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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. XLIX, No. 2 (Feb 1879)
pp. 169-175.

The Tiger of the Antarctic. 169



      The reading world has had, we may say, a surfeit of tales of Arctic exploration; but concerning the region near the Southern pole too little is known to furnish material for even a single book.

      The following strange story was told me by a very intelligent Scotchman in whose company I roughed it in the California mines, and was full of interest to me as relating to a part of the world very seldom visited by seamen of any country. Strange as it is, it carried such an air of truth about it that I religiously believed it myself, and all the more readily from my own knowledge of the Southern Ocean in somewhat lower latitude. I had myself seen individual specimens of the bloodthirsty animals described in his yarn; but they are known to be very rare, and Archie Cameron is the only voyager I ever met who professed to have seen them in any considerable numbers, or to have found the headquarters whence they came. But let Archie speak for himself, since I made notes of his narrative, and am able to give it almost exactly in his own words.

      I was at Sydney, Australia, in 1849, when the gold mania was beginning to draw adventurers here to California, and about the same time the news reached there that great fares of oil had been taken in the high northern latitude of the Pacific, and that large fleets of ships would be going up there the next season.

      I had shipped as a boat-steerer, or, as they called it in their colonial whalers, a harpooner in the "Orlando," with Captain Cowan, a countryman of mine, for a sperm-whaling cruise, intending to make our voyage chiefly on the grounds about Australia and New Zealand; but after we got to sea the skipper called his mates – and also us petty officers – together, and proposed a plan of running southward on a voyage of discovery into the regions about the Antarctic Circle. He didn't know, he said, why there should not be whaling-grounds at the South quite as profitable and as full of rich marvels as those in the Arctic seas. Neither did we see any reason why it might not be as we hoped, and it would be a great thing to be the first discoverers of an Antarctic polar whaling-ground.

      We were all anxious to try our luck, and a few weeks would suffice to settle the truth, leaving us time, if unsuccessful, to prosecute our voyage elsewhere. Although the "Orlando" was not specially fitted for such a peculiar voyage, she was a good, staunch vessel, and well found; and so, with stout hearts, we crowded all sail to the southward, it being then in the month of November, with the Southern summer close at hand.

      We soon began to experience much heavy weather as we increased our latitude, and were also compelled always to keep a sharp look-out for floating icebergs, which we might expect at any time to encounter; but nothing daunted, we held our course into what might be called the unknown sea, meeting with no right whales, or any of the species of whale so plenty up north. Finbacks were common enough, as I believe they are all over the ocean, and occasionally a humpback was seen; but sperm whales, the most valuable of all the cetacea, were quite abundant, and we found them even at the highest latitude reached by us during our cruise, which was about sixty-eight degrees.

      We made the best use of our time whaling whenever the weather and the state of the sea would permit us to work; but many times we had sperm whales tantalizing us when it was too rugged to put a boat into the water, and in two instances, after having pilled a large spermaceti, we lost him from alongside by parting our fluke-chains. Still, we made the cruise pay, taking about five hundred barrels of sperm oil, which was not bad work for a short summer cruise.

      But it is not so much with the general whaling voyage that my story has to deal as with one particular adventure in which I had a part, and which, I may say, was the strangest of my wandering life.

      In latitude sixty-eight we came to a bar-

170 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.

rier in the form of high and rocky land, which we found to extend east and west as far as we explored, which, however, was only three or four degrees. The ice was heavy and dangerous, and we were never able to approach very near to the main body of the land, which, for aught I know, may have been a continuation of the Antarctic Continent seen by your countryman Wilkes. But there were some detached islands lying off like picket posts beyond the land, and these were also lofty and rocky, all appearing to be volcanic in character and formation. Everywhere we found bold shores, getting no soundings with the deep-sea line, even when very near to the islands, and discovering nowhere any danger below the surface of the sea.

