The Zoologist/4th series, vol 4 (1900)/Issue 704/Notes on the Seal and Whale Fishery 1899, Southwell

Notes on the Seal and Whale Fishery, 1899 (1900)
Thomas Southwell
2875844Notes on the Seal and Whale Fishery, 18991900Thomas Southwell


By Thomas Southwell, F.Z.S.

The event of the year at St. John's is the starting of the sealing fleet, which this year (1899) took place under very favourable circumstances, the weather being fine and the harbour free from ice. As the clock struck eight on the morning of the 10th of March, those present witnessed the departure of twelve fine vessels, all making for the offing, their crews full of hope as to the result of the unknown future. The painful memory of the disasters which threw so deep a gloom over the voyage of the previous season could not fail to be present in the minds of the spectators, whose cheers, added to the salutes from the steam-whistles of the vessels, made the hills re-echo as the fleet steamed out to brave the hardships and dangers of the ice-fields. Happily no such disaster has to be recorded as resulting from the voyage thus so auspiciously commenced.

Of the eighteen steamers present at the Newfoundland fishery fourteen made for the ice off the east coast, and four left channel for the Gulf fishery; the latter, as will be seen, meeting with only partial success. All those which fished off the east coast did well, and the young Harps (few old Seals were killed) were in exceptionally fine condition; at the whelping time severe frosts prevailed, and experience shows that in such weather the young Seals thrive and rapidly become fat.

The first to strike the "Whitecoats" was the 'Neptune,' which met with a small and isolated patch near the Funk Islands, on the 11th of March; later on they were found in great numbers, and by the 29th of the same month three of the vessels were back again at St. John's with full cargoes—a most expeditious voyage, notwithstanding some delays arising from bad weather.

As the most successful vessel of the fleet, it will be sufficient to give a brief outline of the voyage of the 'Neptune,' Capt. S. Blandford, which is typical of all the rest. As already mentioned, on the 11th of March, some twenty-five miles N.E. of the Funk Islands, the 'Neptune' met with the first young Seals, but, judging that the main body of the breeding pack was to be found farther to the northward, Capt. Blandford, steamed thirty or forty miles in that direction in search of them, but on the 13th bad weather came on, and the vessel barely escaped being driven ashore on the Funks. From the 14th to the 18th the hurricane continued, and during the detention many old Seals were seen passing; they were, as their custom is, south of their young, and doubtless in search of food. Capt. Blandford estimates that some seventy miles of practically barren ice drifted past in a south-westerly direction before the whelping ice with the "Whitecoats" upon it appeared. This drift caused the pans bearing the young Seals to pass inside the Funks, although at the time he met the small patch, on the 11th of March before mentioned, the main body was seventy miles away in a northerly direction. The storm which thus brought the young Seals so conveniently within easy reach having somewhat abated, on the 18th March the 'Neptune,' with the 'Newfoundland' in company, headed in a westerly direction, and at once came up with them. By Monday, the 20th, 16,000 Seals were panned; the next day 15,000 more were added; and by Wednesday the total was made up to 41,000. Then came the usual waste: "the elements were unpropitious, and three pans were driven on the Funks and ground to pieces, two more went over Brenton's Rock to destruction, while on Sunday three pans were smashed on the Cabots, leaving only 32,000." As the bulk of the Seals were obtained by the other vessels in about the same locality and under the same conditions as to weather, it is probable that a similar loss of panned Seals was also experienced by them; but Capt. Blandford says that he was probably the greatest sufferer in this respect. I have said that very few old Seals were killed, in proof of which it may be mentioned that out of 17,286 Harps killed by the 'Newfoundland,' only fifty-three were old ones.

Four vessels—the 'Hope,' the 'Kite,' the 'Harlaw,' and the 'Nimrod'—went to the Gulf fishery. None of these was very successful, with the exception of the 'Hope,' which fell in with the western Harps towards the end of March, about twenty miles north-west of Grindstone Islands, where, reaching them with difficulty, she secured 26,586. The 'Kite' struck the Seals in the same locality somewhat later, with every prospect of securing a good cargo, but in answer to signals of distress from the s.s. 'Gaspia,' a trader which was fast in the ice, left the sealing to go to her assistance, eventually convoying her safely into St. John's, but having captured only 699 Seals. The 'Harlaw' and the 'Nimrod' hunted in company in the neighbourhood of Cape St. George, the former capturing 1570 old and 2476 young Hoods (equal in weight to about 9000 young Harps), and the latter 3711 of the same species. These Hooded Seals are said to have been of an enormous size, but their capture was attended with considerable danger and labour, as the vessels could not get within three miles of the sheet on which they were, and the intervening ice was much broken and rafted.

