(original book page 168)
AFTER THE SPERM WHALE
Six months later - in August 1953 - came the moment for which we had waited so long. Our proud Xarifa, in full sail, swept out from Hamburg towards the open sea. She was to take us on an eight months' voyage to the Caribbean Sea and the Galapagos Islands. Thousands of people watched our departure, for nowadays there are only a very few sailing ships as large as Xarifa. Those who waved to us all along the banks of the Elbe as far as Cuxhaven must have felt that they were paying homage to a symbol of bygone days.
Our main mast was thirty-three metres high and we carried an expanse of sail of five hundred and fifty square metres. With the aid of our auxiliary engine we could make from eight to nine knots. We could carry with us twenty tons of oil fuel and water and that meant that our radius of action, when we were using the engine, amounted to four thousand sea miles-about the distance from Hamburg to the West Indies. Moreover, the water supply would last for as much as five months, if you count six litres daily for each person. However, as we were to call at a number of ports on our way, we did not have to be sparing with water.
As soon as the last guests had left the ship and the coast had faded away behind us, there began the daily routine that was to bind together twenty men and one woman into a closely knit
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society. Each one of us had his own definite job. Dr. Heino Sommer was our physician and radio specialist. In his former capacity all he had to do at first was to prescribe for his own seasickness; as a wireless operator, however, he was, for a time, the busiest of us all since we had an amateur station and kept in touch with a number of amateurs all over the world. The biologists took up their quarters in the small laboratory on deck. Dr. Georg Scheer was zoologist and also electrical engineer. These double qualifications promised well for our researches into the physiology of fish. He was an assistant in the Hesse Provincial Museum at Darmstadt and had brought with him some thirty cases of scientific equipment, gear and instruments, all of which had to be sorted out, after they had been unpacked, and then stowed away. Dr. Irenäus Eibl von Eibesfeldt was an animal psychologist from the Max Planck Institute for animal behaviour. He had on board a good supply of cages for we wanted to bring back alive specimens of tropical animals, especially lizards and iguanas. Professor Dr. W. E. Ankel, director of the Zoological Institute of the Justus Liebig University in Giessen, came with us, as our guest, as far as the Azores. Not only did he want to study surface plankton but he was keenly interested in sperm whales.
Konstantin Tschet, the camera-man, stowed away the cameras and stands in the equipment-room. Kurt Hirschel, the engineer, took over the dark-room and made himself familiar with our workshop, for, so that we could undertake repairs and make some spare parts on board, we had a special machine which could perform almost every sort of fine mechanical work. Lotte had her typewriter in our cabin so that she could deal with all the correspondence by the time we got to the last port of call. Xenophon and I crept about in the hold and supervised the stowing away of all the equipment which had come on board at the last minute.
Captain Johannes Diebitsch, the master, had had much experience commanding windjammers and he had sailed on the navy training-ship Grossdeutschland. Under him there served as first officer Count Marsil Geldern and as second Herr Hein-
(original book page 170)
rich Becker. The engines were in charge of Herr Biastock. In addition to a cook and a steward we had also five sailors including a carpenter and a cabin-boy. Most of them were sons of seacaptains and the time they spent on board Xarifa counted as part of their course at the School for Pilots.
The weather was alternately good and bad as far as London, where we took on board our second camera-man, Lieutenant-Commander Jimmy Hodges, R.N. Then we tacked down the English Channel in stormy weather and, after that, sailed through the Bay of Biscay. We were all reading books on seamammals and on whale-hunting, for at the Azores, our first stopping-place, we wanted to watch sperm whales and to film them under water. The more we read about these, the greatest of all extant predators, the more excited we got at the thought of meeting them.
The way of life of the sperm whale is one of the most extraordinary in all nature. He dives straight down into the black depths of the open sea and there hunts the ten-armed squids which he grabs with his serrated lower jaw. Then he dashes right up to the surface, takes about seventy breaths, and again plunges down in the abyss. Once while a cable was being hauled up from a depth of five hundred fathoms, the carcass of a sperm whale was found entangled with the line. There is proof then that the animals get down to stupendous depths. Every diver must wonder how the sperm whale manages to do what he does and still not contract the bends.