      It was while we were pretty close in to a certain high peak, to which Captain Cowan had given the name of "The Colossus," that several large sperm whales made their appearance; and as it was a very fine day, unusually so for those regions, we lowered away our boats, hoping to capture one of them. The sea about us and all around the island was at that time clear of ice> though there were ice-fields and bergs in the distance between us and the mainland. I was harpooner of the second mate's boat, and, the chance turning in our favor, we soon got near to one of the whales; but he had taken the alarm, and was in the act of rounding to go down when I succeeded in getting an iron in, but it was well aft in his small, where it only stung him, and made him lively, without materially crippling him. Off he started, heading directly in for the island, while our shipmates in the mate's boat buckled down to their oars for a stern chase.

      We did not feel that we had a very safe hold with our one iron, and Mr. Davenport, the second mate, was full of anxiety to get the second one in. But our steed was such a lively one that it soon became evident that we should not easily succeed; nor would the mate soon be able to re-enforce us by getting a second boat fast.

      Our whale kept steadily in shore on a beeline; but we were running for the lee-side of the island, and into a bight of the land where it was very smooth, and the place might have formed a very comfortable roadstead if there had been suitable depth for anchorage; but the lead would have struck no bottom at a hundred fathoms within a ship's length of the base of "The Great Colossus."

      We went at the same running speed, leaving the other boat far in the distance, and getting so close to the rocks that Mr. Davenport declared that the whale must change his course very quickly, or bring up with his junk butt against a dead wall. At this moment he threw up his flushes, and went down, spinning the line out of the tub until nearly a hundred fathoms had been taken, and we were so near the cliff that we could not venture to check him unless he should change his course, or we should actually wreck the boat. For a few minutes we expressed no opinions, being completely mystified. The second male looked over the bow of the boat, watching the direction of the line as it straightened out under water, then, rising erect, and turning toward me with a look of blank amazement, he exclaimed: –

      "Archie, what sort of an infernal place have we got into? The whale is under the island!"

      "The devil he is!" said I. "It doesn't look like a floating island, at any rate."

      "No; but there must be an arch, or a gateway, or something of the kind – or an overhang, at least. There! I can feel the line grating and chafing against the rocks way down below the range of sight."

      Presently the tension relaxed, and our line hung slack. We hauled in a few fathoms and came to the end, apparently chafed off.

      Here was a strange adventure, a story to tell Captain Cowan, on our return, that we could hardly expect him to believe. But first we told it to Mr. Ellis, the mate, as soon as he came up within hail, and the two officers stared at each other in utter astonishment.

      "Well," said the chief mate, after a while, "there must be a cavern under water. I know there's one above the surface, a little more along shore to the northward, for I took note of it as I came along. I suppose your whale must come up again right here before long – unless, indeed, there's a submarine passage running chock through, in which case he'll come out to windward of the island."

      We lay on our oars waiting for half an hour or more; but, seeing nothing, we decided to pull up to the cavern of which the mate had spoken, and gratify our curiosity

The Tiger of the Antarctic. 171

by examining it a little. Our ship was lying comfortably hove to within three miles of us, and there was every indication of fine weather for the day. Fair weather had been a very rare thing with us since we passed the parallel of fifty degrees; but it was now January, and nearly midsummer in that hemisphere.

      As we approached the entrance of the cavern, we found it to be about thirty feet wide, so that there was not room for two whale-boats to enter it abreast of each other, with full room to swing their oars. There was very little swell or agitation at the gateway, and apparently none at all inside. The top of the arch might have been fifteen feet above the surface of the sea; but it was not dark, for we could see that the narrow inlet continued but a short distance, and then it opened into a clearing, as was apparent by the light, and also by the sound of animal life. The screaming of a multitude of sea birds was mingled with a peculiar roaring and croaking, not exactly like anything that we had ever heard before, but seeming to be a compromise between the monotonous chant of an army of penguins and the heavy respiration of a herd of sea-elephants.

      We were all filled with curiosity and the hope of making some valuable discoveries, and did not hesitate a moment to enter the passage; Mr. Ellis, as the superior officer, leading the way, and we following close in his wake.

