Dancing on the Belly of the Shark: Fishing for Basking Sharks on Monterey Bay for Fun and Profit

Tim Thomas, Museum Historian/Director of the J.B. Phillips Historical Fisheries Project, Maritime Museum of Monterey



He stood at the bow of the 40 foot abalone boat, the POP ERNEST, harpoon in hand, his arm at the ready. The retired Portuguese whaler stood next to him, directing him on just how to throw the harpoon when the time came. Just then, a fin was spotted about 20 yards off the port bow. The boat moved closer and they could clearly see the slow moving 30-foot basking shark sunning it self on the surface of the water. The boat crept closer as the amateur harpoonist tried to steady himself from the sudden ground swell.  They were somewhere near the mouth of the Salinas River, about ¼ of a mile offshore. Without warning, the large, docile animal started to sound (dive) and the old whaler yelled “Balea—throw the harpoon!” With all his might, the harpoonist threw his iron, striking the shark just at the top of its head and the water around it began to turn a bright red. The shark dove and tried to swim a way. The harpoonist and the old whaler jumped out of the way so as not to get tangled and pulled overboard by the 280-foot rope that was now running fast through the cleats of the boat. One end of the rope was attached to the boat and the other to the harpoon that was now embedded in the flesh of the basking shark. The shark was so strong that it towed the boat several yards before slowing down. Luckily, two empty fifty gallon barrels were attached to the rope for buoyancy, forcing the shark to surface rather than dive to the bottom. The boat was now side by side with the wounded shark, and someone brought out a shotgun to shoot the animal, mercifully killing it. The prize was won. The boat set out again—it was someone else’s turn.


Basking sharks were frequent visitors to the bay for many years.

The preceding is something that happened in Monterey Bay almost every year between 1924 and 1952.


So just what is a Basking Shark?

This gentle giant is easily recognized by its body size and extremely large gill slits, which almost completely encircle the head. It is the second largest fish in the world, with only the whale shark being bigger. Adults can regularly reach lengths of 25 feet and in some cases more than 30. There have been reports, although rare, of basking sharks reaching as much as 50 feet in length!  The basking shark is a filter feeder, plankton eating. They swim slowly but powerfully at a constant speed near the surface of the water. They are known as basking sharks or sun sharks. Because they’re found so close to the surface, it was thought that they were “basking” or “sunning” themselves. In fact, the basking shark is completely dependent on the constant flow of water for ingesting its food. Studies have been made suggesting that as much as 1,800 tons of water passes through the mouth of a basking shark every hour.


The Whalers

In the-mid 1850’s a small whale fishery was developed in Monterey, made up of mostly professional whalemen from the Azores who came to Monterey, aboard the deep water whaling ships, during the California gold rush.  By 1870, there were at least four whaling companies operating on the Monterey Bay getting mostly grays and humpbacks. In order to keep up their harpooning skills, it was a common practice for these whalemen to harpoon basking sharks when they appeared in the bay. Usually the whalers left the carcass to rot, but on occasion they would bring them in and process the oil from the livers. These livers can weigh up to 2500 pounds and contain between 200-400 gallons of oil. By 1875, the whaling industry in Monterey had for the most part, ended, not because they had taken too many whales, but because other products, had been invented to replace whale oil. Especially kerosene.


Luis Perez—the Fish King

In 1908, a Monterey fisherman named Luis Perez, known locally as the “Fish King”, was out fishing one day for rockfish when he accidentally caught a small basking shark. Mr. Perez brought this strange animal to the Monterey Wharf where his friend Manual Duarte, who ran a small store that catered to tourists, thought they could make some money. They put up a small tent on the beach next to the Monterey Wharf, placed the shark inside and charged 50 cents, a pretty good sum in1908, just to look at a dead shark.  According the Monterey Daily Cypress, that shark was there for ten days.

The Abalone King of Monterey—“Pop” Ernest Doetler

In the summer of 1924,“Pop” Ernest Doelter a German restaurateur and Henry Leppert, a Monterey blacksmith, would team up in order to find a new and creative way to advertise Pop’s abalone restaurant and to make some money.


“Pop” first came to Monterey in 1906, where he opened a small European style restaurant on Alvarado Street in downtown Monterey called Café Ernst. It was there that he first experimented with cooking the Monterey red abalone and discovered the method of tenderizing the abalone foot before cooking. His recipe for abalone made the Café Ernst a very popular establishment. “Pop” Ernest had elevated the abalone from “rubber boot to epicurean delight.” In 1919, he moved his restaurant to Monterey’s Fishermen’s Wharf where it became a popular stop for the rich and famous guests of the Hotel Del Monte.