Mr. Thorburn tells me that, owing to the severity of the frost in the month of February, the ice in the Gulf was unusually heavy, in consequence of which the eastern Harps were not seen at all, and the schooners fishing there made a very bad season; he estimates that the number of Seals which fell to these schooners, and to the shore fishers in Bonavista Bay, did not much exceed 20,000.

The total number of Seals captured by the eighteen steamers, of the aggregate capacity of 5500 tons, and manned by some 3500 seamen, was 268,787 (against 241,708 in the previous season), of a net value of £68,527, the price of produce being very disappointing. The bulk of the vessels were fairly fished, nine having more than 15,000: the 'Neptune' taking the lead with 32,129; five others had above 10,000, and the remaining four from three to four thousand each, with the exception of the 'Kite,' which, as already explained, was otherwise occupied, and killed only 699 Seals. The average of the whole was 14,932. The fishing in the past season, although the ice had been heavy and the weather rough, has been singularly free from disaster, and had prices ruled better would have been highly successful.

The Norwegian sealers, I have been informed, did very badly, and they are gradually being sold out of the trade; the Bottlenose fishery also produced about one-third less than in the previous season, the scarcity causing oil of this class to advance to £28 per ton.

With reference to the Fin-Whale fishery recently established by the "Cabot Whale-fishing Company" (see Notes for 1898, p. 107), Mr. Thorburn has been kind enough to obtain for me the following particulars:—The 'Cabot' fished in Hermitage Bay in the end of February and during the month of March, killing eleven Whales, all "Sulphur-bottoms." This species was found in plenty in the locality named until the middle of July, and any number could have been taken had the Company been in a position to deal with them. Mr. Thorburn's informant states that these immense Whales appear nearly always to be in good condition, and he believes they reproduce only once in three years. From the middle of July until the first week in October the 'Cabot' fished in Notre Dame Bay, killing ninety-eight Whales, nine of them "Humpbacks," the remainder being "Finbacks." In October these Whales become scarce and poor in condition, owing it is believed to their reproducing some time previous to that date, and being engaged suckling their young; they then leave the coast, probably following their food supply. The ninety-eight Whales yielded 286 tons of oil and six tons of bone; the oil produced about £17 per ton; the "Whale-bone," I imagine, would be of little value. It will be observed that, in speaking of the Whales killed by the Cabot Company, I have used only the popular names applied to them by their captors; this I have done advisedly, for, in addition to the uncertainty with regard to their true species, and the unsettled state of the nomenclature of the group, it was impossible to speak with authority without opportunities of personal investigation, and might only add to the existing confusion; it is therefore with pleasure that I hear from Dr. F.W. True, of the United States National Museum, that he spent a month at the station last summer, and that he hopes to do for the Newfoundland Fin-Whales what Mr. A.H. Cocks and Prof. Robert Collett have already done for a similar fishery on the coast of Lapland. It is Dr. True's intention shortly to make known the general result of his investigations, which will eventually be embodied in a contemplated monograph of the Finbacks of the American waters. Dr. True has already published in the 'Proceedings of the United States National Museum' (xxi. pp. 617–635) an exhaustive paper on the nomenclature of the Whalebone Whales of the European waters, treated with his usual thoroughness; and, whether or not European cetologists finally accept the somewhat startling changes he advocates, they cannot but be grateful for the analysis of the evidence on which he bases his conclusions. It is rather out of place in this paper to discuss the much-vexed question of the revision of nomenclature, but the well-defined and not too numerous group of Cetacea seems readily to lend itself for treatment in this respect, and surely by a little forbearance and the sacrifice of some degree of sentiment, cetologists might be able to arrive at an arrangement by which this section at least of the Mammalia might be cleared of the nomenclatorial fog which surrounds it, and be settled once for all on a firm and universal basis.

