The Allatoona Whale

Gregory Lee Sullivan


State of Georgia Department of Fish & Game



The Allatoona Whale (Balaena allatoona), or Allatoona, lacks the blubber of other known whale species due to several millennia adapting to the relatively warm waters in and around what is presently Lake Allatoona in Northwest Georgia, more specifically, the mostly quiet cove areas of the northern and eastern portions of the lake in Bartow and Cherokee counties. Prior to the lake's construction, Allatoonas were spread out within the Etowah River and, to a lesser extent, the Coosa River, which the Etowah feeds at Rome. While fossil records indicate the species has inhabited the general lake area for at least 12,000 years, no whales have been spotted downstream in the Coosa since 1936. While some isolated groups remain in the Etowah outside of the Allatoona Dam, since the dam's completion in 1949, the vast majority of Allatoonas live in the lake, especially thriving since this department began efforts in the eighties to shepherd the animals away from Acworth, also sometimes called Crack-worth by locals, an area where drugs, including both crack and methamphetamines, are thought to be prevalent. Allatoonas (though the population has declined) remain an important subsistence species, both culturally and nutritionally, for the isolated lake communities of Bartow and Cherokee counties, including for those who live in the cottages surrounding Wild Buck Camp Marina, where Bud Heavy is the beer of choice. The Cherokee name for Allatoonas is Allatoona and it was the national marine mammal of the former Confederate States of America.

General description: Allatoonas belong to the suborder Mysteceti, whales that have baleen instead of teeth. They are rotund, similar in many respects to the bowhead whale, although smaller. Allatoonas reach up to 40 ft (12.2 m) in length and often weigh more than 85,000 pounds (38,555 kg). Paired blowholes are located at the peak of the animal's head. Allatoonas are among the animals with the largest mouths and heads in the animal kingdom. They possess short, wide flippers and broad flukes. Adult Allatoona whales are white but with varying amounts of pink on the chin, belly, and tail. These pink patches, as well as the animal's scars, which are also pink, make it possible for researchers to pick out specific individuals from aerial photographs made of the area, although such photos are sometimes obscured by a variety of tall trees native to the region that hang out over the edges of the water. Allatoonas, like bowheads, are thought to live for more than 200 years, which means some of the creatures have witnessed the majority of this state's history. Some Allatoonas have what are essentially pink tattoos carved into their skin, indicating the many different cultural eras an adult whale has lived through. Scientists use these tattoos as dendrologists do tree rings, to determine the age of the Allatoona. The tattoos, starting with the oldest ones, commonly include: slurs against Native Americans, drawings of the Stars and Bars, slurs against blacks, "Jesus is God," "The Allman Brothers Band's members are gods," "Georgia Bulldog RB Herschel Walker is God," and "Barack Obama is Certainly NOT God." All of these, again, show up pink. Currently, it is a felony to purposely carve into a living whale. When left unaltered by man, an Allatoona's skin is as smooth as a slippery snake boot.

Food habits: The primary foods for the Allatoona Whale are freshwater mussels, crayfish, and other small native organisms. Allatoonas feed by swimming with their mouths open and strain foods from the water with their baleen. The creatures feed at all depths, from surface to lakebed. The Allatoona will feed underneath pontoon boats in the summer as well as in open water. From time to time, a breaching whale will capsize a pontoon boat filled with revelers. Such incidents occur almost exclusively, however, on the Fourth of July, when the surface of the water is blanketed by watercrafts and there is absolutely no other way for the creatures to come up for air, which they must do in order to live. By breaching, the Allatoona also briefly escapes a world of total darkness, blackened even from the light of the moon by the endless rows of boat shadows.

Life history: Mating of Allatoonas occurs during late winter and spring. The gestation period is 11 to 12 months. Allatoona calves are about 10 feet (3 m) long, weigh about 1,400 pounds (635 kg), and are yellow at birth. Females have a calf every 3 to 4 years until age 90. Young Allatoonas grow quickly while suckling. The female will generally have sex by 17, although not often out in the open.

