The Zoologist/4th series, vol 6 (1902)/Issue 728/Notes on the Seal and Whale Fishery of 1901, Southwell

Notes on the Seal and Whale Fishery of 1901  (1902) 
Thomas Southwell

Published in The Zoologist, 4th series, vol 6, issue 728 (February, 1902), p. 41–48


No. 728.— February, 1902.

OF 1901.

By Thomas Southwell, F.Z.S.

The Newfoundland sealing, although as a whole fairly successful in the past season, presented some interesting features which will be referred to farther on. The number of steamers which left port was twenty—an increase of one, namely, the 'Southern Cross,' which made her first sealing voyage, having been purchased by Messrs. Murray and Sons on her return from her Antarctic exploration voyage of 1899-1900; but, as the 'Hope' came to an untimely end, the number actually employed was the same as in the season of 1900. Of these, four vessels went to the Gulf fishery; the rest to the east coast.

The usual day for the departure of the steamers is the 10th of March, but that day falling on Sunday in 1901, the vessels took their departure on the 9th, and, finding the young Seals almost at once, some very speedy returns were the result. The first to arrive was the 'Southern Cross,' which reached Harbour Grace on the 20th of March, after an absence of only nine and a half days, with a cargo of 26,563 Seals; she was quickly followed by the 'Aurora,' which arrived at St. John's on the morning of the 22nd, heavily laden with the produce of 32,407 old and young Harps and Hooded Seals; others arrived in rapid succession. The 'Southern Cross' reached the whelping ice, some eighty miles north by east of the Funk Islands, on the morning of the 12th March, and had the monopoly of the locality for some time; this enabled her to load up very rapidly with young Harps, of which she killed 26,361, and only 202 old Seals. She was thus quite independent of the Hooded Seals, of which most of the other vessels went in search after taking in the young Harps; hence her speedy return, making what I believe was the most rapid voyage on record. On her homeward voyage she experienced a fearful storm on the night of the 19th of March, and sought shelter at Perlican, where she was nearly driven on shore, and had to beat about the bay all night, but reached Harbour Grace in safety next morning. The 'Aurora' also made a very successful and rapid voyage; she met with bad weather, but struck the main patch on the morning of the 12th. By the night of the 15th, although she had been joined by other vessels, which took their share, she had taken on board 25,000 Harp Seals, and then departed in a north-easterly direction in search of the Hooded Seals, coming up with them on the afternoon of the 18th. Between that time and the morning of the 20th she had secured 7000. The latter part of the voyage would have been unnecessary, but that, less fortunate than the 'Southern Cross,' she lost seventy-two "flags," representing some 10,000 Seals; it is said these were unfairly appropriated by other vessels fishing in the neighbourhood. Unfortunately this is not the only complaint of a similar character which has been heard of this year. The result of her voyage was 25,210 young and 306 old Harps, and 4020 young and 2871 old Hoods; the young Harps, like all those killed early in the season, being of very light weight. With regard to this, I shall have some observations to make later on. The 'Nimrod' arrived on the 7th April with 13,055 Seals, and the 'Terra Nova' on the 23rd with 19,275; some 10,000 of these were old Harps and Hoods, some said to have been of enormous weight; her delivery was 650 tons net. All her old Seals were taken prior to the 8th of April, on which day she was beset and drifted about for some time in the vicinity of Groais Island. The 'Iceland' came in contact with an iceberg on the 11th March, sustaining considerable damage, and injuring two of her crew; but, as she was running slow at the time, a fatal disaster was avoided; she, however, secured 20,150 Seals. The 'Virginia Lake' was the most unfortunate vessel of this section of the fleet; on the 27th of March she was caught in the ice near Groais Island, in the same locality as the 'Terra Nova,' and remained beset till the 6th of April, when, after much sawing and blasting of the ice, she got free, only to be again caught in the floe off Partridge Point (White Bay), remaining fast till the end of the month; finally, after sundry other adventures, arriving safely at St. John's on the 5th of May with 19,605 Seals.

