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19th Century American Whaling

Bonin Islands

Pitcairn's Island

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Ashley's Glossary of
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Dana's Dictionary of
Sea Terms


W. H. Macy

Ballou's Monthly Magazine
Vol. XXXIII, No. 5 (May 1871)
pp. 460-462.

460 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.



      We had fastened to a large right-whale in Bristol Bay, north of the island of Oonalashka, the distant outlines of its mountains being in sight from the ship at the time. She turned to windward and ran us for several hours, seeming to retain her full vigor, and only abating her racing-speed now and then for a few minutes.

      In addition to numerous wounds from the hand-lances, such as might have been expected to kill any ordinary whale, she had endured the explosion of three bombs in her body. Her "small" had also been mangled by repeated cuts of the boat-spades, till it seemed that all the great sinews must have been severed.

      But victory at last declared for our banners; the fourth shot from the lance-gun appeared to reach the vital spot which had hitherto escaped our efforts, and the mighty mass showed signs of speedy dissolution. Tired, drenched and shivering, our cheers of triumph rent the air for the "red flag," as the next trumpet-blast of our giant victim was choked by a rushing torrent of her life-blood. We congratulated each other upon having secured so rich a prize, for we estimated her yield of oil at not less than one hundred and fifty barrels.

      She rolled her breast up to the surface; the broad pectoral fins lifted with a last dying quiver, and fell against her sides. The angry, boiling waters closed over all; a fearful strain was suddenly felt upon our sides; and a quick surge at the loggerhead alone saved us from being engulfed.

      The two boats were brought abreast, gunwale to gunwale, with the oars shipped in; the weight of the crews thrown more aft to balance the strain; the lines snubbed till the bows were brought down to the very point of submersion; but all was useless. The immutable law of gravity and displacement was against us this time.

      "Stand by to cut!" said the mate to the officer in the other boat, at the same time drawing the boat-knife from its sheath.

      "No! Hold your hands!" roared the captain, whose boat had just got within hailing distance. He had been for two hours engaged in verifying the proverb that "a stern chase is a long one," and was still straining every nerve to be "in at the death." He was heaving desperately in aid of his stroke-oarsman, with his hat off, his hair flying wildly behind him in the breeze, and his whole frame writhing with excitement. "Don't cut, Mr. Barrett! Veer away on your lines and let her go to bottom. I'll go aboard and work the ship as near to you as I can. There aren't more than thirty fathoms of water here."

      The light boats regained their trim with a sudden recoil, as the turns were thrown off the loggerheads, and the lines suffered to spin out through the chocks till they hung slack, indicating that the whale lay on the bottom.

      Our late triumphant cheers were changed to gloomy mutterings, interspersed with bitter expletives of disappointment. Our risks and toils had been endured in vain; for there was little hope that we should be any the richer for our day's work.

      The ship, meanwhile, was so skillfully handled that her way was stopped within a few fathoms of us, and the anchor let go in thirty-two fathoms. The two lines were then led on board through a large cleet near the bow, the sails furled, and everything made snug. No more could be done for the day; and, having changed our water-logged garments for dry ones, and satisfied our ravenous hunger, we prepared to await the result with what patience we might. Everything depended on the weather, which at the time was light and foggy, with a comparatively smooth sea.

      Occurrences like this which I have described form the most serious drawback to the success of the right-whaleman. It is no unusual thing for a single ship to lose several hundred barrels of oil in a season, by the whales sinking after they had been killed.

      If this occur on soundings, it is sometimes possible, under very favorable circumstances, to bring one to the surface, and secure him; though so much loss of time is involved, that it is generally thought best, if the weather be clear, to abandon him, and cruise in search of another. If in deep water, there is no alternative but to cut lines, pocket our vexation and try again.

Raising a Sunken Whale. 461

      The specific gravity of the animal, when first killed, is very nearly the same as that of the element in which he hangs suspended. For the whale floats in the water instead of on it, as he is often falsely represented in pictures. The ideal leviathan of the artist would seem to be a hollow body, inflated; or at least, composed of some material like cork.

      On the contrary, it hangs so nicely balanced, that in some cases, a very slight matter, such as an accidental shock, a downward inclination of one end of the body, or an escape of confined air at lance-holes or other openings, is sufficient to turn the scale and send it to the bottom. And this, after having, apparently, floated with sufficient buoyancy at the moment of death.

      The reason of the difference in the specific gravities of different individuals of the same species, has, thus far, baffled the whaleman's philosophy. He has no means of determining beforehand as to the chances in any particular case, nor of guarding against so disheartening a result. Of course there are multitudinous theories, but none has yet been found infallible. Many an old whaleman has tried to evolve a rule from the result of his observations in several cases; but it has failed him when he least expected it. It is easy for an old knight of the lance to say, "I knew that whale was going to sink by his actions before he turned up." But we shall find him of such wonderful foresight, pointing out the same "actions" in the next specimen, and prophesying a similar result – to be most delightfully disappointed a few minutes later. Comparative fatness appears to have nothing whatever to do with the chances of sinking or floating. For those which sink and are recovered, having risen again by the operation of natural causes, are found to be in as good condition as any others. While on the other hand, very lean specimens, and even those known as "dryskins," are quite as liable to float.

