Short Stories: Louis Becke - Bull-dogs of the sea - Links to more ShS

Posted by ricardo marcenaro | Posted in | Posted on 3:44








Not many sea-going people--outside of professional whalemen or sealers--know much about the "killer" and his habits, and still less of his appearance. Yet this curious whale (for the killer is one of the minor-toothed whales) is known all over the world, though nowhere is it more plentiful than along the eastern and southern coasts of the Australian continent. In the colder seas of the northern part of the globe it is not uncommon; and only last year one was playing havoc, it was stated, with the fishermen's nets off the northeastern coast of Ireland.
On the eastern seaboard of Australia, however, the killers can be watched at work, even from the shore, particularly from any bluff or headland from which a clear view can be obtained of the sea beneath, and should there be a westerly wind blowing, their slightest movements may be observed; particularly when they are "cruising," i.e., watching for the approach of a "pod" of either humpback or fin-back whales. During the prevalence of westerly winds the sea water becomes very clear, so clear that every rock and stone may be discerned at a depth of six or eight fathoms, and the killers, when waiting for their prey, will frequently come in directly beneath the cliffs and sometimes remain stationary for half an hour at a time, rolling over and over, or sunning themselves.
First of all, let me describe the killer's appearance. They range in length from ten to twenty feet, have a corresponding girth, and show the greatest diversity of colouring and markings. Their anatomy is very much that of the sperm whale--the one member of the cetacean family which they do not attempt to attack on account of his enormous strength and formidable teeth--and they "breach," "spout" and "sound" like other whales. The jaws are set with teeth of from one or two inches in length, deeply imbedded in the jawbone, and when two of these creatures succeed in fastening themselves to the lips of a humpback, even fifty feet in length, they can always prevent him from "sounding" and escaping into deep water, for they cling to the unfortunate monster with bull-dog tenacity, leaving others of their party to rip the blubber from his sides and pendulous belly.
On the coast of New South Wales--particularly at Twofold Bay, where there is a shore whaling station, there are two "pods" or communities of killers which have never left the vicinity within the memory of the oldest inhabitant, and indeed they were first noticed and written about in the year 1790. At other places on the Australian coast there are permanent pods of ten, fifteen or twenty, but those at Twofold Bay are quite famous, and every individual member of them is well-known, not only to the local whalemen, but to many of the other residents of Twofold Bay as well, and it would go hard with the man who attempted to either kill or injure one of any of the members of the two pods, for the whalemen would be unable to carry on their business were it not for the assistance rendered to them by their friends the killers, whose scientific name, by the way, is Orca Gladiator--and a more fitting appellation could never have been applied.
Now as to the colouring and markings--which are not only diverse, but exceedingly curious. Some are of a uniform black, brown, dark grey, or dirty cream; others are black with either streaks or irregular patches of yellow, white or grey: others again are covered with patches of black, white or yellow, ranging in size from half a dozen inches in diameter to nearly a couple of feet. One which the present writer found lying dead on the reef of Nukulaelae Island, in the Ellice Group, was almost a jet black with the exception of some poorly defined white markings on the dorsal fin and belly; another which he saw accidentally killed by a bomb fired at a huge whale off the Bampton Shoals, was of a reddish-brown, with here and there almost true circular blotches of pure white. This poor fellow was twelve feet in length, and his death was caused by his frantic greediness to get at the whale and take his toll of blubber. The whale was struck late in the day, and the sea was so rough that the officer in charge, after having twice tried to get up and use his lance, determined to end the matter with a bomb before darkness came on. At this time there was a "pod" of seven killers running side by side with the whale and endeavouring to fasten to his lips whenever he came to the surface; and, just as the officer had succeeded in getting within firing distance and discharging the bomb, poor Gladiator came in the way, and was killed by the shot, much to the regret of the boat's crew.
For, as I have said, the whalemen--and particularly the shore whalemen, i.e., those who do their whaling from a station on shore--regard, and with good reason, the killers as invaluable allies. Especially is this so in the case of the Twofold Bay shore whalers, for out of every ten whales killed during the season, whether humpbacks, "right" whales, or finbacks, three-fourths are captured through the pack of killers seizing and literally holding them till the boats come up and end the mighty creatures' miseries.
Towards the end of winter an enormous number of whales appear on the Australian coast, coming from the cold Antarctic seas, and travelling northward along the land towards the breeding grounds--the Bampton and Bellona Shoals and the Chesterfield Groups, situated between New Caledonia and the Australian mainland, between 17° and 20° S. The majority of these whales strike the land about Cape Howe and Gabo Island at the boundary line between New South Wales and Victoria--sixty miles south of Twofold Bay. Most of them are finbacks, though these are always accompanied by numbers of humpbacks and a few "right" whales--the most valuable of all the southern cetacea except the spermaceti or cachalot. The latter, however, though they will travel in company with the flying finback and the timid humpback and "right" whale, has no fear of the killers. He is too enormously strong, and could crush even a full-grown killer to a pulp between his mighty jaws were he molested, and consequently the killers give the cachalot a wide berth as a dangerous customer. The finback, however, swift and lengthy as he is, seldom manages to escape once he is "bailed up," and having no weapon of defence except his flukes (for he is one of the baleen or toothless whales), he has but one chance of his life, and that is to dive to such a depth that his assailants have to let go their hold of him in order to ascend to the surface to breathe.
The finback, I must mention, although the most plentiful of all the whale family, and sometimes attaining the length of ninety feet, is never attacked by whale-boats when he is "loose," i.e., free, and is only captured when his struggles with the ferocious killers have so exhausted him that a boat can approach and dart a harpoon into or lance him. The reason for this immunity of primary attack by boats is that the finback is in the first place of little value when compared to either the humpback or "right" whale, for the coating of blubber is thin, and the plates of baleen (or whalebone) he possesses are very short; and in the second place he is, although so timid a creature, too dangerous to be struck with a harpoon, for he would take the entire whale-line out of three or four boats and then get away with it after all, for it is the swiftest of all the cetacean family, and all whalemen say that no one but a stark lunatic would dream of putting an iron into a loose "finner," such as ranges the Southern Ocean. I was told, however, of one well-authenticated case off the Azores, where a reckless Portuguese shore-whaler struck a bull finback, which, after taking the lines from four boats (220 fathoms in each) towed them for three hours and then got away, the line having to be cut owing to the creature sounding to such an enormous depth that no more line was available. 




