Utah Stories from the Beehive Archive

“Very Like a Whale:” Great Salt Lake’s Marine Leviathan

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“Very Like a Whale:” Great Salt Lake’s Marine Leviathan


In the late 19th century, a Utah newspaper announced that the two whales swimming in Utah’s Great Salt Lake had added children to their family. Was this a scientific reality, or just a whale of a tale?

In 1888, the Salt Lake Herald-Republican reprinted a story from a Canadian newspaper about a new family of whales flourishing in Great Salt Lake. The adult whales were reported to be sixty feet in length, with more than a hundred whale children swimming behind them. Utah-based newspaper editors shared the story with readers, but only as a prime example of the range of articles which they said “sensational scribblers… palm off” as truths just to make a buck. Although a spoof, the idea of a mysterious leviathan lurking in the depths of our salty landlocked lake has long captured the public imagination. 

The newspaper article said a “scientific English gentleman” named James Wickham planted the whales in 1875 to help start a Utah whale oil industry. The pair of whales obtained by Wickham near Australia were shipped from San Francisco to Utah by train in tanks full of seawater. Wickham intended to keep them in a fenced-off pen but the article details how they escaped, reporting “they suddenly made a beeline for deep water and shot through the wire fence as if it had been made of threads…In twenty minutes they were out of sight and the chagrined Mr. Wickham stood gazing helplessly at the big salt water.” Years later, an agent in contact with Wickham reported seeing the whales and their new family, “spouting and playing.”

Another newspaper, the Utah Daily Enquirer, reprinted the story on its front page. When the paper received so many letters questioning the article, the editor had to assure readers that the story was published to “show the ridiculousness with which some of the Eastern papers refer to Utah matters.” The paper went on to clarify that "it would be impossible for any whale” to live in Great Salt Lake.

In fact, the lake only reaches around 30 feet in depth and is up to eight times saltier than the ocean -- far too salty for marine mammals. So the whale story is a confirmed hoax. In spite of this, the spoof newspaper article attests that “the scheme is a surprising and complete success and Wickham has earned the thanks of mankind.” Today, the idea of a whale swimming happily through the depths of Great Salt Lake still entices skeptics and believers both.


By Megan Weiss for Utah Humanities © 2021


Image: “Whales in Salt Lake,” The Daily Enquirer Newspaper, June 24, 1890. Over a century after whales were reported in Great Salt Lake in an 1890 spoof article, local artists started the Great Salt Lake Whale Watch Society in 2019 to draw attention to the legend and its ability to confound and entice both believers and skeptics. Image courtesy BYU Digital Collections.

See “Very Like a Whale,” Salt Lake Herald-Republican June 8, 1888;  “Whales in Salt Lake,” The Daily Enquirer Newspaper, June 24, 1890; “The Whale Story,” The Daily Enquirer Newspaper, July 22 1890; Kaitlin Hoelzer, “Whales in the Great Salt Lake or more fake news? Photos in the Rio Gallery will leave you wondering,Deseret News May 15, 2019; “Whale of a Tale,Luminaria, retrieved November 2021.


The Beehive Archive is a production of Utah Humanities. Find sources and the whole collection of past episodes at www.utahhumanities.org/stories.