That day Mrs. Weldon was walking aft on the "Pilgrim," when a rather curious phenomenon attracted her attention. The waters of the sea had become reddish quite suddenly. One might have believed that they had just been stained with blood; and this inexplicable tinge extended as far as the eye could reach.
Dick Sand. was then with little Jack near Mrs. Weldon.
"Dick," she said to the young novice, "Do you see that singular color of the waters of the Pacific? Is it due to the presence of a marine herb?"
"No, Mrs. Weldon," replied Dick Sand, "that tinge is produced by myriads of little crustaceans, which generally serve to nourish the great mammifers. Fishermen call that, not without reason, 'whales' food.'"
"Crustaceans!" said Mrs. Weldon. "But they are so small that we might almost call them sea insects. Perhaps Cousin Benedict would be very much enchanted to make a collection of them." Then calling: "Cousin Benedict!" cried she.
Cousin Benedict appeared out of the companion-way almost at the same time as Captain Hull.
"Cousin Benedict," said Mrs. Weldon, "see that immense reddish field which extends as far as we can see."
"Hold!" said Captain Hull. "That is whales' food. Mr. Benedict, a fine occasion to study this curious species of crustacea."
"Phew!" from the entomologist.
"How--phew!" cried the captain. "But you have no right to profess such indifference. These crustaceans form one of the six classes of the articulates, if I am not mistaken, and as such----"
"Phew!" said Cousin Benedict again, shaking his lead.
"For instance----I find you passably disdainful for an entomologist!"
"Entomologist, it may be," replied Cousin Benedict, "but more particularly hexapodist, Captain Hull, please remember."
"At all events," replied Captain Hull, "if these crustaceans do not interest you, it can't be helped; but it would be otherwise if you possessed a whale's stomach. Then what a regale! Do you see, Mrs. Weldon, when we whalers, during the fishing season, arrive in sight of a shoal of these crustaceans, we have only time to prepare our harpoons and our lines. We are certain that the game is not distant."
"Is it possible that such little beasts can feed such large ones?" cried Jack.
"Ah! my boy," replied Captain Hull, "little grains of vermicelli, of flour, of fecula powder, do they not make very good porridge? Yes; and nature has willed that it should be so. When a whale floats in the midst of these red waters, its soup is served; it has only to open its immense mouth. Myriads of crustaceans enter it. The numerous plates of those whalebones with which the animal's palate is furnished serve to strain like fishermen's nets; nothing can get out of them again, and the mass of crustaceans is ingulfed in the whale's vast stomach, as the soup of your dinner in yours."
"You think right, Jack," observed Dick Sand, "that Madam Whale does not lose time in picking these crustaceans one by one, as you pick shrimps."
"I may add," said Captain Hull, "that it is just when the enormous gourmand is occupied in this way, that it is easiest to approach it without exciting its suspicion. That is the favorable moment to harpoon it with some success."
At that instant, and as if to corroborate Captain Hull, a sailor's voice was heard from the front of the ship:
"A whale to larboard!"
Captain Hull strode up.
"A whale!" cried he.
And his fisherman's instinct urging him, he hastened to the "Pilgrim's" forecastle.
Mrs. Weldon, Jack, Dick Sand, Cousin Benedict himself, followed him at once.
In fact, four miles to windward a certain bubbling indicated that a huge marine mammifer was moving in the midst of the red waters. Whalers could not be mistaken in it. But the distance was still too considerable to make it possible to recognize the species to which this mammifer belonged. These species, in fact, are quite distinct.
Was it one of those "right" whales, which the fishermen of the Northern Ocean seek most particularly? Those cetaceans, which lack the dorsal fin, but whose skin covers a thick stratum of lard, may attain a length of eighty feet, though the average does not exceed sixty, and then a single one of those monsters furnishes as much as a hundred barrels of oil.