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19th Century American Whaling

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No. 3.

W. H. Macy

Ballou's Monthly Magazine
Vol. LXIII, No. 3 (Mar 1886)
pp. 223-227.


. . . .



No. 3.

To Kamtchatka and the Icy Barrier – Right Whaling.

      A Few hours' detention at Honolulu, the great way-station of the North Pacific, and we speed on again with a fresh supply of one of the necessities of Yankee life, newspapers, with letters too, of comparatively recent date, and, as lhad expected, with the whaling gun and bomb lances to match placed in the mate's charge.

      It is after leaving the Sandwich Islands bound northward that we begin to realize what is before us, to feel that we have cut loose from civilization, and that six months of isolation, of hardship and of peril await us, in the inhospitable Arctic seas. A few days carry us beyond the limits of the northeast trades, a few more and we begin to experience a great change of temperature, as the cool nights and mornings of our own New England latitudes steal upon us. Thick monkey jackets become desirable watch-mates, and boots, Russian caps, and other articles of wardrobe which have been hidden away in obscure corners since the redoubtable Horn was left behind, and possession of which has been almost forgotten, are again dragged forth to the light of heaven, and furbished up in anticipation of a speedy demand for their services. The "slop chest," too, represented in this case by several sturdy iron-clad casks, displays its tempting stores of woolen under-garments, shirts, jackets, boots and brogans, and for a few hours the main deck is converted into an outfitting emporium, as the phrase goes. Goods art sold on long credit, demand is brisk and business active for the time being; an entry clerk is installed for the occasion, who extemporizes a desk on the capstan-head. Jack must call early to secure bargains, for the store will close punctually at the, time announced, not to be reopened for months to come, perhaps.

      The night watch become more vigilant as the temperature lowers; there is less hugging of the windlass bits, and " caulking" of defective seams in the forecastle by drowsy youngsters, with more promenading and skylarking among us; for locomotion is conducive to comfort, and smart muscular exercises are no longer laborious. Scrubbrooms are gradually falling into desuetude, the operation of washing down decks being performed occasionally, when really necessary, instead of being looked upon, as heretofore, as an indispensable formula or part of the day's work. Exhortations are frequently thrown skyward from the quarter-deck to "look sharp for a forked spout! " for we are putting through latitudes frequented by the right whale. Fogs, which occupy a prominent place among the dangers incident to boat service in this part of the world, are of frequent occurrence, though not, as yet, of very long duration. A change is observable in the color of the ocean, which seems no longar to possess the clear blue appearance by which it is distinguished in the lower latitudes. Its hue is more dull and brown, and, at times, there is a reddish or coppery appearance, usually attributed to the presence of myriads of animalcula on which right whales are supposed to feed. The tropic bird has long since deserted us and given place to the petrel and wandering albatross, though this last bird seems neither to be so


numerous nor to attain to such immense size as in the Antarctic Hemisphere.

      Our first experience in right whaling was not of an encouraging nature. We struck a large whale which turned to windward, and ran us nearly all day, with two boat* fast, seeming for several hours to retain its full vigor and powers, although she had endured the explosion of three bombs in her body, besides receiving wounds with the handlance, such as might have been expected to kill any ordinary whale; while her "small" had been mangled by repeated cuts of the boatspades till it seemed as if all the great sinews must have been severed, without materially slackening her racing speed. But victory at last declared for our banners; the fourth shot from the lance-gun seemed to reach the vital spot which had hitherto escaped our best efforts, and the might}' mass soon showed signs of a speedy dissolution. Tired, drenched and cold, we gave three cheers of tnumph, and gathered in our lines short, congratulating each other that our rich prize was secured, for we estimated her to yield us not less than a hundred and fifty barrels of oil. She rolled her breast up to the service, the fins lifled with a last dying quiver and fell against her sides, the angry, boiling waters closed over all, a fearful strain was suddenly felt on our lines, and a quick surge at the loggerhead alone saved us from being engulfed. The two boats are brought side by side, the weight of the crews thrown more aft to balance the strain, the lines snubbed till we are brought down to the yen' point of submersion, but ali is useless. Xo more can be done, and reluctantly the mate gives the word "Cut!" for the sea is pouring in over our gunwales, when both lines are severed at the same instant, and the light boats regain their trim with a sudden recoil. 'With sad, hearty and hitter expletives of disappointment we take our course for the ship, casting longing looks at the spot where the monster last went down. Our risks and toils have been endured in vain; the immutable law of displacement and specific gravity is against us this time, and there is nought for us to do but pocket our vexation and try again.

