The Zoologist/4th series, vol 3 (1899)/Issue 693/Notes on the Seal and Whale Fishery 1898, Southwell




By Thomas Southwell, F.Z.S.


At eight o'clock on the morning of the 10th of March, 1898, the steam sealing fleet left the harbour of St. John's, Newfoundland, under the most favourable auspices, the prognostications as to their probable success, as well as that of the sailing vessels which had preceded them, being cheering in the extreme. A local paper, speaking of the departure of the fleet, says, "never did the voyage begin under more auspicious circumstances." On the 27th of March these sanguine hopes were rudely dispelled, and the whole colony plunged into grief by the news of the most terrible disaster ever recorded in the annals of the Seal fishery. The s.s. 'Greenland' was reported sheltering in Bay de Verd, and the next day she arrived at St. John's with the bodies of twenty-five of her crew which had perished on the ice, and reported twenty-three others as missing, whose bodies were never recovered; many of the survivors being terribly frost-bitten. The cause of this disaster will be briefly explained farther on, but, as may be imagined, such a terrible commencement threw the deepest gloom over what was in other respects a fairly successful voyage. Nor was this the only fatality which had to be recorded, for the 'Leopard' also lost two men, and the 'Mastiff' became a total wreck, her crew, however, being happily rescued.

By virtue of an enactment which came into force in the past season, the steamers were allowed to commence killing on the 12th of March instead of on the 14th, as heretofore, and the season is prolonged to the 1st of May instead of ending on the 20th of April. The sailing vessels also, under certain restrictions, are granted a bounty of 4 dols. per ton; this, it is hoped, may prove beneficial in inducing many vessels which would otherwise remain idle at that time, to engage in the fishery, and thus find employment for both men and ships. By some it is hoped great advantages may be derived from these concessions, but, as usual, there is considerable diversity of opinion.

Great uncertainty always exists as to the locality in which the breeding Seals will be found, and so entirely does this depend upon circumstances which it is impossible to anticipate with any degree of confidence, that the most experienced are often disappointed in their forecasts. What usually takes place on the east coast seems to be as follows:—Until the last days of February the breeding Harp Seals are found frequenting the neighbourhood of Greenbay and Whitebay, then, their time for reproducing having arrived, they all disappear, going off in search of suitable ice on which to whelp; this, as a rule, they find in about the latitude of Cape Bauld, sometimes comparatively near, at other times farther off the land; they then drift south with the ice borne by the southerly arctic current, which probably expands as its flows. But their progress is by no means an uninterrupted one: many and violent are the storms to which they are exposed, and the ice is driven hither and thither, sometimes comparatively open, at others rafted and piled in inextricable confusion, many of the young Seals perishing owing to the ice-fields on which they lie being broken up. Westerly winds drive the ice off the shore, and easterly winds in the contrary direction, or it may be broken up and more or less dispersed by northerly gales. The weather too is variable in the extreme, the changes being often sudden and unexpected. Hence the difficulty in forecasting the probable position of the breeding pack, and the great risks attending their pursuit when found. The Seals are very sagacious, and it is said of them that when Greenbay and Whitebay are full of ice at whelping time they will not go so far out to whelp as they would if the bays were free from ice, their object appearing to be to get a good stretch of ice between themselves and the land.

The steamers, many of which had deserted St. John's in favour of a more northerly point of departure, have in the past season nearly all returned to that port. Eighteen vessels in all (two less than in 1897) took part in the venture, five of them visiting the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the remainder fishing off the east coast. The latter found the Seals without loss of time some distance to the N.E. of Funk Island, but the state of the ice was most unfavourable, it being compacted into vast sheets of great thickness, which the vessels were quite unable to penetrate except by occasional openings or cracks, in one of which the 'Mastiff' met with her disaster. An attempt was made by her, on the 14th of March, to reach the main body of the Seals about seventy-two miles N.N.E. of the Funks by passing up one of these lanes of open water, when a sudden change of wind caused the floes to close in upon her, and in less than two hours she sank, crushed by the ice, with 7000 Seals on board. Happily her crew were saved by other vessels in her vicinity.

The story of the 'Greenland' is a sad one. On the 21st of March she had four watches on the ice, consisting of 189 men (out of a crew of 207), recovering panned Seals, of which there were about 20,000; later on she took on board the first watch consisting of thirty-five men, and on proceeding to recall the others the steamer got jammed in sight of the men, who were unable to reach her owing to open water between them and the vessel; at 4.30 the storm broke with such fury that the ship barely escaped foundering. At five o'clock the next day the gale somewhat abated, and they succeeded in rescuing one hundred men, all of whom were frost-bitten, and some badly injured by falls on the ice. The wind then again increased to such a degree that it was impossible to get the boats out. On the 23rd six more men were picked up alive, and sixteen dead. Only one other dead man was subsequently recovered, and on the 26th the search was abandoned and the 'Greenland' bore up for home, seriously damaged, and with twenty-five of her crew dead on board, twenty-three others being missing. The two men lost from the 'Leopard' probably perished from exhaustion, or walked into the water through ice-blindness; a third man was fifty-nine hours on the ice, and in a deplorable condition when rescued. Such a chapter of accidents has never previously been known in the Seal fishery, and the circumstances under which the misfortunes occurred bring forcibly to mind the dangers and hardships owing to sudden atmospheric changes, as well as the personal toil and risk which are experienced in the prosecution of this arduous and perilous occupation.

