A CHAPTER ON WHALING.
[from The New-England magazine.
Volume 8, Issue 6, June 1835, pp. 445-449]
'A strange fish; were I in England now, and had but this fish painted,
not a holiday fool there but would give me a piece of silver.' — TEMPEST
WHALING! And what, O what, cries the reader, (that most tasteful and captious personage) can there be in connexion with whaling, the bare mention of which leaves not a palpable grease-spot on the hitherto unsullied pages of Maga? We are not in the 'oil line,' and take comparatively little interest in the light-engendering speculations of our neighbors of the 'treeless isle;' so pr'y thee, spare us thy spermaceti statistics. Placid reader! if such be your ejaculation, permit me to say, you are unwarrantably raw to the romance of the subject. 'Tis high time you were aware that few voyages, at least, can boast of greater attractions than a 'whaling cruise' offers to the nautical lounger, the novelty-monger, the devotee of exciting sports — the anything, or anybody, in short, who, like the Venetian Doges of yore, is in any degree 'wedded to the imperial sea.' 'Tis your whaler alone, who goes down to the sea, in ships; other mariners hurry across it. He alone does business upon the great waters ; and, more emphatically than other 'sea-farers,' makes the ocean his home. With his topsail-yard 'sharp up,' and his helm 'hard down,' he rides out the storm, month in and month out — nestling, like a sea-bird, in the trough, and feeling himself, as it were, in the harbor; while other ships rise on the horizon and scud by, and lessen and reel out of sight, with blind celerity, on their respective courses. A trip to Europe may serve to introduce the novice to the 'cerulean deity;' but, for a thorough acquaintance, commend me to the long, familiar intercourse of a whaling voyage.
Art quite asleep? — if not, follow we yonder trim-looking vessel, a few thousand miles, to her frolicking-place in the Southern Ocean. Were she a 'Cape Horner,' the favor of your company were too much to ask; but her cruise is to end in nine months; and she shall confine herself to our own Atlantic — or straying thence, it shall be only for a few months, 'beyond the Cape of Hope.' Every one knows the incidents of a sail of fourteen days out; the visits of porpoises, grampuses, Mother Caries, &c. &c. too tedious to mention. So let pass a fortnight; and lo! the Azores — rising through the early mist; the orange-gardens of the Atlantic; the roosting place, too, of bevies of clouds, which gather from the surrounding waters, to perch there regularly over night. That huge, steamy-looking rock (so it appears) is Fayal; the seeming ravines are its vineyards; and yonder, towers the magnificent cone of Pico; its peak unveiled as the heat increases, with a girdle of iridescent vapor, and a crown of scattered snow. To-day, you may choose the vintage of your wine, and revel, ad libitum, in lemonade, grapes, bananas, and fresh oranges; to-morrow, we'll attend mass, tease the senoritas, and ride mule-back; next day, stow away the ship's marketing, and make sail again — by way of the Cape de Verds, and perhaps Fernando Noronha — for our destined arena, the 'whaling-ground.' Another hiatus, and here are the 'Cape Verds.' Unlike the Azores, they would never be mistaken for Hesperides — being rather picturesque than fertile or beautiful; but there are very primitive people, shells and curious basaltic columns, if you are mineralogical; and moreover, a very intellectual race of pigs — a commodity not to be despised, at sea. Tarry we here, for a couple of months, and then return to our vessel. We find her in latitude 42º south, almost incog.; her gala-dress, of uniform, uninjured canvas, gone; her sides begrimmed and rusty; sails patched and streaked; everything the worse for wear; in fact, she has been busily at work, and is now on the lookout for more whales. You see the 'hands' aloft, like crows on a pine tree-top, and you will probably hear from them shortly. Ha! yonder rises a fountain-like misty jet, far, far away from out the blue water. They see it — 'tis a whale-spout! Now listen. 'There she blows.' 'A right whale?' 'Aye, aye, sir.' 'Where away?' 'Four points off the lee bow.' 'Keep her off a bit.' 'There she blows blo-ows;' 'There's white water;' 'there — goes — flukes.' 'Back the main yard — stand by the boats.' Now look at the bustle; here's a gathering — and a grouping, worthy of Teniers: striped shirts and checked shirts, and red shirts and blue shirts, and no shirts; cropped 'sou'-westers,' and rimless tarpaulins, and conical crimson caps, and weather-worn Scotch bonnets, with eager faces underneath; many postures, and all tints, jumbled together like an unraveled rainbow slightly coated with mud. The watch below have mustered at a moment's warning, trowsered and trowserless, shod and shoeless, rudely recalled from snug chases of phantom whales, in their dreams, to the more arduous pursuit of the real 'crittur.' 'Hoist and swing,' roars the captain; 'lower away,' halloo the mates; 'look out for the tackles, boys;' 'shove off;' 'now give way;' 'lay down to it' — 'pull, pull, bend your backs, my sons.' And they are off, on their hazardous quest — startling the solitudes, and gliding over the undulary bills and valleys of the middle ocean; their bright, keen weapons glittering in the sun, and nearing, with every lusty pull, their Leviathan game. Ha! he is gone; he has sunk to his privileged haunts — a thousand feet below, in the fathomless abyss. No matter — he must rise shortly; and if any boat now floats above him, the whale may be descried, dwindled away in the clear depths, as far as size is concerned, 'very like a weasel.' There! again he comes up, and the waters foam and recoil, as his gigantic bulk breaks the surface — hemmed in by four boats, two of which are shooting towards him — the others, with peaked oars, quietly waiting his approach. 'Pull, pull — bend your backs; see that line clear.' Now they are close upon him. There stands the boatsteerer, all eagerness, in the bows of the nearest boat; his harpoon in one hand, and a coil of the line, gathered for greater security, in the other. Hist! they are near enough. 'Lie, lie, lie;' 'hold water, hold water.' There goes the barbed iron, with a gleam! 