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The Spouting Of Whales

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The Spouting Of Whales

One of the sea-fallacies still generally believed, and accepted as true, is that whales take in water by the mouth, and eject it from the spiracle, or blow-hole.

The popular ideas on this subject are still those which existed hundreds of years ago, and which are expressed by Oppian in two passages in his 'Halieutics':

"Uncouth the sight when they in dreadful play  Discharge their nostrils and refund a sea,"


"While noisy fin-fish let their fountains fly  And spout the curling torrent to the sky."

Eminent zoologists and intelligent observers, who have had full opportunities of obtaining practical knowledge of the habits of these great marine mammals, have forcibly combated and repeatedly contradicted this erroneous idea; but their sensible remarks have been read by few, in comparison with the numbers of those to whom a wrong impression has been conveyed by sensational pictures in which whales are represented with their heads above the surface, and throwing up from their nostrils columns of water, like the fountains in Trafalgar Square. One can hardly be surprised that the old writers on Natural History were unacquainted with the real composition of the whale's "spout." Those of them who sought for any original information on marine zoology, obtained it chiefly from uninstructed and superstitious fishermen; but they generally contented describing, as follows, the Physeter, or, as his translator, Streater, calls it, the Whirlpool. "The Physeter or Pristis," he says, "is a kind of whale, two hundred cubits long, and is very cruel. For, to the danger of seamen, he will sometimes raise himself above the sail-yards, and casts such floods of waters above his head, which he had sucked in, that with a cloud of them he will often sink the strongest ships, or expose the mariners to extreme danger. This beast hath also a large round mouth, like a lamprey, whereby he sucks in his meat or water, and by his weight cast upon the fore or hinder deck, he sinks and drowns a ship."

Figures 24 and 25 (p. 64) are facsimiles of the illustrations which accompany the above description. It will be seen that, in the first, the Physeter is depicted as uprearing a maned neck and head, like that of a fabled dragon; whilst in Fig. 25 it is shown as a whale flinging itself on board a ship, which is sinking under its ponderous weight. In both, torrents of water are issuing from its head, and it is evident that they are merely exaggerated misrepresentations of the "spouting" of whales.

Gesner copies many of Olaus Magnus's illustrations, and improves upon Fig. 25 by putting a numerous crew on board the ship. The unfortunate sailors are depicted in every attitude of terror and despair, and seem to be incapacitated from any attempt to save themselves by the flood of water which the whale is deliberately pouring upon them from its blow-holes.




These old pictures appear, no doubt, ridiculous, but they are, really, very little more absurd and untrue to nature than many of those which disfigure some otherwise useful books on Natural History of the present day. I could from which it is taken, but because, whilst it shows correctly the position of the blow-hole of the sperm whale, it also exhibits exactly that which I wish to confute. The publishers of the valuable work in which this picture appeared have generously consented to my reproducing it here.

When, in describing, in 1877, the White Whale then exhibited at the Westminster Aquarium, I said that whales do not spout water out of their blow-holes, and that the idea that they do so is a popular error, the statement was so contrary to generally-accepted notions that I was not surprised by receiving more than one letter on the subject. One very reasonable suggestion made to me was that, although the lesser whales, such as the porpoises, which I had had opportunities of watching in confinement at Brighton for two years, and the Beluga, which had been observed for a similar period at the New York Aquarium, and also at Westminster, did not "spout," the respiratory apparatus of the larger whales might be so modified as to permit them to do so. Let us consider the construction of the breathing apparatus which would have to be thus modified, as shown in the porpoise.

