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Being a chapter on the Cetacea of the North Pacific.

W. H. Macy

Sep 1869
pp. 231-237

Being a chapter on the Cetacea of the North Pacific.

      The maps in our school geographies inform us that after having passed through the Straits of Behring, going northward, we are in the Arctic Ocean. This must, perforce, be true, because it is in print; but the name seems a misnomer to those who have made the voyage to the polar regions of the Pacific hemisphere.

      As we have been accustomed to associate with the term "ocean," an idea of almost unfathomable depth, as well as of vast superficial extent, the adventurer may be surprised, when, after passing the Diomede Islands, which stand like grim sentinels in the gateway, he finds himself in a broad "sound." Convenient depth for anchorage may be found anywhere; and the surface, when undisturbed by wind, is nearly as tranquil and free from swell or undulation as that of an inland pond. Thirty fathoms is, perhaps, the greatest depth to be found, even in the centre of the Basin.

      Until within twenty years, our geographical knowledge of this remote region was very limited. The accounts of the ill-fated Behring's discoveries are vague and unsatisfactory; and for more than two centuries after the Greenland fishery had been prosecuted in very high latitudes by the English and the Dutch, on a grand scale, the Straits of Behring had been passed only by single vessels at long intervals. The short summer cruises of Cook, Kotzebue, and Beechey, have thrown some light upon the matter, in the way of general knowledge; but it is only within the last two decades that the powers of cupidity and sympathetic humanity have combined to fill up the details. The expeditions in search of the lost Franklin were simultaneous with the rush of American whalemen, following in the track of Roys, who brought the first cargo of oil out of this sea. His successful cruise was made in 1848, in command of the bark Superior, of Sag Harbor, and the fact was demonstrated, that the "great Greenland whale" might be profitably hunted by the Pacific route. For a few years subsequent to that date, the fleet of whalers might be counted from the masthead – at times, by scores.

      In the season of 185–, on a fine day in July, we passed the Diomedes, and dropped our anchor off East Cape, within a few miles of the land, in company with a dozen other ships – all, like ourselves, in quest of the "Bowhead," as the great polar whale is called; the name being distinctive from the "Regular Right Whale," which is hunted in lower latitudes, between the parallels of forty and sixty.

      It was nearly calm when we anchored, and continued so during the night, if night it could be called during that season. It was but a kind of


subdued twilight; for the midnight sun, hardly more than his own diameter below the horizon, still illuminated the whole circle. A whale might be seen, and successfully chased, at any time during the twenty-four hours; and it was not difficult to read ordinary print without the aid of artificial light.

      From our anchorage we had a view of the sterile Asiatic shore, trending away to the westward until lost in the distance. Certainly nothing more cheerless and forbidding, for the abode of human beings, could be imagined.

      Numerous patches and "streams" of loose ice were in sight, stretching parallel to the general direction of the coast. But there was no ice of such a size that danger to a stout ship might be apprehended from it. Nor was the shore, at this time, ice-bound; and a considerable space of clear water lay between the ice-streams and the land.

      The ice with which the navigator has to contend in this part of the world is always low, rising but little above the surface. It is, of course, none the less dangerous on that account. But the gigantic "bergs," towering one or two hundred feet into the air, which are to be met with in the Greenland seas, as also in the Antarctic regions, are here unknown for obvious reasons.

      If, as is now generally understood, these bergs be simply the ends of glaciers snapped off by the agitation of the sea, as they are pushed forward with slow but resistless force, they can only be formed where the shores are precipitous, and the adjacent sea of sufficient depth to float them off.

      The face of the land here is not, as a general thing, favorable to the formation of glacier-ice to any great height near the sea; and though bergs of twenty feet above the surface are sometimes to be met with, they are usually found to be grounded, hard and fast, on the bottom.

      No whales were seen during the night-watches; though a lookout was kept from the deck, and the boats were ready to drop at a moment's warning. The roar of walruses was now and then heard in-shore of us; but they could not be seen against the gloomy background.

      As the broader light of day advanced, we lifted our anchor, and taking advantage of a light air off the land, made sail to the northward. The operation of getting under way or coming to anchor was easily performed by one watch. A light anchor was used with this view, and if the wind was light, the sails were merely clewed up and left hanging unfurled.

      We had made an offing of perhaps fifteen miles, before the captain came on deck in the morning. He rubbed his hands, and stamped fore and aft the quarter-deck a few times, seemingly in keen enjoyment of the cool bracing air; took a look at our accidental consorts, some of whom were also under sail; glanced aloft to see that the mastheads were duly manned; and then hailed the steward to "hurry up breakfast."

      "Well, Mr. Edwards," he said to the mate, "here we are in the Arctic at last, and a fine day before us. What'll you bet we don't get a whale before night?"

      "I don't know as I care to bet against getting one," replied Edwards;


"though I really think I should win. The ground looks dry yet. We shall have to push up further north."

      "'Oh, ye of little faith, wherefore do ye doubt?'" quoted Captain Ripley. "Mark, now; we shall get a whale before night. I've said it."

      "I hope you mayn't prove a false prophet, sir."