The shore whaling parties at Twofold Bay, however, run no risks of this sort. They let their friends, the Gladiators, do most of the work, and find that "fin-backing" under these circumstances is fairly profitable, inasmuch as they can tow the carcase ashore, and "try out" the blubber at their leisure.
But, in a case where one of these finbacks is held by killers, it can be approached, as I have said, by shore boats and killed, as is the practice of the Twofold Bay whalemen.
Let the writer now quote, with the publisher's permission, from a work he wrote some years ago describing the way the killers "work in" with their human friends. In this particular instance, however, it was a humpback whale, but as Orca Gladiator treats the humpback and "right" whale as he does the lengthy "finner," the extract from the article is quite applicable.
"Let us imagine a warm, sunny day in August at Twofold Bay. The man who is on the look-out at the abandoned old lighthouse built by one Ben Boyd on the southern headland fifty years ago, paces to and fro on the grassy sward, stopping now and then to scan the wide expanse of ocean with his glass, for the spout of a whale is hard to discern at more than two miles if the weather is misty or rainy. But if the creature is in a playful mood, and 'breaches'--that is, springs bodily out of the water, and falling back, sends up a white volume of foam and spray, like the discharge of a submarine mine, you can see it eight miles away.
"The two boats are always in readiness at the trying-out works, a mile or so up the harbour; so too are the killers, and the look-out man, walking to the verge of the cliff, gazes down.
"There they are, cruising slowly up and down, close in shore, spouting lazily, and showing their wet, gleaming backs and gaff-topsail-like dorsal fins as they rise, roll, and dive again.... Some of them have nicknames, and each is well known to his human friends.
"Presently the watchman sees, away to the southward, a white, misty puff, then another, and another. In an instant he brings his glass to bear. 'Humpback!' Quickly two flags flutter from the flagpole, and a fire is lit; and as the flags and smoke are seen, the waiting boats' crews at the trying-out station are galvanised into life by the cry of 'Rush, ho, lads! Humpbacks in sight, steering north-west! Rush and tumble into the boats and away!'
"Round the south head sweeps the first boat, the second following more leisurely, for she is only a 'pickup' or relief, in case the first is 'fluked' and the crew are tossed high in air, with their boat crushed into matchwood, or meets with some other disaster. And as the leading boat rises to the long ocean swell of the offing, the killers close in round her on either side, just keeping clear of the sweep of the oars, and 'breaching' and leaping and spouting with the anticipative zest of the coming bloody fray.
"'Easy, lads, easy!' says the old boat-header; 'they are coming right down on us. Billy has right. They're humpbacks, sure enough!'
"The panting oarsmen pull a slower stroke, and then, as they watch the great savage creatures which swim alongside, they laugh in the mirthless manner peculiar to most native-born Australians, for suddenly, with a last sharp spurt of vapour, the killers dive and disappear into the dark blue beneath; for they have heard the whales, and, as is their custom, have gone ahead of the boat, rushing swiftly on below fully fifty fathoms deep. Fifteen minutes later they rise to the surface in the midst of the humpbacks, and half a square acre of ocean is turned into a white, swirling cauldron of foam and leaping spray. The bull-dogs of the sea have seized the largest whale of the pod or school--a bull--and are holding him for the boat and for the deadly lance of his human foes. The rest of the humpbacks rise high their mighty flukes and 'sound' a hundred--two hundred--fathoms down, and, speeding seaward, leave the unfortunate bull to his dreadful fate.
("And in truth it is a dreadful fate, and the writer of this sketch can never forget one day, as he and a little girl of six watched, from a grassy headland on the coast of New South Wales, the slaughter of a monstrous whale by a drove of killers, that the child wept and shuddered and hid her face against his shoulder.)
"Banging swiftly alongside of him, from his great head down to the 'small' of his back, the fierce killers seize his body in their savage jaws and tear great strips of blubber from off his writhing sides in huge mouthfuls, and then jerking the masses aside, take another and another bite. In vain he sweeps his flukes with fearful strokes from side to side--the bull-dogs of the sea come not within their range; in vain he tries to 'sound'--there is a devil on each side of his jaws, their cruel teeth fixed firmly into his huge lips; perhaps two or three are underneath him tearing and riving at the great rough corrugations of his grey-white belly; whilst others, with a few swift, vertical strokes of their flukes, draw back for fifty feet or so, charge him amidships, and strike him fearful blows on the ribs with their bony heads. Round and round, in ever-narrowing circles as his strength fails, the tortured humpback swims, sometimes turning on his back or side, but failing, failing fast.