In the first place, there is a pair of lungs as perfect as those of any land mammal, fitted to receive air, and to bring the hot blood into contact with the air, that it may absorb the oxygen of the air, and so be purified. But this air cannot well be breathed through the mouth of an animal which has to take its food from and in water; so it has to be inhaled only by the nostrils. If these were situated as they are in land mammals, near the extremity of the nose, the porpoise would be obliged to stop when pursuing its prey, or, escaping from its enemies, to put the tip of its nose above the surface of the water every time it required to breathe. A much more convenient arrangement has, therefore, been provided for it, and for almost all whales, by which that difficulty is removed. Instead of running along the bones of the nose, the nostrils are placed on the top of the head, and the windpipe is turned up to them without having any connection with the palate. The upper jaw is quite solid. Thus the mouth is solely devoted to the reception of food, and the animal is enabled to continue its course when swimming, however rapidly, by rising obliquely to the surface, and exposing the top of its head above it. On the blow-hole being opened, the air, from which the oxygen has been absorbed, is expelled in a sudden puff, another supply is instantaneously inhaled, and rushes into the lungs with extreme velocity, and then the porpoise can either descend into the depths, or remain with its spiracle exposed to the air, as it may prefer. In this act of breathing the spiracle is normally brought above the water, the breath escapes, and the immediate inhalation is effected almost in silence. But frequently, and in some whales habitually, the blow-hole is opened just below the surface, and then the outrush of air causes a splash upwards of the water overlying it.

I may here mention that I have frequently seen the porpoises at the Brighton Aquarium lying asleep at the surface, with the blow-hole exposed above it, breathing automatically, and without conscious effort. Aristotle was acquainted with this habit of the cetacea 2,200 years ago, for he wrote: "They sleep with the blow-hole, their organ of respiration, elevated above the water."

The apparatus for closing the blow-hole, so that not a drop of water shall enter the windpipe, even under great pressure, is a beautiful contrivance, complex in its structure, yet most simple in its working. The external aperture is covered by a continuation of the skin, locally thickened, and connected with a conical stopper, of a texture as tough as india-rubber, which fits perfectly into a cone or funnel formed by the extremity of the windpipe, and closes more and more firmly as the pressure upon it is increased. Whilst the orifice is thus guarded, the lower end of the tube is surrounded by a strong compressing muscle, which clasps also the glottis, and thus the passage from the blow-hole to the lungs is completely stopped.

There is nothing in this which indicates the possibility of the spouting of water from the nostrils; but as assertions that water had been seen to issue from them were positive and persistent, anatomists seem to have felt themselves obliged to try to account for it somehow. Accordingly the theory was propounded by F. Cuvier that the water taken into the mouth is reserved in two pouches (one on each side), until the whale rises to blow, when, the gullet being closed, it is forced by the action of the tongue and jaws through the nasal passages, somewhat as a smoker occasionally expels the smoke of his cigar through his nostrils. Although these pouches, or sacs analogous to them, are found at the base of the nostrils of the horse, tapir, etc.,—animals which do not "spout" from the nostrils water taken in by the mouth—the explanation was accepted for a time.

Mr. Bell held this opinion when the first edition of his 'British Quadrupeds' was published in 1837, but before the issue of the second edition, in 1874, he had found reasons for taking a different view of the matter; and, under the advice of his judicious editors, Mr. Alston, and Professor Flower (the latter of whom supervised the proofs of the chapters on the Cetacea) his sanction of the illusion was withdrawn as follows:—"The results of more recent and careful observations, amongst which we may notice those of Bennett, Von Baer, Sars and Burmeister, are directly opposed to the statement that water is thus ejected; and there can now be no doubt that the appearance which has given rise to the idea is caused by the moisture with which the expelled breath is supercharged, which condenses at once in the cold outer air, and forms a cloud or column of white vapour. It is possible indeed that if the animal begins to 'blow' before its head is actually at the surface, the force of the rushing air may drive up some little spray along with it, but this is quite different from the notion that water is really expelled from the nasal passages. We may add that on the only occasion when we ourselves witnessed the 'spouting' of a large whale we were much struck with its resemblance to the column of white spray which is dashed up by the ricochetting ball fired from one of the great guns of a man-of-war."

The simile is admirable, and nothing could better describe the appearance of a whale's "spout"; but, in the previous portion of the passage (except with reference to the sperm whale, the nostrils of which are not on the top of the head), I think sufficient importance is not conceded to the volume of water propelled into the air by the outrush of breath from the submerged blow-hole. I do not know how many cubic feet of air the lungs of a great whale are capable of containing, but the quantity is sufficient to force up to a height of several feet the water above the valve when the latter is opened, not only in "some little spray," but, for some distance in a good solid jet—enough, in fact, to give the appearance of its actually issuing from the blow-hole, and to account for the erroneous belief of sailors that it does so. It must be remembered that the escape of air is not by a prolonged wheeze, but by a sudden blast, and thus when the spiracle is opened just beneath the surface, an instant before it is uncovered to take in a fresh supply of air, the water above its orifice is thrown up as by a slight subaqueous explosion, or as by the momentary opening under water of the safety-valve of a steam boiler. Some idea of the force and volume of the blast of air from the lungs of even the common porpoise may be formed when I mention that one of the porpoises at the Brighton Aquarium, happening to open its spiracle just beneath an illuminating gas jet fixed over its tank, blew out the light.

