An Account Of The Whale Fishery With Anecdotes Of The Dangers Attending It

Historians, in general, have given to the Biscayans the credit of

having first practiced the fishery for the Whale; the English, and

afterwards the Dutch are supposed to have followed in the pursuit. It

was prosecuted by the Norwegians so early as the ninth century, and by

the Icelanders about the eleventh. It was not till the seventeenth

century however, that the whale fishery was engaged in by the maritime

nations of Europe as an important branch of commerce.

The crew of a whale ship usually consists of forty to fifty men,

comprising several classes of officers, such as harpooners,

boat-steerers, line-managers, &c. together with fore-mastmen, landmen

and apprentices. As a stimulus to the crew in the fishery, every

individual, from the master down to the boys, besides his monthly pay,

receives either a gratuity for every size fish caught during the

voyage, or a certain sum for every ton of oil which the cargo

produces. Masters and harpooners receive a small sum before sailing,

in place of monthly wages; and if they procure no cargo whatever,

they receive nothing more for their voyage; but in the event of a

successful fishing, their advantages are considerable.

The crow's nest is an apparatus placed on the main-top-mast, or

top-gallant-mast head, as a watch tower for the officer on the

lookout. It is closely defended from the wind and cold, and is

furnished with a speaking trumpet, a telescope and rifle. The most

favorable opportunity for prosecuting the fishery in the Greenland

seas, commonly occurs with north, north-west or west winds. At such

times the sea is smooth, and the atmosphere, though cloudy and dark,

is generally free from fog and snow. The fishers prefer a cloudy to a

clear sky; because in very bright weather, the sea becomes

illuminated, and the shadows of the whale-boats are so deeply

impressed in the water by the beams of the sun that the whales are apt

to take the alarm. Fogs are only so far unfavorable as being liable to

endanger the boats by shutting out the sight of the ship.--A well

constructed whale-boat floats lightly and safely on the water,--is

capable of being rowed with great speed, and readily turned round,--it

is of such capacity that it carries six or seven men, seven or eight

hundred weight of whale-lines, and various other materials, and yet

retains the necessary properties of safety and speed. Whale-boats

being very liable to receive damage, both from whales and ice, are

always carver-built,--a structure which is easily repaired. The

instruments of general use in the capture of the whale, are the

harpoon and lance. There is, moreover, a kind of harpoon which is shot

from a gun, but being difficult to adjust, it is seldom used. Each

boat is likewise furnished with a "jack" or flag fastened to a pole,

intended to be displayed as a signal whenever a whale is harpooned.

The crew of a whale-ship are separated in divisions, equal in number

to the number of the boats. Each division, consisting of a harpooner,

a boat-steerer, and a line-manager, together with three or four

rowers, constitutes a "boats crew."

On fishing stations, when the weather is such as to render the fishery

practicable, the boats are always ready for instant service. The

crow's nest is generally occupied by one of the officers, who keeps an

anxious watch for the appearance of a whale. The moment that a fish is

seen, he gives notice to the "watch upon deck," part of whom leap into

a boat, are lowered down, and push off towards the place. If the fish

be large, a second boat is despatched to the support of the other; and

when the whole of the boats are sent out, the ship is said to have "a

loose fall." There are several rules observed in approaching a whale

to prevent the animal from taking the alarm. As the whale is dull of

hearing, but quick of sight, the boat-steerer always endeavors to get

behind it; and, in accomplishing this, he is sometimes justified in

taking a circuitous rout. In calm weather, where guns are not used,

the greatest caution is necessary before a whale can be reached;

smooth careful rowing is always requisite, and sometimes sculling is

practiced. It is a primary consideration with the harpooner, always to

place his boat as near as possible to the spot in which he expects the

fish to rise, and he conceives himself successful in the attempt when

the fish "comes up within a start," that is, within the distance of

about two hundred yards.

Whenever a whale lies on the surface of the water, unconscious of the

approach of its enemies, the hardy fisher rows directly upon it; and

an instant before the boat touches it, buries his harpoon in his back.

