"There She Blows . . . !"
All the thrill taken out of whaling? Not a bit of it! Canada's West Coast whale hunt is still one of the most exciting games in the world
REECE H. HAGUE
RISK! Why, there hasn’t been any risk since that Norwegian chap Foynd invented this little dingus sixty odd years ago!” the whaling skipper said emphatically, as he patted the deadly-looking harpoon gun mounted in the bow of the vessel on which we were standing.
The skipper and I had been discussing whales he had met, their habitat, habits and peculiarities, and it was a question I had asked regarding the hazards to which whalers were subjected, that brought the response regarding the elimination of danger since the abandonment of hand harpoons in favor of harpoons which are fired from guns and to which explosive bombs are attached.
“Most people have got the wrong angle on this whaling game," he went on. “They think there’s a lot of romance and danger in it. Actually it’s just a commonplace business carried on as efficiently and matter-of-factly as any other business. It used to be different in the old days when wooden sailing ships went off for cruises of two or three years in the Arctic looking for whales and the crews had to put up with all manner of hardships. In those times, when a whale was sighted the men pulled out from their ship in twenty-five-foot open boats. The man in the bow didn’t cast his harpoon until the boat was right alongside the whale and anything was likely to happen.
“Nowadays we set out in stout little steamers from a base in a good whaling locality. When the man in the barrel at the masthead reports a whale spouting, we head for it at full speed, stopping on the slick that is, the smooth patch of water which invariably appears after a whale has ‘sounded’ or dived and wait until it comes up again. If it is within range, the gunner, who is usually the skipper, fires just as soon as the dorsal fin appears. If it comes up some distance off we chase along until we do get within range. Then it’s all over, bar blowing up the whale and hauling it to the station for the flensers to cut up . . . usually,” he added with a reminiscent smile.
“That’s exactly the point,” I persisted. “I suppose even skilled marksmen are not infallible. I'll admit a
VJt/EEE. of course, there’s liable to be trouble,” ’* the skipper replied. “The wings, or flukes, of the harpoon are wired to its propeller when it leaves the gun, but the wire slips off and the flukes expand when the harpoon enters the whale and the bomb explodes. If the shot has been made at short range the harpoon will probably go right into the whale’s backbone and paralyze him; but even if the shot is made at long range, say, over fifty yards, and the harpoon only just enters the whale’s body, the blubber is so tough that it will hold. It’s no use trying to figure out what a wounded whale will do. He may sound, or he may dash off over the sea hauling the ship behind him. There’s half a mile of cable attached to the harpoon and this is checked on a steam winch so that there is spare available if he makes a sudden rush. The slack is taken up until the whale is close enough to shoot another harpoon into him.”
“These little boats are well built and strong,” the skipper said, glancing with an air of pride down the spick and span deck of the one hundred-foot steamer. “The engines are powerful but not strong enough to take any liberties with an eighty-ton whale when he’s on the rampage. A few years ago the crew of one of these modern whaling steamers hunting out of Norway had a pretty narrow squeak. A big whale they had harpooned went crazy and, after plunging around some distance from the ship for a while, made a sudden dash for it. You know a whale has a lot of head and mighty bones. this
“I had a nasty experience myself last season,” the skipper admitted after a momentary hesitation. “We were hunting off the Queen Charlotte Islands and sighted a big sulphurbottom. The weather had been bad and we hadn’t had much luck for several days, so were all bucked up when we saw the big chap spouting a mile or so away. The whale was making long sounds and coming up just where we didn’t expect him.
The sea was choppy and it was two or three hours before we got within shooting distance. At last I decided to take a chance and let go, but the harpoon got him too far astern and when the
fellow jammed a good half of his twenty feet of jaw bone clean through the side of the ship and into the engine room. The crew managed to get away in small boats in the nick of time, just before the ship and the whale went down together. bomb went off it just tickled him. He made off as hard as he could go for the coast of Siberia and we had to let the cable out pretty quick. Well, the whale just kept on going with us behind him. Occasionally he would make a short sound and then up and off again. He had more energy than a dozen ordinary whales and when night set in he was
“He fetched that boat a couple of swipes with his tail that made the crew think she would capsize, and must have loosened a lot of bolts,” my friend remarked. “Then he got one home on the propeller that put it out of commission and the ship had to be towed back to the base for repairs.”