In the sperm whale the nostrils are placed near the extremity of the nose, and therefore this whale has to raise its snout above the surface when it requires to breathe; but instead of this being necessary, as in the case of the porpoise twice or thrice in a minute, the sperm whale only rises to "blow" at intervals of from an hour to an hour and twenty minutes. Mr. Beale says twin jets of the "right whale," the single, forward-slanting "spout" of the sperm whale presents a thick curled bush of white mist. Each whale has a different mode and time of breathing, and the form of the "spout" differs accordingly.

It is said that the blowing of the Beluga, or "White Whale," is not unmusical at sea, and that when it takes place under water it often makes a peculiar sound which might be mistaken for the whistling of a bird. Hence is derived one of the names given to this whale by sailors—the "Sea-canary." Though I have had opportunities of attentively watching the breathing and other actions in captivity of two specimens of this whale I have never been able to detect the sound alluded to.

Besides the opinions cited by Mr. Bell concerning whales spouting water from their blow-holes, we have other evidence which is most clear and definite, and which ought to be convincing.

We will take first that of Mr. Beale, who as surgeon on board the "Kent" and "Sarah and Elizabeth," South Sea whalers, passed several seasons amongst sperm whales. He says:—"I can truly say when I find myself in opposition to these old and received notions, that out of the thousands of sperm whales which I have seen during my wanderings in the South and North Pacific Oceans, I have never observed one of them to eject a column of water from the nostril. I have seen them at a distance, and I have been within a few yards of several hundreds of them, and I never saw water pass from the spout-hole. But the column of thick and dense vapour which is certainly ejected is exceedingly likely to mislead the judgment of the casual observer in these matters; and this column does indeed appear very much like a jet of water when seen at the distance of one or two miles on a clear day, because of the condensation of the vapour which takes place the moment it escapes from the nostril, and its consequent opacity, which makes it appear of a white colour, and which is not observed when the whale is close to the spectator. It then appears only like a jet of white steam. The only water in addition is the small quantity that may be lodged in the external fissure of the spout hole, when the animal raises it above the surface to breathe, and which is blown up into the air with the 'spout,' and may probably assist in condensing the vapour of which it is formed.... I have been also very close to the Balæna mysticetus (the Greenland, or Right whale) when it has been feeding and breathing, and yet I never saw even that animal differ in the latter respect from the sperm whale in the nature of the spout.... If the weather is fine and clear, and there is a gentle breeze at the time, the spout may be seen from the masthead of a moderate-sized vessel at the distance of four or five miles."

Captain Scoresby, who was a veteran and successful whaler, a good zoologist, and a highly intelligent observer, says:—"A moist vapour mixed with mucus is discharged from the nostrils when the animal breathes; but no water accompanies it unless an expiration of the breath be made under the surface."

Dr. Robert Brown, who communicated to the Zoological Society, in May, 1868, a valuable series of observations on the mammals of Greenland, made during his voyages to the Spitzbergen, Iceland, and Jan Mayen Seas, and along the eastern and western shores of Davis's Strait and Baffin's Bay to near the mouth of Smith's Sound, remarks, in a chapter on the Right whale (Balæna mysticetus):—"The 'blowing,' so familiar a feature of the Cetacea, but especially of the Mysticetus is, quite analogous to the breathing of the higher mammals, and the blow-holes are the homologues of the nostrils. It is most erroneously stated that the whale ejects water from the blow-holes. I have been many times only a few feet from a whale when 'blowing,' and, though purposely observing it, could never see that it ejected from its nostrils anything but the ordinary breath—a fact which might almost have been deduced from analogy. In the cold arctic air this breath is generally condensed, and falls upon those close at hand in the form of a dense spray which may have led seamen to suppose that this vapour was originally ejected in the form of water. Occasionally, when the whale blows just as it is rising out of or sinking in the sea, a little of the superincumbent water may be forced upwards by the column of breath. When the whale is wounded in the lungs, or in any of the blood-vessels immediately supplying them, blood, as might be expected, is ejected in the death-throes along with the breath. When the whaleman sees his prey 'spouting red,' he concludes that its end is not far distant; it is then mortally wounded."