The wounded whale, in the surprise and agony of the moment, makes a

convulsive effort to escape. Then is the moment of danger. The boat is

subjected to the most violent blows from its head, or its fins, but

particularly from its ponderous tail, which sometimes sweeps the air

with such tremendous fury, that boat and men are exposed to one common


The head of the whale is avoided, because it cannot be penetrated with

the harpoon; but any part of the body, between the head and the tail,

will admit of the full length of the instrument, without danger of

obstruction. The moment that the wounded whale disappears, a flag is

displayed; on sight of which, those on watch in the ship, give the

alarm, by stamping on the deck, accompanied by shouts of "a fall."--At

the sound of this, the sleeping crew are roused, jump from their beds,

rush upon deck, and crowd into the boats. The alarm of "a fall," has a

singular effect on the feelings of a sleeping person, unaccustomed to

hearing it. It has often been mistaken as a cry of distress. A

landsman, seeing the crew, on an occasion of a fall, leap into the

boats in their shirts, imagined that the ship was sinking. He

therefore tried to get into a boat himself, but every one of them

being fully manned, he was refused. After several fruitless endeavors

to gain a place among his comrades, he cried out, in evident distress,

"What shall I do?--Will none of you take me in?"

The first effort of a "fast-fish," or whale that has been struck, is

to escape from the boat by sinking under water. After this, it

pursues its course downward, or reappears at a little distance, and

swims with great celerity, near the surface of the water. It sometimes

returns instantly to the surface, and gives evidence of its agony by

the most convulsive throes. The downward course of a whale is,

however, the most common. A whale, struck near the edge of any large

sheet of ice, and passing underneath it, will sometimes run the whole

of the lines out of one boat. The approaching distress of a boat, for

want of line, is indicated by the elevation of an oar, to which is

added a second, a third, or even a fourth, in proportion to the nature

of the exigence. The utmost care and attention are requisite, on the

part of every person in the boat, when the lines are running out;

fatal consequences having been sometimes produced by the most trifling

neglect.--When the line happens to "run foul," and cannot be cleared

on the instant, it sometimes draws the boat under water; on which, if

no auxiliary boat, or convenient piece of ice, be at hand, the crew

are plunged into the sea, and are obliged to trust to their oars or

their skill in swimming, for supporting themselves on the surface.

Captain Scoresby relates an accident of this kind, which happened on

his first voyage to the whale fishery. A thousand fathoms of line were

already out, and the fast-boat was forcibly pressed against the side

of a piece of ice. The harpooner, in his anxiety to retard the flight

of the whale, applied too many turns of the line round the bollard,

which, getting entangled, drew the boat beneath the ice. Another boat,

providentially was at hand, into which the crew had just time to

escape. The whale, with near two miles length of line, was, in

consequence of the accident, lost, but the boat was recovered.

The average stay under water of a wounded whale is about thirty

minutes. When it reappears, the assisting boats make for the place

with their utmost speed, and as they reach it, each harpooner plunges

his harpoon into its back, to the amount of three, four, or more,

according to the size of the whale. It is then actively plied with

lances, which are thrust into its body, aiming at its vitals. The sea

to a great extent around is dyed with its blood, and the noise made by

its tail in its dying struggle, may be heard several miles. In dying,

it turns on its back or on its side; which circumstance is announced

by the capturers with the striking of their flags, accompanied with

three lively huzzas!

Whales are sometimes captured, with a single harpoon, in the space of

fifteen minutes. Sometimes they resist forty or fifty hours, and at

times they will break three or four lines at once, or tear themselves

clear off the harpoons, by the violence of their struggles. Generally

the capture of a whale depends on the activity of the harpooner, the

state of the wind and weather, or the peculiar conduct of the animal

itself. Under the most favourable circumstances, the length of time

does not exceed an hour. The general average may be stated at two

hours. Instances have occurred where whales have been taken without

being struck at all, simply by entangling themselves in the lines that

had been used to destroy others, and struggling till they were drowned

or died of exhaustion.

The fishery for whales, when conducted at the margin of those

wonderful sheets of ice, called fields, is, when the weather is fine,

and the refuge for ships secure, the most agreeable, and sometimes the

most productive of all other ways. When the fish can be observed

"blowing" in any of the holes of a field, the men travel over the ice

and attack it with lances to turn it back. As connected with this

subject, Captain Scoresby relates the following circumstance, which

occurred under his own observation.

On the eighth of July, 1813, the ship Esk lay by the edge of a large

sheet of ice, in which there were several thin parts, and some holes.