The Whale fishery in the past season has on the whole been fairly successful, but its most remarkable feature has been the continued apparent absence of Right Whales in the Greenland Seas, whereas in Davis Strait and in the adjoining waters they have been seen in abundance. The 'Balæna' cruised for three months in the Greenland waters, during which time she saw only one Whale; this she captured on the 19th of May, on the north-west fishing-grounds. It is difficult to account for this absence of Whales from their former resorts, but it is doubtless due in part to overfishing, and perhaps even more to the present unsuitable condition of their feeding grounds owing to the continued absence of ice, a state of things which has continued for a most unusual length of time, and is quite contrary to precedent (see Zool. 1898, p. 73). In Davis Strait, on the other hand, Whales were in plenty in all their usual resorts, but from the many "escapes" it is probable they were very shy. There appears also to be a fair proportion of old and young fish, which promises well for the continuance of the species. The 'Diana' killed a mother and sucker in Lancaster Sound, early in July; also two other small Whales in the same locality. The 'Eclipse' also killed a very small Whale of four-foot bone, in Pond's Bay, where young fish are rarely met with. In the same locality the 'Diana' met with a fighting fish which gave them some trouble; but although it attacked several of the boats, it was eventually killed without injury to the crews. The bulk of the Whales seen or captured were of good size, some of them very large.

The 'Balæna,' as already mentioned, was the only whaler in the Greenland Seas. After cruising in the usual resorts of the Whales and seeing only one, which she captured, Capt. Robertson made for the east coast of Greenland in search of Walruses, and there he twice met with the Swedish expedition under Dr. Nathrost, rendering what aid he was able in the fruitless search for Andrée. Here ten Musk Oxen were killed, and some valuable explorations made, which will be duly reported by Dr. Nathrost. Finally the 'Balæna' went round to Davis Strait, where she killed two other fine Whales off Coutts Inlet, making her cargo three Whales, ten Musk Oxen, eleven Bears, three Narwhals, and seven Walrus.

The 'Diana' was very successful, killing ten Whales, mostly in Lancaster Sound and Coutts Inlet. There was nothing remarkable in her voyage except her success, her cargo consisting of ten Whales, seventy-one Walrus, fourteen Bears, twenty-two Seals, and three Narwhals.

The 'Nova Zembla' also did well at the Davis Strait fishery, returning with eight Whales and nine Bears.

The 'Eclipse' left Dundee at the end of April, and killed her first Whale off Disco on the 19th of May. North of Melville Bay Capt. Milne visited an Esquimaux settlement—Tiganrock—obtaining news of Lieut. Peary; thence she crossed over to Eclipse Sound, which she navigated to its extremity, finding traces of Esquimaux and killing fifteen Reindeer; but, although she saw a considerable number of Whales, fortune went against her, and she only succeeded in capturing three (one very small), as already mentioned, and reached Dundee on November 14th, experiencing very wild weather on her homeward voyage.

The 'Esquimaux' also went to Davis Strait, but I am informed that her voyage was not entirely of a business character; as, however, she brought home two Whales, yielding 23 tons of oil and 21 cwt. of bone, in addition to forty Walruses, twenty-three Bears, and sundry seals, worth some £2000, the produce would go a long way towards paying the expenses of the trip.

Two other vessels left Dundee, the 'Active' and the 'Polar Star,' bound for Hudson Strait, the former repeating her voyage of the previous season. The entrance to Hudson Strait, always very unapproachable in the spring owing to the accumulation of ice and the boisterous weather experienced at that season, was more than usually blocked by the drift of ice from Davis Strait, and the two vessels were twenty-eight days later in entering the Strait than they anticipated, even then they forced a passage with difficulty. The terrible squeezing and buffeting they experienced told severely on the 'Polar Star,' a vessel thirty years old, which, after being frequently beset, had finally to be abandoned in a sinking condition early in October, the 'Active,' which had been standing by her companion for some time taking on board her crew and saving one hundred and thirty-two Walrus hides and four Bears. The 'Active' saw very few Whales, and did not succeed in catching any, the result of her voyage being one hundred and seventy-three Walruses, thirty-four Bears, and fifty-eight Musk Ox skins, the latter obtained from the natives on the mainland to the west of Rowe's Welcome. Late in the season the weather was very wild, and on two occasions seventy-three in the one case and one hundred and nine Walruses in the other, which had been killed and left on the shore, were washed away and lost during terrific gales. An American vessel which wintered in the Strait secured eight Whales in June and July, before the 'Active' got upon the fishing ground, and when spoken had the produce of sixteen Whales on board. As it is evident the vessels despatched from Scotland must arrive too late to take full advantage of the fishery in this locality, Mr. Kinnes resolved to establish a station in Fisher Strait, on the shore of Southampton Island. For this purpose the first mate of the 'Active,' Mr. J.W. Murray, with two others, were landed, a large wooden dwelling-house and boat-shed having been taken out in sections for their use; here they contemplate remaining for three years, Whale hunting, assisted by five boats' crews of natives.

