“ – part huge of bulk
Wallowing unwieldly, enormous in their gate,
Tempest the ocean. There Leviathan,
Hugest of living creatures, on the deep
Stretch’d like a promontory, sleeps or swims,
And seems a moving land; and at his gills
Draws in, and at his trunk spouts out, a sea.
————————————————–PARADISE LOST, II. vii, 410.
THE Whale is by far the largest of the known inhabitants of the sea; he is often mentioned in the holy writ, and described under the name of Leviathan. This class of animals have generally breathing apertures on the head; pectoral fins, an horizontal tail, and no kind of claws. The Greenland Whale, which inhabits the Artic circle, is sometimes ninety feet in length; and it is reported that within the bounds of the torrid zone they are often discovered measuring a hundred and sixty feet. Although it is impossible to ascertain the length of time which such a creature may be allowed by Providence to remain in existence, yet it is fair to suppose that the life of the Whale must exceed that of any other animal, when no accidents shorten the number of his days. The head of this animal generally constitutes a third part of the whole bulk. The underlip is much larger than the upper, the tongue, which is of the size and form nearly of a large feather bed, is of a fat and adipous substance, yielding commonly five or six barrels of blubber. Out of two orifices placed in the middle of the head, this creature spouts the water to a great distance, chiefly when wounded. The eyes are comparatively small, and placed towards the back of the head. The tail is broad and semi-circular; the colour of the back is blackish, and the belly white.
We shall enter at length into the management of the Whale fishery to which Falconer alludes in the following lines:
“As when enclosing harponeers assail
In Hyperborean seas, the slumbering Whale;
Soon as their javelins pierce the scaly side,
He groans, he darts impetuous down the tide;
And, racked all o’er with lacerating pain,
He flies remote beneath the flood in vain.”
——————————————-FALCONER’S SHIPWRECK, canto iii.
Head of the Whale.
Whales are taken in large numbers about Iceland, Greenland, and other northern countries, by the English, Hollanders, &c. The South Sea Company, for several years, used to send annually on this expedition, about twenty sail of ships, every ship being above 300 tons burden, and each carrying forty-five men: this fleet usually sailed about the end of March, but seldom began to fish till the month of May. When they begin their fishery the ship is fastened, or moored, with nose-hooks to the ice. Two boats, each manned with six men, (which is the complement of every boat in the fleet), are ordered by the Commodore (who is an officer, and also the head of every ship’s company, and appointed on purpose to manage the fishery) to look out for the coming of the fish, for two hours, and then are relieved by two more, and so by turns: the two boats lie at some small distance from the ship, each separated from the other, fastened to the ice with their boat-hooks, ready to let go in an instant at the first sight of the Whale. Here the dexterity of the whale hunters is to be admired; for so soon as the fish shews himself, every man is to his oar, and they rush on the monster with a prodigious swiftness; at the same time taking care to come abaft or behind his head, that he may not see the boat, which sometimes so scars him that he plunges down again before they have time to strike him. But the greatest care is to be taken of the tail, with which it many times does very great damage, both to the boats and mariners; the harpooneer, who is placed at the head or bow of the boat, seeing the back of the Whale, and making the onset, thrusts the harping iron with all his might into its body, by the help of a staff fixed in it for that purpose, and leaves it in, a line being fastened to it of about two inches in circumference, and 136 fathoms long. Every boat is furnished with seven of these lines, which being let run, from the motion of it they observe the course of the fish.
As soon as ever the Whale is struck the third man in the boat holds up his oar, with something on the top, as a signal to the ship; at the sight of which the man who is appointed to watch gives the alarm to those that are asleep, who instantly let fall their other four boats, which hang on the tackles, two each side, ready to let go at a minute’s warning, all furnished alike with six men each, harping irons, lances, lines, &c. two or three of these beats row to the place where the fish may be expected to come up again, the other to assist the boat that first struck the Whale with line; for the fish will sometimes run out two or three boats lines, all fastened to each other; for, when the lines of the first boat are almost run out, they throw the end to the second, to be fastened to theirs, and then follow the other boats in pursuit of the Whale, and so likewise does the second boat when their lines are run out.
A Whale, when she is first struck, will run out above a hundred fathoms of line, before the harpooneer is able to take a turn round the boat’s stern, and with that swiftness, that a man stands ready to quench it, if it should fire, which it frequently does. There was a boat lately to be seen in the South Sea dock at Deptford, the head of which was sawed off by the swiftness of the line running out. Sometimes the Whale is killed on the spot, without sinking down at all. The harping iron would but little avail to the destruction of this animal; but part of the rowers, either at the first onset, or when, in order to fetch his breath, it discovers itself to view, throwing aside their oars, and taking up their very sharp lances, they thrust it through the body, till they see it spurt the blood through the blower; the sight of which is a most joyful sign of the creature’s being mortally wounded. The fishermen, upon the killing of a Whale, are each entitled to some small reward. After the whale is killed, they cut all the lines that are fastened to it, and the tail off; then it instantly turns on its back; so they tow it to the ship, where they fasten ropes to keep it from sinking; and when it is cold begin to cut it up.
The body of a Whale is frequently found to be eighteen or twenty inches thick of fat; and yields fifty or sixty puncheons of oil, each puncheon containing seventy-four gallons, and about twelve hundred pieces of whale-bone, most of which are about fifteen feet long, and twelve inches broad, which are all taken out of the jaws, being the gills of fish; the whole produce of a Whale being worth one thousand pounds, sometimes more or less, according to the goodness of the fish. Whilst the men are at work on the back of the fish, they have spurs on their boots, with two prongs, which come down on each side of their feet, lest they should slip, the back of the Whale being very slippery. These ships have orders to quit those seas by the 24th of June, for then the fish begin to be very mischievous.
While they swim it is not easy to distinguish the male from the female, unless from hence, that the latter is bigger than the former. The female has teats, and suckles her young after the manner of land animals. The Triton, one of our South Sea Company’s ships, killed a female Whale; and whilst they were cutting her up along side, a young one swam about the ship, and would not forsake the dam, till at length the Commodore ordered the boat to go out and kill it, which they did, and it produced four puncheons of oil, &c. There is a small fish called Lodd by the whale-catchers, of which, if the Whales devour any large numbers, they become as it were drunk, and, transported with rage and fury, and exercise outrages against whatever comes in their way. The throat of the Whale is so very strait, that it can hardly take in the arm of a man; therefore stories about men having been swallowed by a Whale are void of foundation. Great pains have been taken by commentators to reconcile with truth and nature the history of Jonah; but their endeavours were as fruitless, as they were presumptuous. Let us consider that the fact, as related, is a miraculous one, and a sort of type of the resurrection of Christ; surely he who had broken the laws of nature in favour of his chosen people, who had bid the sea to open its bosom, the Jordan to recoil towards its source, &c. could easily perform the astonishing deed above mentioned.