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Vividly describes the adventures of an expedition searching for the great white shark in dangerous waters throughout the world
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Peter Matthiessen was the cofounder of the Paris Review and is the author of numerous works of nonfiction, including In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, Indian Country, and The Snow Leopard, winner of the National Book Award.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Good Friday, 1969. Aboard whale-catcher W-29, Captain Torgbjorn Haakestad, out of Durban. The coast of Natal just emerging from night shadows, twenty miles astern; no birds. Moon high over stern mast, and sun swelling the sky directly ahead, under the low cloud mass of yesterday’s storms.
* * *
Storm had prevented W-29 from sailing earlier in the week. The wind whirling up the coast in squalls made it certain that the boats would stay in port on Thursday, but the office voice at the Union Whaling Company knew nothing about weather; it thought it best that any passengers should be on hand. And so I arrived at Salisbury Island docks at 3:00 on Thursday morning and sat in the guard’s shack, talking to the gunsmith; he takes this shift so that he can be available in case one of the harpoon guns needs repair. In fair weather, the boats retrieve the buoyed whales at dark and haul them, sometimes a hundred miles or more, to the slipway at Durban, arriving ordinarily after midnight. At 3 A.M., after refueling and taking on water, they are bound offshore again, to be on the whaling grounds at daylight.
“Whaling is very interesting,” the gunsmith said. “Very interesting.” He was a short cautious man with white hair and an accent. I asked if he went often to the whaling grounds, and he said never. “I been with this same company twenty-one years and I never been out there yet.” For a moment, he looked surprised himself. “I know it is interesting, but I am not curious, I guess.” He shrugged. “Maybe I afraid I get seasick.” Outside his window was the black harbor, and a light shine on the black blowing water. The water licked at the rusty hulls of idle whale-catchers, ranked four deep along the piers: like most shore whaling operations, this one is dying for want of whales. “Sometimes them big shark come right in here. Big ones. I see them right in here.” Sharks are so numerous in Durban harbor that a shark-fishing club has been set up; its members fish from the long harbor jetties.
It was raining. The gunsmith’s clock ticked on in the dead time before dawn; the air turned cold. Periodically, he announced the time, shaking his head as if, after all these years, something was imminent.
In a hard chair, the gunsmith slept—an old man in a hard chair by a black window. This was the bad light before dawn, the hour of sick dreams and thick awakenings. But when one has sat up all night, it is the hour when time stops, an hour of intense awareness; the ticking continues but the hands have stopped, and one can stand back and inspect the moment as if its mechanism were encased in glass.
The old man coughed. He had dozed like this on countless nights, hands resting mutely on his thighs, side by side like the old feet in the blunt shoes square to the floor; his feet and fingertips pointed straight at me. His stillness filled me with the consciousness of my own name, my age, the small scars and calluses on my life’s hands, my solitude, my transience, and my absurdity. He sighed and so did I.
Today or tomorrow I would watch the killing of sperm whales. Later I would go beneath the sea as an observer on an expedition that had come to film the great ocean sharks as they came in to attack the rolling carcasses. Because it is senseless the whale slaughter would be ugly, but the shark’s banquet would be beautiful. Such elemental life-in-death would be less horrifying than exalting, restoring the immediacy of existence. The shadow of sharks is the shadow of death, and they call forth dim ultimate fears. Yet there is something holy in their silence.
* * *
At 5 A.M., there was no sign of W-29, which was towing seven whales, nor of W-25, which was towing eight. The gunsmith kept imagining that he saw lights at the slipway across the harbor, where each whale is loaded onto a flatcar and trundled by rail a few miles down the coast to the shore whaling station. Here barefoot, bloody-legged men with flensing knives slash at it even before it is hauled clear of its car. In a bedlam of chains and machinery, great S cuts are made along its length, and chain hooks secured to the foot-thick blubber, which is hauled off in whale-length strips. The meat is stripped next, then the jaws, which are snaked away to crosscut saws to be cut into manageable pieces for the huge cooking vats buried here and there in the concrete platform. The meat extract is essentially creatine, which is derived from the high myoglobin content in mammalian tissue; creatine is a chemical salt that awakens the taste buds, and is much used in the manufacture of soups. Myoglobin makes the flesh of sperm whales purplish and bitter, but the ton of meal derived from each five tons of meat and bone is 75 percent protein, and is used as a component of hog and chicken feeds.
