This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2006, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
According to legend, an Englishman named James Wickham brought two small whales to the Great Salt Lake around 1890.
Caught in the Pacific and shipped to Salt Lake in specially built railroad tank cars, they were given a new home in a lagoon near the north end of the lake, where the salinity is closest to that of the ocean. It wasn't long before the behemoths escaped and headed for open water. Sightings were reported for months in local papers, some of which even mention the pair having offspring with them.
Steve Birkeland doubts it happened; the lake is too shallow to make a good cetacean homestead and the salinity of the water would probably kill them if a steady diet of brine shrimp didn't. Nonetheless, this entertaining urban legend became one of the inspirations for his maritime-themed gift shop in the middle of the desert - the Great Salt Lake Whaling Company.
"I just kinda' eased into this thing," Birkeland says. "I was walking home from work about five years ago, and the idea just struck me. I decided I could make it work."
It wasn't exactly the snap decision he describes.
The Salt Lake City native says he has always liked things nautical and remembers childhood visits to Saltair to swim in the Great Salt Lake. His father-in-law, Lowell Platt, built many wooden ship models before he passed away - some of which are now displayed in the shop. And he recently surprised himself he when he found numerous mentions of seagoing things in notebooks he kept 10 and 15 years ago.
All these factors came together in October 2002, when the Great Salt Lake Whaling Company opened its doors at the ZCMI Center in Salt Lake City.
A lot of people come in out of curiosity or just to look around. Birkeland always enjoys having former Navy, Coast Guard or recreational sailors drop by to swap fish tales or soak in the atmosphere. Two Brigham Young University students from Connecticut actually stopped in for a few minutes recently to re-acclimate themselves before catching a plane for home, he says.
Like most retailers, Christmas is Birkeland's biggest season, though summer tourists are very close behind. The maps behind the counter have pins marking the "home ports" of customers from every corner of the United States and foreign countries around the globe. Some, especially those who live near the coast, occasionally seem a bit embarrassed that they're buying nautica in the middle of the desert.
Home décor items are his biggest sellers - lighthouse-related items, wooden signs, and the like. He also sells cards, jewelry, clothing, flags, maps and almost anything with a seafaring connection. He stocks ship kits and has a close relationship with the Great Salt Lake Shipmodeling & Research Society. He sells books, including some which retell the tall tale of Wickham's attempt at creating a Utah whaling industry.
Every June, he is a sponsor of Sailfest, the Great Salt Lake Yacht Club's annual regatta. Sponsoring the regatta is not for advertising alone; it's part of his mission.
"I talk to locals who don't have a high opinion of the [Great Salt] Lake. I ask if they've ever been swimming there and they say, 'Oh, no, I'd never.' I want to re-emphasize the Lake."
With the downtown malls slated for renovation and closure expected next spring, Birkeland isn't yet sure where he'll reopen. Wherever that is, the Great Salt Lake Whaling Company will continue to be home port for every Utahn who, like Ishmael in Herman Melville's "Moby Dick," cannot always resist the lure of the sea.