      "Here's one off the quarter here now; but he isn't the right sort."

      He pointed, as he spoke, to a "finback," which had been dodging round for an hour past; a species of whale of so little comparative value, and so difficult to capture, that not much notice is taken of them after their character is made out. They are to be met with in every part of the ocean where the keel of ship has penetrated, in high and low latitudes, both on soundings and off.

      Of course the pretended certainty of the captain was a mere random prediction, based upon no definite data. The movements of the bowhead whale are in the highest degree capricious and uncertain. To-day every ship in the fleet is either chasing or cutting; to-morrow not a spout is to be seen by any one. No one can tell whence they come, or whither they have gone; whether they have departed for the season, or whether the ground will be alive with them to-morrow.

      We had not yet finished our breakfast, when a school of "Killers" was reported from the masthead; and soon afterwards we came up with them, passing so near as to "gally" them. We could not waste time to lower the boats in pursuit of small game. These killers are themselves a species of whale; but as their yield of oil is small, they are not often hunted. It is easy to distinguish them by their long, triangular humps, or "fore-topmast-staysails," as they are termed by seamen.

      This, which is often familiarly spoken of as a dorsal fin, is simply an immovable bunch or projection on the blubber. As its form varies in the different species, it furnishes a distinctive mark to be recognized at once by the eye of the whaleman; but it is difficult to see what use it can be to the animal itself. No species of cetacea has, correctly speaking, any but pectoral fins – one on each side of the breast.

      We had passed directly among the school of killers, but they appeared to recover almost immediately from their fright, and rallied a short distance astern. Presently the cry of "Blows!" from aloft, blended with the sound of the spout itself, as a whale came to the surface among the killers, and every eye was at once directed at the novel spectacle in our wake.

      The victim, who formed the central figure of the group, was not a bowhead, but a whale of the smaller species, commonly known as a "Muscle-digger." His blowing, which seemed to have a peculiar ring to it, indicative of rage and terror, was accompanied by convulsive movements of the body, as also by swinging blows of his flukes, delivered right and left at his tormentors.

      But these violent demonstrations did not last long. He seemed to


become more and more helpless and passive – scarcely exhaling at all from his spiracles – while his whole frame was agitated by a tremulous shudder, betokening mortal agony and fear. Around, over and under him, swarmed an army of killers, worrying him to death.

      These animals recognize the truth of the axiom that "in union there is strength;" always doing business on the co-operative principle. By force of numbers, and a peculiar system of offensive tactics, they usually manage to come off conquerors in their struggle with "leviathan." The lips and tongue are the chief points of attack; and the conquest ends by the death of the whale, in dreadful agony, with his tongue torn out by the roots!

      But we did not wait long to study natural history, after we were satisfied that the killers had fairly hooked to him. Down went three boats, and a rush was made with the oars; for it was quite impossible to frighten the whale more than he was frightened already. He was, indeed, unconscious of our approach, until the sharp "irons" were buried in his vitals, and his breath was choked by a rushing torrent of blood at his spout-holes. The cetaceous killers quickly abandoned the field to the human ones; and the poor worried victim fell an easy prey. In his last agony or "flurry" he struck a series of thundering blows with his tail; which he appeared to wield with the quickness and elasticity of a whip lash. We thought we had killed some right-whales famous for their performances in this line; but our oldest whalesmen who had battled more or less with almost every species, had seen nothing like his equal in flexibility, or in the swiftness with which so many blows were given. We had been on our guard, however, for this manoeuvre, and had taken care to give him room enough.

      The muscle-digger, whale, also called by the names of the "ripsack," and the "California gray," is believed to be peculiar to north latitudes. It is exceedingly shy and difficult to capture. Though, in default of larger game, we often spent much time in fruitless pursuit, this was the only specimen we took during the season. In this case, the killers had prepared the way for us, as has been seen.

      It is comparatively a small whale, and its oil is of an inferior quality. The general form of its body is like those of the polar and right-whales, having no hump or protuberance on the back. The head is small and sharp, containing no whalebone of any value.

      Although numerous in the Arctic and Okotsk seas, it is rarely taken on those grounds – being classed by the whalemen with the finback, as "unstrikeable." But in certain bays and lagoons on the coast of Upper California – where these whales go up into shallow water to breed – they are hunted with a fair degree of success. Many whalers have found it quite as profitable to make their "between-seasons" among the muscle-diggers, as to spend that time in cruising for "sperm."

      When taken in these bays they are in good condition, some of the cows making forty or even fifty barrels of oil, which is, perhaps, the limit in that


species. They are, as a general thing, exceedingly vicious and dangerous to attack. Many boats are destroyed, and many serious and even fatal accidents occur in taking them.

      From their abundance on this coast, as also from their dingy appearance, they have taken the name of California grays. Some specimens present the appearance of several little bunches, forming a sort of serrated ridge on the top of the "small," near the tail, and hence another term sometimes applied to them – "saw-backs."

      "Didn't I tell you we should get a whale before night?" said Captain Ripley, as we were hauling our prize into the fluke-chain.

      "I hope you don't call this a whale, sir," growled the mate. "He won't fill more than three casks."

