The Zoologist/4th series, vol 5 (1901)/Issue 717/Notes on the Seal and Whale Fishery of 1900, Southwell

Notes on the Seal and Whale Fishery, 1900 (1901)
Thomas Southwell

Published in The Zoologist, 4th series, vol 5, issue 717 (March, 1901), p. 81–90

3786397Notes on the Seal and Whale Fishery, 19001901Thomas Southwell

THE ZOOLOGIST


No. 717.—March, 1901.


NOTES ON THE SEAL AND WHALE FISHERY
OF 1900.

By Thomas Southwell, F.Z.S.

The unusually mild winter of 1899-1900, and the consequent absence of ice in the bays on the east coast, led to the prediction that the past season would be a very favourable one for the sealing fleets, both in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and off the east of Newfoundland. This has been amply verified, and the take was the largest which I have had to record in my notes, now extending over twenty consecutive years. Other circumstances have also been in favour of the venture, and with the increased value of produce the past season must be regarded as quite a record one.

The steam sealing-fleet of the year 1900 consisted of nineteen vessels—the 'Esquimaux' of Dundee having been added—eleven of which cleared from St. John's, one from Bay Roberts, three from Greenspond, and four from Channel (Port au Basques)—the latter for the Gulf fishery—all sailing, as usual, on the 10th of March.

By Monday the 12th the Seals were found covering a vast field of level ice about forty-five miles N. by E. of the Funks, and extending over a circuit of some thirty miles, the number being very large, and the ice-field was so easily approached that all the vessels could reach its occupants readily, and lie in close proximity to them. The killing commenced at once, and vast numbers were "panned," many of which, as usual, were never seen again, at least by those who killed them. Bad weather and fogs came on, the vessels being separated from their panned Seals; and there were nasty rumours of misappropriation by certain of the crews, which led to subsequent unpleasant litigation—an event, be it said, happily of rare occurrence.

The young Seals were in excellent condition, and were rapidly being got on board, but unfortunately a change took place before the work was completed, and stormy weather, accompanied by dense fogs, first delayed the vessels, and then rendered their passage home in their heavily laden condition very perilous. Notwithstanding this, however, four of them were in port with large cargoes by the 27th, and others followed in quick succession. The 'Diana,' the last of the St. John's steamers to arrive, was the only one which missed the main body of the young Seals off the east coast, but she succeeded in picking up over 2000 young Harps, and then went to the neighbourhood of Groais Island, some thirty miles east of which she killed about 8500 old and Bedlamer Seals, and over 500 old and young Hoods. The old Seals were all "batted," and during their collection the 'Diana' drifted south with the floe to the neighbourhood of Funk Island.

This was the only considerable number of over-year Seals killed by any of the vessels, with the exception of the 'Vanguard,' which had 2700, and the 'Nimrod' 5200, the latter having been unsuccessful at the Gulf fishery.

Of the four vessels which went to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the 'Nimrod,' as just mentioned, met with no success in that locality, but, going north through the Strait of Belle Isle, made up her catch of 5546 (mostly old Harps and Bedlamers) between Groais Island and Funk Island. The 'Harlaw' and the 'Hope' got well among the western Harps, and secured good catches of young Seals; but the 'Kite' was very unfortunate. Being unable to reach the western Harps, Capt. Young steered northeast in search of the Hooded Seals, with little better success, there being no ice suitable for them to whelp on; the result was that they took to the standing ice between the Island of Anticosti and the shore, and, drift ice coming in, rendered it impossible for the vessel to reach them. 271 young and 181 old Hoods were the only reward for a very arduous voyage.

The total number of Seals brought in by the fleet of nineteen steamers, of the aggregate register of 6053 tons, and manned by crews numbering 3760 men, was 353,276 (against 268,787 in the previous season), of an estimated net value of £96,720 (against ₤68,527 in 1899). To these must be added some 10,000 taken by the schooners and by the inhabitants of the Magdalene Islands, which would bring the value of the produce up to nearly ₤100,000. This was very equally distributed, all but three or four of the vessels making paying voyages, and the majority doing exceedingly well. The 'Neptune' took the lead with 36,255 Seals, followed closely by the 'Terra Nova' and the 'Aurora,' with more than 32,000 each; eight others had over 15,000 each, and five more above 10,000; the 'Kite,' for the reasons already named, brought in the produce of 452 Hooded Seals only. The average of the whole nineteen vessels was 18,594, eleven of them having cargoes above that average, and eight below it. The price of produce was fairly remunerative, oil fetching, say, £23 per tun; and Mr. Thorburn tells me that a new market has been found for oil in Italy, which promises to be of great assistance to the sealing industry. No casualty has been reported to mar the success of the voyage.

