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From Devil-Fish to Friendly Whale? Encountering Gray Whales on The California Coast

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Eastern North Pacific gray whales are famed for their remarkable ecological history: from near extinction to recovery and from ‘devil-fish’ to ‘friendly whale’. This article critically examines the origins and development of the narrative framing of gray whales’ history as one in which the whales were long known as ‘devil-fish’, until they became ‘friendly whales’ in the 1970s. Drawing on archival sources from the mid-nineteenth through the mid-twentieth centuries, this article interrupts the premise of a smooth and linear transition from devil-fish to friendly whale. Instead, gray whale histories reveal much more complex and even contradictory human–whale encounters along the California coast. Throughout the time period examined, precursors of the familiar contemporary narrative of gray whale history emerged, each building on prior remembrances of gray whale pasts. More broadly, this article contributes to contemporary conversations in more-than-human historical studies about nonhuman agency, multispecies encounters, memory, and environmental histories of emotion.

Keywords: memory; more-than-human histories; narrative; oceanic histories; whales

Appeared or available online: March 29, 2023

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