The Zoologist/4th series, vol 1 (1897)/Issue 668/Notes on the Seal and Whale Fishery, 1896

Notes on the Seal and Whale Fishery, 1896 (1897)
Thomas Southwell
4038321Notes on the Seal and Whale Fishery, 18961897Thomas Southwell


By Thomas Southwell, F.Z.S.

Man is not the only enemy the breeding Seals have to contend with, and I fear that in the past season the smaller number taken by the sealers off Newfoundland is no indication of the total mortality amongst the "whitecoats," rough weather and the consequent disruption of the ice on which they were brought forth, added to the "rafting" caused by pressure, having probably been accountable for the loss of many more young Seals than were saved from the sealers by the impassable nature of the ice. A severe gale from the N.E. about the 5th and 6th of March, before the fishery commenced, broke up a vast extent of the whelping ice, and doubtless killed or drowned a large number of young Seals; the occurrence in some localities, at the same time, of both fairly matured young ones and others newly born, indicated that some such disturbance had taken place. This same gale also drove the ice into Green Bay, and the presence upon it of a few Seals led to the impression that the main body were in that neighbourhood; this, however, did not prove to be the case, and only had the effect of misleading the vessels in their search. About March 10th, the day on which the fleet sailed, the wind changed to the westward, and very few Seals fell to the Green Bay people.

No steamer struck any large body of Seals, and great difficulty was experienced in approaching those they did secure, owing to the unusually heavy nature of the ice. There were level sheets between very heavy ice, and it was on these that the young Seals were deposited; the "patches" might be from fifteen to thirty miles apart, and unless the steamer struck and was able to reach one of these sheets of whelping ice, her success was very small indeed. The 'Newfoundland' got an early start (some say unfairly) and was fortunate in working to the back of the ice, getting a good catch of old and young Hooded Seals and a few young Harps; she struck the patch on March 13th off Cape St. John, and drifted south with them. The body of the young Harps were nearer the shore than the Hooded Seals, and Capt. Adams, of the 'Esquimaux,' whose gunners made excellent practice, got something like 7600 old Harps and "Bedlamers" off Bonavista Bay.

Mr. Thorburn attributes the comparative failure of the fishery to the combined influence, first, of the gale on March 5th and 6th, which smashed much of the whelping ice (then very thin), drowning many young Seals and driving the heavy ice towards the shore in a compact body; and secondly, to the westerly winds accompanied by severe frost, which prevailed from March 10th to the end of that month, and forced the solid ice again off the shore, forming a barrier through which many of the steamers were unable to make headway until too late in the season for them to do much good.

Three vessels, the 'Iceland,' 'Nimrod,' and the 'Harlaw,' went to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, but did not do very well, the bulk of the northern patch of Harp Seals in that locality having, it is presumed, been driven through the Strait towards Belle Isle by the strong westerly winds; what young Harps were got by the steamers are believed to have been taken from the southern patch, which is generally found inside St. Paul's and other islands in that neighbourhood, and as the large sheets of ice on which the young are whelped do not there, as a rule, break up until late in the season, it frequently happens that they cannot be got at. (See remarks on this subject in last season's notes, p. 42.)

Twenty-two steamers in all went to the Newfoundland sealing this season, but two of them were wrecked, leaving the number twenty, as last year. Of these the most successful was the 'Neptune,' which took 22,946 Seals; followed in succession by the 'Greenland,' with 20,197; the 'Labrador,' 16,973; 'Newfoundland,' 15,900; 'Walrus,' 13,038; 'Vanguard,' 12,593; and the 'Iceland,' 11,666; the remaining thirteen vessels were all under 10,000, the total catch being 187,516 Seals (as compared with 270,058 in the previous season), and the average of the twenty vessels, 9375. In addition to these some 22,000 Seals were taken by the schooners. No second trips were made. The estimated value of the produce landed from the steamers was £55,362 (compared with £74,712 in the previous season, not £77,824 as incorrectly stated).

The result of the fishery, notwithstanding a slight increase in the value of the produce, thus shows a deficiency of £19,350. The 'Hope' had the misfortune to break her shaft, which spoiled her fishing, and the 'Vanguard' and 'Ranger' were badly nipped by the ice; the 'Wolf' was crushed by rafting ice on March 12th eight miles N.N.W. of Fogs Head; and the 'Windsor Lake' met with a similar fate on March 27th; both vessels became total wrecks, but their crews were saved.

None of the Dundee vessels went to the Greenland sealing, as the market value of produce was not sufficiently tempting; there were about seventeen Norwegian steamers out, and they are said to have done very well, but I have no statistics; they nearly all took part in the Bottle-nose fishery also, which proved very successful.