      The passage widened a little as we advanced, and a dozen strokes of the oars sent us through the obscurity to where the light began to grow stronger. A little farther, and our boat shot into a basin, or, as you Americans might term it, a "clearing," of perhaps half a mile in diameter, nearly circular, the strangest and most romantic spot that my eyes had ever looked upon. It was like an inland lake, shut in on every side by precipices of volcanic rock rising to the height of several hundred feet, and the light of heaven shining down into it from the piece of blue sky inclosed overhead. But we did not at the first view stop to examine the natural beauties of the place, for our attention was distracted by the spectacle of animal life before and around us; for this curious amphitheatre was literally alive with an army of beasts of a kind quite new and novel. They were not large in size, being smaller than the sea-elephant, more lithe and slender in form, with sleek skins, and handsomely spotted over the whole length of the body. As they erected themselves upon their flippers, and roared at us in chorus, I observed that their heads were longer and sharper than those of any other beast of the seal family which I had known, while their open jaws showed several rows of sharp and powerful teeth, which for strength and beauty rivaled those of the tiger-shark, highly valued by the Maoris of New Zealand.

      As I before said, the peculiar noise which came from their throats cannot be compared to anything which we had heard before, but it increased in loudness and fury when the boats emerged into the open space among them, so that the din was quite deafening. It was something of a trial to our strength of nerve to be thus suddenly introduced among these thousands of ferocious beasts, though the whaleman is not accustomed to stand in fear of anything that lives in the ocean after he has once made its acquaintance.

      "Now, then, what do you call these?" asked Mr. Ellis, screaming to make his voice heard above the clamor. "I should say they were a cross between the sea-serpent and the spotted kangaroo of Australia, with a dash of the laughing hyena thrown in."

      "The sea-leopard! the sea-leopard!" roared Mr. Davenport, in the same key. "I've never seen many of them, but now and then a specimen at Desolation and the Crozettes. They were very rare, and nobody ever knew where they came from, or whither they went. They have the name of being very fierce, and of killing seals and sea-elephants, in fact, killing everything, and killing each other, for nobody knows much about them; but I guess we've found their headquarters now."

      Sure enough, we had; for not only were the beasts numerous here, but they appeared to be perfectly at home. From the number of little cubs that we saw it was evident that the season of parturition was just over, and that the females, like those of other amphibia, were waiting the time when their offspring should be strong enough to go to sea with them. The little ones were not at all interesting, having a mean, sneaky appearance, and their monotonous whine was even more unpleasant than the savage noise made by their elders. Many full-grown

172 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.

males, or, as whalemen would call them, "bulls," were scattered throughout the crowd as if to act as guards and protectors, though there seemed to be no regular family system.

      But I must say more about the natural features of the place.

      The water where the boats now lay was not more than three feet deep, and appeared to be of that depth, or little more, all over the basin except in the very centre. It was as if a bottom had been pushed up from the depths below, or as if the place had been the crater of a volcano, elevated much higher at a former period, and by some great convulsion had sunk to its present level, which last I have no doubt was the fact. At the sides of the basin, or at least on all sides excepting that toward the sea-face where we had entered, the bed of rock and lava rose above the level so as to form a sort of narrow beach, where the female leopards with their young congregated high and dry, while many of the males were floundering in the brine all over the lagoon, if I may so call it. But in the very centre of the place was a circle of about a hundred feet diameter where the water was so dark that it might be bottomless, showing in marked contrast with the lighter color of the pool all around. This deep hole, of course, marked the shaft of the old crater, and gave further evidence that this curious basin had been created by volcanic changes.

      We took our paddles, and leisurely propelled our boats across to the west side, to the great consternation of the old leopards in the pool, among whom we passed, and who increased their clamor tenfold, while the "clap-matches" or matrons of the tribe joined in with both voice and gesture, indicating their willingness to fight and die in defence of their young. They raised themselves upon their flippers, and stretched open their long jaws, displaying the cruel fangs with which they were armed.