The only other vessel bringing produce from the Arctic was the carrying ship 'Alert,' of Peterhead, which brought home the produce of two Whales, 150 Walruses, and 2900 Seals, from the Cumberland Gulf stations.

Seven vessels left Dundee in the past season; one of these, the 'Polar Star,' was lost, and the 'Alert' returned from Cumberland Gulf. The total produce of these eight vessels was 28 Whales, 609 Walruses, 16 Narwhals, 3036 Seals, 128 Bears, and 68 Musk Oxen; the oil yielded was 385 tons, and the bone 350 cwt.—a very mixed cargo; but, except for the Hudson Bay section of the fleet, apparently a fairly successful voyage commercially. There has been no very recent sale of whalebone, but I am informed that the last sale effected produced £1400 per ton; more is being asked for it now. Whale oil is producing from £18 to £19, and Seal oil from £18 to £21 per ton. Walrus hides, if heavy, bring as high as ₤40 each. They are used for polishing wheels for bicycle work, and therefore should be very thick; light hides are of little use, and not in request, therefore of little value. The total value of the produce of the season, estimating the bone at the last selling price, and allowing for undersize, would probably be about £38,000.

As part of the produce of the late voyage, sixty-eight Musk Oxen will be noticed; ten of these were from East Greenland, the remainder from the mainland of Arctic America in the form of skins procured from the natives. This is sad reading, for not only does it threaten the extinction of this most interesting animal, but also of one of the food supplies of the Indians and Esquimaux of this sterile land, who maintain at the best a very precarious existence on the flesh of the Reindeer, the Walrus, and the Musk Ox; should these supplies fail the natives will undoubtedly perish, a fate which has already to a great extent befallen their brethren to the west of Bering's Strait. Before the natives became possessed of firearms they could by their primitive methods obtain sufficient food for their wants, and skins for their tents and winter clothing, without undue sacrifice of life; but their capacity for destruction was limited. Since however they have been supplied with modern weapons they still destroy life to the utmost of their ability, without thought for the future, and, forgetful of their own wants, exchange the skins with white traders to an extent only limited by their capacity for slaughter,[1] not for necessaries only, but for luxuries they did better without in the past. The Musk Ox is one of the easiest of wild animals to approach, and as the demand for their skins is unlimited and the supply very much the reverse, it is by no means unlikely that the species will be exterminated before its life-history is fully studied by naturalists. Although not difficult to capture, and easy to manage when young,[2] the only living examples which have hitherto been brought to this country are two young ones, unfortunately both males, recently added to the Duke of Bedford's collections at Woburn.

The above are not the whole of these animals which have been captured during the past year; fortunately those I am about to mention were made a better use of. Dr. Nathrost, writing of his recent expedition to East Greenland (Geo. Jour. Nov. 1899, vol. xiv. pp. 534–37), and referring to the zoological results of the voyage, says, "We have secured twenty-eight Musk Oxen, all of which were prepared in some way or other, so that we had skeletons, skins, all the interior parts, brains, &c, brought home." This is well so far, but he also mentions "the fact that the White Polar Wolves have made an invasion around the northern part of Greenland along the whole coast, at least to Scoresby Sound," and that "the Reindeer are now very scanty in consequence of their having been killed by the Wolves," a fate too likely to be shared by the Musk Oxen.

My thanks, as on former occasions, are especially due to Mr. Michael Thorburn, of St. John's, Newfoundland, and Mr. Robert Kinnes, of Dundee, for their kindness in supplying me with much valuable information.

  1. My friend Mr. Kinnes, I am glad to say, tells me that this does not apply to the Walrus, for on enquiry by the captain of the 'Active' for skins of these animals, the natives told them that they only killed what they wanted for themselves, which they considered quite enough.
  2. See Buffalo Jones's 'Forty Years of Adventure,' p. 382, et seq., for an account of lassoing young Musk Oxen near Chesterfield Inlet.

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

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