Three Hundred Whales the Annual Catch
Y7TSITORS to the Point Ellice docks at Victoria, V Vancouver Island, during the winter months, frequently eye curiously six vessels which lie snugly tied to a wharf. Although dwarfed into insignificance beside the mammoth freighters which come and go from adjoining berths, the fact that these six ships are painted a nondescript grey color and each has a gun mounted in the bow, sometimes leads the casual observer to jump to the conclusion that they are some form of auxiliary to the fighting fleet of the nation. Actually, however, the guns are not constructed to fire shells at enemy sea craft but to dispatch one hundred pound steel harpoons at the largest mammals ashore or afloat. The steamers comprise the Canadian fleet of the Consolidated Whaling Corporation which operates two whaling stations, one on the extreme south end and the other on the extreme north end of the Queen Charlotte Islands.
still hauling us along. As a matter of fact it was noon the next day, just twenty-four hours after we had first harpooned him, before he began to peter out and we got close enough to put in the finishing shot. It surely was a relief when we had that fellow safely tied up alongside.” Having launched on a series of incidents which tended to discredit his original statement that the risk had all been eliminated from whaling, the skipper cited other cases in which the whaling ships operating in the Pacific had narrowly escaped disaster, and told me how a whale, after being harpooned, had sounded and come up right alongside a ship of which a friend of his was in command and decided to fight the matter out.
“He fetched his tail
All summer the steamers cruise in the waters adjacent to the northernmost part of the British Columbia Coast, but with the advent of winter they return to Victoria where, after being thoroughly cleaned and overhauled, they remain in idleness until the following spring.
During the past fourteen years the average number of whales caught by the British Columbia fleet has been slightly more than 300 a season. During 1929 the six whaling ships accounted for 388 whales. The largest catch of recent years was in 1918, when 500 whales were killed, but in 1922 the number dropped to 187. While whales vary in value according to size and species, the British Columbia catch is worth approximately $1,000 a whale, although in 1918, owing to the high prices reigning for whale oil, the 500 whales killed were valued at $1,380,000.
The invention of the harpoon gun not only rendered whaling a good deal safer than it had hitherto been, but revolutionized the whole industry. Under the old hand harpoon methods, whaling ships might sail the 3eas for two or three years and be considered lucky if they secured two dozen whales. Early in the present century a modern whaling steamer, equipped with a harpoon gun, killed and towed to a whaling station then being operated on Vancouver Island more than 500 whales in a seven months season.
Of the numerous species of whales frequenting the various oceans, probably the best known are the right whale, finback, sperm, sulphur-bottom and humpback. Lesser known types which occasionally fall victims to the British Columbia whalers are the rare bottlenose and sei whales.
In the old days, when Norwegian whalers were found in practically all waters, whaling fleets set out from ports in Scotland to spend two or three years hunting in the vicinity of Greenland, and English whalers rounded the Horn and operated in the Pacific. The bowhead, or right whale was then the one almost exclusively hunted, and little attention was devoted to other species which yielded comparatively little oil and whalebone. It displayed great speed in the water, but had a tendency to sink when killed, thus rendering its capture difficult for men in small boats.
The right whale was remarkable for its extraordinarily large head, and tremendous mouth which was almost entirely filled with baleen, or whalebone—once greatly in demand for use in one of the intimate articles of ladies’ wearing apparel and also used in the manufacture of whips. Changing fashions for women and the supersedence of horse-drawn vehicles by automobiles have greatly reduced the quantity of whalebone needed for these two purposes, but a certain amount is still used in France in the manufacture of artificial feathers and aigrettes, on account of its durable qualities and ability to withstand the weather.