The Gulf sealing was practically a failure. Four vessels, namely, the 'Harlaw,' 'Panther,' 'Kite,' and 'Hope,' took part in this section of the voyage; the 'Harlaw' and the 'Panther' only securing 400 and 4855 Seals respectively; the 'Kite' got jammed in the ice off Prince Edward's Island, and at one time was in a situation of great peril, but eventually reached Channel in safety on the 27th April with a cargo of 8216 Seals; of these 900 were old Harps and 400 old Hoods, which yielded a weight of fat and pelts about equal to 10,000 young Harps. From the 13th March to the 23rd she is reported to have killed twice the number of Seals she could possibly carry, but frightful weather setting in, she only succeeded in getting 7000 young Harps on board. The remaining vessel, the 'Hope,' was unfortunately driven on shore on Byron Island, one of the Magdalen group, and became a total wreck, with 5000 Seals on board. Happily her crew of 194 men landed safely on the island, whence they were subsequently rescued by the 'Greenland,' which departed from St. John's for that purpose. The 'Hope' was rather a notable vessel. In 1873 she sailed from Peterhead on her first whaling voyage, commanded by Capt. John Gray, a member of a family celebrated for generations as successful whalers, and was employed in 1882 in the rescue of the crew of Mr. Leigh Smith's yacht, the 'Eira,' which foundered off Cape Flora, Franz Josef Land, in the previous year; in 1892 she passed into the ownership of Messrs. Baine Johnson and Co., and has been since that time employed in the Newfoundland sealing.

In addition to the young Harps got in the Gulf fishery being, like those off the east coast, smaller than usual, the failure of the fishery in this locality was also due to the heavy gale early in April which proved destructive to the 'Hope,' broke up the whelping ice, and either swept the young Seals into the sea, or separated them from their parents, so dispersing the pack that the steamers could not come near them in any quantity. Any Harps that were got were in the western locality, those frequenting the eastern ice, once more, so far as Mr. Thorburn could learn, never having been seen. The same state of things prevailed with regard to the ice frequented by the Hoods, and with a like result.

The Newfoundland winter proved very severe, but after the latter end of January the weather moderated, and a fine spring followed. As there was very little drift-ice off the coast, a favourable sealing year was anticipated, and, so far as the early finding of the Seals was concerned, this was fully realized; but, although killing commenced on the same day as last year, the young Seals were very much inferior in weight, averaging something like 35 lb. in fat and pelt against 50 lb. in the previous season. Mr. Thorburn, with his usual kindness, has been at some trouble to ascertain, if possible, the true cause of this falling off in weight, and he tells me that, in the opinion of several of the most experienced captains, it is mainly due to the fact that for some reason the Seals whelped some days later this year than last; for instance, the people living in Belvoir Bay reported to Capt. Blandford that the old Seals did not go off from there so soon as usual in search of the whelping ice, which he considers sufficient evidence that they reproduced later than last year. Under favourable conditions the young Seals increase in weight from two to four pounds daily; this rate of increase is not mere conjecture, but has been proved by experiment. It is, however, believed by many that mild weather retards their growth; this has not been so fully established, but it is known that much rain causes them to leave the ice, and take to the water considerably earlier than they otherwise would. Another reason for the reduced average in weight is that the killing was all over in a very short period, leaving no time for the young ones to increase in weight, in which respect even a few days, as has been explained, would make a considerable difference. This is further borne out by the facts that those steamers which struck the Seals on the shore side of the whelping ice—that is to say, the south-west pack—(as is usually the case), secured heavier results than those fishing on the outside or north-east ice, owing to the Seals whelping in the former locality somewhat earlier than the latter.

A much larger number of old and young Hooded Seals were got this year off the east coast than usual. To show the relative results of the two years, I give the returns for the last two seasons of the nineteen steamers:—

No. killed. Net weight. Approximate value.
1900 353,276 7523 tons £ 96,720
1901 345,380 6651 tons 77,819

On the same basis as last year the produce of 1901 should have weighed 7354 tons, a difference of 703 tons; whereas the actual difference was 872 tons, or a loss of 169 tons.