      This is one of the most serious drawbacks to the success of the right-whaleman, it being no unusual circumstance for a single ship to lose several hundred barrels of oil in a season by whales sinking after they have been killed. If this occur on soundings it is sometimes possible, under favorable circumstances, to bring him to the surface and secure him, but if in deep water there is no remedy. The specific gravity of the animal when dead is very nearly the same as that of the element in which it is suspended, and a very small matter, such as an accidental shock, a downward inclination of one end of the body, or an escape of confined air at a lance-hole or other opening, is in many cases sufficient to turn the scale and send it to the bottom, when apparently floating with sufficient buoyancy at the moment of death. Xo method has yet been discovered of determining with anydegree of certainty beforehand, as to the chances in any particular case, or of guarding against so disheartening a result The instances of sinking sperm whales, comparatively speaking, are very rare.

      Our disappointment was, however, soon forgotten, being more than counterbalanced by our good fortune the next day. The weather was thick and unfavorable for whaling, the air being charged with fog, at times more or less dense, and the ship jogging through a rugged sea under easy canvas. No one aloft, but a good lookout was kept from the deck; it being often the case in the northern seas, that a low position is more favorable than an elevated one, as the observer looks under the fog which may at the same time be quite impervious from the masthead. The blowing -of whales ,was heard under our lee, but nothing could be seen. The peculiar ringing sound assured us that fright whales only could have made it, and its frequency also denoted the presence of more than one. The sounds increased in volume and violence, till the snorting and bellowing exceeded anything of which we had supposed whales to be capable, and were accompanied by other sounds of breaching and lashing the sea with flukes and fins, till all hands were assembled on the main deck to listen and wonder at it, and every eye was strained in a vain endeavor to pierce the dense, impenetrable veil that concealed the cause of it from view. The ship was arrested in her course by throwing the main-topsail aback that she might not forge the spot, and the thrashing ami bellowing continued, coming to our ears still louder and fiercer.

      "There must be several whales together," the captain remarked, shooting impatient and fruitless glances into the mist. "A gam


of right whales. They are having a grand blowout too, a regular Fourth of July."

      "Yes, it's a gam of right whales, fast enough," answered the mate, •'but it's anything but a jubilee they are having. There is mortal agony and terror in that blowing. The killers are at work upon them, and if the fog would clear a little and give us a sight at them, I think we would stand a good chance to strike."

      "Yes, no doubt of it," assented Mr. Norton. "If the killers have fairly hooked to them, as I think they have, you may go right on with the oars, for you can't gaily them any more than they are already. There, it lights up to leeward!"

      The fog was indeed lighting as he spoke, gradually thinning, as it were, and opening away right and left, disclosing to our eager eyes a sight that astonished all of us novices, while the faces of the officers fairly glowed with professional enthusiasm.

      Within less than half a mile under our lee lay three large right whales, their heads brought to a focus, seemingly for mutual protection and assistance, and their flukes radiating from this common centre, while every movement of their tremulous, shuddering bodies, as well as the unnatural roaring from their spiracles, betokened the extremity of mortal fear. Around, between, over and under them, swarmed an army of killers, a small species of cetaceous animal, who, by force of numbers, and a peculiar system of offensive tactics, usually come off conquerors in the struggle with the great leviathan of the North. The lips and tongue are the points of attack, and the contest usually ends by the death of the whale, in dreadful agony, with his tongue torn out by the roots.

      We did not lose much time in studying the wonders of natural history. The fog was blowing off with a promise of fair weather, and a few minutes found our four boats in the water and moving rapidly down to form a third party in this singular combat. Our approach was unperceived, and two of the whales were struck almost at the same instant, while the third received a mortal wound from the lance, before the cetaceous killers had fairly abandoned the field to the human ones. Taken by surprise while half stupefied with pain and terror, our gigantic victims yielded up their lifeblood nearly on the spot where the attack was made, or, to use a more technical phrase, they hardly went "out of their slick." Fortune smiled upon us in this instance, and for the first time during the voyage, the "Gorgon " might be said to be, for the moment, •'blubber-logged." A single hour's work had added more to our cargo than the whole twenty months' cruising previous to this lime, for the yield of the three whales, so easily taken, was about three hundred and fifty barrels. Thick fogs succeeded for several days, while we were busily employed in securing the whale and bone; such a fog as, to use a common phrase, " could be cut with a knife." At times the flying jibboomend was partially obscured, while at others the radius of our visible horizon extended half a mile, but these last were called " clear spells." Under cover of this fog we approached the coast of Kamtchatka, first becoming aware of its near vicinity by the sound of its breakers on the rock-bound shore. Stretching off again to the northeast, we made the bleak, inhospitable mountains of Behriug's Island, named for the unfortunate Russian navigator who was shipwrecked and compelled to pass the winter here, where he and many of his companions left their bones, victims of cold, hunger and scurvy. More than a century has elapsed since the terrible record of their sufferings was written, but this is the chief, indeed the only event of interest associated with the known history of this barren and otherwise uninteresting spot.