'Starn, all.' Out shoots the tow-line, smoking, from the bows. Down dives the huge victim, with a flourish of his lignum-vitae tail, which is especially to be eschewed. Indeed, if annihilation could occur to matter, I know of no fitter means of insuring it, than a few minutes' exposure to a similar weapon. The boat is now (in whaling dialect) fast, and her crew must prepare for a ride. Opine not, placid reader, that their task is ended; by no manner of means. The prize is harpooned, to he sure; but bethink you how you would manage a powerful, unbroken colt, with the mere appliance of a rope tied to the root of his tail. The whale, as yet only wounded, is to be killed; and to be killed, he must be exhausted with loss of blood; so 'catching a turn,' as the line slackens, off dart our boat's crew, in the style and manner of Lilliputians in a tin pot, appended to the dorsal extremity of a mad dog. 'The white foam dashes high — away! away' they scour, for thirty or forty minutes, at least, before hauling in upon their line; and were I wishing bluebeard Neptune an appropriate conveyance, it should be their cedar boat for a curricle, and a lively young whale for his nag, instead of the nondescript shapes, which serve him for coach-horses, on the antique reliefs. Well; the minutes fly, the boats converge, the game is almost spent; and now for the death! 'Haul in,' 'pull ahead,' 'lie,' 'hold water;' and flash, again falls the glittering lance into his very vitals. Every opportunity for a thrust is improved; not an inch of line, that can be safely retained, is lost; and onward they fly, through water crimsoned with the life's blood of their prey, which, since the first fatal stab with the lance, has whirled up from his lungs, with every heave, in a tall ruddy fountain. But its volume is lessening now — its color paling fast; there is little struggling to ensue; that little, however, is fearful in the extreme. It is difficult to imagine, without seeing it, such intense mobility in so bulky a mass. The whale seems at times literally poised on its head — as two thirds of its immense body whirls up, writhing into the air; and it is needless to say that, during this exhibition, 'stain all' is the order of the day.
The 'cutting in' along side is the signal for a sort of parliamentary assembly of albatrosses, blue sharks, &c., with here and there, perhaps, a penguin: the former amusing you, as they gorge, with an unceasing, querulous noise, not unlike the braying of ten thousand pigmy trumpets. They make very tolerable messengers; and, if you incline to society, we'll saddle one with a card of invitation for the next ship — describing ourselves as at home, lat. —, long. —. The next 'cutting-in' ship, wherever she be, will attract our envoy, and the card will probably be recovered. Here is much pleasant visiting and exchanging of boats, as straggling ships chance to come together — with no little fiddling, and occasionally, dancing! To say nothing of the tramp of masculine heels, imagine, reader, the surprise of the Tritons, hereabouts, at the first-heard notes of the 'brisk, awakening viol;' hereabouts I say, as whaling stations are remote from the common route of merchantmen; whence the local deities might be supposed more unsophisticated in their education and habits. Apropos to fiddling: take an illustration of the singular contempt of danger, often to be met with in yonder 'whaler;' the growth of his doubly hazardous employment. I was once returning from a sociable evening call, on board of a neighboring vessel, with our captain; the night was egregiously dark — our ship very distant. Midway, in passing, behold us suddenly surrounded by a herd of whales — puffing and blowing and kicking up their heels, till the water was a vortex of foam. Completely hedged in, drenched with brine from their 'spout-holes,' expecting immediate contact, and as immediate destruction — 'Jack,' said the captain, 'can't you hit the snortin' varmint?' 'Why have n't we a lance here?' Remark, placid reader, that you are not embarked on board the vessel which we selected for observation; and thank me for the Asmodean privilege we have retained, of leaving her at will for another, or for home, as well as of transferring ourselves out of any boat, into which we may enter, before she is splintered into atoms; which must unavoidably happen now and then. Be grateful, too, for your escape from the tedium of confinement, which it is disagreeable even to sympathise with. Now (as I grow tired) we will avail ourselves of my ingenious expedient, to withdraw, sans ceremonie. You may fancy, if you like, a lowering of fourteen or fifteen boats, at once, from different ships — the rivalry is highly amusing — in the pursuit of a sperm whale. There, the description just given will assist you (with variations, may be, of a boat bitten in two, or butted to pieces;) or a boat enveloped in fog, its fish-horn bleating in vain; or lost in the haze of the horizon, and overtaken by night, with an accompaniment of an anxious gun from its guardian ship, which frets and worries and tacks about, with every symptom of motherly anxiety. The ensuing display of lanterns, as twilight thickens; then their gradual extinction, when the recovered boat is swung up to its place alongside, with some congratulation and no little scolding, on the part of the tired ship-keepers. All these you may imagine, or overlook; but one thing, I pray thee forget not to honor with a parting glance — a night-scene around the 'try-works ;' — it is too like Dante's purgatory, to be neglected. Three ovens, amidships, surmounted by three huge cauldrons of oil; the oil boiling, the ovens lapping out tongues of flickering flame; the watch clustering and flitting and gibbering, in a light now lurid, now livid — some feeding the gaping furnaces with fuel, some couchant on the wandlass, 'spinning yarns,' one brandishing a mighty fork, another 'spairging about the brumstane cootie,' with a long, long ladle, and occasionally anointing the fire, till it makes the rigging and the sails and the weltering waters gleam again in its blaze; and each busy, smutty, diabolical-looking figure of the attendant-group flash into second daylight; — all, together, afford a spectacle 'beautiful as rare,' and leave nothing to be guessed at, would you realize the air of a lodging-cell in the freehold of 'auld Nickie-Ben.'