Here a whale being heard blowing, a harpoon, with a line fastened to

it, was conveyed across the ice, from a boat on guard, and the

harpooner succeeded in striking the whale, at the distance of three

hundred and fifty yards from the verge. It dragged out ten lines,

(2400 yards,) and was supposed to be seen blowing in different holes

in the ice. After some time it made its appearance on the exterior,

and was again struck, at the moment it was about to go under the

second time. About an hundred yards from the edge, it broke the ice

where it was a foot thick, with its head, and respired through the

opening. It then pushed forward, breaking the ice as it advanced, in

spite of the lances constantly directed against it. At last it reached

a kind of basin in the field, where it floated on the surface without

any incumbrance from ice. Its back being fairly exposed, the harpoon

struck from the boat on the outside, was observed to be so slightly

entangled, that it was ready to drop out. Some of the officers

lamented this circumstance, and wished that the harpoon might be

better fast; at the same time observing that if it should slip out,

either the fish would be lost, or they should be under the necessity

of flensing it where it lay, and of dragging the blubber over the ice

to the ship; a kind and degree of labor every one was anxious to

avoid. No sooner was the wish expressed, and its importance explained,

than a young and daring sailor stepped forward, and offered to strike

the harpoon deeper. Not at all intimidated by the surprise manifested

on every countenance at such a bold proposal, he leaped on the back of

the living whale, and cut the harpoon out with his pocket knife.

Stimulated by his gallant example, one of his companions proceeded to

his assistance. While one of them hauled upon the line and held it in

his hands, the other set his shoulder against the end of the harpoon,

and though it was without a stock, contrived to strike it again into

the fish more effectually than at first! The whale was in motion

before they had finished. After they got off its back, it advanced a

considerable distance, breaking the ice all the way, and survived this

novel treatment ten or fifteen minutes. This daring deed was of

essential service. The whale fortunately sunk spontaneously after it

expired; on which it was hauled out under the ice by the line and

secured without farther trouble. It proved a mighty whale; a very

considerable prize.

When engaged in the pursuit of a large whale, it is a necessary

precaution for two boats at all times to proceed in company, that the

one may be able to assist the other, on any emergency. With this

principle in view, two boats from the Esk were sent out in chase of

some large whales, on the 13th of June 1814. No ice was within sight.

The boats had proceeded some time together, when they separated in

pursuit of two whales, not far distant from each other; when, by a

singular coincidence, the harpooners each struck his fish at the same

moment. They were a mile from the ship. Urgent signals for assistance

were displayed by each boat, and in a few minutes one of the

harpooners was obliged to slip the end of his line. Fortunately the

other fish did not descend so deep, and the lines in the boat proved

adequate for the occasion. One of the fish being then supposed to be

lost, five of the boats out of seven attended on the fish which yet

remained entangled, and speedily killed it. A short time afterwards,

the other fish supposed to be lost, was descried at a little distance

from the place where it was struck;--three boats proceeded against

it;--it was immediately struck, and in twenty minutes also killed.

Thus were fortunately captured two whales, both of which had been

despaired of. They produced near forty tons of oil, value, at that

time L1400. The lines attached to the last fish were recovered with


Before a whale can be flensed, as the operation of taking off the fat

and whalebone is called, some preliminary measures are requisite.

These consist in securing the whale to the boat, cutting away the

attached whale-lines, lashing the fins together, and towing it to the

ship. Some curious circumstances connected with these operations may

be mentioned here.

In the year 1816, a fish was to all appearance killed by the crew of

the Esk. The fins were partly lashed, and the tail on the point of

being secured, and all the lines excepting one, were cut away, the

fish meanwhile lying as if dead. To the alarm, however, of the

sailors, it revived, began to move, and pressed forward in a

convulsive agitation; soon after it sunk in the water to some depth,

and then died. One line fortunately remained attached to it, by which

it was drawn to the surface and secured.

A suspension of labor is generally allowed after the whale has been

secured aside of the ship, and before the commencement of the

operation of flensing. An unlucky circumstance once occurred in an

interval of this kind. At that period of the fishery, (forty or fifty

years ago,) when a single stout whale together with the bounty, was

found sufficient to remunerate the owners of a ship for the expenses

of the voyage, great joy was exhibited on the capture of a whale, by

the fishers. They were not only cheered by a dram of spirits, but

sometimes provided with some favorite "mess," on which to regale

themselves, before they commenced the arduous task of flensing. At

such a period, the crew of an English vessel had captured their first

whale. It was taken to the ship, placed on the lee-side, and though

the wind blew a strong breeze, it was fastened only by a small rope

attached to the fin. In this state of supposed security, all hands

retired to regale themselves, the captain himself not excepted. The

ship being at a distance from any ice, and the fish believed to be

fast, they made no great haste in their enjoyment. At length, the

specksioneer, or chief harpooner, having spent sufficient time in

indulgence and equipment, with an air of importance and

self-confidence, proceeded on deck, and naturally turned to look on

the whale. To his astonishment it was not to be seen. In some alarm he

looked a-stern, a-head, on the other side, but his search was useless;

the ship drifting fast, had pressed forcibly upon the whale, the rope

broke, the fish sunk and was lost. The mortification of this event may

be conceived, but the termination of their vexation will not easily be

imagined, when it is known, that no other opportunity of procuring a

whale occurred during the voyage. The ship returned home clean.