The young Harp Seals were struck by most of the vessels on the 13th of March, which, falling on Sunday, killing did not begin till the 14th; and, although found thus early, they were well matured. The patch lay E. and W. along the edges of the icesheets, not in the middle of the pans, as is usually the case; and the 'Algerine' reports that when she came up to the main body of the young Harps the noise was so great that orders given on board the ship were heard with difficulty; on the 14th her own crew killed 12,000. The 'Walrus' was equally fortunate in finding the Seals, but in the gale which followed she lost thirty-seven pans, containing some 5000 Seals. The 'Newfoundland' is also said to have lost over 3000 in the same way; and who can tell how many more were thus unprofitably sacrificed? The 'Terra Nova' was the only vessel which secured any appreciable number of Hooded Seals later in the season.

Of the four vessels which went to the Gulf fishery, the 'Panther' ran down the Newfoundland shore in loose ice with the hope of reaching the eastern Harps which are supposed to whelp near Cape Whittle, on the Canadian shore; but, finding the winds unfavourable and the ice getting tighter, ran back again, and was fortunate in finding the Hoods seventy miles E.N.E. of the Bird Rocks, and secured nearly 6000 old and young of these large Seals. The 'Nimrod' and 'Hope' found the young Harp Seals on the 22nd of March off Byron Island, but the 'Kite' and the 'Harlaw,' which went in search of the western Harps, did very badly.

With regard to the Gulf fishery, Mr. Thorburn was good enough to give me the following particulars:—"Westerly winds force the ice on the Newfoundland shore, and those from the east on that of Canada; so that the safest plan is, as a rule, to keep in the centre of the Gulf, where there is almost always a movement in the ice when the tide turns. Capt. Joy, who has been much in the Gulf, informs me that he thinks there are two currents, one going N.E., the other S.W., which meet off Cape Whittle, keeping that part of the Gulf more or less open. I do not think the masters of the Gulf boats make up their minds as to what Seals they are going after until they enter the Gulf and ascertain the state of the ice, and how the winds are. Owing to the prevalence of westerly winds, I do not think the eastern Harps were ever seen last year, and these same winds blew the western Harps, which are seldom got at, towards the Newfoundland shore and the open Atlantic to the southward of that. They are supposed to whelp fifty miles or so to the westward of the Magdalene Islands on immense sheets, or possibly, even probably, on ice frozen to and extending out a long distance from the Canadian shore. Unless there is a prevalence of strong westerly winds, or an unusually mild spring, these Harps are seldom got in any quantities. Capt. Joy says that the eastern Harps whelp on the ice in the neighbourhood of Cape Whittle, and are driven by the winds up or down the Gulf, or from shore to shore; he also told me that the people on the Magdalene Islands told him that a good many small black [dark coloured?] Seals whelp near there, and that their young take to the water as soon as born. From what he heard, he believes that about 13,000 western Harps were taken by the people on the Magdalene and Byron Islands, and that many Seals were crushed by the ice rafting on these islands."

The total number of Seals taken by the fleet of eighteen steamers, of the aggregate capacity of 5595 tons, and manned by 3802 seamen, was 241,708, of a net value of about £80,000, as compared with 126,628, valued at £32,564, in the previous season; to these must be added some 30,000 taken by the sailing vessels and by the shore fishermen—a very considerable improvement on the last two years.

The 'Aurora' again headed the list with 25,633, closely followed by the 'Neptune' with 25,503. There were five others which secured more than 15,000 each, and another five had more than 10,000 each; the remaining six averaged 5088 each. The most unfortunate were the 'Kite' and the 'Harlaw' (1235 and 778 respectively) which went in search of the western Harps in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. No Dundee vessels were present at the Newfoundland sealing.