In the ten years, 1871 to 1880, inclusive, 218 vessels killed 2,434,063 Seals, and in the decade, 1891 to 1900, there fell to the lot of 181 vessels 2,422,125 of these animals. But these enormous numbers by no means represent the whole reckoning, for they are only the produce of the steam fleet, and do not include (i) those killed and lost on the ice, (ii) those taken by the schooners, or (iii) those killed from the shore, or on the Labrador coast. Even the total number of skins exported from Newfoundland would not give the exact number killed, for they would not include the first mentioned shrinkage, and I have not the full statistics of the two periods at hand; but my object in making the comparison was to ascertain, if possible, what effect this enormous destruction of the old and young Seals has had upon the numbers frequenting the ice-floes of the North Atlantic in the breeding season. The result is rather surprising, for it will be seen that in the first period the catches averaged 11,165 per vessel, and in the last 13,382, showing an increased yield instead of a falling off, as might have been expected. In the first period, too, many of the vessels made second, and some even third trips. In spite of the number killed by man and by natural causes, a goodly residue must escape annually (sometimes when the season is unfavourable to the sealers a large proportion) to continue the species, notwithstanding all the dangers to which they are liable.

Mr. Thorburn has been kind enough to obtain for me the following information with regard to the doings of the Cabot Whale-fishing Company, which is useful as indicating the seasonal movements of the cetaceans named:—

The 'Cabot' left St. John's on Nov. 1st, 1899, for Hermitage Bay, and commenced fishing in that neighbourhood on Dec. 1st. She killed five "Sulphur-bottoms" before the end of the year; in January she got four others, and in February three; in March seven, and in April five; in May seventeen. In April she killed her first "Humpback," and in May five others, as well as four "Finbacks"—in all, fifty-one Whales. When this information was received she was on the point of leaving her winter fishing-ground, and going north, probably to Green Bay, where during the summer the last two species mentioned above are found. The fifty-one Whales yielded 250 tuns of oil, which is this year worth £20 per tun, and the seven Sulphur-bottoms about a ton of whalebone over one foot long, which is known as payable bone, but is of poor quality.

Just twenty years having passed since I contributed the first of these annual notes on the Seal and Whale Fishery to the 'Proceedings' of the Glasgow Natural History Society (the nineteen which have followed are in the consecutive volumes of 'The Zoologist'), and great changes having taken place in that time, especially in the Whale-fishery, to which we have now to refer, it may not be amiss to contrast the season of 1881 with that which has just passed; and, as the condition of the ice to a very large extent rules the success or otherwise of both industries, more especially that of the Whale-fishery, I shall first refer to the great contrast which exists in that respect between the two periods.

The year 1881 was as remarkable for what is known as a "south-ice year," as that of 1900 has been for the absence in the Greenland Seas of this indispensable shelter both for the Right Whale and for the breeding Seals. The year first named seems to have been the culminating point of a series of south and east ice years; there had been very little southerly drift, and one vast ice-field extended in the months of April and May from the east point of Iceland in a north-easterly direction to Bear Island, where it made a sharp bend to the E.S.E., extending to within 2½° of the North Cape. When Capt. David Gray in the 'Eclipse' entered the ice, on May 23rd, he had to bore his way through three hundred miles of that obstruction before he reached the "land-water" of Spitzbergen, where the Whales are first looked for. Of course, under these conditions, the east coast of Greenland was utterly unapproachable, and it was equally useless to attempt to penetrate to the then all but unknown Franz Josef Land. Of late years both these regions have been accessible every year, and the latter mysterious archipelago has been repeatedly visited, wintered in, and to a large extent mapped; but in the year 1886 the ice was so heavy in the usual summer fishing-ground off the Greenland coast, that Capt. David Gray, as an alternative, made an attempt to reach the Franz Josef Land waters, hoping to explore that region in search of Right Whales (which subsequent experience has proved do not extend their wanderings so far to the eastward), but was stopped by the impassable ice in 75° N. lat., 36° 44' east longitude. In 1898, so changed was the condition of the ice, that Dr. Nathrost was able to reach White Island, as well as the mysterious Wyche's Island, and performed the feat of circumnavigating the whole of Spitzbergen in a single season; whilst to the westward the east coast of Greenland has been approachable for the last few years. In the past season Prof. Kolthoff was enabled to follow the coast from Cape Broer Ruys to Pendulum Island; and the captain of the Norwegian whaler 'Cecilie Malene' took his vessel as high as 75° 30' N. latitude, a point further north than is positively known to have been previously reached by a ship.[1] Lieut. Amdrup's expedition to the same coast passed through the ice barrier on July 6th, 1900, in lat. 74° 30' N., 30° 58' W. longitude, and from the vessel or by boat he mapped the coast southward to Tasiusak in 65° 35' N. latitude.[2] There are, however, indications that a change is taking place. The Norwegian Walrus-hunter 'Hertha' found the ice very heavy in the past season on the coast of Franz Josef Land, and was unable to reach Cape Flora. The 'Stella Polaris' also experienced similar difficulties in the same seas; and, as will be seen, the west coast of Spitzbergen was encumbered with heavy ice, forming a great contrast to the open condition of the Greenland coast. But here also Capt. Robertson reports that the ice was accumulating, and the prevailing winds were easterly up to the time of his departing for Davis Strait on June 10th. A stoppage of the southerly drift, especially if accompanied by severe frosts cementing the pack together, would rapidly restore the normal condition of the ice, and the Greenland coast, as well as the seas to the east of Bear Island, would again be rendered unapproachable.

