Popular Science Monthly/Volume 43/August 1893/Sealing in the Antarctic


By a Member of the Recent British Whaling Expedition.

A LAPSE of nine months has brought back the Antarctic Whaling Expedition. It will be remembered that in September last four ships—the Balæna, the Diana, the Active, and the Polar Star—set out from Dundee to try their fortunes in the south polar seas, since of late the Davis Strait and Greenland fishing has not met with entire success. The expedition was to try to obtain a whale which Sir James Ross described as "greatly resembling and by some said to be identical to the Greenland whale," and was to restrict its researches to that region visited by Ross in his third voyage to the Antarctic in the summer 1842-'43. At the request of the Royal Geographical Society and of the Royal Meteorological Society, it was arranged that the medical officers accompanying the expedition should, under the guidance of the masters and with the assistance of the other officers, make such scientific observations as were compatible with an expedition so purely commercial in character. With this understanding these two societies gave a grant of instruments which Mr. Leigh Smith and others liberally supplemented with other scientific outfit. Naturally, therefore, among scientific circles a certain amount of chance scientific work is being looked for. The expedition has added considerably to our knowledge of the meteorology of the southern end of the globe and has noted geographical and other features. But, on account of the overwhelming commercialism of the expedition, opportunities, which might have been taken advantage of, have been allowed to pass.

Owing greatly to the hurried departure of the expedition, much setting in order of material and seeking out of information regarding these scarcely known parts employed a considerable amount of time on the passage out, and systematic meteorological observations were commenced from the outset; tow netting and other collecting was reserved for latitudes south of 40° south, and for the homeward voyage, for it was deemed unwise to occupy space and make use of preservatives which might be required for material obtained in high southern latitudes. Nevertheless, on the passage out, it was thought advisable on a few occasions to take a cast of the net. For the whole outward passage, with the exception of a few days in the southeast trades, the ships were baffled by head winds, for nearly three weeks we wished our native shores more distant, and for fifteen days the Roaring Forties racked us with southwest gales. We experienced heavy squally weather, with frequent lightning and heavy rain. The maximum temperature of the air was 83° Fahr. on the 23d and 24th of October, in 3° 56′ north, 25° 15′ 15″ west, and 2° 33′ north, 25° 37′ west respectively, and from the 17th to 22d, 25th, and 31st October and the 2d November the thermometer registered 80·8° to 83°.

On the 8th of December the rising sun dispersed a dense fog and revealed the rugged shores of West Falkland, the first land we had seen for three months, and in its likeness recalling the last glimpses we had of Cape Wrath. By noon we had dropped anchor, and during the next few days, while the ship was being stocked with a supply of fresh meat and water, the surgeons of the vessels were able to make one or two short excursions. These excursions, however, had to be extremely brief, for not knowing when the ships would depart it was necessary to remain in sight of them the whole time. A few plants, stones, and insects were hastily gathered together, and several birds shot. Among the latter were the notable steamer duck and the upland goose. A striking feature of the Falkland Islands is the great absence of trees; the camp, as the open country is termed, is clothed with a short scrub called diddle-dee (Empetrum rubrum), growing upon and indeed chiefly forming the enormous peat-beds that this country is so rich in; the largest bush native to the country is the gigantic woolly ragweed, which grows to a height of three or four feet; but there are few flowering plants. The gorse or furze has been introduced and seems to thrive well, but a few trees that have been planted about Stanley present a meager appearance. Mosses and lichens abound everywhere and many of the lichens are very beautiful. Besides the above-mentioned, one must note the ever-famous balsam bogs and tussock grass, and the enormous banks of kelp that fringe the coast, the stems of which vary in length from five to forty feet. Among birds, the penguins and albatross must not be forgotten. Insects are rare. The famous wolf-like fox is almost extinct; Darwin's prophecy is coming true—the wild horses and cattle now no longer roam the plains, their place having been taken by the more remunerative sheep. The fur-seal is still found, but so eagerly have they been hunted that their numbers have been greatly reduced. A solitary lizard and a few insects almost complete the list of animals found in these islands. One must ever remember the world-renowned streams of stones and the characteristic quartz rocks cutting their way through the quilt of peat. But Darwin, Hooker, and others have so ably pictured the natural features of the Falkland Islands that it would be out of place to describe them again after so short a visit. There is a great change, however, since Darwin's time—he found it a settlement of thieves and murderers, now it is a peaceful British colony, for, after a disputed possession of the islands by Britain, Spain, France, and Buenos Ayres, Britain finally took possession of them in 1833 and formed a colony which is now ruled by a governor and is also the see of a colonial bishopric. The colony at first was far from prosperous, but since 1885 the revenue has considerably exceeded the expenditure. During our stay at Port Stanley his Excellency the Governor honored our ships with a visit, as well as several of the residents of the settlement, and we are greatly indebted to his Excellency and Lady Golds worthy for the hospitality they showed us.

