Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 2/Floating a whale

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It was my good fortune, when stationed off the Island of Vancouvers, in 1858, to be an eye-witness of one of the most extraordinary modes of capturing a whale that I have ever heard of.

It appears the natives are similar to those upon the shores of Siberia and Kamskatcha—much addicted to whales’ blubber; and at their royal feasts nothing is held in such estimation as a quantity of the aforesaid delicacy.

One fellow-sailor of mine tells a story of being invited to one of these feasts on the coast of Siberia, and having laid before him the two greatest delicacies of the season, “whales’ blubber,” and the substance taken from the first stomach of a reindeer directly it is killed; and as he kindly added, for our information, forming a dish not unlike spinach.

Blubber being thus held in such high repute by the Vancouver Indians, as well as their more northern brethren, it may be supposed they are particularly anxious to obtain it; and although they do not object to a dead and often putrid whale which chance casts upon their coasts, they naturally prefer fresh meat, and to secure it go to great lengths. Their canoes generally consist of a single tree, hollowed out by fire or some other means, ballasted by their own activity in springing from side to side as occasion requires; and though sometimes hoisting a sail made of cedar bark, just as often entirely dependent on a pair of paddles, one worked at the stern, the other at the bow.

Considering the fragile nature of these boats, the reader may believe I was somewhat incredulous as to their efficacy in the pursuit of the great Leviathan, and inwardly thinking “seeing was believing,” determined, if possible, to accompany one of these expeditions.

As good luck had it, my ship remained three months at Vancouver’s, lying at anchor in the lovely harbour of Victoria, or, according to the Indian language, “Esquimault.” Thus it happened that I saw a good deal of the island, and, being in favour with the captain, had a good many runs ashore, and I hope made some use of the opportunities thus afforded me.

During the winter season severe storms frequently visit these coasts, and, blowing directly down from the northern Pacific, bring with them great shoals of fish, and frequently whales, who, getting out of their latitude, and their strength probably much reduced by struggling against the storm, they are cast on the coast of Vancouver. Once there, they are speedily observed by the active islanders, always on the look out for their esteemed luxury. No time is to be lost: the receding tide leaves the whale for a time impotently lashing his tail, unable to regain the deep water, trying to bury his nose in the shallow breakers, and making loud attempts to spout, which generally end in a guttural sound, not unlike the bellowing of a hundred bulls. All is excitement on the shore: Indians rush here and there: friends are summoned from every quarter: canoes handed down to the water, while the weapons of destruction are prepared.

The weapon used is worthy of description, both from its ingenuity and the important part it takes in the capture of the whale. It consists, first, of a barbed spear-head, to this is tied a large seal’s skin made into the shape of a bag, and filled with air so as to resemble a large bladder; secondly, to the spear-head a long rope is attached, which is sometimes made of bark, but oftener of a kind of sea-weed which grows to an enormous length, and when wet resists almost any force; thirdly, into a socket in the centre of the spear-head a pole is fitted, but so arranged that it can be easily withdrawn, while the head is left imbedded in the flesh of the whale, acting as an anchor to the bladder and rope.

Armed with these primitive weapons the natives set off in their fragile canoes, and approaching their prey as closely as is consistent with safety, dexterously cast their spears, catching back the loose handles. In a short time the monster assumes a most extraordinary appearance, being completely covered with these sealskin air-bags, which make a curious noise when bumped against one another by the winds. When the tide begins to rise, the aspect of affairs is altogether changed; the great fun now commences, and the use of the bladders becomes evident, as they actually prevent the animal sinking sufficiently to use his full strength, keeping him upon the surface of the water.

The canoes now pull towards shore, the lines become taut, and suddenly the monster feels himself moving slowly but steadily towards the land; his struggles are tremendous, but fruitless; he is literally a fish out of water, and hopelessly in the power of his Lilliputian foes, who laugh at his strength and utter ludicrous imitations of his attempts to spout, while the inhabitants, for miles round, crowd to the scene of triumph, singing and beating large drums made of the hollowed bole of a tree, over the ends of which is stretched the skin of a sea-lion. As soon as the whale is beyond low water-mark the work is done, as they have only to wait till the tide leaves their prize high and dry upon the beach, where the heat of the sun soon puts an end to its sufferings. The favourite blubber is then dug out and put away in calabashes for the future, after every one has eaten as much as he can possibly hold. However, they look forward with more anxiety to the feasts to come, as they prefer their favourite dish in a state decidedly “gamey.”

As may be supposed, the carcase of the whale decays rapidly, and taints the atmosphere for miles round, to such an extent that no one but a native could exist in the vicinity. Although if there happens to be a whaler at anchor anywhere near, she soon gets wind of what is going on, and comes in for the lion’s share at small cost or trouble; the natives, not knowing the value of any part except the blubber, are easily induced to help the whalers by the gift of a few glasses of rum.

I. D. Fenton.