A man who spends half an hour thirty fathoms down must, as he comes up again, make a number of stops amounting in all to some ninety minutes. If he does not do this, then nitrogen that was dissolved into the blood under the pressure of the depth forms bubbles and so produces an embolism which leads to paralysis and even death. But the sperm whale, a warm-blooded, air-breathing mammal like ourselves, dives ten times farther down and then shoots back up to the surface without any pause at all. One theory has it that the nitrogen is absorbed by the sperm-oil contained in the head of the animal, another hypothesis is that bacteria do this job. But, since the sperm whale does
(original book page 171)
not breathe while he is in the depths and as he exhales his breath before he dives, then it may well be that the nitrogen content in his blood is not sufficient to cause bends.
If we consider the difficulties marine animals once had to overcome in order to fit themselves for life on dry land, then we cannot but wonder that those which subsequently turned back again to an existence in the water encountered difficulties no less great. Dolphins and whales are descended from terrestrial predators which adopted a life in the sea about 50,000,000 years ago. Since they were warm-blooded animals they had to protect themselves with a thick layer of blubber against the cold of the water. Furthermore, as these creatures could not recover their lost gills they had to content themselves with a strictly limited length of time under the water. Dolphins can dive for twenty minutes, sperm whales can remain for over an hour under the sea. These creatures owe this ability to a special network of blood-vessels which extends all over their bodies and in which can be stored great amounts of blood and consequently a very large supply of oxygen which in a highly peculiar manner serves the needs of the central nervous system.
The layer of blubber which originally was a necessary prerequisite for a marine life proved, later on, to present one very great advantage. In arctic waters where, owing to the extreme cold, fish and sharks are doomed to a much diminished activity, whales, with their `central heating' system, have an advantage. Therefore, whales could establish themselves preferably in the cold seas and, indeed, apparently, it is from there that these marine mammals later spread out over the whole globe.
The mating of the sperm whales takes place on the surface. The females give birth to living offspring-generally a single calf. As with dolphins, young whales can swim as soon as they are born and also take air. They are protected and trained by their mothers and suckled under the water.
Whales keep together in schools and their wanderings are subjected to a regular annual cycle. A young English zoologist, Robert Clarke, who was in the Azores a year before us, had told me that August was the best month for making observations
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on sperm whales. Unfortunately we could not get to the Azores as early as that, but we hoped we might still find good weather in September.
It was darkest night when we got to St. Michael's. We cast anchor in rather deep water off Capelas and we were at once surrounded by a circle of lights which closed in towards us. and looked like a garland of glow-worms. These were the boats of the -fishermen who were using carbide lamps. We tried out our Portuguese in conversation; both the islanders and we laughed a good deal and we let down from the deck bottles of beer. The boats stayed quite near us and we were able to see the nets hauled in full of squirming fish.
The next morning we got quite a different impression. Instead of murky silhouettes there in the bright sunshine lay the friendly, glittering white houses of the little fishing village standing out against steep, green slopes covered with vegetation. Between the rugged, black cliffs and the rocks of the coast there was a tiny harbour where many boats were drawn up on the beach. Captain Diebitsch and I went ashore and visited the police station where, however, we were informed that we must make our clearance at Ponta Delgada, the principal town of the island; so we took Xarifa round the coast.
St. Michael's is the largest and most prosperous of the Azores and like all the other islands it is of volcanic origin. According to an old chronicle, there was in ancient times, in the western part of St. Michael's, a high mountain which, as late as 1432, served the Portuguese as a landmark. During a terrible eruption the mountain is said to have disappeared and seven towns to have been engulfed in a crater that was no less than three miles wide. A little later on we visited the Sete Cidades or `Seven Cities' which, nowadays, seems a very peaceful place. The spacious sweep of the circumference is covered with the lovely blooms of ginger-lilies while at the bottom of the crater are two charming lakes, one green and the other blue.
As soon as we had finished off the formalities in Ponta Delgada, we made enquiries as to the whereabouts of the brothers Cymbron Borges da Sousa who direct the whaling of
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the islands. Clarke had found them very helpful and they welcomed us also in the most friendly fashion. The first whalers in the Azores came from Brittany in the sixteenth century and settled in the north-east of St. Michael's, but today Capelas and Ponta Delgada are"the centres of the whaling industry.