Early on Sunday morning we took leave of the Falkland Islands and steered for the ice, and on December 16th, in latitude 59° 18′ south, longitude 51° 01′ west, met the first iceberg—it was of enormous dimensions and tabular; a second was sighted in the evening. The same day we met myriads of cape pigeons, also many blue petrel and molly-hawks. The sea was literally swarming with whales of the finner kind, and their resounding blasts could be seen on all sides. So numerous were the cape pigeons, and so eager were they for any scraps thrown over the ship's side, that any number of them could have been caught with small hand-nets only large enough to contain one at a time, and many of them were thus captured by the crew. That night it became overcast and rainy, and at midnight a fog came on; fogs continued, with shorter intervals of clearer weather, during which intervals we were able to push southward for the next few days, and the weather was squally, the wind being from northeast, north, and northwest, varying in force from a light air to a moderate gale. After six days of this inhospitable weather, the wind on the afternoon of December 22d shifted more to the south, and the fog quickly lifted. On December 17th we met with the first seal—it was one of the larger kind which Ross described, nearly twelve feet long, having a bearlike head, with formidable canine teeth; it was curled up and asleep, and it was drifting by as we lay in the fog. It was promptly shot and brought aboard by a boat lowered away for the purpose. Several pieces of drift ice were seen on the 17th of December, and several bergs, nearly all flat-topped. On the evening of the 22d we first met with a flock of ten or a dozen of the beautiful sheathbill, and on the morning of the 23d sighted and passed the group of Danger Islets, lying off the extreme west of Joinville Land, which was lying behind them. The sea in the evening became of an olive-brown color, and we met with the snowy petrel, two indications which Ross noticed of the main pack being at hand. On the following evening three of the Dundee ships made fast to a very large floe. On Christmas day observations were taken, and it was found that we were a little south of Ross's position on New-Year's eve of the summer of 1843-'43—viz., latitude 64° 13′ south, longitude 55° 52 west, and where he says "great numbers of the largest-sized black whales were lying upon the water in all directions; their enormous breadth quite astonished us. The color of the sea was a dirty brown, probably occasioned by minute ferruginous infusoria, which were found in the greenish-colored mud that was brought up by the deep-sea clams from a depth of two hundred and seven fathoms." The sea was as Ross describes it, and soundings were obtained at 8 p. m. in one hundred and ninety-four fathoms, but no black whale did we see, only whales with fins on their backs, but be it noted that several grampuses or killers were seen from the masthead, and they are noted persecutors of the black whale in the north.

Up to this time several seals had been obtained—the large seal, the white antarctic seal, and the sea leopard; also four different kinds of penguins, including a few of the large emperor penguins, and one seen in the neighborhood of the Falklands. Besides these, we had met with a good many sheathbills, several snowy petrel, the blue petrel, the giant petrel, the stormy petrel, the cape pigeon, a gray gull, and later with many terns and a few great petrel. Christmas eve and Christmas day, when we were fast to the floe, will long be remembered l)y the members of the expedition. There was a perfect calm; the sky, except at the horizon, had a dense canopy of cumulus rolls, which rested on the summits of the western hills, and when the sun was just below the horizon the soft grays and blues of the clouds and the spotless whiteness of the ice as it floated in the black and glossy sea were tinted with the most delicate of colors—rich purples and rosy hues, blues, and greens, passing into translucent yellows. At midnight the solitude of the vacant deck was grand and impressive, and perhaps more so since we had, for well-nigh a week, been drifting among bergs with dense fog and very squally weather. Nothing broke the calm peacefulness; now a flock of the beautiful sheathbills would hover round the vessel, fanning the limpid air with their wings of creamy whiteness, and over yonder was a foul carrion bird with outstretched wings feeding upon the gory corpse of a slaughtered seal. All was in such unison, all in such perfect harmony; but it was a passing charm. Soon we had to think of more prosaic things, and reluctantly we turned our thoughts to the cargo we were to seek. It was with the produce of seals that we were destined to fill our ship, and till February 17th we were literally up to the neck in blood. All the sails are stowed; the captain sits in the crow's nest from early morning till late in the evening; the two engineers, relieving one another, take charge of the engines; the cook or the steward is on the lookout on deck or on the bridge; and the doctor takes the helm, unless ho can manage to get away in the boats, in which case some other noncombatant has to take his place—all the rest are away after plunder. Now a full boat is making its way to the ship. We steam toward her. As we near, the engines are stopped and she glides alongside. The cook or the steward rushes from the lookout, the doctor from the wheel, one working the steam winch and the other unswitching the skins, while the boat's crew swallow a hasty meal. The boat being unloaded, they are off again for another fill. The greatest rivalry exists between the boats' crews, each endeavoring to get the greatest load for the day. Another boat is seen approaching, and away we go again, dodging this piece of ice, charging that piece with our sturdy bows, boring away where the ice lies closely packed, rounding this berg, and on to the next until we reach the boat, which is down to the gunwale in the water, with its crew cautious, plying their oars as they lie crouched upon their bloody load. So it goes on from day to day; hay is made while the sun shines, and the pile of skins and blubber rises high upon the ship's deck. Then comes a gale of wind, accompanied by fog, sleet, and snow, and we lay to under the lee of a stream of ice or a berg. The deck becomes busy with life, the blubber is "made off" and put into the tanks, and the skins are salted. When the gale is over, at the end of two or three days, the next few days of calm weather are again taken advantage of in the boats. Thus the periods of gales and calms which alternate in this part of the world come in quite conveniently for sealing, the produce obtained in the calm weather being "made off" during the gales. We never experienced much swell, being sheltered by the land, our work lying only a little east of Erebus and Terror Gulf. With "all hands and the cook" so incessantly occupied in the calm weather, all scientific observations were at a standstill, but in the evening, and sometimes during the night, a few chance readings could be obtained, and during gales fairly copious meteorological notes were obtained.

