What was it? I still couldn't make up my mind.
"Oh, it's moving off! It's diving!" Ned Land exclaimed. "Damnation! What can that animal be? It doesn't have a forked tail like baleen whales or sperm whales, and its fins look like sawed-off limbs."
"But in that case--" I put in.
"Good lord," the Canadian went on, "it's rolled over on its back, and it's raising its breasts in the air!"
"It's a siren!" Conseil exclaimed. "With all due respect to master, it's an actual mermaid!"
That word "siren" put me back on track, and I realized that the animal belonged to the order Sirenia: marine creatures that legends have turned into mermaids, half woman, half fish.
"No," I told Conseil, "that's no mermaid, it's an unusual creature of which only a few specimens are left in the Red Sea. That's a dugong."
"Order Sirenia, group Pisciforma, subclass Monodelphia, class Mammalia, branch Vertebrata," Conseil replied.
And when Conseil has spoken, there's nothing else to be said.
Meanwhile Ned Land kept staring. His eyes were gleaming with desire at the sight of that animal. His hands were ready to hurl a harpoon. You would have thought he was waiting for the right moment to jump overboard and attack the creature in its own element.
"Oh, sir," he told me in a voice trembling with excitement, "I've never killed anything like that!"
His whole being was concentrated in this last word.
Just then Captain Nemo appeared on the platform. He spotted the dugong. He understood the Canadian's frame of mind and addressed him directly:
"If you held a harpoon, Mr. Land, wouldn't your hands be itching to put it to work?"
"And just for one day, would it displease you to return to your fisherman's trade and add this cetacean to the list of those you've already hunted down?"
"It wouldn't displease me one bit."
"All right, you can try your luck!"
"Thank you, sir," Ned Land replied, his eyes ablaze.
"Only," the captain went on, "I urge you to aim carefully at this animal, in your own personal interest."
"Is the dugong dangerous to attack?" I asked, despite the Canadian's shrug of the shoulders.
"Yes, sometimes," the captain replied. "These animals have been known to turn on their assailants and capsize their longboats. But with Mr. Land that danger isn't to be feared. His eye is sharp, his arm is sure. If I recommend that he aim carefully at this dugong, it's because the animal is justly regarded as fine game, and I know Mr. Land doesn't despise a choice morsel."
"Aha!" the Canadian put in. "This beast offers the added luxury of being good to eat?"
"Yes, Mr. Land. Its flesh is actual red meat, highly prized, and set aside throughout Malaysia for the tables of aristocrats. Accordingly, this excellent animal has been hunted so bloodthirstily that, like its manatee relatives, it has become more and more scarce."
"In that case, captain," Conseil said in all seriousness, "on the offchance that this creature might be the last of its line, wouldn't it be advisable to spare its life, in the interests of science?"
"Maybe," the Canadian answered, "it would be better to hunt it down, in the interests of mealtime."
"Then proceed, Mr. Land," Captain Nemo replied.
Just then, as mute and emotionless as ever, seven crewmen climbed onto the platform. One carried a harpoon and line similar to those used in whale fishing. Its deck paneling opened, the skiff was wrenched from its socket and launched to sea. Six rowers sat on the thwarts, and the coxswain took the tiller. Ned, Conseil, and I found seats in the stern.
"Aren't you coming, captain?" I asked.
"No, sir, but I wish you happy hunting."
The skiff pulled clear, and carried off by its six oars, it headed swiftly toward the dugong, which by then was floating two miles from the Nautilus.
Arriving within a few cable lengths of the cetacean, our longboat slowed down, and the sculls dipped noiselessly into the tranquil waters. Harpoon in hand, Ned Land went to take his stand in the skiff's bow. Harpoons used for hunting whales are usually attached to a very long rope that pays out quickly when the wounded animal drags it with him. But this rope measured no more than about ten fathoms, and its end had simply been fastened to a small barrel that, while floating, would indicate the dugong's movements beneath the waters.