The home of the right whale is in the Arctic seas, and though ships still occasionally set out from San Francisco in search of these whales and, after a summer’s hunting, winter in the north in order to get in another season’s whaling before returning to port, the species is becoming rare. Very occasionally one of the survivors will cruise southward and be killed by Canadian whalers.
Captain J. E. Gilmore, who was for a number of years associated with the whaling industry in British Columbia, and recently received an offer from the Russian Government to take charge of a whaling station which it proposed to establish on the Siberian coast, has had a varied experience with most types of whales in the Pacific.
“Finbacks are fairly plentiful off the coast of British Columbia and Alaska,” Captain Gilmore informed me. “They are built on very fine lines, sometimes being as long as, although more slender than, the sulphurbottoms, which are the largest of all whales and have
Jonah and the Whale
rT'HE sperm whale was described by Captain Gilmore as being the greatest fighter of all the whales. “He is the only whale of any account that has teeth,” said the captain. “People used to think that all whales lived entirely on small crustaceans and had tiny throats compared with their huge bulk; but although this applies to most species, the sperm delights to attack the octopus which lives on the rocky sea bottom. He has a big throat and a tremendous stomach, and I guess
been known to exceed one hundred feet in length. As we figure the weight of a whale at one ton a foot, you can see that some of them are pretty sizeable. On account of their speed, the finbacks are known as the ‘greyhounds’ of the ocean and they can give a whaling ship a bunch of trouble catching them.” those people who scoff at the story of Jonah because they think a whale couldn’t swallow a man, would getashock if they could see the inside of a full-grown sperm. Why, I’ve seen squid, octopus and even large sharks taken practically intact from a sperm whale’s belly; and unless Jonah was an outsize man there was no reason why a sperm shouldn’t have swallowed him, although a sulphurbottom or any other species of whale couldn't have done it. How long Jonah would have lived once he was inside the whale is another story, however.
“The sperm is an ungainly-looking brute,” the captain continued. “He lias a great square-ended head out of all proportion to the size of the rest of him. The whole upper part of the head is devoted to an ‘oil tank’ containing spermaceti, which lies in a liquid state and can be dipped out after an opening is made. There is also spermaceti in the fat surrounding the head. Spermaceti is sometimes spoken of as an oil but is really a wax and is used for making cosmetics and candles.”
It is in sickly sperm whales that the secretion known as ambergris is occasionally found. While fortunate individuals who encounter large lumps of ambergris are frequently met with in fiction, in reality these finds are rare, and lucky indeed is the whaler who does happen to get any quantity of this substance, which is used as a fixative in perfumes. At times it has been literally worth more than its weight in gold, having sold for over twenty dollars un ounce.
Captain Gilmore stuted that until recent years sperm whales were rarely found off the British Columbia coast, but that now they represented quite a lurge proportion of the catch. “Only the bull sperms come into these waters,” he remarked, “while the cows stay near the breeding-grounds off the African coast, keeping the calves with them until they are fourteen or fifteen years of age, when the young bulls are overcome by a desire to see the world. They’re groat navigators, are the bull sperms, and don’t need any sextants or quadrants to find their way around. Those of them that aren’t killed by whalers always go home to the breeding-grounds from time to time. It is only because the cow sperms are small and of little commercial importance that they haven't been wiped out at the breeding-grounds long ago. The bull sperms usually reach British Columbia waters about June, and last year they caught ninety of them at one of the Queen Charlotte Island stations.”
Humpback whales are among the commonest species found in the vicinity of the Pacific Coast province. They derive their name from the fact that their hump is visible when they are spouting. Captain Gilmore describes them as being the lowest strata of society of the whale family. “They’re not only inclined to be scavengers, but they aren't as cleanly in their habits as other whales,” he explained. “Often they are covered with barnacles and I have seen them tumbling and rolling among the rocks trying to get rid of them.”
At a point off the South Island of New Zealand, humpbacks have from time immemorial been in the habit of entering a narrow gut and making their way to a jutting rock which they have converted into a back scratchen Across the mouth of this gut, steel nets are sometimes spread, and in them the whales become entangled. This is said to be the only place in the world where whales are netted.