      "Never mind; I said a whale," was the reply, with a self-satisfied air.

      But Mr. Edwards had thought only of the term as applied to a hundred-and-fifty-barrel bowhead, to say the least. The captain's prophecy and its fulfillment were like those of the Weird Sisters in Macbeth, who "keep the word of promise to our ear, and break it to our hope."

      "Well," he grumbled again, "this is a whale, I suppose. Small favors thankfully received, and larger ones in proportion,"

      While busied in securing the whale, a number of walruses made their appearance near us; and set up a kind of guttural roar, quite unlike any sound to which I can compare it. More and more heads popped up above the surface; and their added voices swelled the strange chorus, till at least fifty had collected, when the noise became terrific. They extended themselves out into several groups, so as almost to surround us.

      "Let's go and pitch into 'em!" said the second mate, eager for sport.

      "Go ahead, if you want to!" hailed the captain. "You'll never have a better chance."

      Seizing our paddles, so as to "face the music," we shot the light boats ahead, directly among them. The appearance of the strange beasts as they bravely held their position, was most startling.

      Instead of scattering, they huddled together as we approached. Their savage heads were thrown slightly backward, displaying the full length of their terrible ivory weapons, which contrasted fiercely with their dark muzzles.

      "Here! this big fellow!" cried the mate to his boat-steerer; and as the bright harpoon cleft the monster's side a gush of blood was seen, and the whole herd vanished as if by magic. There was a short jerk upon the line: we snubbed it hard, and held on all.

      Presently, with a defiant snort, the enraged beast was up again, and showing fight. He drove his tusks gallantly at his assailants, throwing his head alternately back and forward, as if in the act of sneezing. But the mate, watching his opportunity, met him with his spade, inflicting a deep gash in the throat. With a terrific roar he disappeared again, under a pool of his life-blood.


      The form of this animal's tusks, slightly curved, seemed admirably adapted for hooking upon a boat's gunwale; and had he succeeded in bringing his weight to bear upon such powerful levers, I doubt not, we should have been rolled over, and treated to a frigid immersion, without ceremony.

      But, mortally wounded, he whirled and writhed beneath the surface, invisible through the bloody water, until the tension upon the line was suddenly relaxed, and we pulled in – the pole, socket, and part of the shank of our harpoon!

      The tough iron had been fairly twisted off by the wringing, rotatory movement of the animal in his death-agony! We saw no more of him.

      But the herd still remained near, roaring as before, and glaring defiance at us with their great staring eyes. At our next attempt, we had better success, and secured a large cow, while each of the other boats also got one.

      As we took a turn at the loggerhead with the short warp, for towing our prize to the ship, a little nursling, unseen until now, appeared; and, hovering round, uttered low plaintive cries. Rude seamen as we were, no one had the heart to touch it .

      As soon as the body of the mother was stretched out horizontally, by the headway of the moving boat, the little one perched upon it; and, so remaining, was towed alongside, uttering the same infantile moan.

      And still, after the line was taken on board, and hauled up short, all hands grouped in the waist, looking – with an expression of pity on each rough face – at the "baby walrus," as it instinctively clung to the corpse of its mother, and upturned its innocent eyes at us.

      It has often before been observed by travelers, that there is something peculiarly touching to human feelings in the voice and actions of the seal, when in distress, either from wounds or other causes. The same is true, I think, of all animals of this family. The young ones, especially, strongly remind us of children in their helpless innocence.

      "Throw an iron into the pup, and haul him up!" suggested some one, at last. But no one volunteered for this service – eager as whalesmen usually are for any sport of this kind.

      The captain was fain to commit the murderous deed himself; excusing it as an act of mercy, since the creature must perish without its mother.

      Its sleek shining body, and delicate little muzzle, which showed, as yet, no outward indication of the projecting tusks, were in marked contrast with the savage appearance of the full grown animals.

      The walrus is not hunted in this sea – except occasionally, for sake of excitement and sport, or in default of larger game. As a business, the pursuit of them would hardly pay. The yield of oil is but a trifle; and the ivory would scarcely be worth the expenditure of "craft" in taking them.

      This animal is not confined to the basin beyond the straits of Behring, but is common in the Gulf of Anadir, and near Cape St. Thaddeus. But the parallel of 60° would seem to be its extreme southern limit, as it is not


met with, so far as known, in the sea of Okotsk. The polar whale is most abundant in that sea, even as far down as the latitude of 53°, on the western shore.

      Both the polar and muscle-digger whales, as well as the walrus, are believed to be peculiar to northern latitudes. All Antarctic researches, so far as known, have failed to discover either of these animals.

      A fog, impenetrable as a stone wall, swept down upon us soon after we had got on board. Our anchor was again dropped under foot, and we turned our attention to cutting the small whale. Shut up in a little world of our own, the long day wore away without further adventure. The twilight, which we called "night," seemed only to intensify the fog a little; and thus closed our first day's operations in the Polar Sea.

. . . .


Author: Macy, William Hussey
Title: A Day in the "Polar Basin".
Publication: ONWARD.
Vol/No/Date: Sep 1869
Pages: 231-237