The whales keep to a distance of from ten to fifteen miles out and are sighted by look-out men posted on high points of the island. Senhor Pedro Cymbron assured us that he had two old men who could, at this distance, judge to within a yard the size of a whale just from the shape and the height of the spout of water emitted.
“When a whale surfaces, we get a telephone call,” he went on, “and at once send out the boats.”
On both sides of the island, in fact, there is a fleet consisting of two launches and from six to eight rowing boats ready for action.
“The crews keep in radio-telephonic communication both with us and with the look-out men and are thus guided towards the whales. When the men get near the animals, then the motorboats cut off their engines and the rowing boats try to catch up with the whales. If you like, we will put one of these boats at your disposal so that you will be right in the middle of the chase. However, whether you will like running the risk of getting a ducking I can't say.”
“Do you use harpoon-guns?” I asked.
“No, we don't. Since guns have been used whales have altogether disappeared from off the Portuguese coasts and we don't want to frighten them away from here. The whaling you are going to see takes place just as it did three hundred years ago, even the specially built whaling boats are made in the same way as of old. But it's a pity you didn't turn up earlier. We have had a good season, but if you are patient I think that you are still going to see some whales.”
We set up a special watch on board so that we might know at once if whales were sighted. Jimmy Hodges and I got everything ready for taking under-water pictures. The first attempt
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we would carry out alone and then, if everything went well and things did not look too dangerous, Lotte could dive with us. Tschet was to photograph the operations above water. The other members of the expedition were to explore the coasts and get acquainted with the use of diving-gear.
It was not until the fifth alarm that the chase was on. We took a hired car and dashed as quickly as possible to Capelas where, clutching our gear and tackle, we ran down the steep path to the sea. One of the motor-boats was waiting for us but the other had gone off with the whalers and was already out of sight. A big male had been spotted out to the north-west. While the female sperm whales and their calves congregate in schools, large males-are almost always found alone.
The wind and spray whipped around us as we cut right out into the open sea. The sky was cloudless and all signs were favourable; then, I could not have wished to have with me a better diver than Jimmy. During the war he had trained British frog-men and later on had specialized in under-water photography. He was the first to go down in a search for the British submarine Truculent sunk in the mouth of the Thames. For a film company he had dived alone off Zanzibar and, during the
(original book page 175)
war, he had done a good deal of skin-diving in the China Sea. He was calmness and self-confidence personified. When we set out on this really dangerous task of filming a sperm whale we could not suspect that, during our expedition and on a quite easy under-water operation, he would meet his death.
“The question is,” said Jimmy, “whether the fellow is going to take us for a squid or not. I must say that I'd rather he didn't. We mustn't stick out our arms and legs too far or he'll surely think they're tentacles and he'll swallow us up.”
After we had gone twelve miles we sighted the boats. They were far apart from one another and floated almost motionless on the sea. Also the launch lay still. We learned that the whale had already been hit by a harpoon and had dived. We hurriedly got our tackle on to the whaler reserved for us and were rowed to the spot where it was thought that the whale would surface.
The question now was: what should we do? We were all prepared to swim in the wake of an unwounded animal, but since the whale was already harpooned, the situation seemed rather different. He had, it was true, as yet only one harpoon sticking in his blubber but he might well be rather excited by this nuisance.
We waited. The oarsmen glanced curiously at our flippers and little spears. They laughed and lighted cigarettes. Then, all at once, came yells over the water. Half a mile away from us could be seen the oblique spouts rising above the waves. He had come up again. The boat which held the harpoon-line began to move forward drawn by the long rope. Some of the other boats quickly set their sails and flew with the wind towards where the whale was and tried to head him off. Like a ship's figurehead in the bows of every boat there stood a harpooner.
Our men too pulled on their oars and no university crew could have shown more keenness than did those Azores fishermen that day. The chase was, for these tough fellows, more than just a job; their eyes glistened and they seemed to be quite oblivious of our presence.
Suddenly they stopped. One stood up and they all began to jabber away at once. The whale had doubled back and was making straight for us. What we saw was a huge black back
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bulging up from the water. The thing might have been an immense locomotive rushing along just under the surface and bumping up from time to time to the surface. That is what this whale looked like to us. When he rose then he projected a tall spurt of water into the air, just as a railway engine lets off clouds of steam. I looked at Jimmy. He looked at me. Then with no more hesitation I jumped with my camera into the water.