Captain F. C. Hall, the commander of the unfortunate "Polaris" Expedition, thus describes, in his 'Life with the Esquimaux,' the spout of a whale:—"What this blowing is like," he says, "may be described by asking if the reader has ever seen the smoke produced by the firing of an old-fashioned flint-lock. If so, then he may understand the 'blow' of a whale—a flash in the pan and all is over."

Captain Scammon, an experienced American whaling captain, who, like Scoresby, could wield well both harpoon and pen, in his fine work on 'The Marine Mammals of the North-Western Coast of America,' writes to the same effect.

Mr. Herman Melville, who is not a naturalist, but has served before the mast in a sperm-whaler and borne his part in all the hardships and dangers of the chase, writes, in his remarkable book, 'The Whale':—"As for this 'whale-spout' you might almost stand in it, and yet be undecided as to what it is precisely. Nor is it at all prudent for the hunter to be over curious respecting it. For, even when coming into slight contact with the outer vapoury shreds of the jet, which will often happen, your skin will feverishly smart from the acrimony of the thing so touching you. And I know one who, coming into still closer contact with the spout—whether with some scientific object in view or otherwise I cannot say—the skin peeled off from his cheek and arm. Wherefore, among whalemen, the spout is deemed poisonous; they try to evade it. I have heard it said, and I do not much doubt it, that if the jet were fairly spouted into your eyes it would blind you."

The only other eye-witness I will cite is Mr. Bartlett, of the Zoological Gardens, whose experience and accuracy as an observer of the habits of animals is unsurpassed. He spent an autumn holiday in accompanying the late Mr. Frank Buckland and his colleagues, Messrs. Walpole and Young, in a tour of inquiry into the condition of the herring fishery in Scotland. When the commissioners left Peterhead, he remained there for a few days as the guest of Captain David Gray, of the steam whaler, "Eclipse," and as it was reported that large whales had been seen in the offing, his host invited him to go in search of them, and pay them a visit in his steam-launch. When about twelve miles out, they saw the whales, which were "finners," at a distance of four or five miles. Fourteen were counted—all large ones—some of which were seventy feet in length. On approaching them the captain shut off steam, and the launch was allowed to float in amongst them. So close were they to the boat that it would not have been difficult to jump upon the back of one of them had that been desirable. Mr. Bartlett tells me that he was greatly astonished by the immense force of the sudden outrush of air from their blow-holes, and the noise by which it was accompanied. He believes that the blast was strong enough to blow a man off the spiracle if he were seated on it. He authorizes me to say that having seen and watched these whales under such favourable circumstances, he entirely agrees with all that I have here written concerning the so-called "spout." The volume of hot, vaporous breath expelled is enormous, and this is accompanied by no small quantity of water, forced up by it when the blow-hole is opened below the surface.

An effect similar in appearance to the whale's spout is produced by the breathing of the hippopotamus. When this great beast opens its nostrils beneath the surface, water and spray are driven and scattered upward by the force of the air, but, of course, do not issue from the nasal passages. I have, also, seen this effect produced, though in a less degree, by the breathing of sea-lions.

I repeat, therefore, that not a drop of sea-water enters or passes out of the blow-hole of a whale. If the spiracle valve were in a condition to allow it to do so the animal would soon be drowned. Everyone knows the extreme irritation and the horrible feeling of suffocation caused to a human being, whilst eating or drinking, by a crumb or a little liquid "going the wrong way"—that is, being accidentally drawn to the air-passages instead of passing to the œsophagus. If water were to enter the bronchi of a whale it would instantly produce similar discomfort.

The neck of a popular error is hard to break; but it is time that one so palpable as that concerning the "spouting" of whales should cease to be promulgated and disseminated by fanciful illustrations of instructive books.

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