      The next day, standing to the northward, we, for the first time, met the ice, at first occasional scattering pieces, like skirmishers thrown out, but gradually increasing in number and magnitude till before night we are coasting along the outer line of a pack to which we can discover no limit. "Sail Ol" was the cry, repeated again and again, for we had now struck the fleet bound to the Arctic, and from this time we were seldom alone, at least, where the weather was clear enough to allow of our seeing any distance. The ice seems to follow the trend of the Asiatic coast, and the ships work to the northward along the outer edge of it. It is more abundant and the temperature many degrees colder than on the American side in the same latitude, at the same period of the season. It is observable, as a general rule, that the eastern side of all seas and bays extending up toward the North Pole is comparatively clear of ice at a much earlier date than the western. Thus ships may


reach a very high latitude in the Spitsbergen seas while the Greenland coast is entirely inaccessible. The same difference is noticed on the Pacific side between a Kodiak and a Kamtchatka season, while every voyager into the Ochotsk knows how comparatively late the accumulated ice-fields, remain on the Shautar side of the sea. This is doubtless owing to natural causes, perhaps to the prevalence in high latitudes of westerly winds passing over icy continents.

      As we proceed northward we find fields of ice extending across our track; and after spending two or three days coasting along it, and speaking several ships which have examined it still further without finding any passage, it is determined in council, to haul off to the south-east and spend another week or two on the right whale grounds, by which time, as the drifting and melting process is constantly going on, we may try again with a prospect of penetrating further north.

      Two days' run brought us down into fiftytwo, with th• sea clear of ice and whales numerous but shy. Five or six ships were in sight, and all manoeuvring with boats down, but no one succeeded in getting fast, and the day wore away in arduous but unprofitable efforts, until four o'clock, when a whale broke water within a quarter of a mile of us, and blew a blast of defiance at us, sending up his two diverging clouds of mist, which form the distinguishing forked spout, and displaying alternately his ragged and barna cled bonnet, and the smooth expanse of his broad back, as he lay wallowing in the sea. Late as it was, his guantlet was taken up, for the challenge was not to be declined, and down we went in pursuit, the whale going down at the same moment. But we took positions for him when he should rise again, for this species seldom remain under water more than fifteen or twenty minutes, and we calculated well in this instance, for he rose among us and the Bishop got the first chance. We heard the word " Stand up!" given to his boatsteerer, Solomon, a longsparred, powerful Marshpee Indian. We saw his first iron driven to the socket, his second was drawn back to follow it, when the flukes of the infuriated monster described a quadrant of a circle with the speed of lightning; a thundering blow was heard, no "crashing or splintering of boards was blended with it, but the form of the tall Indian shot up like a rocket and fell head foremost into the sea. The whale showed no disposition to run, though a minute perhaps passed away, and we despaired of seeing Solomon rise again. We had pulled up and our boatsteerer, Frank, was in the act of darting, when suddenly the cry rose, "Here he is!" and his face appeared at the surface, the head thrown back in an attitude like that of a tired swimmer floating backward. He was seized and dragged into his own boat, to all appearance dead.

      "Are you stove, Mr. Bishop?" inquired the mate.

      "No, sir," he answered, "not even cracked, that I can see."

      "Cut off," said Mr. Pomroy. "We'll take care of the whale. Get that man to the ship as fast as you can. Tell the old man he'd better bleed him at once. Hani line, us!"

      The other two boats were close at hand, and dashing on to the whale, for it was late in the day, and there was no time to lose. It was much in our favor that h« showed a determination to stand his ground and tight, rather than run to windward, and though the second mate had his boat slightly cracked, and the oars broken in making his attack, he swung clear without further damage. Mr. Norton, who followed him, got in a well directed lance, and our cheers rent the air for the "red flag," as the next trumpet-blast of our mighty victim was choked by a rushing torrent of blood. A snow-squall had burst upon us, the blinding flakes borne upon an icy blast from the northward, but we hardly felt it. Let old Boreas howl; the victory was ours, the ship almost within hailing distance, and two hundred barrels of oil for us in this fellow's jacket, for he had turned up without further dilliculty, and floated buoyantly, much to the relief of Mr. Pomroy, who thought he detected certain indications of an intention to stow down his own oil and save us the trouble of peeling him. Our bunting went up in triumph as we hauled him into the fluke chain, for there was vet sufficient daylight for our neighbors to see it, and hail us admiral of the fleet that dav at least.