I swam off as rapidly as I could, diagonally, so as to hit the line of the whale's advance. It was all a matter of seconds. The whale was now hardly fifty yards off and was again hunching up his back. I plunged down to about twenty-five feet and waited. I was now right in his course. I had just time to adjust my camera and he was onto me. He looked quite different from what I had expected.
A thick, clumsy mass, yards broad, swooped towards me but it moved with the agility of a tadpole. It was huge and awkwardseeming and though it did not appear to possess any defined form or definite shape, the whole dreadful thing was instinct
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with life and movement. The wide-spreading, obliquely held tail churned on with resilient power that rippled throughout the whole colossus of flesh. The monster rushed towards me. It was as though some phenomenon of the heavens were upon me. Life embodied in a mass of incredible unreality.
I took a shot, wound on the film, took a second one-and the whale heard the minute clicking noise of the camera. The entire gigantic body reacted. If it were not ridiculous to say that a house could twitch together, then I would describe this whale's movements just like that. He made off obliquely into the depths. He had done no harm to me, but the clicking noise of my camera had frightened him. The rope to which he was attached whizzed by. The last I saw of the colossus was the seesaw movement of his immense tail-flippers.
When I surfaced I was greeted with a confusion of shouts for the boat towed by the whale was coming through the spray and waves right towards me. I dived under at once and saw the boat, like a dark bird, shoot by over my head. Then, at last, I could get some fresh air. I clambered up into our boat again and told Jimmy what I had experienced.
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It was only later that I came to realize why the animal had seemed so dreadful. I had seen neither eyes nor mouth. An animal without eyes is no animal at all. We look on a seaurchin or a starfish more as a kind of living ornament. Only when a creature turns its eyes towards us is its individuality, its soul, if you will, revealed. Even when an animal attacks us we do not look at its mouth or paws but at its eyes.
But what I had not seen came out clearly enough on my photographs. The eyes of the sperm whale are very tiny and are set right back from nine to twelve feet from the front of its head. He can see with them a little on either side of him but nothing at all that lies in front. Melville in his wonderful novel Moby Dick refers to all this and remarks that the position of the eyes may well be responsible for the way in which the whale observes the world around him. Although men are the most evolved spiritually of all creatures, we can fix our attention on only one spot at a time. How then can a sperm whale find his way about when he receives two quite different pictures of his surroundings? Melville says that he must, so to speak, switch his eyes off and on. He pays attention either to what is to the right of him or to what is on the left. So would be explained the panic-stricken behaviour of sperm whales which are attacked simultaneously from several sides.
The motor-launch took us in tow and brought us back once again to the battlefield. The whale, in the meantime, had been struck by a second harpoon. He was now dragging two boats along behind him and he was surfacing much more often. The other motor-boat had cut off his retreat so that he was circling round as in a circus. When he neared us again we could see that instead of a clear stream of foam he was now spurting up to the heavens a blood-red fountain. He had been hit in the lungs and was now, as the whalers say, hoisting the red flag.
The spectacle was so frightful that we could not make up our minds to plunge into the sea; nevertheless, when the whale circled near to us again we were both in the water. The same being that only a short time before had seemed to me so alien, so terrifying, now aroused our sympathy and pity.
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The colossus indeed was distressed and helpless. More and more frequently the need of air forced him up to the surface where his torturers awaited ready to drive more cruel javelins into his body. Nevertheless he was able to notice us and to avoid us. He surely could not imagine that we also belonged to the army of his hunters. He lunged forward, a wide, dark wave of blood streaming from his body, then he swerved away as though he would not hurt us with his massive might.
A sperm whale can never know what the enemy looks like who menaces him from above. Probably, for him, it is just the boats that are the foe. He may sense them as narrow, pointed malevolent things that shoot out projectiles over the water, missiles that fasten into his flesh and slow him down.
Although our sympathies lay rather with the beast we could not withhold our admiration for the men. Their boats darted swift as arrows over the mounting waves. Skilfully they avoided his tail if the whale in his desperation thrashed about him too near to the boats. The whalers were incredibly nimble in preventing anyone from being caught in a running rope and thus being dragged into the sea. The men drove their boats with crazy daring right against the whale's broad back, the better to hurl the flat, twelve-foot-long lances through the blubber. At the same time the harpooneers exercised the care of surgeons in seeking out the most vital spots in the beast's body. They laughed coarsely as they beat their bent spears straight again on the boats' _sides. They were all sweating-as much with excitement as with exertion. Each boat's crew was a unit, an organized death-dealing unit, and there was to be no cessation until the enemy was vanquished.