Flensing in a swell is a most difficult and dangerous undertaking; and

when the swell is at all considerable, it is commonly impracticable.

No ropes or blocks are capable of bearing the jerk of the sea. The

harpooners are annoyed by the surge, and repeatedly drenched in water;

and are likewise subject to be wounded by the breaking of ropes or

hooks of tackles, and even by strokes from each other's knives. Hence

accidents in this kind of flensing are not uncommon. The harpooners

not unfrequently fall into the whale's mouth, when it is exposed by

the removal of a surface of blubber; where they might easily be

drowned, but for the prompt assistance which is always at hand.

One of the laws of the fishery universally adhered to, is, that

whenever a whale is loose, whatever may be the case or circumstances,

it becomes a free prize to the first person who gets hold of it. Thus,

when a whale is killed, and the flensing is prevented by a storm, it

is usually taken in tow; if the rope by which it is connected with the

ship should happen to break, and the people of another ship should

seize upon it while disengaged, it becomes their prize. The following

circumstance, which occurred a good many years ago, has a tendency to

illustrate the existing Greenland laws.

During a storm of wind and snow several ships were beating to

windward, under easy sail, along the edge of a pack. When the storm

abated and the weather cleared, the ships steered towards the ice. Two

of the fleet approached it, about a mile assunder, abreast of each

other, when the crews of each ship accidentally got sight of a dead

fish at a little distance, within some loose ice. Each ship now made

sail, to endeavor to reach the fish before the other; which fish being

loose, would be a prize to the first who could get possession of it.

Neither ship could out sail the other, but each contrived to press

forward towards the prize. The little advantage one of them had in

distance, the other compensated with velocity. On each bow of the two

ships, was stationed a principal officer, armed with a harpoon in

readiness to discharge. But it so happened that the ships came in

contact with each other, when within a few yards of the fish, and in

consequence of the shock with which their bows met, they rebounded to

a considerable distance. The officers at the same moment discharged

their harpoons, but all of them fell short of the fish. A hardy fellow

who was second mate of the leeward ship immediately leaped overboard

and with great dexterity swam to the whale, seized it by the fin, and

proclaimed it his prize. It was, however, so swollen, that he was

unable to climb upon it, but was obliged to remain shivering in the

water until assistance should be sent. His captain elated with his

good luck, forgot, or at least neglected his brave second mate; and

before he thought of sending a boat to release him from his

disagreeable situation, prepared to moor his ship to an adjoining

piece of ice. Meanwhile the other ship tacked, and the master himself

stepped into a boat, pushed off and rowed deliberately towards the

dead fish. Observing the trembling seaman still in the water holding

by the fin, he addressed him with, "Well my lad, you have got a fine

fish here,"--to which after a natural reply in the affirmative, he

added, "but don't you find it very cold?"--"Yes," replied the

shivering sailor, "I'm almost starved. I wish you would allow me to

come into your boat until ours arrives." This favor needed no second

solicitation; the boat approached the man and he was assisted into it.

The fish being again loose and out of possession, the captain

instantly struck his harpoon into it, hoisted his flag, and claimed

his prize! Mortified and displeased as the other master felt at this

trick, for so it certainly was, he had nevertheless no redress, but

was obliged to permit the fish to be taken on board of his

competitor's ship, and to content himself with abusing the second mate

for want of discretion, and condemning himself for not having more

compassion on the poor fellow's feeling, which would have prevented

the disagreeable misadventure.

Those employed in the occupation of killing whales, are, when actually

engaged, exposed to danger from three sources, viz. from the ice, from

the climate, and from the whales themselves. The ice is a source of

danger to the fishers, from overhanging masses falling upon

them,--from the approximation of large sheets of ice to each other,

which are apt to crush or upset the boats,--from their boats being

stove or sunk by large masses of ice, agitated by a swell,--and from

the boats being enclosed and beset in a pack of ice, and their crews

thus prevented from joining their ships.