In my last year's notes (p. 77), I mentioned that a company called the "Cabot Whale Fishery Company" had been formed at St. John's to prosecute the Fin-Whale fishery off the coast of Newfoundland after the Norwegian fashion. This fishery has been carried on from Snook's Arm (near Cape John in Notre Dame Bay). The season closed early in November, and ninety-two Whales were captured by the 'Cabot,' the only vessel at present employed. Only the blubber and baleen are at present utilized, and the carcases are sent adrift; but the Company, Mr. Thorburn informs me, are fitting up premises in Hermitage Bay, where a winter Cod-fishery is carried on, for disposing of the Whales which are still in that neighbourhood, probably for the same reason which proves attractive to the Cod. From the east coast, where the Whales had been very numerous near the shore, they disappeared early in November, but in 1897 they are said to have been more numerous in that locality in November and December than at any other time. Three different kinds of Whale are said to have been killed by the 'Cabot,' but I have not been able to ascertain the species farther than that they are reported as "Finbacks" and "Hump-backed" Whales.

The Seal fishery in the Greenland Seas, so far as the Dundee vessels is concerned, has practically become a thing of the past, and, such as it is, has almost drifted into the hands of the Norwegian vessels. Only the 'Polar Star' and the 'Balæna' were present last season; the former killed fifty Seals, and the latter about 400, but later in the season this number was increased to 716. A total of 779 represented all the Seals brought home this season both by the Greenland and Davis Straits vessels. There were twelve Norwegian vessels at the Greenland sealing. I am not aware what the total number of Seals killed by them amounted to, but their success could have been little better than that of the Scotch ships, for I am told the largest catch of the fleet was only 700 Seals. Compare this with a total catch of 37,922, and an average of 2917 for thirteen Scotch vessels in 1883.

The 'Polar Star' and the 'Balæna' were the only two Scotch vessels in the Greenland Sea, and during the whole season not a single Right Whale was seen by either of them. From other circumstances, however, their experiences were of considerable interest. Capt. Davidson, of the 'Polar Star,' finding the ice quite unsuitable for whaling, early in June headed for the coast of Greenland in search of Hooded Seals and Walrus; seventy of the latter, fine old animals, he was successful in securing, but no Seals. "While in lat. 74° N.," says the report of Capt. Davidson's voyage, "with fine weather and light ice, he took his vessel close inshore, and without difficulty landed on a spot only one hundred miles to the southward of the farthest point reached by the German expedition,[1] which partly explored this coast. The scenery was magnificent. It was a mountainous country, with smiling fertile valleys clothed with verdure and carpeted with wild flowers and grasses, the air summer-like and balmy; butterflies fitted here and there, bees and wasps hummed from flower to flower, and singing birds made the air resound with merry music.... In the valleys were seen large herds of Musk-Oxen[2] browsing contentedly on the green sward, and hunting expeditions were quickly arranged.... The total bag amounted to twenty-four head. It was with regret that a district so charming was left behind for the rigours of the Greenland Sea."

Although perhaps this description may be a trifle florid,[3] it can easily be imagined how charming this arctic paradise must have proved, in such perfect weather, to men who had been for so many weeks pent up on shipboard, anxiously threading their way through the ice-floes. Mr. Kinnes tells me the Musk-Oxen were very numerous,[4] and that the crew of the 'Polar Star' killed only those they found straggling on the beach and islands, and did not molest those on the mainland. In latitude 74° 45' N., long. 20 W., an Esquimaux graveyard was discovered, containing the remains of a large number of bodies of both sexes, with implements and weapons; several of these latter were brought home by the crew.

The 'Balæna,' as already said, was equally unsuccessful in her search for Whales; consequently her captain determined to revisit Franz Josef Land in search of Walrus. He arrived at Cape Flora on the 25th of June, and, in spite of bad weather, killed 257 of these beasts; but they were of small size, and consequently of little value. Returning once more to the Greenland fishing, Capt. Robertson continued his search for Right Whales until the 22nd of August, but without success, and on that day bore up for home.

The absence of Right Whales in the Greenland Seas is to be attributed to the condition of the ice on their feeding grounds; it was not only too far north, but, when found, too light to be attractive to these animals. The fact of the landing of the crew of the 'Polar Star' on the east coast of Greenland, already referred to, is indicative of a very unusual absence of ice on that shore. Farther east, Dr. Nathorst, in the Swedish ship 'Antarctic,' not only made a thorough survey of Bear Island, to the south of Spitzbergen, but visited White Island, the mysterious Wyche's Island (misnamed King Charles's Land), and other islands in the N.E., and was enabled to circumnavigate the whole of the Spitzbergen group in one season, a feat, I believe, never before accomplished. In the longitude of Charles XII. Islands he reached 81° 14' N. latitude, and is of opinion that had he been a fortnight earlier he might have attained a still higher latitude. Farther west (4° 9' W.) he found the margin of the Greenland pack-ice in 78° 1' N. latitude.