Nothing is wasted but the whale itself. The head oil, or spermaceti, is used as an additive in motor oils, the teeth are saved for ivory, and the bone, blood and guts go into the manufacture of bone-meal fertilizer. The water used to wash down the great platform pours off into the sea below, where fishermen cast for whatever comes to the bloody surf.
Other whales taken are all rorqual species (Balaenoptera): the finback, which may reach eighty feet, the sei (Norwegian for “sail”: refers to shape of dorsal fin), and the lesser rorqual, or little piked whale, known here as the minke; the sei and the minke whales are relatively small. All three are baleen whales that feed on plankton, and their meat is good—a big finback may be worth four thousand dollars, or nearly three times the value of a big sperm whale—but the catch is small and growing smaller. Blue whales, right whales, and humpbacks are disappearing from these seas, and to kill them is forbidden. It is also forbidden to kill finbacks north of 40 degrees south latitude (they breed in temperate seas), but both laws, the local whalers say, are ignored by the Japanese and Russians. In the old days, Union Whaling operated a big fleet in the Antarctic, but a few years ago it sold its factory ships to the Japanese and restricted its operations thereafter to the shore station.
The great whales of the seven seas are so depleted that Japan and Russia alone among the nations of the world are still engaged in open-ocean whaling. Though the industry now depends on the small sei whales and minkes, the remnant bands of the great whales are destroyed wherever encountered, and doubtless the lesser whales will hold out long enough to make it certain that the last of the leviathans will be exterminated along the way. Already the blue whale is practically extinct, and in most parts of the world the right whales and the humpbacks are close behind. The one large whale that still survives in any numbers is the sperm whale, which is hunted in every ocean in the world and could disappear in the next decade.
Using catcher boats and helicopters, the factory ships move ponderously about the oceans, killing ever larger numbers of ever smaller individuals. The relentless waste of life is barely profitable, since almost every whale product except ambergris is more readily available from other sources: the whaling industry is dying of consumption. Still, there is no better use for these monstrous ships and their fleets of whale-catchers—and no better use for whales, to judge from the apathy with which their slaughter has been met—and perhaps a few more years can be wrung from the investment. “Overhead” is the sole excuse for man’s persistence in the destruction of the whales, and in the name of this small economy the mightiest animals that ever existed on the earth will pass from it forever.
* * *
The whale-catchers came in just after dawn, and I went aboard W-29. Captain Haakestad had washed and was toweling his wet head. “That was a hell of a night,” he said, straight off. “Fifty-mile-an-hour wind out there.” Remembering my mission, he shook his head. “We not go out today. We go Friday, three A.M.”
Toward midnight on Thursday, I went aboard W-29 again. There was nobody around. I found a berth and crawled into it, awaking when the ship sailed, about 3.30, and again when the first seas tried her hull; then a hand shook me. “It’s ten of six!” the crewman said, accounting for his act. I got out of the berth and pitched onto the deck, where the dawn wind struck me in the face. The harpoon gun mounted in the bows, rising and falling as the boat sliced through the heavy surge, was a hard black silhouette against the sun that rose from the far reaches of the Indian Ocean.
* * *
At daylight a sailor climbs the rigging to the crow’s-nest. We are thirty miles due east of the coast, headed toward a 1000-fathom depth at 14.5 knots. W-25 is off to port, and to starboard, spread out three miles apart as they fan out from Durban’s Cooper Light, are W-17, W-16, W-26, W-18. The old steam engines on these whale-catchers burn crude bunker oil, twelve or thirteen tons of it each day; the engines are so simple that almost nothing can go wrong with them, and they are powerful, but in a marginal industry they burn too much fuel, and there will be no market for these ships when the whales are gone. These are the last six in the fleet; they average 160 feet in length, with a 28-foot beam. All were built after World War II in Fredrikstad, Norway, and all have white topsides on a rusty gray steel hull, with a heavy black smokestack banded in bright blue. They are rakish ships, high in the bow to insure a good angle for the harpoon gun, and so low amidships—the work deck must be as close as possible to the water—that in moderate seas the main deck is awash; the low deck, climbing slightly once again as it sweeps astern, gives the ships a sway-backed appearance, as if they had sagged beneath the weight of their big steam engines. W-29 carries three Norwegian officers and a crew of fourteen: Captain Haakestad, First Mate Reidar Smedsrud, Wireless Operator Willy Christensen, four engineers, three firemen, a messboy, a steward, a bo’s’n and four seamen.
A first bird, the sooty shearwater, slides like a shadow in the trough of the unlit sea. The wind is out of the southwest at ten knots, but there are mare’s-tails, and the day will freshen. In this part of the austral oceans, the prevailing winds are southwest or northeast; a rare and violent storm wind that lashes and carves the open coast is known as a black southeaster.
