the solid white buttress of his forehead smote the ship’s starboard bow, till men and timbers reeled. Some fell flat upon their faces. Like dislodged trucks, the heads of the harpooneers aloft shook on their bull-like necks. Through the breach, they heard the waters pour, as mountain torrents down a flume.” Thus did the whale smite and sink the Pequod in Herman Melville’s 1851 novel “Moby Dick.”
Like many aspects of the novel, the whale attack on the Pequod was based on real-life events, particularly the 1820 sinking of the whaler Essex in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of South America. Throughout the heyday of commercial whaling, whales sank several other ships, colorful incidents that represented a brief reversal of fortune. More forgotten than not, at least one such event happened in Alaska waters. This is the tale of how the tail of a blue whale sank the Lizzie Sorenson in 1910.
The SS Lizzie S. Sorenson, to use her full name, was an 84-foot-long wooden schooner built in 1898 at Ballard, Washington. As a ship that worked the Pacific Northwest coastline, the 1910 incident was far from its first brush with death. In the spring of 1900, the Sorenson, not yet employed as a whaler, left Seattle and headed north for fishing. On March 12, wind and tides swept the ship onto rocks in the Chatham Strait, off Killisnoo Island. No one died, but the captain considered her a lost cause and abandoned ship. The crew pulled off what furnishings they could when they moved to the shore, where they were, in turn, eventually recovered.
The assumption by captain and company was that the ship would soon be ripped apart upon the reef. The owners had insured the schooner and cargo for a combined $4,000, less than the cost of a complete wreck but more succor than some companies could seek in similar situations. A few weeks later, though, another vessel passed by and happily reported that the Sorenson was still intact, “apparently so little damaged as to justify a hope not heretofore entertained, that she may yet be saved.” The wreck was eventually floated off the rocks, towed back to port, sold, and refitted.
By 1910, the Sorenson belonged to the Tyee Whaling Co., which was headquartered in San Francisco and operated a whaling station at Murder Cove on Admiralty Island. A necessary side note, as a name like “Murder Cove” deserves an explanation. After a Jan. 1, 1869, altercation between an American guard at Fort Sitka and three Tlingit clan leaders, soldiers there opened fire on a canoe that had permission to leave Sitka and was flying a white flag per the instruction of the local Army commander. Two unarmed Kéex’ Kwáan Tlingit men were killed. Per Tlingit law, the killers could compensate the clan or expect an equivalent response. After the Army refused to offer compensation, members of that clan killed two trappers at what is now called Murder Cove.
The American response, ordered by Alaska Gov. Jefferson Davis, included the destruction of two abandoned forts and three villages, including one known today as Kake. This conflict is known to history as the Kake War. As historian Zachary R. Jones wrote, “The title given to these events is a misnomer, as this conflict was not a war but rather a one-sided military attack on Tlingit civilian communities that mounted no resistance to the Army’s aggressive actions.”
On May 10, 1910, the Sorenson was just a few hours from Murder Cove, several miles off Cape Addington, in Iphigenia Bay. Cruising for targets, they spotted a 75-foot blue whale, nearly as long as the ship itself. Contemporary reports more commonly called it a “sulphur bottom whale,” an archaic name for blue whales derived from how green algae on its underside could appear yellow when seen through clear, blue water.
The sailors launched the harpoon, striking deeply into the leviathan, which raged against the pain. The water, already stained from its blood, frothed as it struggled to escape from the rope. The whale leaped and lunged, ship and creature entwined in a dance of death. With a final heave, it rolled and expired. This was not the ship killer. The crew marked the corpse with a buoy and continued their hunt. They would have continued in this way until they had around five prizes to tow back to the Tyee station.
Next, the Sorenson journeyed toward Cape Ommaney, at the southern end of Baranof Island. Again, they sighted and harpooned, this time an allegedly even larger blue whale. Again they fought, an enraged beast against the seven-man crew of the schooner. At the end of their battle, the whale dashed to the limits of its tether, then, faster than could be imagined, turned and dove underneath the ship’s stern. Coming up on the other side, it lashed with its tail, which, in its power, tore a hole open on the starboard side.
Per a wreck report, “Vessel was engaged in whaling and had harpooned a whale, which in its endeavor to get away, turned and stove a hole in her, on the starboard side ... Tried to plug the hole, but without success. Pumps worked, but would not keep her free. Gasoline tanks emptied, hoping they would keep her afloat.”
The Lizzie Sorenson was lost within four minutes, gone beneath the waves. The crew, who all survived, had only enough time to board the attached dory and shove off. They went to shore, lit a fire, and waited for rescue. In a day or two —accounts vary — they were picked up by a passing tug. As the Victoria Daily Colonist noted, “It is an old saying that lion hunting is a very fine sport except when the lion takes it into his head to hunt you. The same thing seems to be true of whales.”
It was not the most striking battle between whales and whalers, but it is Alaska’s representation among the relatively few such documented incidents, which most notably included the doomed Essex. Of the 20 men aboard that ship, only eight survived. The most dramatic case was perhaps the Ann Alexander. In 1850, the whaleship was working in the Pacific Ocean, west of the Galapagos Islands, in the general area where the Essex sank nearly 30 years prior. Upon encountering a pod of whales, the captain dispatched two small boats, of which one survived. As for the other, per one account, the whale “rushing at it with tremendous violence, lifted open its enormous jaws, and taking the boat in, crushed it into fragments as small as a common-sized chair.” That whale or another from the pod then rammed the Ann Alexander, sinking the whaleship. All 22 people aboard did survive.
Within a week of the Sorenson sinking, news had reached the West Coast, then spread throughout the country, that a whale had seemingly defeated whalers. Further, the ship was not insured, a greater loss for its corporate owners. Unfortunately for the sake of both narrative and itself, the whale did not survive the encounter. Some days later, its carcass was discovered floating in the water. In the long war between whaling vessels and whales, this particular battle ended as a tie, though it could also be considered a pyrrhic victory for the whales.
Good, Warren. Alaska Shipwrecks: 12 Months of Disasters. Self-published, Warren Good, 2018.
Good, Warren. Alaska Shipwrecks: 1750-2010. Self-published, Warren Good, 2015.
“Hope for Sorenson.” Victoria Daily Colonist, April 7, 1900, 3.
Jones, Zachary R. “‘Search for and Destroy’: US Army Relations with Alaska’s Tlingit Indians and the Kake War of 1869.” Ethnohistory 60, no. 1 (2013): 1-26.
“Mad-Whale Sinks Ship With Tail.” San Francisco Call, May 17, 1910, 9.
“Tyee Station Has 27 Whales.” San Francisco Call, June 7, 1910, 17.
Untitled article. Victoria Daily Colonist, May 19, 1910, 4.