The Sad Tale of Ethelbert The Orca

Jul 18, 2023 0 comments

Orcas or killer whales have an enormous range, inhabiting all of the world's oceans. In the northeast Atlantic, they appear in abundance around the Norwegian coast, and in the north Pacific they can be found along the Aleutian Islands and the Gulf of Alaska. They are also found in the Southern Ocean off much of the coast of Antarctica. Along the West Coast of the United States of America, orcas are found mostly in the Puget Sound area of Washington State extending as far north as Alaska, and southward off the California coast. Rarely are they sighted off the coast of Oregon, and whenever they do, they usually make news.

A man poses with Ethelbert after it was harpooned by Edward Lessard and his son Joseph.

One such newsworthy sighting that quickly turned tragic occurred in October 1931 when a juvenile orca swam up the Columbia river, some 100 miles from the ocean and surfaced in the Columbia Slough, a narrow channel of water about nineteen miles long that runs parallel to the Columbia River north of Portland. The orca was spotted near Jantzen Beach, the city’s popular amusement park, and thousands of Portlanders turned out to catch a glimpse of the unexpected visitor. Such was the rush to see the creature that the crowds caused a gridlock on the highway bridge between Portland and Vancouver. Local newspapers featured the event on their front pages, and vendors took the opportunity to set up popcorn and hot dog stands. Boat operators offered the onlookers a chance to get closer to the animal.

The orca even attracted the unsavory types, some of which tried to shoot the animal with rifles. They were promptly arrested and Governor Julius Meier ordered that the orca be protected.

Given the media attention, it became necessary to give the orca a name. For a while the animal was known as “Jimmy McCool’s Whale,” after the wildlife writer at The Oregonian, but later most folks and the media settled on “Ethelbert.”

For a period of two weeks, there was considerable debate among the media and authorities regarding the fate of the animal. The operators of the Jantzen Beach swimming pool expressed interest in capturing the orca alive and exhibiting it in a tank. The Oregon Humane Society opposed this idea, considering any capture to be inhumane. Instead, they believed that the orca should be euthanized to end its suffering since it was clearly dying. The waters of the Columbia Slough were not suitable for an orca as they lacked salt and were polluted by sewage. Additionally, the gunshot wounds on the orca's back were becoming infected. Other opinions suggested leaving Ethelbert to face its fate without human interference.

Yet some others favored a rescue. James McCool wrote in The Oregonian that “a line of tugboats and motorboats” with “whistles blowing and bells ringing” could be used to urge the whale into the Columbia River, where it could make its way to the Pacific.

While authorities were discussing the viability of this plan, a former whale hunter named Edward Lessard and his son Joseph got into a boat and killed Ethelbert with a harpoon.

“It was the quickest killing I ever made,” Lessard boasted to the Oregonian’s reporter. “Usually it takes half a day or a day to kill a whale. This one was dead as a doornail in less than five minutes.”

The Portland public was outraged at the killing. A naturalist and former Oregon state game commissioner, William L. Finley, said: “The public was cheated. This was wanton destruction of wildlife and ought to be punished.”

Charges were brought against the Lessards for violating fishing laws and “outraging public decency and morals.” The Idaho Statesman painted the Lessards as “the meanest men in the world.” Although the Lessards were arrested, the state could not bring any charge against them because they were found not to have violated any fishing laws because Ethelbert was not a fish.

While Lessard was in prison, a group of opportunistic fishermen had recovered the corpse from the bottom of the river, dragged the carcass ashore and began charging spectators for a view. Eventually, the police seized the whale, and a large metal tank was hastily built to preserve the whale’s corpse in formaldehyde.

The court, having absolved the Lessards of any wrong doings, ordered the state to return the whale to the Lessards, who promptly took the body on tour.

The state appealed the court’s decision to the Oregon Supreme Court. The state’s prosecutor argued that because there were no laws governing inland whaling, the Lessards should be subjected to common law which held that freshwater whales were “Royal Fishes” and thus the property of the governor. The court agreed and ordered Lessard to return the whale to the state or pay $1,000.

For four years, Edward Lessard staunchly held onto the whale, not willing to give it up. Eventually, the Oregon Board of Control proposed a resolution: they would drop the case if Edward Lessard agreed to cover the court costs, amounting to approximately $103. Without hesitation, Lessard paid the sum, securing legal custody of Ethelbert's preserved remains.

In 1939, the Lessards moved the whale to an orchard property they owned near St. Helens, Washington. Ethelbert disappeared from public view and faded largely from collective memory, until 1949, when some residents complained of a rotten smell coming from a neighbor’s orchard. Upon investigation, police found a corroding galvanized steel tank measuring 13 feet in length and 6 feet in width. Inside the tank was Ethelbert.

The tank had originally been full of embalming fluid, but rust had poked holes through the side of the tank, causing the fluid to drain out. Without the formaldehyde which had kept Ethelbert preserved for almost two decades, the carcass began to stink. The Lessard family buried the remains in a forested area in Clark County. After three decades had passed, timber inspectors found the remains and re-buried the orca on a mountain north of Washougal.

# Columbia Slough Orca, Oregon Encyclopedia
# In 1931, an orca swam to Portland — and caused a stir, Crosscut
# The short, tragic history of Portland’s municipal whale, Offbeat Oregon


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