Did whales really live in the Great Salt Lake? New film explores the infamous legend

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Estimated read time: 3-4 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — Filmmaker Joseph LeBaron had never heard the stories about whales living in the Great Salt Lake. In fact, the Utah native had rarely even spent much time at the lake.

That changed in 2015 when NPR radio host Doug Fabrizio reached out to see if LeBaron’s team would be interested in filming an interview with Dr. Lynne McNeill, a folklore specialist at Utah State University. The topic? An infamous article published in 1888 about whales being released into the Great Salt Lake.

Needless to say, LeBaron was intrigued.

“The article was about a scientist named James Wickham who came from England to try to start a whale oil fishery in the Great Salt Lake,” recalled LeBaron. “He apparently spent a couple of years off the coast of Australia to capture a breeding pair of whales, and then transported them to Utah by train, in giant tanks of water.”

LeBaron’s team decided that the project was going to require more effort than originally planned. The story was simply too big to capture in a three-minute edit. With their eyes now set on a short film, the filmmakers began scouting the Great Salt Lake.

“We quickly fell in love with the lake,” said LeBaron. “Even though the Great Salt Lake is so important to the state for many, many reasons, it had never felt like a destination place for me. Now I realize that it’s just so incredibly beautiful and wild and weird.”

The team soon realized it would be impossible to film on the lake, as declining levels made it too shallow. Each year, they’d go out to check the depth to see if “this was finally the year to film.” But the lake just got more and more shallow.

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According to legend, whales were transplanted into the Great Salt Lake in the 1800s. A new short film examines this mystery. (Photo: Jacob Justice)

“It was really hard for us to see this beloved character disappearing before our eyes,” LeBaron said. “Ultimately, we got scrappy and were able to get the shots we needed. And through our newfound love of the lake, we grew into activists and saw an opportunity for this film to act as a call to conservation.”

LeBaron sought out an impact partner — FRIENDS of Great Salt Lake was the ideal match, as part of their mission is to increase public awareness and appreciation of the lake through education, research and the arts. Their partnership will culminate in a film premier for the completed short film, “Whales of the High Desert,” on Aug. 25. The event will feature live music and multiple food trucks at Industry SLC, 650 S. 500 West, in Salt Lake City.

Since Fabrizio was the impetus for the whole project when he first contacted LeBaron about the story nearly a decade ago, it’s only fitting that he’ll be emceeing a panel discussion at the premier about the film and conservation efforts for the Great Salt Lake. Panel members include Bonnie K. Baxter, director of the Great Salt Lake Institute at Westminster College; Lynne S. McNeill, professor of folklore at Utah State University; and, Holly Simonsen, programs director at FRIENDS of Great Salt Lake.

All proceeds from the event will go to FRIENDS of Great Salt Lake to support their ongoing conservation efforts. You can get details and reserve tickets by clicking here.

And if you’re wondering whether the mysterious story about whales in the Great Salt Lake is true — it’s worth noting that even the filmmakers and experts involved with the project have a hard time answering that question.

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There’s no concrete evidence available to support the claim, which suggests it’s unlikely to have occurred. But the thrilling possibility that whales called the Great Salt Lake home, even briefly, has helped keep the legend alive all these years.

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