The seals are very foolish beasts. The present generation have never seen man, and they survey him open-mouthed and fearful, during which process they are laid low with club or bullet. Sometimes they are so lazy with sleep that a man may dig them in the ribs with the muzzle of his gun, and, wondering what is disturbing their slumbers, they raise their head, which quickly falls pierced with a bullet. There may only be one seal on a piece of ice, which is usually the case with the larger kind; but the smaller kinds lie in half-dozens and tens, and as many as forty-seven were seen on one piece. Seldom do any escape—one cartridge means one seal. Besides the three seals mentioned we came across a fourth, a large kind with a small head, small fore flippers, very thickly blubbered, and a more woolly skin. The last day of our sealing we were among a great host of the largest big-headed seals, and as we were returning to our ship they were moaning loudly. This was said to be a sign that they were about to start upon a long journey, but was it not rather a sigh of relief when they saw their slaughterers' craft run up her bunting and announce to all that she was a full ship, that her thirst for blood was quenched? Penguins are the strangest creatures ever seen. They are supremely funny as they quack and strut about with their padded feet over the snow, or, coming to a slope, glide swiftly downward toboggan-fashion upon their breasts. If one lands on the piece of ice they are resting upon, they approach fearlessly with a threatening "Quack! quack!" For their inquisitiveness they, too, often received the handle of the club, for it was soon found that their flesh greatly resembled that of the hare, and upon them we had many a tasty and substantial meal. The emperor penguin is very difficult to kill; he will live after his skull has been most hopelessly smashed; the best way to put an end to them is to pith them. Six of us one day set out to capture one alive, and so strong was the bird that five with difficulty kept their hold, and, after he was bound with strong cords and nautical knots, he flapped his flippers and released himself.

The drift ice we came across was not heavier than that of Davis Strait, but the bergs were of very different character, nearly all flat, not pinnacled and not so lofty as those of the north, but of huge length, frequently being four miles in length, sometimes eight or ten, and one we met with was no less than thirty miles long, taking us six hours to steam from end to end at five knots. These are valuable when one can lie under their lee in a gale, but, when they are to leeward, form a dangerous lee shore, and more especially so for sailing ships.

One of the doctors had the good fortune to effect a landing in Erebus and Terror Gulf, obtaining specimens of plants, eggs, and rocks.

The lowest temperature recorded in the ice was 21·1° Fahr., or nearly 11° of frost; this was on the 17th of February, but usually it was about 32° Fahr., more or less.

On the 17th of February we steered for the Falklands, and thence homeward. Our homeward passage has been one continued spell of fine weather; the winds were mostly light, and too frequently head winds. The highest temperature recorded was 84'4° Fahr., in latitude 1° 10′ north, longitude 25° 21′ west, on the 13th of April; for the previous eight days 80° Fahr. and over are recorded, and also on the;5d of April, as well as five days following the 13th of April. From the ice to some degrees north of the line floats were thrown over to record the currents, and the tow-net was over frequently.

While in the ice we met the Jason, a Norwegian bark with auxiliary steam power, under the command of Captain Larsen, and with her we kept company most of the time. He reached the ice about a month earlier than ourselves, and surveyed the pack edge as far as 30° west. Captain Larsen also landed on the South Orkneys and on Cockburn Island, where he obtained several geological specimens.—London Times.