A radio call from W-25: she has sighted whales. Although the quarry is ten miles away, the captain abandons the big spread of eggs and bacon, smoked herring, beans, chili peppers, brown bread and milk; he is catch leader of the fleet, responsible for the position of the boats.
Northeastward. The whales are fifty-six miles at sea, on a 78-degree bearing from Cooper Light. The spotter plane, turning in high silence in the ocean distance, has located two pods several miles apart, headed slowly south.
A giant bird, bone-white but for upper wing coverts and under wing tips, and a thin band at tail tip and wing’s trailing edge, all of these black; its beak and legs a pale pink, like a sun-worn conch shell high above the tide line—this is the wandering albatross of the southern oceans, the greatest flying bird on earth.
At 8:15, W-25 is broadside on the horizon, blunt black on a silver sun. She is killing whales. Slowly she turns in the pall of her own smoke and is underway again. Another whale blows near the yellow-and-green flag that marks W-25’s first kill; in the morning wind the bright flag snaps on a bamboo pole that rises twelve feet from the buoy float. Fixed to the pole is a small radio transmitter so that the buoyed whale may be located from a distance, even after dark. In the old days, radios were unnecessary: the ships did not have to wander far to find another whale. Even four years ago, the season’s catch of sperm whale out of Durban was three thousand animals; last year it was eleven hundred. This year it will be even less, and next year, so it is said, the shore station will shut down for want of fodder.
At W-29’s approach, the whale has sounded. Willy Christensen leaves the boat’s high bridge to take up his post in the radio shack, and a few minutes later his voice rises eerily from the tube: he has located the whale with his machines. The captain grunts something at the helmsman, who alters course and signals to the engine room to halve the speed. Captains prefer to be called gunners and are hired primarily for that talent whether or not they have a master’s ticket. Now the Gunner leaves his seat in the starboard corner of the bridge and walks the long sloping catwalk that leads from the bridge over the litter of chains and hawsers and big winches of the foredeck to the bow. The gun on the bow platform is tilted so that the heavy barb on the harpoon is pointed downward at the water, and flyingfish skid outward, veering away between the waves.
The whale remains at a thousand feet. On the bow, the Gunner sits on the catwalk step, big hands resting on his knees. He is a stolid unpretentious man with a gentle voice, and he is patient. The sonar can track the whale a half mile down, unless strong underwater-current lines intervene. “With us they stand no chance,” the mate says quietly, a trace of weariness in his tones, perhaps regret.
Christensen’s voice rises again, and the mate gives the helmsman a new course. The boat slows to a hum and glides forward in strange stillness, the slosh of water audible along the hull. Below, the whale rushes through the dark, driven by the relentless ping that it is unable to escape, and above, the steel boat waits, rolling heavily in the monotony of seas. The sperm whale can submerge for an hour or more, but this time is rapidly decreased by panic when the animal is pursued. Peering down into the silent sea, I wondered what sort of awareness tuned the minds of those great hellish shapes so far beneath. The sperm whale has a bigger brain than any animal that has ever evolved, and unlike the baleen whales, it is not a grazer but a hunter; other cetacean hunters such as the porpoises are very intelligent animals indeed. Doubtless these doomed creatures were communicating their alarm, though whether they have the vocal range of the baleen whales is doubtful: a herd of humpbacks (and probably other baleen species as well) sing like the horns of paradise, arriving at harmonics not attainable by the instruments of man. For the sperm whale, only clicks are known—sometimes these sounds are audible during the last throes of the harpooned whale—and it is possible although not likely that, like the humpbacks’ low-frequency notes, these clicks can carry enormous distances and are designed to do so. (It is now believed, from preliminary evidence, that the deepest and most sonorous notes of a humpback whale can and may be heard by another humpback anywhere in the same ocean basin, and may even resound around the world. Cosmic sounds, electronic sounds, the music of the spheres shimmer through the soft gurgle of the sea with the resonance of an echo chamber, and with them soft bell notes and sweet bat squeaks, froggish bass notes, barks, grunts, whistles, oinks, and elephantine rumblings, as if the ocean floor had fallen in. No word conveys the eeriness of whale song, tuned by the ages to a purity beyond refining, a sound that man should hear ...
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Book Description Harvill, 1995. Condition: New. book. Seller Inventory # M1860460151
Book Description Harvill, 1995. Paperback. Condition: New. Never used!. Seller Inventory # P111860460151