      I have observed in most other animals of the genus phoca, even to the hideous walrus of the northern seas, a pitiful expression when attacked, or even approached, by man; but with these leopards the whole attitude and air was one of defiance, and almost of menace. Here were thousands of pairs of staring eyes fixed upon us as the centre of observation, thousands of rows of bristling teeth that seemed ready at a signal to tear any living thing that might be so rash as to invade their domain.

      "We must kill one or two of those reptiles," said Mr. Davenport, "to carry away with us as curious specimens, though I don't think they have any other value but as curiosities, for there's neither oil, bone, nor ambergris about them that I know of."

      "Well, hold on," said the mate; "don't be so rash as to attack here, right in the very thick of them. We'll wait until we are just ready to back out at the door where we came in, and then we'll venture to tackle a fellow. If he cuts up rough, we'll heave an iron into him, tow him outside, and finish him out. there; but I must confess that I don't care to fight the devil at close quarters. I guess we've seen all the wonders of this strange rookery, and we'll just take to our paddles, and cross over again to the gateway."

      We obeyed orders, but could not resist the impulse to linger over the deep water in the middle, vainly peering down into its fathomless depths.

      All at once there was a swelling and a boiling of water beneath us, just as if the old volcano had started its fires again; and we involuntarily threw more strength into our paddle-strokes. We had scarcely shot clear into the smooth, shallow basin when the surface of the deep shaft was broken by the sudden uplifting of a sleek, ponderous mass, and a deep, strong respiration, with a shower of fine salt spray blown upon our very heads, almost frightened us out of our wits. It was the spout-hole and junk of a large sperm whale that we saw as we turned to look back; and as the black body straightened itself out, reaching two-thirds of the diameter of the shaft, we saw the water slightly tinged with blood, and our harpoon and piece of line hanging from his " small." It was the same whale that had escaped from us into the submarine passage!

      Struck dumb as we all were for a full minute at this new cause for wonder, the two officers nevertheless began involuntarily to clear away their long lances, and get ready for action; for here was, at least, a prize worth fighting for, though a moment's thought would have shown that we never could secure the prize, after having killed him. But a spermaceti whale was at least a legitimate prey for us, and a foeman worthy of our steel.

The Tiger of the Antarctic. 173

      "I don't know what kind of an enchanted island we've got into," said Davenport, "where a big sperm whale dives underground, and comes up in a place just big enough to hold him, like a tank in a royal aquarium; but we can kill him, at any rate, if we can't the – Halloo! the leopards are taking the job out of our hands."

      An increase of fury had been observable among the strange beasts, and a general snuffing of the air, as if they scented blood; and now, as the whale again blew forth his spout, and, lifting his tail in an agony of pain, forced a fresh gush of blood from the wound, there was a general rush of the leopards from every quarter to the attack.

      The ferocity was frightful to behold as they tumbled pell mell over each other in their eagerness, and the mothers, leaving their young, threw themselves down the bank into the shallow water to get their part in the great battle.

      I had never seen any animal attack the whale except killers, which are themselves a species of whale; and it is very seldom that even these attack one of the sperm species. I have read much about dreadful battles between the whale and the swordfish; but I must confess that in my experience I have never seen anything of the kind, and, what is very singular, have never met with any whalemen who had. But anything like the blood-thirsty ferocity of these leopards I have never seen or heard of. Utterly reckless of life, they dashed upon the whale at all points, by scores and by hundreds, fastening their fangs into him at every available spot, some tearing his spiracle; some fastening upon his flukes and small, gnawing at the wound, and tugging away at my iron, eagerly lapping every drop of blood from his body; others seizing upon his joles and about the root of the jaw, and even thrusting in their sharp heads to fasten upon his tongue, at the risk of being crushed, as some of them actually were, by the immense and powerful jaw.