Now, when we consider that the presence of ice sufficiently heavy, although not too close, upon their feeding-grounds in about 75° to 79° N. latitude in the meridian of Greenwich, and again in about 73° N. and 13° W. longitude, is an absolute necessity for the well-being of the Right Whale, and that the Harp Seals haul up to whelp on the heavy ice usually found in certain well-known localities to the north-east of Jan Mayen, there seems little room for surprise that in the altered conditions which have prevailed of late years there should have been such a marked absence of both these animals. It is a question what has become of the Right Whales which formerly so abounded in the Greenland Seas: have they been totally fished out, or have they abandoned quarters which have become unsuitable, for others more in accordance with their requirements, and, if the latter, where have they betaken themselves to? When we consider the vast extent of these seas, and the increased wariness of the animals brought about by constant disturbances, it seems highly improbable that the last Whale has been found and killed in this trackless ocean. Surely a remnant must have been left had they not deserted their former habitat of their own accord. But where can they have migrated to? There seems to be an abundance of Whales on the west side of Greenland in Davis Strait, and were it not that a passage round the north of Greenland into Robeson and Kennedy Channels (where they have never been seen) is rendered impossible, as they would undoubtedly perish, suffocated under the unbroken fields of fixed ice, and that they have not been known to pass south of Cape Farewell (there being no other apparent communication between the two seas), it might readily be supposed that they had joined their brethren in the locality above mentioned; but, so far as can be ascertained, such a change of location is an impossibility, and the only certainty is that the conditions necessary to their requirements have of late years greatly changed for the worse, and that the Whales themselves have disappeared—whether permanently or not, who can say?

As to the Seals, the case is much more simple: the destruction year after year of a very large proportion, often virtually of the whole brood and of a large number of old Seals in addition, congregated in a limited area, must inevitably tell in course of time, and sooner or later reduce the breeding pack to such an extent that they would be no longer worth pursuing, and even lead to their final extermination. This has doubtless to a very large extent been the case. The British vessels have quite abandoned the pursuit, and what there is left of the Greenland sealing is now quite in the hands of the Scandinavians, whose more economical outfits enable them to continue the struggle long after we have been driven from the field.

In the year 1881 Dundee sent out fifteen vessels, and Peterhead five. Nine of the Dundee vessels and five of those from Peterhead took part in the Greenland sealing, killing between them 23,984 of these animals. The other six Dundee ships went to Newfoundland, where they captured 139,985 more Seals, making a total of 163,969 in all, before they turned their attention to the Whales. This branch of the fishery was pursued by twelve of the Dundee vessels in Davis Strait, with a result of 48 Right Whales; two others fished for Bottlenose Whales in the Greenland Seas, capturing 22. Four of the Peterhead whalers which gave their chief attention to the Greenland Bottlenose Whales killed 94 of these and 23 Right Whales, making a total return of 163,969 Seals, 71 Right Whales, 116 Bottlenoses, and 33 tons 6 cwt. of bone. Compare this with the past season's catch, as stated farther on, and with the fact that in 1897 one Whale was captured, and one other seen; in 1898 not a single Whale was seen; in 1899 one Whale was seen and captured; but in the past season of 1900 a diligent search in the Greenland fishing-grounds, extending over six weeks, did not reveal the presence of a single Whale. In those days we hear nothing of such small deer as Bears and Walruses, which were treated as by-products.

But it is time to speak of the voyage of the past season. The 'Balæna,' the only vessel which went to Greenland, after her unsuccessful search in that locality, departed on June 10th for Davis Strait; but it was not till Sept. 20th that she killed her first and only Whale, having the misfortune to lose a second to which she fastened. Capt. Roberts reports that in the fall a large number of Whales were sighted, but that, owing to almost incessant gales of wind, it was impossible to send out the boats; and this seems to have been the experience of all the vessels so far as weather was concerned. The 'Balæna' brought home 21 tuns of oil and 14 cwt. of bone, the produce of the one Whale, and 91 Walruses, also 18 Bears.

