Little Grey Ships/Our Friend the Cachalot

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pp. 145–153. A sperm whale. And world War I.


In Southern seas he was born, grew to his mighty maturity, and for many a year lorded it over a company of females and young bulls. Sixty feet in length, he weighed in his prime over eighty tons. He was father of many children, but they knew him only as lord and leader, and it was ordained that as time went on certain of them should rise up against him, and that one of them, ultimately, should conquer and depose him. Out of many battles with his kind other than his kin he had swum victorious; his head, which was a third of him, was streaked with whitish scars. Moreover, he carried in his right flank, rusting away beneath the blubber, an old Yankee harpoon; and had he been blessed (or plagued) with an understanding memory, he must have carried in his being an episode involving a horrid stab, a dreadful panic turning to a madness of rage, a splintered whale-boat and some shattered little creatures unlike anything that lived and moved in the sea.

But the real enemy which he could neither overcome nor escape from was age—or let us call it elderliness, since he was by no means full of years as whales go. For the young and lusty bulls are no sincere respecters of their old lord; they merely bide their time. A scarred hide, a notched fluke, broken teeth truly enough proclaim the warrior and champion, but champions have their day, and youth urged on by nature to lead and possess cannot be stayed.

The challenges to our friend came at longish intervals, yet with the first it is possible that he realized instinctively how his lordly days were numbered. Nevertheless, he accepted all as they came. Nine young hot-bloods did he drive ignominiously from the herd, all more or less battered and wounded; two, at least, with their lower jaws broken or dislocated, hanging foolishly open, so that they died lingeringly of starvation—unless, perchance, the killers and threshers, discovering their helplessness, gave them a comparatively speedy but superlatively agonizing end.

At last, on a hot afternoon, in the neighbourhood of the Azores, a magnificent young bull, whose rare and curious piebald hide may or may not have had some extra attraction for the modest little cows—they seldom grow beyond forty feet—subjected his lord to repeated and disrespectful jostlings which could mean only one thing. They fought tooth and tail, especially tooth. At the surface snorting, in the depths in deadly silence, with jaws interlocked, rolling over and over, spinning in the perpendicular, they wrestled in that desperate struggle which must end in lordship for the one, death or exile for the other.

And the old bull was worsted; not gravely injured, but simply and finally vanquished. For him there was no appeal, no second chance. The law had it that he must depart, a sultan no more, a solitary for the remainder of his days.

Followed years of extended wanderings, north, south, east, west, whithersoever his food—mainly the giant cuttle-fish lurking in dark rocky depths—was likely to be provided. His sole business nowadays was to fill his belly; no light undertaking. When the cuttles were not to be had he would feed, if not feast, upon the larger fish, bonito and albacore for choice; at a pinch he might take shark of moderate size, say ten feet or so.

In June of the present year his wanderings brought him to a latitude more northerly than whales of his species, in their ordinary happy circumstances, are known to sojourn in. It was very early in the morning; cloudless and windless; through the dissolving mist the sun silvered the smooth swell. A blessed summer this has been for whales in these waters, for war has closed the whaling station in the Hebrides, and the little, bustling, black-funnelled steamers, with the stumpy, harpoon cannon in their bows, lie cold and idle in their native Norwegian fjord. The cachalot, of course, knew nothing of such happenings. He had just come up from a forty minutes' browsing in the depths, and was conscious only that he had breakfasted excellently and that fresh air was very good. The roof of his prodigious head and his shoulders clear of the surface, he floated at his ease, blowing off the exhaust and recharging his lungs in luxurious leisurely fashion. Had he been interested in scenery he might have noted, a few miles away, a lofty rock, whitened by the birds, not unlike a ship in full sail. No other land was visible, and yonder ocean peak was Rockall, a familiar mark for some trawlers, the whalers just mentioned, and ships plying between Scandinavia and America. A hundred and fifty miles from the nearest habitation of man, St. Kilda, this desolate, unlighted reef, partly sunken, has surely caused many more Atlantic tragedies than can be recorded in its name.

Our friend was not the only whale in the neighbourhood. Sundry rorquals, one a blue whale of eighty feet, had discovered a patch of their only food—krill—masses of tiny, shrimp-like creatures—and were feeding a few feet below the surface. Also, as strangers to each other, a couple of his own sort, deposed monarchs like himself, would have been detected easily from a “crow's nest.” No cow cachalot has ever been seen in these waters. Some whalemen declare that the solitary cachalot is invariably vicious; others that he is as inoffensive as any of the great whales. Beholding our friend in that peaceful period of repletion and rest, you would have been disposed to accept the latter statement.

Now, at the same hour of that fine June morning, it chanced that there were three vessels all within sight of the whitened peak. Three miles south of it a cargo steamer, loaded to the mark, was doing her best at nine knots or thereabouts. East of it by about eight miles an old-style torpedo-boat was apparently lounging along, yet doing her best, also, in the patrol business. And close to the north end of the reef a submarine lurked at the surface.

For the moment let us designate those three craft A, B and C. In the beginning the position was this: A saw B but not C. B saw A but not C. And C saw A but not B. Then C submerged and made off in the direction of A. At the same time B, whose duty it was to be suspicious and inquisitive, went to meet A....

Some minutes passed, and A discovered C's periscope, and hoisted flags and set her wireless talking, though it seemed too late. Still, almost immediately B's bows grew white. Another minute, and C burst to the surface, and at half a mile, with amazing smartness, trained her gun, and sent a shell whack into A's chart-room ... and within the moment spotted the racing B. With all speed she submerged, discharged a torpedo, and ran for it. The torpedo missed its object by a fathom or so. B changed her course, and rushed quivering in pursuit. But soon her only guide, a periscope ripping the glassy swell, disappeared.

Our friend the cachalot ceased from his blowing, though his lungs were not yet glutted. Possibly he had heard something through those absurdly small ear-holes of his; more likely he had felt a vibration, a throbbing, in the water. He had felt throbbings in the water ere now; often in his long, far-travelled life he had felt them; once, indeed, he had narrowly escaped collision with one of those monstrous things that throbbed. But this present throbbing was somehow different from any he had hitherto experienced. For one thing it came from deep down; also it was a light, quick, fluttering throb. And, most important to note, above the surface he could see nothing at all.

He did not like it. It annoyed, irritated him. His flukes gave a nervous flicker, and he slewed his bulk so as to face it. He blew a great snorting blast, and sucked in a huge draught of air. He was ready to sound at an instant's notice.

Nearer came the thing invisible, nearer and yet nearer. A shudder passed through the cachalot. It was going to pass in the depths at no great distance ahead of him. It was going—but was it going to pass? All at once his mood changed. Fear went out. A berserk fury possessed him. An enemy was stealing to attack him! Save his own kind, nothing that swam had ever dared that.

In the twinkling of an eye his tremendous flukes sprang into the sunshine, streaming with glistening brine, and hung there while one might draw a quick breath. Then, at a steep angle, he drove his seventy-odd tons downward, vanishing in a frothing whirlpool....

When he returned to the surface some miles away he wore a nasty bruise on his massive forehead, and his blowing was a hoarse trumpeting. Otherwise he was quite himself.

After a while, the patrol boat came to a place where the sea was oily...