Henry Leppert was born of French parents in Monterey in the latter part of the 19th century. As a young man he apprenticed with a local blacksmith and, while still in his teens, he opened his own smithy shop.  Much of Henry’s work was with the Monterey Japanese abalone industry, where he made diving shoes, abalone pries and knives. It was through the abalone industry that he first met Pop Ernest.


 In the summer of 1924, this duo had the idea to take the Hotel Del Monte guests, out on “Pop’s” brand new 40-foot abalone boat, the Pop Ernest, where for 50 cents, they could harpoon a basking shark. For some unknown reason, beginning in the early 1920’s, basking sharks would come into Monterey Bay in very large numbers, sometimes in the hundreds. These sharks were a nuisance to fishermen, often getting tangled in their nets. At that time, there wasn’t a market for the basking shark so “Pop” and Henry came up with this idea of taking tourists out to harpoon them for sport. Still living in Monterey were a number of retired Portuguese whalers. “Pop” had arranged to have these whalers come out on his boat to demonstrate how to throw the harpoon and to tell their tails of whaling on the Monterey Bay. “Pop” and Henry were the first to take tourists out on the bay to harpoon basking sharks for sport. At first, they used an old harpoon that “Pop” picked up at Point Lobos. It came from a schooner that was once used to smuggle Chinese laborers into California. The ship had burned some yeas before in Whalers Cove. Henry Leppert began making his own harpoons, and soon everyone wanted one of Henry’s, as his harpoons were considered to be the best.  Initially they only advertised this “adventure” through the Hotel Del Monte—it was a big hit. Not only did it attract the average guest, but also many well-known writers and artists of the day, such as authors Gouverneur Morris and Irvin Cobb, it also attracted royalty, including The Count Carzelle of Rome, Lord and Lady Hastings of Great Britain. S.F.B. Morris, President of Del Monte Properties and artist Jo Mora were also regulars. Both Jo Mora and his son Jo, jr. were avid hunters and frequent guests on these basking shark excursions. Jo and “Pop” became close friends and eventually, Mora designed a menu cover for the “Pop Ernest Abalone and Seafood Restaurant” in exchange for free trips on the Pop Ernest and free abalone dinners.


Because the main purpose of the Pop Ernest was collecting abalone, she had an air compressor on board for the divers. Often times, after the kill of a basking shark, Henry Leppert would pump the carcass of the animal with air and then spin it until it was belly-up. He would then get on the dead shark’s belly and dance for all the customers. It was a highlight of the trip.



The Old Fashioned Way

By 1925, there were other companies now offering basking shark hunts on the bay, in particular, the boat Two Brothers, owned and operated by partners, Bert Korf and Chester Gilkey. Although they didn’t offer old whalers as guides aboard their boat, they did have Thomas Machado, son and grandson of Monterey Portuguese whalers, and they were only charging 25 cents to harpoon a basking shark.  The Two Brothers was a converted 50-foot Navy motor sailor and could take several passengers at a time. Because this was a tourist-generated industry, they were always looking for new ways to entertain their customers. From time to time they would even jump on the shark and ride it like bucking broncos at the rodeo.  Unfortunately for the rider, the basking shark’s skin is very rough, almost like little teeth, and it usually tore the rider’s legs up.



Thomas Machado

Thomas Machado was born in Monterey. Both his father and grandfather were whalers. By the time Thomas came of age, the whaling industry in Monterey had ended. So the opportunity to be part of the basking shark fishery, at least for Thomas, was a continuation of the family tradition. He was the first to harpoon sharks systematically and was considered by far the best harpoonist working the bay. There was a day in 1946,when he harpooned 6 basking sharks in 2 ½ hours off Del Monte Beach, all with the same harpoon. He holds the record for the largest shark ever caught (1928) 8600 pounds, including a liver that weighed 2100 pounds. Thomas Machado continued fishing basking sharks into the early 1950s.