The 'Eclipse' had a very arduous time, and it was not till Sept. 19th that she killed her first Whale, although plenty were seen; on the 23rd she captured another, and a third on Oct. 10th. This last proved a fighter from the first, and, after smashing one of the boats—fortunately no lives were lost—required two explosive rockets before it succumbed. The voyage home was no exception as to weather, and the 'Eclipse' arrived in a very battered condition, but with three very fine Whales of 10 ft. 5 in., 11 ft. 6 in., and 12 ft. 3 in. bone respectively, which yielded 46 tuns of oil and 60 cwt. of bone, the latter largely in excess of the average, as is generally the case with very large Whales, the ordinary proportion being about 1 cwt. of bone to each tun of oil.

The 'Esquimaux,' after returning from Newfoundland, as already stated, proceeded to Davis Strait, where she killed her first Whale in Pond's Bay on July 9th, and a second on the day following. On the 14th of the same month a larger Whale was killed, but it was not till Sept. 23rd that another was harpooned. This was in Coutts Inlet; but it unfortunately broke away, carrying with it three hundred fathoms of line. Thereafter the weather was too stormy for fishing, and the 'Esquimaux' returned with three small Whales, yielding 20 tuns of oil and 20 cwt. of bone. This, with the sealing venture, constituted a very fair season's return.

The 'Diana' was the most fortunate vessel of the fleet. During May fifty-four Walruses were secured at the south-west fishing; on July 7th she killed her first Whale, and before the end of the month she had two others on board. A fourth was killed in Coutts Inlet on Sept. 9th, and two others on the 23rd of the same month. After encountering frightful weather, the 'Diana' arrived at Dundee with 6 Whales, 54 Walruses, and 24 Bears—yielding 76½ tuns of oil and 77 cwt. of bone.

The 'Nova Zembla' killed her first Whale in Coutts Inlet on Aug. 11th—a fine fish of 11 ft. bone—and on the 23rd of the same month an even finer fish of 12 ft. bone; but a third to which she fastened unfortunately broke away, and was lost. Her catch was 2 Whales, 12 Walruses, and 4 Bears—producing 38½ tuns of oil and 41 cwt. of bone.

The 'Active' visited the station in Hudson Strait (see Zool. 1900, p. 71), where she found all well. One small Whale had been killed on June 10th, also a number of Walruses and Bears. In all she brought back with her 28 tuns of oil, 7 cwt. of bone, 327 Walruses, and 76 Bears.

The season of 1900 will long be remembered by the Davis Strait whalers as one of the most stormy within the experience of the oldest hands, and this was rendered the more tantalising from the fact that fish were in plenty; but it was impossible to send the boats away, and even when this could be done the ice hampered their movements, or enabled the Whales to escape.

The result of the season's fishing was 16 Whales, 494 Walruses, 53 Seals, and 145 Bears, producing 230 tuns of oil and 219 cwt. of bone; in addition to which was the produce of one Whale, 138 Walruses, and 3400 Seals, equal to 60 tuns of oil and 10 cwt. of bone, brought home from the Cumberland Gulf station by the Peterhead brig 'Alert.' No White Whales were killed, owing to the bays in which they are usually beached being blocked with ice.

The present price of oil is £22 per tun, and of size bone £1400 per ton. The Walrus hides vary greatly in value according to quality—i.e. thickness—and the Seal-skins may be taken all round at 3s. each. At this rate the estimated value of the year's produce would be something like £30,000, as against £38,000 in the previous season.

I am informed that, so far as the British whalers are concerned, the Greenland Seas will be left undisturbed in the coming season.

I have to express my thanks to Mr. James Mitchell and Mr. R. Kinnes, of Dundee, for kindly furnishing me with information with regard to the Dundee whaling-fleet; and to Mr. Michael Thorburn, of St. John's, Newfoundland, for like favours from that port.


  1. Geogr. Journ. Nov, 1900, p. 567.
  2. L.c. p. 663.—The expedition met with Musk Oxen in abundance in the neighbourhood of Scoresby's Sound, and brought home one calf alive, in order to secure which, it is said, a herd of fourteen were shot down. Later on a second calf, which did not live, was obtained by the same costly process. The Walrus-hunters also brought home fourteen young ones alive; one yearling male was sent to the Hamburg Zoological Gardens, and five to Antwerp; but three of the latter died in transit. As a writer in the 'Field' of Oct. 20th observes, "it would be interesting to know how many of these harmless animals were shot down by the Norwegian hunters this season to enable them to capture the fourteen calves?" It is evident that the sooner the ice closes again on the Greenland coast, the better will be the chance of the survival of this interesting animal in that locality.

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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