On the commencement of a heavy gale of wind, May 11th, 1813, fourteen

men put off in a boat from the Volunteer of Whitby, with the view of

setting an anchor in a large piece of ice, to which it was their

intention of mooring the ship.--The ship approached on a signal being

made, the sails were clewed up, and a rope fixed to the anchor; but

the ice shivering with the violence of the strain when the ship fell

astern, the anchor flew out and the ship went adrift. The sails being

again set, the ship was reached to the eastward (wind at north,) the

distance of about two miles; but in attempting to wear and return, the

ship, instead of performing the evolution, scudded a considerable

distance to the leeward, and was then reaching out to sea; thus

leaving fourteen of her crew to a fate most dreadful, the fulfilment

of which seemed almost inevitable. The temperature of the air was 15

or 16 of Fahr. when these poor wretches were left upon a detached

piece of ice, of no considerable magnitude, without food, without

shelter from the inclement storm, deprived of every means of refuge

except in a single boat, which, on account of the number of men, and

the violence of the storm, was incapable of conveying them to their

ship. Death stared them in the face whichever way they turned, and a

division in opinion ensued. Some were wishful to remain on the ice,

but the ice could afford them no shelter to the piercing wind, and

would probably be broken to pieces by the increasing swell: others

were anxious to attempt to join their ship while she was yet in

sight, but the force of the wind, the violence of the sea, the

smallness of the boat in comparison to the number of men to be

conveyed, were objections which would have appeared insurmountable to

any person but men in a state of despair.--Judging, that by remaining

on the ice, death was but retarded for a few hours, as the extreme

cold must eventually benumb their faculties, and invite a sleep which

would overcome the remains of animation,--they determined on making

the attempt of rowing to their ship. Poor souls, what must have been

their sensations at that moment,--when the spark of hope yet remaining

was so feeble, that a premature death even to themselves seemed

inevitable. They made the daring experiment, when a few minutes' trial

convinced them, that the attempt was utterly impracticable. They then

with longing eyes, turned their efforts towards recovering the ice

they had left, but their utmost exertions were unavailing. Every one

now viewed his situation as desperate; and anticipated, as certain,

the fatal event which was to put a period to his life. How great must

have been their delight, and how overpowering their sensations, when

at this most critical juncture a ship appeared in sight! She was

advancing directly towards them; their voices were extended and their

flag displayed.--But although it was impossible they should be heard,

it was not impossible they should be seen. Their flag was descried by

the people on board the ship, their mutual courses were so directed as

to form the speediest union, and in a few minutes they found

themselves on the deck of the Lively of Whitby, under circumstances of

safety! They received from their townsmen the warmest congratulations;

and while each individual was forward in contributing his assistance

towards the restoration of their benumbed bodies, each appeared

sensible that their narrow escape from death was highly providential.

The forbearance of God is wonderful. Perhaps these very men a few

hours before, were impiously invoking their own destruction, or

venting imprecations upon their fellow beings! True it is that the

goodness of the Almighty extendeth over all his works, and that while

'Mercy is his darling attribute,'--'Judgment is his strange work.'

The most extensive source of danger to the whale-fisher, when actively

engaged in his occupation, arises from the object of his pursuit.

Excepting when it has young under its protection, the whale generally

exhibits remarkable timidity of character. A bird perching on its back

alarms it; hence, the greater part of the accidents which happen in

the course of its capture, must be attributed to adventitious

circumstances on the part of the whale, or to mismanagement or

foolhardiness on the part of the fishers.

A harpooner belonging to the Henrietta of Whitby, when engaged in

lancing a whale, into which he had previously struck a harpoon,

incautiously cast a little line under his feet that he had just hauled

into the boat, after it had been drawn out by the fish. A painful

stroke of his lance induced the whale to dart suddenly downward; his

line began to run out from beneath his feet, and in an instant caught

him by a turn round his body. He had but just time to cry out, "clear

away the line,"--"O dear!" when he was almost cut assunder, dragged

overboard and never seen afterwards. The line was cut at the moment,

but without avail. The fish descended a considerable depth, and died;

from whence it was drawn to the surface by the lines connected with

it, and secured.