The fact of the 'Balæna' and two Norwegian vessels again reaching Franz Josef Land is a sufficient indication of the state of the ice farther east. Capt. Robertson says:—"When there is good ice on the east longitude, we have the best chance of fishing; when we cannot see Spitzbergen from the edge of the ice in lat. 79° N. during May, it is a poor look-out." Such being the case, the failure of the Whale fishery in the exceptional ice-years we have had of late is not a matter of surprise. The 'Polar Star' brought home with her seventy Walrus, fifty Seals, yielding eight tons of oil, and seventeen Bears; the 'Balæna,' two hundred and fifty-seven Walrus, seven hundred and sixteen Seals, yielding thirty tons of oil, and twenty-two Bears, four of which were alive. The Bottle-nose Whale fishery, which was once so productive, is now quite discarded by the British vessels.

Three vessels, the 'Eclipse,' 'Diana,' and 'Nova Zembla,' left Dundee for Davis Strait, and the 'Active' made an experimental voyage to Hudson Strait, the result of which was one hundred and fifty Walrus and seventeen Bears. In May and June the 'Eclipse' searched the east side of Davis Strait, working gradually northward; she experienced very adverse weather, gales of wind alternating with calms and dense fogs, and it was not till reaching the "middle-ice," that on the 16th of July she saw her first fish. Whales being abundant in this locality, she remained fishing there, but lost her first two owing to fog; better fortune, however, awaited her, for on the 18th she killed a fine fish of 11 ft. 6 in. bone, and between that date and the 27th had increased the number to five, all killed in the space of nine days. Further search proved vain, and no more Whales were seen by Capt. Milne after that time. Towards the end of August the ice began to mass in the Straits, and the 'Eclipse' had some difficulty in running south; but on the 7th September she bore up for home, accomplishing the passage in thirteen days. The 'Eclipse' had on board five Right Whales, twenty-three Walrus, and fifteen Bears (one of which was captured alive), producing 72 tons of oil and 90 cwt. of bone, a cargo worth something like £7000.

The 'Diana' was not so fortunate as the 'Eclipse'; she encountered the same heavy weather, and, after a visit to Melville Bay, put back to the "middle fishing," where she was successful in killing one good fish early in July; but, although several others were seen, this was the only one which fell to her lot. Proceeding to Elwin Bay, White Whales were found to be numerous, and 450 were killed up to the 16th of August, when search was made on the north side of the Sound for Walrus, but, owing to bad weather, with small success. Pond's Bay and Scott Bay were full of ice, and the 'Diana' was headed for Godhavn, which she reached on the 6th of September, and two days after bore up for home, reaching Dundee after a fine passage of fifteen days, with one Right Whale, four hundred and fifty White Whales, eighty large Walrus, and five Bears, one of which was alive. The yield of oil was 94 tons, and 22 cwt. of bone.

The 'Nova Zernbla' was still less successful, and lost valuable time on two occasions beset in the ice; her only good fortune was in Prince Regent's Inlet, where she killed five hundred and thirty-three White Whales, five Narwhals, and nine Walrus. Finally her take was five hundred and thirty-four White Whales, eleven Walrus (one of which was captured alive), and four Bears—yielding 78 tons of oil.

The total catch of the Dundee fleet was 6 Right Whales, 984 White Whales, 591 Walrus, 779 Seals, and 80 Bears, yielding 297 tons of oil and 112 cwts. of bone. The produce is of so miscellaneous a nature that I am unable to estimate its total value, but may say that the present price of whalebone is £1450 per ton (that under six feet long half-price); the oil, all round, £17 10s. per ton; White Whale skins vary from 30s. to 35s. each; and Walrus hides, if very large, may be worth as much as £40 each, or, if small, as little as 5s. each; those taken by the 'Active,' 'Diana,' and 'Polar Star,' I am told, would average about £12 each; but the 'Balæna's,' from Franz Josef Land (as last year), being small and of light weight, were of little value. The Walrus ivory is said to be worth 1s. 6d. to 2s. 9d. per lb., according to size.


My best thanks are, as usual, due to Mr. Michael Thornburn, of St. John's, Newfoundland, and Mr. R. Kinnes, of Dundee, for their kindness in supplying me with the bulk of the statistics embodied in the above notes.


  1. The Danish expedition in 1891-92, under Lieut. Ryder, is probably here referred to. He wintered in Hekla Harbour, Scoresby's Sound, in 1891.
  2. See also 'Zoologist' for 1890, p. 83.
  3. That this is not overdrawn we have the testimony of Lieut. Ryder, who, on the same coast, found a profusion of animal and vegetable life; Reindeer in "wonderful numbers,"' many Musk-Oxen, thirty-two species of birds. The richness of the vegetation and the size attained by the plants, he says, was "astonishing." One hundred and fifty flowering plants were found in Scoresby's Sound. In fact, we who have not witnessed it have little idea of the beauty and profusion of the Arctic flora in favoured localities.
  4. Through the kindness of Mr. Kinnes, I have been able to secure a good head for the Norwich Castle Museum.

This work was published before January 1, 1925, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.