Then the whale broke out of his circle and the hunt went on for many miles in a straight line out to sea. He seemed to draw on some mysterious reserves of strength for now he remained underwater for longer periods. One of the motor-launches took over two of the ropes and was also pulled by the whale. We yelled and waved but the men in the second launch had apparently forgotten our existence. So, for a time, we were left to lourselves, while the wild chase careered off over the horizon.
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After about a half an hour the boats reappeared. The whale was still alive. He was still full of power. He dragged along the heavy launch and appeared hardly to notice it when the motor-like a brake-was put in reverse.
The struggle altogether lasted over four hours. The sun was sinking and the wind had freshened a good deal. Slowly, very slowly the whale tired out. More and more often we saw him raise his gigantic tail fins in the air and dive, but he could not stay for more than two minutes under water. His body quaked as he rolled about one spot around which a brilliant blood-red circle spread. The boats closed in from every side and sought to deal the death-blow. Once more the whale reared up and the great tail swept laboriously over the surface.
The whale was dead. He had come to his final rest and had tilted over helplessly on his side.
“Look there!” shouted Jimmy.
Just under our boat several sharks had appeared and were swimming right into the bloody circle. The tips of their fins were white and each shark was accompanied by a dozen pilot fish. As the whale was dragged off and the water became clearer we could watch the sharks biting bits of blubber off the body. We did not feel at all inclined to take a closer look at those sharks under the water.
A week later we joined in another hunt. This time it was a school of female sperm whales that was attacked. These were only about half the size of the male and they met their end much sooner. The longest struggle lasted only half an hour and the shortest but seven minutes. Altogether four females and young whales were killed.
This time we did remain in the water when the sharks turned up. They rushed from the ocean's depths, savaged the bleeding bodies and ripped at the wounds. I had, up to then, always found sharks rather beautiful creatures, but here we learned to look on them as repulsive and horrible monsters. They behaved as if they wanted to drink the blood and they paid attention to nothing else but the gaping gashes on the whales' carcasses.
These sharks were uncommonly insolent. They were hardly
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more than six or seven feet long but they nosed up to us like inquisitive dogs and neither our shouts nor our stabs with poles could drive them off. Since they make their appearance only when there is a good deal of blood in the water, I got the impression that this sort of shark, anyway, is attracted not by the noise of the struggle but by the smell of blood. This fact might also explain their complete indifference to our- shouts and yells.
Most striking was the number of pilot fish that hovered like a cloud around each shark. Lotte was with us in the water when some of these fish broke away from one of the larger sharks and made straight for us from a distance of about twenty yards. They peered and snuffled around us and then hurried off, in close formation, back to the shark. Maybe it was such behaviour that gave rise to the legend of pilot fish informing sharks that booty is about and leading them to it. But, in fact, these particular sharks were so over-populated with pilot fish that it is possible they came up to us in order to find out whether we were not sharks to which they would switch over.
We got close to one harpooned female when to our astonishment we saw two other whales. One of them was a young animal that belonged apparently to the wounded mother, while the other was a fully grown whale which, for some mysterious reason or other, seemed to have owed some debt of fidelity to her. This was the only opportunity we got to film unwounded sperm whales. They let us come quite close to them, then got frightened and dived off again into the depths.
Shortly after that we were the witnesses to an astonishing incident. A dying beast snapped open its lower jaw almost at right angles, and a most curious noise echoed through the waters. It sounded like the creaking of a huge barn-door turning on rusty hinges. It was a quite deep, harsh, vibrating tone carried clear and powerful through the sea. Naturally, we thought at first that- the sound was emitted through the opening of the mouth, but later on we saw and heard another whale making a like sound with the mouth closed.