While the ship Resolution navigated an open lake of water, in the 81st

degree of north latitude, during a keen frost and strong north wind,

on the 2d of June 1806, a whale appeared, and a boat put off in

pursuit. On its second visit to the surface of the sea, it was

harpooned. A convulsive heave of the tail, which succeeded the wound,

struck the boat at the stern; and by its reaction, projected the

boat-steerer overboard. As the line in a moment dragged the boat

beyond his reach, the crew threw some of their oars towards him for

his support, one of which he fortunately seized. The ship and boats

being at a considerable distance, and the fast-boat being rapidly

drawn away from him, the harpooner cut the line with the view of

rescuing him from his dangerous situation. But no sooner was this act

performed, than to their extreme mortification they discovered, that

in consequence of some oars being thrown towards their floating

comrade, and others being broken or unshipped by the blow from the

fish, one oar only remained; with which, owing to the force of the

wind, they tried in vain to approach him. A considerable period

elapsed, before any boat from the ship could afford him assistance,

though the men strained every nerve for the purpose. At length, when

they reached him, he was found with his arms stretched over an oar,

almost deprived of sensation.--On his arrival at the ship, he was in a

deplorable condition. His clothes were frozen like mail, and his hair

constituted a helmet of ice. He was immediately conveyed into the

cabin, his clothes taken off, his limbs and body dried and well

rubbed, and a cordial administered which he drank. A dry shirt and

stockings were then put upon him, and he was laid in the captain's

bed. After a few hours sleep he awoke, and appeared considerably

restored, but complained of a painful sensation of cold. He was,

therefore, removed to his own birth, and one of his messmates ordered

to lie on each side of him, whereby the diminished circulation of the

blood was accelerated, and the animal heat restored. The shock on his

constitution, however, was greater than was anticipated.--He recovered

in the course of a few days, so as to be able to engage in his

ordinary pursuits; but many months elapsed before his countenance

exhibited its usual appearance of health.

The Aimwell of Whitby, while cruising the Greenland seas, in the year

1810, had boats in chase of whales on the 26th of May. One of them was

harpooned. But instead of sinking immediately on receiving the wound,

as is the most usual manner of the whale, this individual only dived

for a moment, and rose again beneath the boat, struck it in the most

vicious manner with its fins and tail, stove it, upset it, and then

disappeared. The crew, seven in number, got on the bottom of the boat;

but the unequal action of the lines, which for sometime remained

entangled with the boat, rolled it occasionally over, and thus plunged

the crew repeatedly into the water.--Four of them, after each

immersion, recovered themselves and clung to the boat; but the other

three, one of whom was the only person acquainted with the art of

swimming, were drowned before assistance could arrive. The four men on

the boat being rescued and conveyed to the ship, the attack on the

whale was continued and two more harpoons struck.--But the whale

irritated, instead of being enervated by its wounds, recommenced its

furious conduct. The sea was in a foam. Its tail and fins wore in

awful play; and in a short time, harpoon after harpoon drew out, the

fish was loosened from its entanglements and escaped.

In the fishery of 1812, the Henrietta of Whitby suffered a similar

loss. A fish which was struck very near the ship, by a blow of its

tail, stove a small hole in the boat's bow. Every individual shrinking

from the side on which the blow was impressed, aided the influence of

the stroke, and upset the boat. They all clung to it while it was

bottom up; but the line having got entangled among the thwarts,

suddenly drew the boat under water, and with it part of the crew.

Excessive anxiety among the people in the ship, occasioned delay in

sending assistance, so that when the first boat arrived at the spot,

two survivors only out of six men were found.

During a fresh gale of wind in the season of 1809, one of the

Resolution's harpooners struck a sucking whale. Its mother being near,

all the other boats were disposed around, with the hope of entangling

it. The old whale pursued a circular route round its cub, and was

followed by the boats; but its velocity was so considerable, that they

were unable to keep pace with it. Being in the capacity of harpooner

on this occasion myself, I proceeded to the chase, after having

carefully marked the proceedings of the fish. I selected a situation,

in which I conceived the whale would make its appearance, and was in

the act of directing my crew to cease rowing, when a terrible blow was

struck on the boat. The whale I never saw, but the effect of the blow

was too important to be overlooked. About fifteen square feet of the

bottom of the boat were driven in; it filled, sunk, and upset in a

moment. Assistance was providentially at hand, so that we were all

taken up without injury, after being but a few minutes in the water.

The whale escaped; the boat's lines fell out and were lost, but the

boat was recovered.

A remarkable instance of the power which the whale possesses in its

tail, was exhibited within my own observation, in the year 1807. On

the 29th of May, a whale was harpooned by an officer belonging to the

Resolution. It descended a considerable depth; and, on its

re-appearance, evinced an uncommon degree of irritation. It made such

a display of its fins and tail, that few of the crew were hardy enough

to approach it. The captain, (Captain Scoresby's father,) observing

their timidity, called a boat, and himself struck a second harpoon.