      The monster fought stubbornly, but seemed unable to escape by going down under water, for his tormentors followed, never letting go their hold, and soon forced him, harassed and tortured as he was, to come again to the surface for fresh air.

      Several times he buried himself, going down endwise; but a moment later his head would shoot up again vertically, with two or three of his small assailants in his mouth, shutting his ivory upon them with such power that the cracking of their bones was fearful to hear. But at such times we could see that a portion of these relentless little savages were hard at work upon his breast, between the pectoral fins, where they had eaten a large place away into the flesh. He was evidently doomed to die without any aid from our lances, and the conflict was so absorbing that we had only to lie still in our boats, at a safe distance, and watch its progress.

      Leviathan killed many of the leopards before he was conquered; but others rushed, like brave soldiers in a forlorn hope, to fill the vacant place; and as he grew weaker, and more blood flowed from new wounds, his enemies seemed to redouble their efforts, attacking at all points with increased ferocity and vigor. After a while he became so sore and spent in force that he no longer attempted to go down, but still fought vigorously with his flukes, often dashing them heavily upon the rocky bottom in the shallow basin, for there was not much room to spare in the deep hole when he straightened out, and woe to the luckless leopard who was caught within range of his ponderous tail when he made one of these heavy sweeps with it. But now the water became more discolored under his breast until the whole pool was dyed a deep blood-red, and his relaxed efforts and feeble respiration told the fatal story that his life-tide was being poured out from the terrible wounds under his breast.

      "Paddle off a few strokes, and give him plenty of room in his dying flurry. There's no knowing what shines he may cut up. He might stand up on end, and fall over on us. There! there he goes in his flurry."

      And it was well that we did give him more room by paddling out of his way. He did not stand on end, but, rallying all his immense strength in his last blind effort, he forced and dragged himself head-foremost up into the shallow water nearly his whole length, where, quite spent, and wallowing in his own blood, with nearly his whole bulk high and dry above the water, he breathed his last, after a few convulsive throes.

      The leopards, swarming around his body by hundreds, proceeded to gorge themselves with blood and flesh, showing such fury and voracity as no words can describe. In his last dying effort, as he fell upon the rocks,

174 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.

he had added three or four to the number of victims he had slain; but there were still thousands left, and they seemed to give no heed whatever to the fate of their slaughtered comrades. Even the young cubs who were strong enough to crawl snuffed the scent with the keenest relish, and hastened to take a part in the bloody feast.

      To tell the truth, we could not make an attempt upon the living leopards, after what we had seen of their savage prowess; but each boat fastened with a harpoon to one of the dead ones killed in the battle with the whale, and, taking them in tow, we pulled away through the narrow arch out into the great Southern Ocean again, glad to escape from the dreadful clamor and the strange odors of the place, though we were obliged to leave ninety barrels of sperm oil to go to naught, and to do nobody any good, when we so much wanted it to stow down in the Orlando's hold. But the difficulties in the way of securing it were too great, even to say nothing of our being forced to fight those amphibia in their own lairs.

      Of course there was no possibility of getting the whale afloat; and though we might have cut off a great portion of his jacket, and towed the blubber out in rafts, the labor would have been immense, and it would pay better, on the whole, to spend our time in cruising for another whale.

      We went on board, and reported to Captain Cowan, who found it very difficult to believe our story, notwithstanding the evidence of the two dead leopards we had brought off. He intended to man his own boat, and go in the afternoon to examine for himself; but as it came on to blow hard, with much thick weather, we lost that chance.

      We crowded sail hard through the night to get an offing, and it was at least three weeks before we again had "The Colossus" in sight.

      In the meantime we had taken two more large sperm whales, being far out of sight of land at the time.

      At this season the nights were very short, and indeed darkness itself was little more or less than dim twilight; but for three nights we had seen a great glare in the heavens, illuminating the whole southern quarter, and from the strange sounds of explosions that we heard, and the agitation of the ocean where we were, it was plain that we had seen something more than the Aurora Australis. Volcanic changes were going on such as we have reason to believe are quite frequent in high southern latitudes; but after the three days and nights mentioned all the tremblings and strange noises ceased, and no more fires were seen in the heavens at night.

