Fact Checker: Were Whales Released in the Great Salt Lake?

Fact Checker: Were Whales Released in the Great Salt Lake?

Myths, lies and old wives’ tales loom large in the outdoor pursuits. Here at MeatEater, we’re dedicated to separating facts from bullsh*t, so we created this series to examine suspect yarns. If there’s a belief, rumor or long-held assumption you’d like us to fact check, drop us a note at factchecker@themeateater.com.

In 1875, James Wickham, an eccentric British scientist, hypothesized that whales could live in the Great Salt Lake. Determined to test the theory, he went to Australia and captured two 35-foot whales off the southern coast. The whales were brought to San Francisco by boat and shipped to Salt Lake City by railway.

Wickham released the whales near the mouth of Bear River. He intended for the creatures to stay in a half-mile mesh enclosure, but the whales broke free within minutes of being dropped in their new home.

The whales were regularly spotted in the lake for a few years, only to be reportedly killed by poachers in 1877. Still, to this day, occasional accounts of whale sightings sometimes emerge from just outside Utah’s capital city.

This claim first appeared in the now-defunct Utah Enquirer in 1890 to mark the 15-year anniversary of the whale stocking. Since then, it has circulated on blogs and forums and even made an appearance on The University of Utah’s website. In 2018, photos depicting a whale on a train went viral and brought attention back to this story.

Despite newspaper coverage, old-timey photos, and a detail-filled backstory, this local legend is nothing but a hoax. Deseret News, the area’s longest-running news organization, has debunked this claim multiple times. In 1994, they picked apart the original 1890 article, demonstrating the report to be full of far-fetched errors. For example, whales don’t live to be 400 years old or lay eggs, as the Enquirer claimed. Deseret News also couldn’t find any record of James Wickham or his crew of fictional biologists.

In 2019, Deseret News again defeated the hoax by tracking down the creators of the sham photos. In an interview with the paper, the tricksters revealed that they faked the pictures to promote their business, which specializes in preserving old images.

Although this whale of a tale has captured quite a few imaginations over the last century, the story has absolutely no credibility. Even if we wanted to put whales in the Great Salt Lake, it wouldn’t work. The lake has too much salt and too little food for any large sea creature to stand a chance.

I doubt the Utah Enquirer’s newsroom thought their heavy-handed fabrication would still be circulating 130 years later, but they’d probably be pretty damn proud to know that it is.

Feature image via Luminaria.

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