      At the time of the introduction of the bomb-lance, which is simply a hollow cone, or rather pointed cylinder of cast-iron, filled with powder, and fired from a heavy shoulder-gun, it was thought that one of its advantages might lie in this direction. But, although a most valuable invention for other reasons, it does not appear to have produced any results in the way of diminishing the loss of whales from this cause.

      The bowhead or polar whale occasionally sinks, but the liability is much less than in the case of the right-whale. The instances of sinking sperm whales are very rare, compared with either of the others. Again, the black-fish, which possesses more points of resemblance than any other member of the cetaceous family to the sperm whale, and like it, carries a reservoir of oily matter in its head, almost always sinks. Not so heavily, however, but that, being a smaller animal, it can, in most cases, be held up by a boat. But there seems no rule without exceptions; for occasionally one is killed which, left to itself, swims quite buoyantly. The proportion of "sinkers " among a given number of humpback whales, is even greater than of rightwhales. The same is true of the finback, so far as we have opportunities for observation; though very few of this species are killed.

      I have been led into a long digression; but I have not forgotten that I left our ship anchored in Bristol Bay, and that her prize was anchored alongside of her – but at the wrong end of the cable. Light winds and fog prevailed all night and throughout the next day. But the second night, the breeze strengthened, and a "chop" was getting up, that made the captain impatient to be doing something. He could restrain himself no longer, after daylight arrived.

      "Call all hands, Mr. Barrett!" said he, "and 'snatch' the lines and heave away. He's been down more than thirty-six hours now; he ought to begin to grow lighter."

      The ends of the lines were carried aloft and led through snatch-blocks at the foremast head. They were brought down to the windlass, and the strain made to bear as equally as possible upon both. The tough little ropes, not an inch in diameter, stretched and narrowed under the tension, till they seemed reduced to half that size; but we soon became satisfied that we were really lifting the whole mass by these two little strings, which appeared such a disproportion of means to the end.

      The movement of the windlass-brakes was slow and regular, while the captain himself stood with a hand on each of the lines, now stiffened like wires; for it was all-important to equalize the strain. Inch by inch the ponderous mass was lifted, of course growing lighter as it neared the surface. But when the glistening "blackskin" came in sight alongside the ship, it seemed as if something must snap – either the lines, or the harpoons to which they were attached.

      A cheer burst from the men, but was in-

462 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.

stantly checked by the mate, with "Hold your noise, there! Don't holler till you're out of the woods! Avast heaving now! and stand by your buoy-line and fluke-chain."

      A large rope, known as a "winding-tackle-fall," such as is used in the ponderous cutting-blocks of a whaleship, was made ready, and by means of a small line and buoy, was passed round the whale and a clinch made in the end. The fluke-chain was then put on by the same process, one end of it being hauled through a ring in the other, and thus slipped down to its place on the whale's "small."

      While these operations, which occupied considerable time, were being performed, the whole weight hung suspended by these lines. These looked scarcely larger than a man's little finger, and each particular ropeyarn appeared to "give" a little, to ease the burden upon all the rest.

      The fluke-chain, the largest one we had on board, and which had before stood many a severe strain, was taken in through the ironplated port, and roused up as short as possible. As we threw the turns round the bow-sprit-bitts, we felt that the prize was secured.

      "We've got him, now, boys!" said Mr. Barrett, in high glee.

      "Veer away the lines!" was the order. And with a snap and a surge the whale settled away out of view, until the whole weight was brought to hang upon the chain.

      The stout links trembled as they felt the added trial of their tenacity; the bights round the "sampson-post" clanked and cracked while the slack was rendering; the ship heeled nearly plankshear-to – and righted again with a quick recoil. A report like that of a gun told that the heavy chain had parted.

      "He's gone now, for good!" said half a dozen voices.

      "Not quite yet!" said the mate. "Keep clear of that hawser as it runs out!"

      We had reason to be thankful now that we had spent so much time in fluking the whale with both rope and chain. He sank down into his former bed at the bottom, but we had a stout connection with him by means of the cutting fall.

      The sea and wind increased all day, but very gradually. Our anchor held without dragging, and another night passed away, But it was evident at the dawn of the next day that something must be done very soon. The breeze was fast becoming a gale; and it would not be possible to lie many more hours at anchor.

      We brought the large rope to the windlass, and felt, at the first trial, the difference which twenty-four hours had made in the burden. It would have risen to the surface, of course, by the buoyant power of the gases generated and pent-up within it, could we have waited long enough for natural causes to operate. Faster and faster we gained upon our work, as the tension grew less and less; until suddenly the captain cried:

      "Avast, there! take your hawser and run it in by hand!"

      We hastened to obey the order, but we could not take care of the slack, now. I looked over the side – our whale was coming! She seemed to leap half her bulk above the surface, as if elated at being released from her submarine prison. She tossed joyously on the turbulent sea; and as joyously we went to work to secure our well-earned prize.

      "You'd find it harder to pull her under,now, than you did to pull her up," said the mate.

      Half an hour later, we were lying under short canvas, with the anchor at the bows, and "cutting-in" our whale, the admiration and envy of half a dozen accidental consorts.


Author: Macy, William Hussey
Title: Raising a Sunken Whale.
Publication: Ballou's Monthly Magazine.
Vol/No/Date: Vol. 33, No. 5 (May 1871)
Pages: 460-462