COLUMBIA RIVER — People told Scott White he must have seen a sea lion or a seal.
“You don’t see a white-and-black seal, and they ain’t 20 feet long,” he told a reporter with The Daily News in Longview.
In May 2010, White had stopped for construction on Ocean Beach Highway west of Longview and was sitting on the guardrail when he said he saw killer whales surface in the Columbia River.
At the time, fish and wildlife offices received no report of orcas in the river, but said such a sighting was possible. It had happened before.
She (or he) was a young killer whale, about 15 feet long, that had bumbled its way more than 100 miles up the Columbia River and landed outside of Portland in October 1931. To the amazement of the locals, who also didn’t know what they were seeing at first, it proceeded to splash around in the Columbia Slough.
Eager sportsmen, guns in hand, soon lined the shore, determined to bag a whale. They shot at it until Gov. Julius L Meier ordered them to stop. Portlanders named the whale Ethelbert and reporters wrote about “the friendly whale” that had come to “visit” the city.
By Oct. 22, Ethelbert had been in the slough for close to 10 days and the Oregon Human society decided the wounded whale needed to be put down.
As humanely as possible, they urged the state. Perhaps using dynamite.
(Finn J.D. John, an instructor at Oregon State University, writes in a November 2014 piece for The Pendleton Record that Jantzen Beach park managers, with the society’s backing, also tried to get permission to catch the whale. They hoped to transfer it to a saltwater tank at the park and keep it as an attraction.)
The directors of the society said the young animal needed sardines and small fish. Its throat was too small to swallow the carp, bass, salmon and trout available in fresh water, they argued. They believed it would soon starve to death. Also, the bullet hole wounds were beginning to fester.
Naturalists, meanwhile, according to an article in the Eugene Register-Guard, argued there was no reason why Ethelbert couldn’t live out the rest of its life in the river.
“Today, at any rate,” the reporter concluded, “he appeared as chipper as any whale that ever spouted.”
The end arrived swiftly. Former whaler Ed Lessard and his son Joseph set out with harpoons. According to some reports, Ed Lessard would later claim he killed Ethelbert for scientific purposes.
“I wanted to get him and look at him,” he said in an article found in a Utah newspaper. “I used to kill them, but I never saw one just like him.”
So two weeks after arriving, Ethelbert was dead. The harpooned body reportedly sank almost immediately. Before the Lessards could retrieve the carcass, though, they were arrested, charged with disturbing the public peace and morals, killing a fish with illegal tackle and fishing in the slough with illegal tackle. But the charges didn’t stick. After all, no laws existed for inland whaling.
Meanwhile, other people snagged the whale carcass. According to Oregon newspapers, Ethelbert went on display and at some point, though it is not clear when, was pickled in a tank full of embalming fluid.
But Ed Lessard didn’t give up.
The state of Oregon had seized the whale, so he fought the state. Eventually, following an Oregon Supreme Court ruling that decided in favor of the state, the court offered Lessard a deal: If he paid back his court costs, then, for an extra $103, he could have Ethelbert, according to John.
Ethelbert’s final resting place is unknown.
John, in his piece, says the whale was rediscovered in St. Helens, Ore., after the tank it was preserved in began to leak, causing a terrible stench in town in August 1949. He says the whale was buried a week later.
But a 1971 Associated Press article reported that Ed Lessard carted the whale around for six to seven years, a regular traveling show. When he retired the show, he took the whale, still in its box, to property he owned on a mountain near Washougal.
The reporter claimed the whale was still there, an open secret kept by the property’s various owners and later made public by a Clark County land appraiser. Still, there was no rush to turn the site into a tourist attraction.
“The whale has lain there since, losing his formaldehyde smell to the elements but resisting decomposition and erosion,” the reporter wrote. “The metal box has rusted, fir trees have sprouted around it, and the road leading to the spot has been lost to brush; the whale still lies there, mouth open and eyes staring.”
Ethelbert “will fade back into rumors and tales again,” the reporter concluded, “which, of course, no one is really going to believe.”