Seasonal movements: Due to this department's preference to keep whales away from Acworth and, in so doing, the whole southern portion of the lake, there is very little seasonal movement for the Allatoonas, which is in contrast to most whale species around the world. Whales beyond the dam, out in the Etowah, also move very little. There are sections of the river where the water is not wide enough for many adults to swim past. In such spots, when they want to keep swimming, the adult Allatoona can only hope for intense flooding. Allatoonas in the river all would wish they were in the lake on the other side of the dam, if they only knew of the lake's existence.

Behavior: Allatoonas usually swim slowly; 3 to 4 miles per hour (5–6 km/hr), but are capable of bursts of speed of 14 miles per hour (23 km/hr). While the average dive by the adult Allatoona is 14 minutes, dives of up to 35 minutes have also been recorded. Allatoonas are a vocal species and produce a variety of sounds to communicate while traveling, feeding, and socializing. Some Allatoonas sing long songs during mating seasons. The wail of a forlorn Allatoona at night closely resembles the melody for the country song which goes: "Way down yonder on the Chattahoochee . . ."

Population size: Prior to commercial whaling, there were more than 30,000 Allatoonas in Georgia. Between the 1600s and 1800s, the population was reduced to less than 2,000 whales; however that number is up to 7,400 due to seasonal hunting restrictions enforced in recent years. The Lake Allatoona stock continues to recover slowly and is increasing at about 2% per year so far this decade.

Predators, hunting, and other mortality: Humans are the only major predators of Allatoonas. Gasoline spills are a potential danger to the animals and also to the organisms that make up their diet. Allatoonas have been an important whale for hunting for at least 2,000 years because they produce significant quantities of oil, baleen, and meat; because they are slow and nonaggressive; and because they float when killed. The Northwest Georgia Whaling Commission (NWGWC) has cooperatively managed Allatoonas with the National Marine Fisheries Service since 1982. A five-year harvest quota was recently renewed during 2008 and allows for up to 40 strikes per year to be divided among the 10 state-registered Lake Allatoona whaling villages. Local whalers use shotguns and small boats to pursue the animals during the spring and fall.

Local lore: Several legends persist about old men and mermaids living within the bellies of elderly Allatoonas, but easily the most famous and perhaps most believable of such stories is one of two Confederate colonels, a Col. Johnson and a Col. Smith, who hid together for a time during the Civil War inside the belly of a particularly large Allatoona with large black eyes, named Bedford. The men were investigating the feasibility of the animal for potential submarine warfare and espionage work. The two colonels spent months during this testing phase inside Bedford's warm stomach, mostly reading books and playing cards by candlelight. When they left the whale's stomach to go fetch more supplies, Bedford waited by the bank of the Etowah and sprayed water high into the sky from his blowhole until they came back. After hearing of the colonels' experiments with the whale, a rich planter from nearby, Horace Glover, had the colonels hide several million dollars' worth of Confederate gold bullion inside the same whale's stomach for safe-keeping. The two colonels continued spending time inside Bedford's belly as they had before, sitting on all the added gold coinage for seats and also using them as gambling chips for their card games. But before any of their military whale research could be put into the Confederacy's battle plans, Sherman's men began their fiery march through Georgia and the two colonels had to join in to help with the defense. Both colonels were reportedly killed in battle not far from the banks of the river where Bedford swam. But Bedford couldn't be found anywhere when the once-rich Mr. Glover searched along the river after the war. Many of the man's holdings had gone up in flames as Sherman's men set his town ablaze; the rest, the bulk of it, was inside a lost whale. Mr. Glover spent the rest of his miserable life searching for the whale he was told had a small pink "X" underneath its right flipper.

Assuming the legend is true, it is entirely possible the gold may still be within the belly of an aging but still-living Allatoona. Often in the summer as the sun goes down beyond all the trees of the shady coves on Lake Allatoona, little boys and even some grown men will dive into the water when they see a big whale, hoping to be swallowed.