The Whale fishery has now become restricted to the port of Dundee, and the only representative of Peterhead in the Arctic Seas was the brig 'Alert,' which brought home a cargo of produce from the Cumberland Gulf station (this will be referred to further on); but Dundee sent out eight vessels, five of which—the 'Active', 'Balæna,' 'Diana,' 'Polar Star,' and 'Terra Nova'—went to Greenland; the 'Balæna' returned clean, and the 'Diana,' which broke her shaft on May 28th, only obtained thirty-nine Bears and a few Seals; the 'Eclipse,' 'Esquimaux,' and 'Nova Zembla' went to Davis Strait.

The state of the ice in the Greenland Seas was found to be very unfavourable; it was exceedingly heavy; the weather proved mild and open, accompanied by almost incessant fog, but otherwise it was pleasant. The 'Arctic' killed her first Whale on May 13th, two others in the middle of June, and a fourth in July. The 'Polar Star' and the 'Terra Nova' had one Whale each, and several others were seen by the vessels, but could not be approached.

In Davis Strait the weather is described as the most unfavourable ever experienced by those who took part in the fishery; at the very outset of the voyage strong north-easterly gales prevailed, which blew for several weeks without ceasing, and the record of the voyage is a succession of gales and fogs. The 'Eclipse' encountered the ice very early, off Cape Desolation; and it was not until May 4th that she reached Disco, meeting with no Whales on the east side. Towards the end of May the steamer headed for the middle ice fishing-ground, where she continued to experience the same adverse weather. After crossing Melville Bay, on June 26th, one of the few days on which the vessel was not enshrouded in fog from morning till night, she saw three Whales, one of which was captured. About this time a fearful gale was experienced from the N.E., lasting four or five days which left the ice in a hopeless condition. Under the circumstances Capt. Milne turned his attention to small game and secured, towards making up a cargo, five Narwhals, twenty-one Walruses, thirty-seven Bears, seventy-four Seals, twenty Reindeer, and three Wolves.

The 'Esquimaux' saw several Whales, but the heavy ice baffled all attempts at their capture, and the only result of her voyage was eighty Seals, twenty-one Walruses, twelve Bears, and two Narwhals.

The 'Nova Zembla' was more successful, securing two small Whales. From the station in Cumberland Gulf the brig 'Alert' brings the produce of three good Whales and 3890 Seals, consisting of 20 tons of seal and 45 tons of whale oil, and 45 cwt. of bone.

The total produce of the Whale Fishery in the past season was 12 Right and 9 White Whales, also 43 Walruses; these yielded 149 tons of oil and 135¼ cwt. of bone. The oil may be valued at £18 per ton, or £2682; and the bone at £2000 per ton, or £13,525; the total being about £16,207, compared with £23,958 in the previous season.

I see it announced in the Newfoundland papers that a company is being formed at St. John's to hunt the Fin Whales in the adjacent seas from that colony, in the same way as has been so successfully practised by the Norwegians off the Finmarken coast.

I cannot close these notes without a passing tribute to the memory of my old friend Capt. David Gray, of Peterhead, of whose career I gave some particulars in my notes for 1892. After retiring from the sea, Capt. Gray was tempted to make one voyage more, and commanded the 'Windward' in 1893, the last voyage she made before her purchase for the use of the Jackson-Harmsworth Expedition. From that time he suffered greatly, bearing with characteristic bravery a painful complication of troubles arising from gout, and finally passed away at his residence, the Links, Peterhead, on May 16th, 1896, at the age of sixty-seven years. Another well-known whaler, Capt. Alexander Fairweather, also died of brain fever, on May 31st last, off Spitzbergen, on board the 'Balæna,' which he commanded. He was one of the most successful of the Dundee whaling captains, and was chosen by Mr. Leigh Smith, in 1873, to take charge of the 'Diana,' which relieved the Nordenskjold Expedition in Spitzbergen; afterwards he returned to the Whale fishery, and in 1892–3 took the 'Balæna' to the Antarctic Seas.

It is probable that the 'Balæna' and the 'Diana' will be withdrawn from the Whale fishery in the coming season; indeed I am informed that the difficulty of finding capable men to command these costly expeditions is very great, and that there are no young men coming forward. This, in addition to the precarious nature of the enterprise and the seeming exhaustion of the old haunts of the Whales, will probably bring about the extinction of this ancient industry, unless some new resorts of the Whales should be discovered, which seems very unlikely to happen.

As on previous occasions, I have to acknowledge my indebtedness to Mr. David Bruce and Mr. R. Kinnes, of Dundee, and to Mr. Michael Thorburn, of St. John's, Newfoundland, for their kindness in supplying me with information.

This work was published before January 1, 1929, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.

Public domainPublic domainfalsefalse