Money to be Made

When this fishery first started in 1924, it was strictly for sport and the usual practice was to leave the dead shark to the elements out on the bay. But beginning in 1927, there was a new player in town named Max Schaefer. Schaefer was in the reduction business. He had a small plant out in the sand dunes in Seaside. Reduction is a process that renders animal offal and other waste products into fertilizer, oil, meal and animal feed. He worked with the sardine industry, buying whole fish from the fishermen. Before 1929, there was no “official” sardine season. Sardines were fished whenever they came into the bay.  The reduction process was simple, requiring less then five employees to run the plant, and it was very profitable! For Schaefer, the primary market was the chicken industry producing cheap chicken feed from the offal of the Monterey sardine. Next time you go the store and buy a chicken, you can thank the Monterey sardine.  Prior to 1920, the chicken industry in California was not doing well. People didn’t eat chicken like we do today because it was expensive. They began to produce this cheap chicken feed out of the Monterey canneries and the chickens thrived on it. Because of that, more and more chickens were being produced and the prices down. When prices dropped, people began to buy them. The California chicken industry was saved by the bones of the Monterey Sardine. 


Schaefer couldn’t help but notice all the basking shark activity and thought he could do something with them. He began to buy the carcasses from the “fishermen.” His plan was to grind them up for dog and cat food and use the oil from the livers for a product he called “Sun Shark Liver Oil: Nature’s Own Tonic.” The oil from the basking shark is a low-grade vitamin A and really isn’t good for much, but his brochure proclaimed:


“Made from the livers of the Sun or Basking Shark only. It is used as a tonic to build up the digestive system, enabling it to get out all nutrients contained in regular food.” It further goes on to say, “It is giving relief in cases of neuritis, stomach ulcers, anemia, loss of appetite and weight, lack of energy, asthmatic attacks and has also in several cases reduced and finally eliminated the growth of goiters. It promotes health and growth in children, builds up resistance to attacks of the usual ailments of youth and furnishes energy for the strenuous exertions of youth.” And if that is not enough, it also says, “In older people it is deferring troubles common with age, enables them to keep on enjoying their full bodily vigor and energy to perform their daily task.”


It sold very well and there was money to be made. Soon there were several basking shark fishermen working the bay. At first, Schaefer was paying $10.00 a ton but by 1933, he was paying as much as $20.00 a ton. Considering that a basking shark can weigh as much as 8000 pounds and it was possible to bring in more than one a day, that was pretty good money! This continued until 1938, when Max Schaefer’s reduction plant burned to the ground.





Hurray for Hollywood

In mid February of 1933, the Untied Artists Film Company was about to begin filming its latest Hollywood epic I Cover the Waterfront, staring Claudette Colbert, Ben Lyons and Ernest Torrence.  The film is about a waterfront journalist (Ben Lyons) who stumbles upon a group of tuna fishermen, who are smuggling Chinese laborers into California in the bellies of sharks. The Film Company heard about the Monterey basking shark fishery and sent a camera crew. They hired Thomas Machado and chartered Monterey sardine fishermen, Sal Colletto’s purse seiner (a sardine boat), the Dante Alighieri. Sal was able to negotiate for the use of his boat and crew for $200 a day, which was good money during the depression. Sal, who never fished basking sharks before, remembers that first day of filming:

 “It was a calm day and we headed for Moss Landing. When were opposite the Salinas River, as far as your eyes could see there were fins of basking sharks, ranging in size from 20 to 30 feet in length and weighing 4-7 tons apiece.”

Machado was put into the Dante’s small skiff along with the Sal’s brother Vincent. They then slowly rowed up to a shark and Thomas, standing at the bow, harpooned it. Again Sal remembers:


“When the fish was hit it splashed its tail which struck the little row boat dunking both men in the water among this school of sharks. We picked up the men quickly, and went after the floating barrel. The shark went straight down and lay alive in about 15 fathoms depth. We grabbed the barrel and put the rope on the winch to raise the shark to the surface. He did not give much of a fight. We tied a sling to its tail and raised him aboard by winch. It was about 4 tons.”


During the course of that day they filmed several basking shark hunts. One of the most remarkable scenes filmed concerned a 45-foot, 8-ton shark, After it was harpooned, it pulled the skiff with Thomas and Vincent for an hour. According to Sal:


“Upon hoisting the shark above the water line, the weight of the fish tilted the boat, and the tail snapped off the fish, and it sank to the bottom of the sea.”