Another boat immediately followed, and unfortunately advanced too far.

The tail was again reared into the air, in a terrific attitude,--the

impending blow was evident,--the harpooner, who was directly

underneath, leaped overboard,--and the next moment the threatened

stroke was impressed on the centre of the boat, which it buried in the

water. Happily no one was injured. The harpooner who leaped overboard,

escaped certain death by the act,--the tail having struck the very

spot on which he stood. The effects of the blow were astonishing. The

keel was broken,--the gunwales, and every plank, excepting two, were

cut through,--and it was evident that the boat would have been

completely divided, had not the tail struck directly upon a coil of

lines. The boat was rendered useless.

Instances of disasters of this kind, occasioned by blows from the

whale, could be adduced in great numbers,--cases of boats being

destroyed by a single stroke of the tail, are not unknown,--instances

of boats having been stove or upset, and their crews wholly or in part

drowned, are not unfrequent,--and several cases of whales having made

a regular attack upon every boat which came near them, dashed some in

pieces, and killed or drowned some of the people in them, have

occurred within a few years even under my own observation.

The Dutch ship Gort-Moolen, commanded by Cornelius Gerard Ouwekaas,

with a cargo of seven fish, was anchored in Greenland in the year

1660. The captain, perceiving a whale a-head of his ship, beckoned his

attendants, and threw himself into a boat. He was the first to

approach the whale; and was fortunate enough to harpoon it before the

arrival of the second boat, which was on the advance. Jacques Vienkes,

who had the direction of it, joined his captain immediately

afterwards, and prepared to make a second attack on the fish, when it

should remount again to the surface. At the moment of its ascension,

the boat of Vienkes happening unfortunately to be perpendicularly

above it, was so suddenly and forcibly lifted up by a stroke of the

head of the whale, that it was dashed to pieces before the harpooner

could discharge his weapon.

Vienkes flew along with the pieces of the boat, and fell upon the back

of the animal. This intrepid seaman, who still retained his weapon in

his grasp, harpooned the whale on which he stood; and by means of the

harpoon and the line, which he never abandoned, he steadied himself

firmly upon the fish, notwithstanding his hazardous situation, and

regardless of a considerable wound that he received in his leg in his

fall along with the fragments of the boat. All the efforts of the

other boats to approach the whale, and deliver the harpooner, were

futile. The captain, not seeing any other method of saving his

unfortunate companion, who was in some way entangled with the line,

called to him to cut it with his knife, and betake himself to

swimming. Vienkes, embarrassed and disconcerted as he was, tried in

vain to follow this counsel. His knife was in the pocket of his

drawers; and, being unable to support himself with one hand, he could

not get it out. The whale, meanwhile, continued advancing along the

surface of the water with great rapidity, but fortunately never

attempted to dive. While his comrades despaired of his life, the

harpoon by which he held, at length disengaged itself from the body of

the whale. Vienkes being thus liberated, did not fail to take

advantage of this circumstance; he cast himself into the sea, and by

swimming, endeavored to regain the boats which continued the pursuit

of the whale. When his shipmates perceived him struggling with the

waves, they redoubled their exertions. They reached him just as his

strength was exhausted, and had the happiness of rescuing this

adventurous harpooner from his perilous situation.

Captain Lyons of the Raith of Leith, while prosecuting the

whale-fishery on the Labrador coast, in the season of 1802, discovered

a large whale at a short distance from the ship. Four boats were

dispatched in pursuit, and two of them succeeded in approaching it so

closely together, that two harpoons were struck at the same moment.

The fish descended a few fathoms in the direction of another of the

boats, which was on the advance, rose accidentally beneath it, struck

it with its head, and threw the boat, men, and apparatus about fifteen

feet into the air. It was inverted by the stroke, and fell into the

water with its keel upwards. All the people were picked up alive by

the fourth boat, which was just at hand, excepting one man, who having

got entangled in the boat, fell beneath it, and was unfortunately

drowned. The fish was soon afterwards killed. The engraving on page

30, is illustrative of this remarkable accident.

