On the Solander Whaling Ground, by Frank Bullen

from Idylls of the Sea

A bright sunny morning; the gentle north-easterly breeze just keeping the sails full as the lumbering whaling-barque "Splendid" dips jerkily to the old southerly swell. Astern, the blue hills around Preservation Inlet [Footnote: Preservation Inlet … Solander (island) … Foveaux (strait) … Stewart Island: places situated on or near the southern end of New Zealand.] lie shimmering in the soft spring sunlight, and on the port beam the mighty pillar of the Solander Rock, lying off the south-western extremity of the New Zealand, is sharply outlined against the steel-blue sky. Far beyond that stern sentinel, the converging shores of Foveaux Strait are just discernible in dim outline through a low haze. Ahead the jagged and formidable rocks of Stewart Island, bathed in a mellow golden glow, give no hint of their terrible appearance what time the Storm-fiend of the south-west cries havoc and urges on his chariot of war.

The keen-eyed Kanaka [Footnote: Kanaka: a native of the Sandwich Islands.] in the fore crow's nest [Footnote: Crow's nest: a perch near the top of the mast to shelter the man on the lookout.] shades his eyes with his hand, peering earnestly out on the weather bow at something which has attracted his attention. A tiny plume of vapor rises from the blue hollows about ten miles away, but so faint and indefinable that it may be only a breaking wavelet's crest caught by the cross wind. Again that little bushy jet breaks the monotony of the sea; but this time there is no mistaking it. Emerging diagonally from the water, not high and thin, but low and spreading, it is an infallible indication to those piercing eyes of the presence of a sperm-whale. The watcher utters a long, low musical cry, "Blo-o-o-o-w," which penetrates the gloomy recesses of the fo'ksle [Footnote: Fo'ksle: the forward part of the vessel, under the deck, where the sailors live.] and cuddy, [Footnote: Cuddy: small cabin.] where the slumberers immediately engage in fierce conflict with whales of a size never seen by waking eyes. The officer and white seamen at the main now take up the cry, and in a few seconds all hands are swiftly yet silently preparing to leave the ship. She is put about, making a course which shortly brings her a mile or two to windward of the slowly-moving cachalot. Now it is evident that no solitary whale is in sight, but a great school, gambolling in the bright spray. One occasionally, in pure exuberance of its tremendous vitality, springs twenty feet into the clear air, and falls, a hundred tons of massive flesh, with earthquake-like commotion, back into the sea.

Having got the weather-gage, the boats are lowered; sail is immediately set, and, like swift huge-winged birds, they swoop down upon the prey. Driving right upon the back of the nearest monster, two harpoons are plunged into his body up to the "hitches." [Footnote: Hitches: a knot or noose that can be readily undone.] The sheet [Footnote: Sheet: the rope that regulates the angle of the sail.] is at once hauled aft, [Footnote: Hauled aft: hauled toward the stern of the ship.] and the boat flies up into the wind; while the terrified cetacean [Footnote: Cetacean: marine mammal.] vainly tries, by tremendous writhing and plunging, to rid himself of the barbed weapon. The mast is unshipped, and preparation made to deliver the coup de grace. [Footnote: Coup de grace: the decisive, finishing stroke.] But finding his efforts futile, the whale has sounded, and his reappearance must be awaited. Two boats' lines are taken out before the slackening comes, and he slowly rises again. Faster and faster the line comes in; the blue depths turn a creamy white, and it is "Stern all" for dear life. Up he comes, with jaws gaping twenty feet wide, gleaming teeth and livid, cavernous throat glittering in the brilliant light. But the boat's crew are seasoned hands, to whom this dread sight is familiar, and orders are quietly obeyed, the boat backing, circling and darting ahead like a sentient thing under their united efforts. So the infuriated mammal is baffled and dodged, while thrust after thrust of the long lances are got home, and streamlets of blood trickling over the edges of his spouthole give warning that the end is near. A few wild circlings at tremendous speed, jaws clashing and blood foaming in torrents from the spiracle, [Footnote: Spiracle: the nostril of a whale.] one mighty leap into the air, and the ocean monarch is dead. He lies just awash, gently undulated by the long, low swell, one pectoral fin slowly waving like some great stray leaf of Fucus gigantea. [Footnote: Fucus gigantea: fucus is a kind of tough seaweed.] A hole is cut through the fluke and the line secured to it. The ship, which has been working to windward during the conflict, runs down and receives the line; and in a short time the great inert mass is hauled alongside and secured by the fluke [Footnote: Fluke: one of the lobes of a whale's tail.] chain.

The vessel, bound to that immense body, can only crawl tortoise-like before the wind—lucky, indeed, to have a harbor ahead where the whale may be cut in, even though it be forty miles away. Without that refuge available, she could not hope to keep the sea and hold her prize through the wild weather, now so near. The breeze is freshening fast, and all sail is made for Port William. So slow is the progress, that it is past midnight before that snug shelter is reached, although for the last four hours the old ship is terribly tried and strained by the press of sail carried to such a gale.


[Footnote: Show how the rapid action in the narrative makes it more dramatic. Why does the danger of the enterprise take so small a part in the narrative? Can you characterize this kind of description?]

Louise de la Ramee