He was an active, vigorous man, and I could see him in my mind’s eye, standing up on his double bowed whaling-boat brandishing the harpoon, darting it into the flank of a whale, and paying out the rope. He must have been fine to see. Granted his passion for this business, I could not be surprised that his discontent showed itself upon occasion. In any case, however, our schooner was not fitted out for fishing, and the implements of whaling were not on board.
One day, about three o’clock in the afternoon, I had gone forward to watch the gambols of a “school” of the huge sea mammals. Hearne was pointing them out to his companions, and muttering in disjointed phrases,—
“There, look there! That’s a fin-back! There’s another, and another; three of them with their dorsal fins five or six feet high. Just see them swimming between two waves, quietly, making no jumps. Ah l if I had a harpoon, I bet my head that I could send it into one of the four yellow spots they have on their bodies. But there’s nothing to be done in this traffic-box; one cannot stretch one’s arms. Devil take it! In these seas it is fishing we ought to be at, not—”
Then, stopping short, he swore a few oaths, and cried out, “And that other whale!”
The one with a hump like a dromedary?” asked a sailor.
“Yes. It is a humpback,” replied Hearne. “Do you make out its wrinkled belly, and also its long dorsal fin? They’re not easy to take, those humpbacks, for they go down into great depths and devour long reaches of your lines. Truly, we deserve that he should give us a switch of his tail on our side, since we don’t send a harpoon into his.”
“Look out! Look out l’ shouted the boatswain. This was not to warn us that we were in danger of receiving the formidable stroke of the humpback’s tail which the sealing-master had wished us. No, an enormous blower had come alongside the schooner, and almost on the instant a spout of ill-smelling water was ejected from its blow-hole with a noise like a distant roar of artillery. The whole foredeck to the main hatch was inundated.
“That’s well done!” growled Hearne, shrugging his shoulders, while his companions shook themselves and cursed the humpback.
Besides these two kinds of cetacea we had observed several right-whales, and these are the most usually met with in the southern seas. They have no fins, and their blubber is very thick. The taking of these fat monsters of the deep is not attended with much danger. The right-whales are vigorously pursued in the southern seas, where the little shell fish called “whales’ food” abound. The whales subsist entirely upon these small crustaceans.
Presently, one of these right-whales, measuring sixty feet in length—that is to say, the animal was the equivalent of a hundred barrels of oil—was seen floating within three cables’ lengths of the schooner.
“Yes! that’s a right-whale,” exclaimed Hearne. “You might tell it by its thick, short spout. See, that one on the port side, like a column of smoke, that’s the spout of a right-whale! And all this is passing before our very noses—-a dead loss! Why, it’s like emptying money-bags into the sea not to fill one’s barrels when one can. A nice sort of captain, indeed, to let all this merchandise be lost, and do such wrong to his crew!”
“Hearne,” said an imperious voice, “go up to the maintop. You will be more at your ease there to reckon the whales.”
“No reply, or I’ll keep you up there until to-morrow. Come—be off at once.”
And as he would have got the worst of an attempt at resistance, the sealing-master obeyed in silence.
The season must have been abnormally advanced, for although we continued to see a vast number of testaceans, we did not catch sight of a single whaling-ship in all this fishing-ground. I hasten to state that, although we were not to be tempted by whales, no other fishing was forbidden on board the Halbrane, and our daily bill of fare profited by the boatswain’s trawling lines, to the extreme satisfaction of stomachs weary of salt meat. Our lines brought us goby, salmon, cod, mackerel, conger, mullet, and parrot-fish.