The 'Aurora' made the largest catch, viz. 32,407; the 'Neptune' next, with 27,628. There were eleven others above 15,000, and three others above 10,000, leaving two, the 'Kite' with only 8,216, and the 'Harlaw' with 453, both of which went to the Gulf fishery, which, as has been already explained, was virtually a failure. The average of the whole was 18,178, ten vessels having more than that number, and nine less. The estimated value of the produce, at about the same rate as last year, is given above. Pale Seal-oil was worth £23 per tun of 252 gallons.

The St. John's 'Evening Telegram,' commenting upon the immature quality of the Harp Seals brought in this season, advocates a further amendment of the sealing laws, with a view to postponing the departure of the ships until the 12th or 13th of March, pointing out the enormous loss incurred by the destruction of the extra number of small Seals killed to make up the weight of a full cargo; but, on the other hand, there are those who deprecate the too frequent alterations in the sealing laws, or the attempt to legislate for an abnormal season such as that just passed certainly was.

Since the season of 1897 only three Right Whales have been seen in the Greenland Seas by the Scotch whalers, two of which were killed. It is not surprising therefore that in the past season, for the first time for I know not how many years, not a single British whaler has visited the once prolific seas between East Greenland and Spitzbergen. Whether the Whales are actually worked out, or whether they will again be found when the ice returns to its normal condition in these seas—a change in which direction seems to have already set in—I cannot venture an opinion; but the fact remains that the once highly remunerative industry, both as regards Seals and Whales, so far as the British vessels are concerned, has—at least, for the present—come to an end.

In Davis Straits, on the other hand, there was no scarcity of Whales, although, owing to the unfavourable condition of the ice and the prevalence of stormy weather, the success was not great. Five vessels left Dundee, and the 'Alert' from Peterhead, as usual, brought home produce from the Cumberland Gulf station. Of the five Dundee vessels, four fished in Davis Straits, and the 'Active' visited the trading station in Southampton Island, whence she returned with the produce of 5 Whales, 262 Walrus, and 76 Bears. Three of these Whales were killed in the spring at the station, and two in September by the 'Active'; but as the total yield is given as 25 tuns of oil, and 30 cwt. of bone, they must have been very small ones. Much time was lost by the 'Active' searching in Fox Channel, Fisher Strait, and the adjacent waters for the Yarmouth trawler 'Problem,' which, as will be mentioned farther on, was to have met her at the station.

The 'Nova Zembla' was the first Davis Straits vessel to arrive at Dundee on the 7th of October. She had experienced bad weather, heavy ice, and a succession of mishaps to her machinery. Several Whales were seen by her, but it was not till the 20th of July that she succeeded in killing her first and only fish at the middle fishing-ground; this was a very small one, yielding only about 4 tuns of oil and 3 cwt. of bone; after this no others were seen. In September she killed 418 White Whales in Cumberland Gulf, and with these and 26 Bears bore up for home. The 'Eclipse' had a most adventurous voyage, experiencing terrible weather from the time she left Dundee till her return on the 29th of October. When Whales were seen it was impossible to send the boats in pursuit, owing to the heavy ice; but at last she was rewarded by a fine Whale of 11 ft. 10 in. bone, and a month later a second was brought alongside; but so rough was the weather that the carcase was washed away before flensing was completed. Later on a third fine Whale was killed, and she started on her return voyage on the 11th of October with two Whales and part of a third, yielding 59 tuns of oil and 50 cwt. of bone: also 106 White Whales, 6 Walrus, 17 Seals, and 19 Bears. In addition to these the 'Eclipse' lost another very large Whale, which, after an exciting struggle, succeeded in breaking away.