In 1822, two boats belonging to the ship Baffin went in pursuit of a

whale. John Carr was harpooner and commander of one of them. The whale

they pursued led them into a vast shoal of his own species; they were

so numerous that their blowing was incessant, and they believed that

they did not see fewer than an hundred. Fearful of alarming them

without striking any, they remained for a while motionless. At last

one rose near Carr's boat, and he approached, and fatally for himself,

harpooned it. When he struck, the fish was approaching the boat; and,

passing very rapidly, jerked the line out of its place over the stern,

and threw it upon the gunwale. Its pressure in this unfavorable

position so careened the boat, that the side was pulled under water,

and it began to fill. In this emergency, Carr, who was a brave, active

man, seized the line, and endeavored to relieve the boat by restoring

it to its place; but, by some circumstance which was never accounted

for, a turn of the line flew over his arm, dragged him overboard in an

instant, and drew him under the water, never more to rise. So sudden

was the accident, that only one man, who was watching him, saw what

had happened; so that when the boat righted, which it immediately did,

though half full of water, the whole crew on looking round inquired

what had become of Carr. It is impossible to imagine a death more

awfully sudden and unexpected. The invisible bullet could not have

effected more instantaneous destruction. The velocity of the whale at

its first descent is from thirteen to fifteen feet per second. Now as

this unfortunate man was adjusting the line at the water's very edge,

where it must have been perfectly tight, owing to its obstruction in

running out of the boat, the interval between the fastening the line

about him and his disappearance could not have exceeded the third part

of a second of time, for in one second only he must have been dragged

ten or twelve feet deep. Indeed he had not time for the least

exclamation; and the person who saw his removal, observed that it was

so exceeding quick that though his eye was upon him at the moment, he

could scarcely distinguish his figure as he disappeared.

1. A common Harpoon.

2. A Pricker.

3. A sharp Spade, used in cutting up a Whale.

4. A Harpoon which is fired from a gun.

5. A Lance, to kill the Whale after he has been harpooned.]

As soon as the crew recovered from their consternation, they applied

themselves to the needful attention which the lines required. A second

harpoon was struck from the accompanying boat on the raising of the

whale to the surface, and some lances were applied, but this

melancholy occurrence had cast such a damp on all present, that they

became timid and inactive in their subsequent duties. The whale when

nearly exhausted was allowed to remain some minutes unmolested, till

having recovered some degree of energy, it made a violent effort and

tore itself away from both harpoons. The exertions of the crews thus

proved fruitless, and were attended with serious loss.

Innumerable instances might be adduced of the perils and disasters to

which our whalemen are subject; of their never tiring fortitude and

daring enterprise; but we believe the examples we have given alone

will sufficiently convey a full and correct idea of the customs and

dangers of the whale-fishery.


Is a species of the Whale, and seldom exceeds twenty-two feet long.

Its body is slenderer than that of the whale, and its fat not in so

great abundance. But this great animal is sufficiently distinguished

from all others of the deep, by its tooth or teeth, which stand

pointing directly forward from the upper jaw, and are from nine to ten

feet long. In all the variety of weapons with which nature has armed

her various tribes, there is not one so large or so formidable as

this.--This terrible weapon is generally found single; and some are of

opinion that the animal is furnished with but one by nature; but there

is at present the skull of a Narwal at the Stadthouse at Amsterdam,

with two teeth. The tooth, or, as some are pleased to call it, the

horn of the Narwal, is as straight as an arrow, about the thickness of

the small of a man's leg, wreathed as we sometimes see twisted bars of

iron; it tapers to a sharp point; and is whiter, heavier, and harder

than ivory. It is generally seen to spring from the left side of the

head directly forward in a straight line with the body; and its root

enters into the socket above a foot and a half. Notwithstanding its

appointments for combat, this long and pointed tusk, amazing strength,

and matchless celerity, the Narwal is one of the most harmless and

peaceful inhabitants of the ocean. It is seen constantly and

inoffensively sporting among the other great monsters of the deep, no

way attempting to injure them, but pleased in their company. The

Greenlanders call the Narwal the forerunner of the whale; for wherever

it is seen, the whale is shortly after sure to follow. This may arise

as well from the natural passion for society in these animals, as from

both living upon the same food. These powerful fishes make war upon no

other living creature; and, though furnished with instruments to

spread general destruction, are as innocent and as peaceful as a drove

of oxen. The Narwal is much swifter than the whale, and would never be

taken by the fishermen but for those very tusks, which at first appear

to be its principal defence. These animals are always seen in herds of

several at a time; and whenever they are attacked they crowd together

in such a manner, that they are mutually embarrassed by their tusks.

By these they are often locked together, and are prevented from

sinking to the bottom. It seldom happens, therefore, but the fishermen

make sure of one or two of the hindmost, which very well reward their


An Account Of Four Russian Sailors Abandoned On The Island Of East Spitzbergen An Escape Through The Cabin-windows facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail