main documents page
fishing and whaling
revised July 2006
Harper's New Monthly Magazine 3 (18): 764-767, 2 Nov 1851
SEALS AND WHALES.
EXCEPT, perhaps, to naturalists, the Seal will be known to many readers only through the medium of Sir Walter Scott's "Antiquary." " 'What is that yonder ?' says Hector M'Intyre to his uncle, Jonathan Oldbuck. 'One of the herd of Proteus,' replied the Antiquary—'a Phoca, or Seal, lying asleep on the beach.' Upon which M'Intyre, with the eagerness of a young sportsman, exclaiming, 'I shall have him ! I shall have him !' snatched the walking-stick out of the hand of the astonished Antiquary, at some risk of throwing him down, and set off at full speed to get between the animal and the sea, to which element, having caught the alarm, she was rapidly retreating......The Seal finding her retreat intercepted by the light-footed soldier, confronted him manfully, and having sustained a heavy blow without injury, she knit-
ted her brows, as is the fashion of the animal, and making use at once of her fore-paws and her unwieldy strength, wrenched the weapon out of the assailant's hand, overturned him on the sands, and scuttled away into the sea without doing him any further injury." We shall not dwell on the mortification of the gallant captain, or the gibes of his uncle, as these will readily occur to the readers of Scott's magic pages. Turning, then, from the romancer, we shall trace the records of the Phoca through the denser chapters of the scientific compiler, and the Arctic voyagers.
The literature of the Seal, which is very limited, would lead us to suppose that, like the owl of terra firma, it maintains—to quote from one authority—an "ancient, solitary reign, threading an unfurrowed track along the dark waters of the Atlantic, and skimming in peace and security along the margins of ice-bound shores, where all is dumb." But how stands the actual fact? In the year 1850, no fewer than one hundred thousand Seals were captured by British vessels, and in the present year a greater number will probably be slain. What will be the commercial value of those animals? Reckoning the whole to be even young seals, and estimating one ton of oil to be produce of one hundred seals, the oil will yield, in round numbers, thirty-five thousand pounds, and the skins, calculated at three shillings each, would bring fifteen thousand pounds —in all, fifty thousand pounds. So that, we have an interesting branch of commerce represented in our literature as all but extinct, while in reality it is flourishing in a high degree, adding extensively to national wealth, and giving employment to a large portion of the seafaring community.
Whale-fishery in the Arctics has been in a declining state for a number of years ; a result which, so far as mere purposes of illumination are concerned, might have been of minor consequence, seeing that the substitution of gas for oil-lamps has rendered us comparatively independent of oil as a lighting agent; but, concurrently with the introduction of gas, there has been an increased demand for oil for lubricating machinery, and for other manufacturing purposes ; hence fish-oil has maintained its price remarkably well, notwithstanding an opposition that at first seemed fatal to it. Greenland was, at the beginning of the whale-fishing, the resort of the whale, and thither its pursuers went, and captured it in large numbers; but in process of time, the animal finding the peace of its ancient home ruthlessly invaded; retreated to the more northern latitude of Davis Straits. The distance, although greater, being still practicable, the chase was still continued, and the slaughter went on as before. Again, the leviathan, as if conscious that its track was followed, beat another retreat, which has turned out more successful than the first. Each spring witnessed the departure of Arctic fleets from every port of note in Britain, and the regions of the North were instinct with life, in search of the monster of the deep. Captains would stand, telescope in hand, in the "crow's nest," perched on the summit of the main-mast, and peer through the instrument till eye became dim and hand was frozen—boats' crews would be dispatched, and pull for weary miles in the sea, or drag their skiffs for still more weary miles on the surface of the ice—men on deck would gaze wistfully across the main, and mutter charms, or invoke omens ; but all in vain. The ice would close in like iron mountains around them, and the time would come that they must bend their sails homeward. Then, stray fish would be seen far off, or very shy fish would dart off in their immediate vicinity, and the disappointed mariners would return for the season, either with clean vessels, or at best with small cargoes of oil. Some accounted for the change by asserting that the whale had been hunted from Davis Straits just as it had been pursued from Greenland, and that it had betaken itself to still higher and now inaccessible latitudes ; —some held that the animal had diminished in numbers, and as gestation takes place only once in two years, there was some ground for this conjecture ;—while a third section, who were principally composed of superannuated Blowhards, and who harpooned only, by the fireside, held pertinaciously to the notion that the failure arose from the inefficiency of modern fishermen. But, arise from what cause it might, whales were either not brought home at all, or else they were brought home in woefully diminished numbers. Owners became discouraged, and captains sank in despair; harpoons and flinching gear were flung aside, and whalers were dispatched to the Baltic for timber, or wherever else a freight could be procured, and others departed to strange ports, and returned no more ; for they were sold. The whaling fleet became, therefore, small by degrees., Yet two ports struggled on against the receding tide; Hull in England, and Peterhead in Scotland, always hoped against hope, and persevered amid every disadvantage. They still sent vessels out; if not to catch whales, to be contented with seals. Peterhead reaped the reward of perseverance. We observe from a recent return, that out of the hundred thousand Seals captured in 1850, sixty-three thousand four hundred and twenty-six fell to the share of ten Peterhead vessels.
There was something romantic about whale-fishing. When the captain, with his assisted eye, descried the far-off parabolic spout of his victim, the cry of "Fall! fall!" would resound from stem to stern, and from hold to cross-trees. Down went the boats, sharp and graceful as regatta skiffs, and yet as strong and compact as herring yawls ; the steerer took his oar, for rudders are too slow for this kind of navigation;. the line-coiler, stood by his ropes; while last, and most important of all, the harpooner descended with his glittering instruments. : Muffled oars dip in the waters, and the skiff nears the sleeping leviathan. A single awkward splash would rouse him; but all is silent as death, and the harpooner, poising himself, takes his deadly aim,
and buries his javelin in the huge carcase. Smarting with pain, the enormous black mass lurches, and then with lightning speed darts underneath the wave; the boiling surge raised by its descent lifts the boat like a feather ; the line attached to the harpoon disappears fathom after fathom, hissing around the rolling-pin, with a force and velocity that, but for copious libations, would cause ignition; a long and still extending streak of gore marks the route of the wounded animal; the rope at last goes less rapidly off, and as its rapidity decreases, they pull up to the victim, and insert more instruments, and then after a few deadly slaps with his tail, the monarch of the ocean yields up the contest.
What has the Russian, the Dutch or the Hanseatic man, or the Esquimaux, been doing all this time ? They have been following the pastime of Captain Hector M'Intyre, and endeavoring to slay the Phoca. Most of the Britons pursuing whales, and the foreigners and natives peddling with seals ; just as if Captain Gordon Cumming had been hunting a lion, while some other sportsmen would stand by shooting sparrows or mice. No glory in capturing a seal, and as little pay. Thirty large seals are needed to make up one ton of oil, while an average whale would produce twenty tons of the oleaginous fluid. The whale-fishers despised such small game, and regarded mere seal-fishers with contempt;—we say mere seal-fishers, because if seals did come in the way, they were shot or knocked down by the whale-fisher ; but his main vocation consisted in waging war with the colossal member of the finny tribe. And apart from the larger quantity of oil yielded by the one animal, the bone of the whale was singularly valuable. Twenty tons of oil would indicate one ton of bone, and that was worth some two hundred and fifty pounds sterling. The seal, too, had its extrinsic value, for its skin was worth seven-pence—dust in the balance compared with the bone of its huge contemporary. Whales, then, undoubtedly were the superior subjects for capture ; but as whales could not be had, and seals became plentiful, the whalers lowered their plumes, and raised their arms against their amphibious prey.
Old seals had wont to be pursued, but although their capture was more profitable than young ones, still the old seals are so excessively shy that they can only be shot in detail, and hence a preference is given to the destruction of the young. The seal propagates twice a year—the first pups of the season lie upon the ice early in the spring, and being unable to run to the water and swim off, they fall ready prey to the spoiler. A smart blow with a club stuns them, and a wound does the rest. Their numbers are very large. During the present season of 1851, a flock of them extending to about fifteen miles was discovered, not far from the Scottish coast; a dozen animals at least occupying every hundred square yards. Of course, with such opportunities, a ship is readily filled, and bearing homeward with her valuable cargo, there is still time to undertake a second and more northern voyage, in search of whales or larger seals.
The Dutch have been in the habit of prosecuting the trade with small vessels, but Jhe British although occasionally using tiny craft, prefer employing large and stout vessels, as with such they can penetrate into fissures of the ice, instead of timidly sailing by the margin; and their success in this respect is gradually inducing their foreign competitors to follow their example.
The size of ships generally preferred for seal or whale fishing, is three hundred and fifty tons burden, or upward, although this year some vessels have gone out so small as eighty tons. A ship of the larger size carries sixty-five men, of the latter dimensions, twenty. The average outfit of a large vessel costs about one thousand four hundred pounds, and the original cost of such varies from two thousand to ten thousand pounds, according to age and quality of vessel, and also whether a used ship has been purchased, or one expressly built for the trade. The loss when a vessel is unsuccessful, is greater than in any other maritime speculation, there being no return whatever to stand against outlay ; but, on the other hand, if fortunate, no other kind of shipping adventure yields so large profits. One vessel this year brought home a cargo of the gross value of six thousand pounds, leaving (it being her first fishing voyage) a net profit to her owners of three thousand pounds. The vessels sailing from the small northern port of Peterhead have, as before stated, been remarkably successful. The following is a statement of the produce of the ten vessels which sailed from thence in 1850:
1,144 tons of oil.
14 tons of whalebone.
The aggregate commercial value of the whole would amount to about fifty thousand pounds. Seal-skins have lately risen in value—the former rate of seven-pence having been augmented to three shillings; and they are used principally for the purpose of being manufactured into patent-leather. Each skin is split into two or three layers, and each layer is turned to separate account. No other leather possesses the same closeness of texture, smoothness of surface, and elasticity. From being employed as rough waistcoats for seamen, and hairy coverings for trunks, it is now in its stratified state applied to the most delicate artistic purposes.
The Seal belongs to the four-limbed mammiliferous animals. It is half quadruped, half fish. The head and general physiognomy, especially when seen in the water, resemble those of a dog. The limbs, which in the sea act as excellent paddles, are indifferent instruments of locomotion on land—the forepaws are almost the only motive powers, the posterior portion of the body having to be dragged over the ground. The young are very obedient to the parent seals, and are obedient to, and recognize the voices of their dams amid the.loudest tumult. Thev are decidedly
gregarious in their habits, and hunt and herd together in common; and, in those cases, when surprised by an enemy, they have great facilities in expressing, both by tone and gesture, the approach of a dreaded enemy. There are four different species of the animal; the one to which we have been referring is called the Phoca Greenlandica, and is about six feet in length, and has the peculiar property of often changing the color of its skin as it approaches maturity. The seal visiting the British shores (Phoca Vitulina) is seldom more than four or five feet in length.
We have now given our contribution to the literature of the Seal, and submit, that it has the merit of being up to what Mr. Carlyle calls the "present hour."