This cry of the sperm whale-which, as far as I know, we were the first to hear-may, perhaps, explain how these animals
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find each other, for normally they swim so far apart that it is quite impossible for them to see each other under the water. Often the males are miles away from the females. How, then, do the sexes discover the way to each other? How do the herds of females manage to keep together and how, during their diving operations, do they succeed in remaining in contact? Dolphins also emit sounds but these are much less strange and rather resemble the squeaking of pigs. The voice of the sperm whale, on the other hand, is just as unreal as everything else about this astounding monster. The very penetrating sound must be audible for a great distance.
It may be possible, also, that the whales make use of this sound for the locating of squids. The sperm whale must have some sort of means of effecting this else it would be hardly possible to catch the swift swimming molluscs. Obviously it is not sufficient explanation to say that the whale just swims with open jaws through the darkness of the ocean depths.
At Sao Vicente in the whaling station we watched the last acts of the tragedy. The same beasts that we had seen alive in the water were now hauled up by cranes, dumped on land and cut up by huge knives into slices. First of all a powerful circular incision parted the head from the body. Then one gang of men with a crane began to strip off the blubber while another gang used axes to crack open the head.
A sperm whale's head makes up a good third of the length of the whole body-that, in the case of a large male, is not less than from eighteen to twenty-one feet long. The striking bulge that humps out over the forehead is from four to six feet high, is hollow and divided into several compartments which contain the precious sperm oil, a viscous substance whose biological significance is unknown. The men filled bucket after bucket full of oil from the heads.
When we saw the whales' carcasses cut up it was easy to note the difference between them and the bodies of a fish. In these latter the main muscles are on either side and this arrangement accounts for the meandering motion described by a fish when it
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swims. However, when the first fish crept out of the sea and gradually developed limbs from fins, the back and belly muscles became all-important for progression on land. The muscles on the sides were greatly reduced. It was with such a heritage that. the marine mammals had to be satisfied, so these creatures do not move their tails sideways but up and down. The evolution of the tail-fin was also complicated. In whales and dolphins it arose from an obliquely placed skin-fold which is not supported by any bony structure and which, in large whales, reaches an overall width of up to fifteen feet. The fore-fins or flappers are transformed fore-legs and in them may still be found hidden the wrist and metacarpal bones. The hind legs, on the other hand, have been entirely lost and only a small remnant of, the pelvis remains.
All the hair disappeared with the exception of a few bristles on the snout. The nose was transformed into a breathing-hole and for this reason it has been assumed that the sperm whale has no sense of smell. The ear has no external opening and is
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therefore invisible; the skin is so delicate that the slightest blow grazes it. The real protection for the body is the thick layer of blubber. If a shark bites into a whale it is like chewing into a piece of cheese.
Inside one of the females we found an embryo. It was only
about three feet long and therefore was in a very early stage of development
since young whales when they are born measure about twelve feet. Professor
Ankel and Dr. Scheer preserved this foetus and it was later on the subject
of close examination. Furthermore we found in the whale's belly numerous
more or less digested squids. The late Prince Albert of Monaco, a passionate
marine biologist, extracted from whales' bellies a number of species of
deep-sea denizens which, up to that time had been unknown. We had a great
surprise when the belly of a male whale-some fifty feet long-was opened.
In it were two halfdigested sharks. One was two and a half metres long
and the other three metres and ten centimetres. The legend of Jonah assumed
a new significance for us. A big sperm whale would be quite capable of
swallowing a man whole.
After the flesh had been flensed and removed to the cauldrons, men came with mops and buckets and sluiced the bloody slaughter-place clean. They dragged the serrated lower jaws to behind the factory where there were forty or fifty others piled up decaying. They are left to rot until all the forty-two teeth-they have the shape of a blunt cow's horn-fall out. From these ornaments are carved.
Two years later, in London, John Huston invited Lotte
and me to the Elstree studios where Moby Dick was being filmed and showed
us the big model of the legendary white sperm whale. As I watched the mechanically
operated huge mouth-which in the picture smashes in two a whaler boat-I
thought of the cemetery behind the factory in Sao Vicente where lay the
last remains of so many of these proud, uncanny creatures. As long as they
survive they will be, for all mankind, symbols of the daemonic powers that
reign in the dark depths of the ocean.
Chapter "After the Sperm Whale" from "We Come From The Sea", Hans Hass, 1959, pages 168-190
Translated from the German by Alan Houghton Broderick
Originally published under the title
Wir kommen aus dem Meer
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