The 'Diana' was the next vessel to arrive. She killed her first fish on the 29th of June, and then proceeded to Lancaster Sound in search of White Whales. Here, however, the ice was so heavy, and the weather so boisterous, that little could be done, and she narrowly escaped destruction on two occasions from ice pressure, and was glad to escape from so dangerous a locality. The next Whale she met with, and that a very large one, broke away after receiving three harpoons; and it was not till the end of October that a second fish of much smaller dimensions was secured. Her total produce was 2 Whales, 110 White Whales, 1 Walrus, and 20 Bears, yielding 47 tuns of oil and 38½ cwt. of bone. The last vessel to arrive was the 'Balæna,' with 2 Right Whales, 104 White Whales, 2 Walrus, 3 Seals, and 8 Bears, producing 46 tuns of oil and 36 cwt. of bone. The 'Alert' brought from the Cumberland Gulf station the produce of 2 Black Whales, 149 Walrus, and 3420 Seals, equal to 40 tuns of oil and 6 cwt. of bone; including which the total return for the season amounted to 14½ Black Whales, 738 White Whales, 420 Walrus, 3420 Seals, 149 Bears; equal to 260 tuns of oil and 163½ cwt. of bone.

The present price of produce is £22 10s. for oil. There are so many grades of Walrus hides that it is difficult to estimate the value of the bulk, but the price has gone down considerably. White Whale hides have realized very good prices. One sale of bone has been effected, I am informed, at the rate of £1450 per ton; but, in consequence of the falling off in the American fishery, £2000 per ton is now being asked for size-bone, with every chance of being realized. At a rough estimate the value of the produce would probably be about £24,680.

I mentioned earlier in these notes the 'Problem,' formerly of Yarmouth. Three of the trawlers, which formed part of the "Short Blue" fleet of Messrs. Hewitt & Co., of that port, and which has now been dispersed, were purchased for service in the Arctic; they were sailing vessels, averaging about 136 tons d.w., very handy, good sea-boats, and splendid sailers; but the venture has been most unfortunate. Of the three, the 'Problem,' which was to have met the 'Active' at Southampton Island,[1] foundered in the Atlantic; but happily the crew were rescued. The 'Forget-me-Not,' a stout little craft of 86 tons, fitted out for a private trading expedition to Frobisher Bay, has, sad to say, never been heard of since she left Southampton, where she went to take in her bonded stores. The 'Queen Bess,' after many disappointments and delays, and in spite of gales and heavy seas, reached her destination in safety, and went into winter quarters in Cumberland Gulf in charge of two of her crew, Capt. Young and the other members of the expedition returning to Dundee on board the 'Active.' These small vessels are useful at the stations, to enable the men to extend their cruises much farther than they could do in ordinary whale-boats, as well as to carry cargo from place to place.

I have no exact information as to the catch of Seals by the Norwegian vessels in the Greenland Seas, but Mr. Kinnes tells me that it was very small, and that the Bottle-nose fishery was considerably less than in the previous season.

The 'Laura,' which left Tromsö in July last for East Greenland, principally to catch Musk Oxen, reports that in this respect her voyage was a failure. Happily for the preservation of these interesting animals, the ice seems to be again forming a barrier off the shore; but, in addition to the disgraceful destruction of these animals in recent years by the vessels which have been able to land there, Dr. Nathrost states[2] that already a modification of the fauna seems to have resulted by the arrival upon the scene of the Arctic Wolf, the migration of which he traces round the north and east of Greenland to Scoresby's Sound, where he is of opinion it made its appearance subsequent to 1892. The effect of this arrival is most apparent in the diminution in the numbers of the Reindeer, and, in a less degree, of the Musk Ox, which also Dr. Nathrost regards as a comparatively recent arrival on the east coast.

I have, as on former occasions, to express my thanks to Mr. Robert Kinnes, of Dundee, and to Mr. Michael Thorburn, of St. John's, Newfoundland, for their kind assistance.

  1. It is quite possible that the mineral wealth of that island may prove a greater source of profit than even the fishery.
  2. 'La Géographie,' quoted in Geogr. Journ. 1901, p. 310.

This work was published before January 1, 1927, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.