Until 1898 the only parts of a whale which were considered of value were the blubber and the baleen. In the latter year, Dr. Ludvic Rissmuller, who was connected with a number of whaling plants operating in Newfoundland, introduced a process for the manufacture of the bone into fertilizer and the meat into meal, and at the present time all whaling plants are equipped for this process. Incidentally, as will be described a little later, it was Dr. Rissmuller who was responsible for putting the whaling industry on its feet in British Columbia.
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“There She Blows . . . !”
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Norwegian whaling companies, which operate extensively on concessions granted by the British Government near the South Shetland and South Georgian Islands west of Cape Horn and in the Antarctic, recently purchased several large vessels, some of them 10,000-ton steamers, and equipped them with complete processing plants of the Rissmuller type. The interiors of the vessels were dismantled and large ports, resembling those on lumber ships, put in. Through these ports dead whales are hauled in their entirety on to a lower deck and there converted into oil, meal and fertilizer.
The steamers of the Consolidated Whaling Corporation are not fitted out for dismembering whales, but are used for locating the mammals and hauling them to the nearest whaling station after they have been harpooned. The stations themselves are deserted save for a caretaker during the winter but are hives of activity when the whaling season is in full swing.
The Modern Whaler in Action
V\ ^HEN a steamer leaves the station W a whale may be sighted quite close in to shore, or the vessel may have to journey as far as 150 miles before encountering one of the mammals.
One of the crew is continually in the lookout. “Blow to port, sir,” comes a shout from the barrel and the deck of the ship awakens into sudden activity.
A command from the captain and the helmsman swings the steamer around and heads direct for the column of spray rising in the distance. Argument ensues among the crew gathered at the rail as to whether the spout is emanating from a sulphurbottom or a finback.
“Finback,” says the captain shortly and the discussion is ended, for years of experience have enabled the master mariner to determine with unerring judgment the varied nature of the spouts sent up by different species of whales.
“There; he’s down!” a member of the crew exclaims in an aggrieved tone, as the last trace of the spout is wafted away in the wind, but on toward the spot where the whale sounded speeds the steamer. It may be five minutes or it may be much longer before he reappears for his next respiration, and in the meantime eager eyes scan the ocean in every direction.
The vessel is just nearing the slick which marks the point where the whale dived, when again a cry comes simultaneously from the barrel and one of the men at the rail: “Blow to starboard, sir,” but the skipper’s keen eye has already discerned the spout and he has passed instructions to the man at the wheel. Once again the course is altered and the steamer rapidly approaches the spot where the whale is placidly floating on the surface, expelling the fetid air from his lungs with a low, roaring sound, preparatory to filling them again with good, clean ozone, and all unconscious of his approaching Nemesis.
This is the ship’s lucky day, for hardly has a well directed harpoon been lodged in the mammal’s heart when another spout is descried in the distance. Hastily the first victim is drawn alongside, the nozzle of the air pump inserted into his body and a generous quantity of air pumped in, so that there is no danger of him sinking. A pole with a flag on top is thrust into the huge body as a marker and it is left to float on the bosom of the ocean while the steamer dashes off in pursuit of the second quarry.
Shortly after daybreak the following morning, the steamer, with two whales firmly lashed by their flukes to the bow, steams into Naden Harbor. The man on the watchtower ashore has seen it approaching and by the time it draws into the wharf, the steam winch is manned and the flensers are standing by, ready to commence the work of stripping off the blubber as soon as the first whale is hauled up on the slip. Two hours later the mammal will be dissected and in the boiling vats.
Working in a welter of oil and grease, the flensers clamber over and around the tremendous mass of inert flesh and bone, using huge knives with long handles to cut the blubber in parallel lines running lengthwise of the whale, so that it can be hauled by a chain attached to the winch to the reducing vats.