"'He's done for, lads. Pull up; stand up, Jim.'
"The boat dashes up, and Jim, the man who is pulling bow oar, picks up his harpoon. A minute later it flies from his hand, and is buried deep into the body of the quivering animal, cutting through the thick blubber as a razor would cut through the skin of a drum.
"'Stern all!' and the harpooner tumbles aft and grips the steer oar, and the steersman takes his place in the head of the boat and seizes his keen-edged lance. But 'humpy' is almost spent, and though by a mighty effort he 'ups flukes' and sounds, he soon rises, for the killers thrust him upwards to the surface again. Then the flashing lance--two, three swift thrusts into his 'life' a gushing torrent of hot, dark blood, and he rolls oyer on his side, an agonised trembling quivers through his vast frame, the battle is oyer and his life is gone.
"And now comes the curious and yet absolutely truly described final part that the killers play in this ocean tragedy. They, the moment the whale is dead, close around him, and fastening their teeth into his body, by main strength bear it to the bottom. Here--if they have not already accomplished it--they tear out the tongue, and eat about one-third of the blubber. In from thirty-six to forty hours the carcase will again rise to the surface, and as, before he was taken down, the whalemen haye attached a line and buoy to the body, its whereabouts are easily discerned from the look-out on the headland; the boats again put off and tow it ashore to the trying-out works. The killers, though they haye had their fill of blubber, accompany the boats to the head of the bay and keep off the sharks, which would otherwise strip off all the remaining blubber from the carcase before it had reached the shore. But once the boats are in the shallow water, the killers stop, and then with a final 'puff! puff!' of farewell to their human friends, turn and head seaward to resume their ceaseless watch and patrol of the ocean.
"The killers never hurt a man. Time after time haye boats been stove in or smashed into splinters by a whale, either by an accidental blow from his head or a sudden lateral sweep of his monstrous flukes, and the crew left struggling in the water or clinging to the oars and pieces of wreckage; and the killers have swum up to, looked at, and smelt them, but never have they touched a man with intent to do him harm. And wherever the killers are, the sharks are not, for Jack Shark dreads a killer as the devil is said to dread holy water. Sometimes I have seen 'Jack' make a rush in between the killers, and rip off a piece of hanging blubber, but he will carefully watch his chance to do so."
  *             *             *             *             *
One of the most experienced whaling masters of New Bedford, with whom the writer once cruised from the Gilbert Islands to Tap in the Western Carolines, told him that on one occasion when he was coming from the shore to his ship, which was lying to off the Chatham Islands, the boat was followed by a pack of five killers. They swam within touch of the oars, much to the amusement of the crew, and presently several of what are called "right whale" porpoises made their appearance, racing along ahead of the boat, whereupon Captain Allen went for'ard and picked up a harpoon, for the flesh of this rare variety of porpoise is highly prized. The moment he struck the fish it set off at a great rate, but not quick enough to escape the killers, for though the porpoise was much the swifter fish (were it loose), the weight of the boat and fifty fathoms of line was a heavy handicap. As quickly as possible the men began hauling up to the stricken fish so that Allen might give it the lance, when to their astonishment the killers seized it and literally tore it to pieces in a few minutes.
"If ever I felt mad enough to put an iron into a 'killer' it was then," he said, "but I couldn't do it. And very glad of it I was afterwards, for a week later I had two boats stove in by a whale, and of course, had I hurt one of those beggars of killers, the whole crew would have said it was only a just retribution."






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Short Stories: Louis Becke - Bull-dogs of the sea - Links to more ShS






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