      When we again approached "The Colossus," it was in fair weather, and we got sight of its summit sooner than we expected, according to our calculation of the latitude. As we drew nearer this was accounted for to our satisfaction; for, although the outline of the peak against the sky was the same in form as before, it was much higher, as if it had been by some miraculous power driven upward from the depths of the sea.

      The captain's boat and our own were lowered away, this time leaving Mr. Ellis in charge of the ship. We were satisfied as we drew near that the changes had indeed been marvelous since our former visit there. Within half a mile of the rocky tower we found ourselves in green water, and a little farther on struck soundings in ten fathoms, where before we had carried an apparently bottomless ocean, even into the very gates of "Pandemonium." The arch where the boats had entered was now more than sixty feet above the sea-level, and the great overhang under which the whale had sounded was now above water, showing a wide cavern into which we could go with half a dozen boats pulling abreast of each other. The old water-line high above our heads could easily be distinguished now by the difference in the fresh appearance of the newly risen land and the storm-beaten face of the rock above the line.

      We pulled into the cavern, proceeding for a considerable distance in almost total darkness, until, guided by the circle of light beyond, we came to the old shaft of the crater up which our whale had gone into the lair of the leopards.

      The shaft, as before stated, was about a hundred feet in diameter at the top, but was not more than fifty at the bottom, where we now were, being funnel-shaped, and we looked upward to the sky as from a deep well, plainly seeing stars in the small patch of heaven that was visible to us. The sound of our voices, as we startled all the echoes with our hallooing, disturbed the immense flocks of birds from their work above, and they hovered in such numbers as to completely darken the air overhead

Count Otto and the Nixie. 175

until we became quiet again, when they returned to their work.

      For there, hanging down over the mouth of the pit, was to be seen the immense flukes of the skeleton of our whale, the bones picked clean and partially bleached, threatening to fall and crush us.

      "Stand from under!" roared Captain Cowan involuntarily, or so it seemed. "That's your whale, Mr. Davenport, and I can understand the whole story now. The skeleton, or a part of it that hangs over, must come tumbling down here before many days, and I would rather be somewhere else when it does fall. If this were our first visit here, how we might wonder what power or purchase had been used to boost that whale bodily up there; for he seems, as you look up through this tube, to be just half-way to heaven. But where are the leopards?"

      And echo alone answered. The season of parturition being over, they may have all gone to sea again. One thing was certain: they would seek out a new place to congregate when they should return another year, for no amphibious beast, or indeed any living thing but the ravenous sea-birds, would ever make its home upon that ledge away up in the crater of "The Colossus."

      "But, Archie," I asked, "what did you do with the specimens of beasts that you brought away from 'Pandemonium '?"

      "We preserved the skeletons very carefully; and one of them may be found in a museum at Sydney, while the other was sent to London, where I presume it was a nine-days' wonder among the savants. The sea-leopard has always been a very rare beast; and so it is anywhere this side of the Antarctic Circle, for it is only now and then that one strays away from his native haunts, – those ice-bound regions about the South Pole."

      "But don't you think those regions will ever be better known?"

      "No, I don't; because there is little or nothing to pay. Two or three other whalers have made cruises up that way, and it is well settled that the Antarctic Ocean is not inhabited by either right whales or bow-headed whales. There are sperm whales enough; but the weather, on the whole, is so very rough and unfavorable for the whaleman's work that it will pay better to hunt for sperm oil somewhere else. And I should wish any adventurous fellow a jolly time of it who went to hunt the little Antarctic tiger, especially if he had to fight him in his native jungle."


Author: Macy, William Hussey
Title: The Tiger of the Antarctic.
Publication: Ballou's Monthly Magazine.
Vol/No/Date: Vol. 49, No. 2 (Feb 1879)
Pages: 169-175