The blubber having been removed, the sorry remains of the mammal are drawn to another platform lined on either side with tanks, and the work of dissecting the carcass begins. The meat is cut away by hand and placed in tanks on one side of the platform, while power-saws, handsaws and axes are brought into requisition to cut the bone into suitable lengths to go into what is called the digestor.
"While the oil is being extracted from the meat and bone, the second whale has taken his place on the slip and the knives of the flensers are once more busily engaged. Haste is the great essential, for at any moment one of the other vessels of the fleet may put in an appearance with additional whales.
After the oil has been extracted, the residue of the meat is put through another process which extracts fifty per cent of the water before the flesh is sent on to the dryer and grinder, which presses, dries, grinds and sacks the meal to which it is reduced, in one continuous process. The better grades of meat, containing nitrogen and proteins, are sold as stock feed and the remainder used for fertilizer.
Later, the bones will be ground into fertilizer, but for the present, after having gone through the digestor, they are stored away, for the catches are heavy and it is all that the station crew can do to attend to the dismembering of the whales being brought in.
Developing the Industry
PROBABLY the greatest authority on British Columbia whaling is S. C. Ruck, a resident of Victoria, who, after extensive experience in Newfoundland, was induced to go to British Columbia to build and operate a whaling plant at Kyuquot, on Vancouver Island, which earned the reputation of being the most successful plant ever conducted in the province. Later, Mr. Ruck built the two plants now operating on the Queen Charlotte Islands, and was for a number of years superintendent of the whaling companies operating out of both Victoria and Seattle.
Although deep sea whalers had been in the habit of putting into Victoria for supplies in the fur-trading days, and in colonial days several companies sought to exploit whaling in the Gulf of Georgia, after 1871 attention was turned to the extraction of oil from dogfish, and it was not until the early part of the present century that whaling was again introduced in British Columbia.
Mr. Ruck described to me how, in 1905, several old sealing captains, prominent among whom were Captains Wfiliam Grant and Sprott-Balcom, decided to organize a whaling company to operate off Vancouver Island. They financed the venture themselves and sent representatives to Norway to purchase a modern whaling steamer.
The Pacific Whaling Company, as the organization was named, next sent to Newfoundland, where whaling was then just passing its heyday, and engaged an elderly Scotsman, named Charles Smith, to build a plant for them at an old Indian village site known as Sechart, situated on Barkley Sound, a long ocean inlet on the west coast of Vancouver Island.
The venture was not particularly successful and at length Dr. Rissmuller was prevailed upon to visit the Pacific Coast and straighten out the affairs of the newly formed company. So impressed was Dr. Rissmuller with the outlook for whaling off the British Columbia coast that he abandoned his Newfoundland interests and threw in his lot with the Pacific Whaling Company, of which organization he was managing director for several years.
The 1906 season was so successful that it was decided to build a second plant at Kyuquot, another Indian village on the west coast of Vancouver Island, and the work of building and managing the new station was intrusted to Mr. Ruck, who had, like Dr. Rissmuller, decided to give up whaling in Newfoundland in favor of British Columbia.
In the fall of 1907 a winter plant was established on the east coast of Vancouver Island and operated successfully for three years, after which there were no more whales in the locality. The core of this plant was moved to Rose Harbor, on the south end of the Queen Charlotte Islands in 1909, and the following year another plant was built at Naden Harbor. Additional whaling ships were added to the fleet and in 1909 the Pacific Whaling Company and a company known as the American Whaling Company, with headquarters in Seattle and stations in the states of Washington and Alaska, were sold to Mackenzie and Mann for a sum reputed to be in the neighborhood of $1,000,000. Sir William Mackenzie went to England in connection with the financing of the new company, Canadian North Pacific Fisheries. Five more whaling steamers were obtained and additional plant sites taken up, although no new plants were actually built.
