In the maritime world and in the realm of geographic exploration, whales have played a major role. This is the animal that first dragged the Basques in its wake, then Asturian Spaniards, Englishmen, and Dutchmen, emboldening them against the ocean's perils, and leading them to the ends of the earth. Baleen whales like to frequent the southernmost and northernmost seas. Old legends even claim that these cetaceans led fishermen to within a mere seven leagues of the North Pole. Although this feat is fictitious, it will someday come true, because it's likely that by hunting whales in the Arctic or Antarctic regions, man will finally reach this unknown spot on the globe.
We were seated on the platform next to a tranquil sea. The month of March, since it's the equivalent of October in these latitudes, was giving us some fine autumn days. It was the Canadian-- on this topic he was never mistaken--who sighted a baleen whale on the eastern horizon. If you looked carefully, you could see its blackish back alternately rise and fall above the waves, five miles from the Nautilus.
"Wow!" Ned Land exclaimed. "If I were on board a whaler, there's an encounter that would be great fun! That's one big animal! Look how high its blowholes are spouting all that air and steam! Damnation! Why am I chained to this hunk of sheet iron!"
"Why, Ned!" I replied. "You still aren't over your old fishing urges?"
"How could a whale fisherman forget his old trade, sir? Who could ever get tired of such exciting hunting?"
"You've never fished these seas, Ned?"
"Never, sir. Just the northernmost seas, equally in the Bering Strait and the Davis Strait."
"So the southern right whale is still unknown to you. Until now it's the bowhead whale you've hunted, and it won't risk going past the warm waters of the equator."
"Oh, professor, what are you feeding me?" the Canadian answered in a tolerably skeptical tone.
"I'm feeding you the facts."
"By thunder! In '65, just two and a half years ago, I to whom you speak, I myself stepped onto the carcass of a whale near Greenland, and its flank still carried the marked harpoon of a whaling ship from the Bering Sea. Now I ask you, after it had been wounded west of America, how could this animal be killed in the east, unless it had cleared the equator and doubled Cape Horn or the Cape of Good Hope?"
"I agree with our friend Ned," Conseil said, "and I'm waiting to hear how master will reply to him."
"Master will reply, my friends, that baleen whales are localized, according to species, within certain seas that they never leave. And if one of these animals went from the Bering Strait to the Davis Strait, it's quite simply because there's some passageway from the one sea to the other, either along the coasts of Canada or Siberia."
"You expect us to fall for that?" the Canadian asked, tipping me a wink.
"If master says so," Conseil replied.
"Which means," the Canadian went on, "since I've never fished these waterways, I don't know the whales that frequent them?"
"That's what I've been telling you, Ned."
"All the more reason to get to know them," Conseil answered.
"Look! Look!" the Canadian exclaimed, his voice full of excitement. "It's approaching! It's coming toward us! It's thumbing its nose at me! It knows I can't do a blessed thing to it!"
Ned stamped his foot. Brandishing an imaginary harpoon, his hands positively trembled.
"These cetaceans," he asked, "are they as big as the ones in the northernmost seas?"
"Pretty nearly, Ned."
"Because I've seen big baleen whales, sir, whales measuring up to 100 feet long! I've even heard that those rorqual whales off the Aleutian Islands sometimes get over 150 feet."
"That strikes me as exaggerated," I replied. "Those animals are only members of the genus Balaenoptera furnished with dorsal fins, and like sperm whales, they're generally smaller than the bowhead whale."
"Oh!" exclaimed the Canadian, whose eyes hadn't left the ocean. "It's getting closer, it's coming into the Nautilus's waters!"
Then, going on with his conversation:
"You talk about sperm whales," he said, "as if they were little beasts! But there are stories of gigantic sperm whales. They're shrewd cetaceans.