      Poor Solomon had revived somewhat from the stunning effects of the shock he had received, but it was not difficult to see that his internal injuries were serious. The greatest care and perfect quiet would be necessary to preserve his life. The starboard boat was uninjured, the blow having been delivered fair on her stem, forcing her


stern foremost through the water, but not even starting off the wood ends.

      A cold, uncomfortable morning we had to secure our prize, shovels being required to clear the snow which had fallen during the night, before we could begin our work, and the water frozen over in the scuttle-butt. This, as may be supposed, was anything but pleasant to such of us as had only been accustomed to sperm whaling in tropical seas, recalling to our minds the old tales of Greenland experiences; but we were assured by the old stagers of the nor'-west that this was only what might be expected in the first part of the season, and that another month would show us the end of the frost and snow, and clear the sea of ice far to the northward of us where the bowheads were sporting in the polar basin.

      Another day and the icy blast blew itself out, the wind shifted, coming light and balmy from the southward, and soon the inevitable fog shut us in again. Whales were heard around us, roaring with perfect impunity, and, though almost within lance-dart, as effectually hidden from view as if behind a rampart of stone. The sound of often-repeated blasts from fog-horns long and clear, comes down to us with a dismal, ominous effect, telling that the ship to windward has boats down, wandering, bewildered., in search of her. The response of the wanderers is also heard, seemingly far from their own ship, and nearly ahead of us. Mr. Pomroy seizes a trumpet, and pours a volume of sound through it sufficient to awaken the dead.

      "Ring the bell!" he cries to us who are straining our eyes over the cathead in fruitless endeavors to discover something through the mist. "That boat is not far from us, and he may wander all day before he finds his own ship."

      The ship's bell dings forth a merry peal, which is quickly answered by a short, glad note from a tin horn, and, guided by the continuous sound, a boat emerges from the fog-bank close under our bows.

      "Vat schipp's dat?" hails a voice with a Dutch accent.

      "'Gorgon,' of New Bedford. Come alongside till the fog lights up. Are there any more of you adrift?"

      "No, sir," answered the boatsteerer, who is evidently an American. "The others were close to the ship when the fog shut down."

      "What ship are you from?" the mate inquires.

      "'The Handsaw,'" replies the boatsteerer, with a grin.

      "The what, did you say?" demands Mr. Pomroy, with a still broader one.

      "'Hansa,' of Bremen. I pronounced it just as my Dutch shipmates do."

      "Oh, yes, I know the ship. I've seen her years ago."

      They have taken no oil yet, and, of course, cannot repress some feelings of envy at hearing us hail eight hundred barrels this season, the season having hardly commenced yet. They have been further north than we have, but found the ice too much for them at present, and put back.

      "What's that machine in your boat?" inquired Mr. Paddock, who was looking over the side.

      "That's a 'lectrifying battery," answered the boatsteerer.

      "What for?" pursued the questioner.

      "To kill whales with."

      "Well, live and learn," remarked the Bishop. "There's nothing new under the sun. Does it work?"

      "It's a new experiment, and we've had no chance to try it on a whale yet, but we killed a blackflsh with it on the passage out, and it worked to a charm."

      "Mr. Pomroy," said the second mate, "just call the old man's attention to that instrument. You know he swears by the bomb lances now, since he has seen them work. Ask him what he thinks of killing whales by galvanic shocks."

      But Captain Stetson was skeptical, though he could not help admitting the ingenuity of the plan. It was intended to fasten to the whale by hand in the ordinary way, but the battery communicated with a wire, which ran through the heart of the line, like that of a submarine cable. It was expected that a shock could be given sufficiently powerful to kill a whale, or at least to paralyze him so that he could be killed without difficulty or danger. I learned afterward that some accident happened to the machinery which could not be remedied at sea, and the use of it was necessarily abandoned. Whether it has ever since been successfully tried I cannot say, but we could see no reason, at that time, why it should not prove a speedy and merciful method of destroying leviathan, though the Bishop protested it was "a shocking affair, anyhow."


Author: Macy, William Hussey
Title: Up North in the "Gorgon" - No. 3.
Publication: Ballou's Monthly Magazine.
Vol/No/Date: Vol. 63, No. 3 (Mar 1886)
Pages: 223-227