The Canadian North Pacific Fisheries continued operations until 1914, but met with only indifferent success and in the latter year went into liquidation. A receiver was appointed and the properties sold to Toronto interests styling themselves the Consolidated Whaling Corporation. The outbreak of war resulted in a great demand for whale oil, which has a high glycerine content, used in the manufacture of explosives, and during hostilities the Imperial Munitions Board purchased all the Consolidated Whaling Corporation’s oil. By 1917, in addition to the four plants operating in Canada, the Consolidated Whaling Company, from their Seattle Branch, were conducting a plant at Bay City, Washington, and one on the Aleutian Islands, Alaska. A fleet of sixteen whaling steamers was engaged in supplying the plants with mammals.
“While the war was on we tried to popularize whale meat as an emergency food,” Mr. Ruck, who during this period was superintendent of the Consolidated Whaling Company, informed me. “In addition to establishing a canning factory at Kyuquot we put in cold storage plants and shipped frozen whale meat to Seattle in specially equipped ships. While whale meat has long been popular in China, the people of Canada and the United States did not take kindly to it and we could not induce them to eat it. Eventually we had to send the meat we had canned to China.”
After the war a big slump occurred in the whale oil market and conditions in the whaling industry went from bad to worse until, in 1921, it was decided to close all the British Columbia plants for a year. In 1922 they were reopened and whaling has proceeded steadily every summer since, although the large catches which marked the period from 1905 to 1912 have never begn duplicated and each year the whaling steamers find it necessary to go farther afield from their bases to ensure good hunting. In recent years the two Vancouver Island stations have been sold and converted into pilchard reduction plants, but there is every indication that the Queen Charlotte Island stations will continue whaling operations for some time to come.
I asked Mr. Ruck what was the biggest catch he had ever heard of, made in a single trip by a whaling steamer operating off British Columbia.
THE largest of which I have personal knowledge—and I think it would take a bit of beating—happened when I was running the Kyuquot plant,” said Mr. Ruck. “In those days there were two plants operating on Vancouver Island, each of them served by one steamer. Whales were very plentiful and would sometimes come right into the inlets. Some years the two plants between them would handle as many as 1,000 whales. On one occasion the steamer hunting out from Kyuquot failed to arrive back on the Saturday when she was due. The weather was ideal for whaling and they were present in large numbers close in to the coast, so I couldn’t imagine what had happened to the ship. At midnight I took a last trip up to the watchtower, but there was still no sign of the vessel. Bright and early on Sunday morning I again looked out to sea and saw nine whales, blown up like tremendous footballs, slowly approaching the station. In the middle of them was a thick cloud of smoke, which was the only thing to indicate the presence of the steamer.
“When the captain came on shore he told me that the whaling had been so good that he hated to give up while there was any chance of getting his catch back to the station, and went on harpooning until he had nine whales and decided that was about all the steamer could handle. It was one of the strangest sights I have ever seen, when all those whales were coming in and no sign of the steamer except the smoke, and the land crew were a pretty busy bunch for a while.”
“By the way,” Mr. Ruck asked me, “have you ever heard of a whale with legs?”
I replied that I had a vague recollection of hearing that in the dim ages of the past, whales were land animals but that I had never heard of one being seen which was equipped with legs or arms.
“As a matter of fact,” my mentor explained, “floating in the meat near the pelvic bone of every whale there are two bones about eighteen inches long, which scientists claim are the rudiments of what were once legs, but a few years ago the crew of the steamer whaling out of Kyuquot killed a sulphur-bottom that had two protuberances more than two feet long growing out of his sides. Of course they were curious, but when they found that one of these legs, as they afterwards turned out to be, interfered with the work of hauling the whale close in to the ship, they hacked it off and threw it on board.
“As soon as I heard about this freak whale I made a careful examination of it. The legs were covered with skin and resembled nothing more than amputated limbs. I handed them over to the Victoria Museum, where they have been preserved.”
So if any of my readers happens to be one of those sceptics who maintain that a whale is a fish and not an animal at all, and wants to be convinced that long ago these monsters of the deep strolled around on legs, just as you or I, all he has to do is to drop into the Victoria Museum some afternoon and there he will be able to see one of the greatest curiosities of the world—the only pair of whale legs in existence.