The film company had shot so many scenes involving the Dante Alighieri  that they asked Sal if he could take the boat to San Pedro for use in the rest of the movie. He readily agreed, sardine season having just ended a few weeks earlier, and Sal thought this would be easy money. It took him 36 hours to get from Monterey to San Pedro with two shark’s aboard. Sal and the Dante were in Hollywood for about three weeks. He needed to pay his crew and was looking forward to receiving the movie money, which by this time amounted to $4500. He went to the movie studio to get his check but it was late in the afternoon, too late to take it to the bank. The next morning, Sal got up bright and early and headed for the nearest bank. It was March 6, 1933, the day that Roosevelt closed the banks!

Although, in the end, the movie only shows a few minutes of the basking shark hunt, it is quite remarkable to see Thomas Machado, son and grandson of Monterey Portuguese whalers, harpooning that shark. It is the closest thing we will ever see of a 19th century whale hunt on the Monterey Bay.


The End of an Era

By the time that Max Schaefer’s reduction plant burned down in 1938,

the number of basking sharks in the Monterey Bay began to decrease, no one really knows why. Also, the emphasis for shark switched from basking to soupfin. In the late 1930s war was raging in Europe and there were German submarines all over the Atlantic. As a consequence East Coast cod fishermen couldn’t fish. The codfish was the primary source for vitamin A, Cod Liver Oil. There was a big demand for vitamin A, coming mainly from the US Military. A few years earlier, a scientist working for the Booth Cannery in Monterey, had discovered that the soupfin sharks liver contained a high quality vitamin A. Smaller then the basking shark, the liver of a soupfin only weighs between, 5-20 pounds. But there was such a demand for this oil, that by 1941, a good soupfin fishermen could make as much as a $150,000 in one catch! So, for the most part, the basking shark was left alone.



The Fishery Revived

In April of 1948, Moss Landing fisherman, Freeman “Whitey” Arbo, was out fishing for halibut near the Salinas River, when somehow he accidentally netted two small basking sharks. He brought them in as a curiosity, as no one had seen one in the bay for several years. At that time, Knut Hovden of Hovden Canneries had a processing plant in Moss Landing and he thought he could do something with them. The plan was to process the liver oil and sell it to paint and soap manufactures. The problem was when they put the oil in the paint, the paint wouldn’t dry and when they added the oil to soap, the soap wouldn’t lather. But it did start a second basking shark fishery in the Monterey Bay.


Hovden and other processors continued to buy the shark for use in dog and cat food. The oil, it turns out, was excellent for tanning leather. This time around, it was much more business like. There were a dozen boats hunting sharks every day, including the Two Brothers with Thomas Machado and Chester Gilky. The sharks came into the bay for just a few short months beginning in the early spring. The competition was fierce. The fishermen were making 5cents a pound just for the liver. Whitey got one liver that weighed as much as 3500 pounds. Sometimes as an extra bonus, great white sharks would attack the carcass that were tied to the back of the boat, the fishermen would often times harpoon these animals and bring them in as well. These guys were far more efficient than the day’s of “Pop” Ernest and Henry Leppert. They could bring in 3-4 sharks a day and they used spotter planes to help find the sharks. When a school of basking sharks were spotted, the pilot would then radio down the directions to the boat. This use of spotter planes was adopted by the sardine fishermen and was found to be very effective. This second basking shark fishery ended by 1952, when the basking shark stopped appearing in the bay.


Basking sharks rarely visit Monterey Bay today and when they do, it’s not in the hundreds, just a few. But it must have been exciting to be aboard the Pop Ernest with Jo Mora and the old whalers watching Henry Leppert dance on the belly of the shark.





Field notes of J.B. Phillips, for “Basking Shark Fishery Revived, California Department of Fish & Game, 1947, The J.B. Phillips Collection, Maritime Museum of Monterey


“The Sardine Fishermen”, unpublished manuscript by Sal Colletto, The Captain Sal Colletto Collection, Maritime Museum of Monterey


Freeman “Whitey” Arbo, retired basking shark fishermen, interview with author, 1996


Albert Thevenin, retired basking shark fishermen, interview with author, 1996


William Ripley, retired fisheries biologist, interview with author, 1995-2004


“I Cover The Waterfront” United Artists Pictures, 1933, J.B. Phillips Collection, Maritime Museum of Monterey


“Sun Shark Liver Oil: Natures Own Tonic”, brochure circa, 1930, M. N. Schaefer, J.B. Phillips Collection, Maritime Museum of Monterey