Excerpts From Fridtjof Nansen's 'Hunting and Adventure in the Arctic'.
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Chapter 1  Northward Ho!


On the night of the fourth day (Tuesday, March 14 [1882]) the wind rose to a howling gale from the south west.  The sea rose and dashed over the ship everywhere until there was no longer a dry place to be seen on the deck or the half deck aft.

As I lay in my bunk reading in the morning, I heard a crash followed by shouting and confusion on deck.  I threw on some clothes and went out to see what it was.  The main yard had broken under the heavy press of sail.  Krefting [the captain] liked to carry a lot of canvas.  The crew were just engaged in salving the broken pieces of the yard.

It was an exhilarating sight:  The huge blueish green mountains of water with white foaming crests which came hurtling in upon us and washed over the deck, while the unconcerned seamen in their sea boots and oilskins worked away calmly at the yard as though it was quite an everyday occurrence.  And a new visitor had turned up.  The fulmar, or mallemuck, had come to join us.  For long stretches at a time they sailed with outstretched wings along the sea surface over the wave crests and down into the hollows, keeping to the same low level above the water...  The storm is their element - silently, noiselessly they come from another world, bringing a first greeting from the north to the seafarer as he enters the Arctic Ocean.

However much it might go against the grain, the captain had to shorten sail now if we did not want to lose the boats and have the skylights smashed by the waves...  But she swept on gallantly northward through the seething tumult of foam...

Ridge after ridge came rolling up, towered and broke in a white smother of foam, and rolled on.  Goaded by the resistance of the ship they would pause for a moment, raise their crests - showing a glimpse of beautiful dark green underneath as they topple over - and then launch themselves against the dark hull in a cataract of green and white water...

As the evening wore on the gale increased in force and veered round to the west, while the sea became rougher.

The night was inky black.  Out of the darkness on the windward side the hissing white crests of great seas rose, broke, and poured in over the bulwark [the ship’s side above the deck] with a thunderous roar; glittering phosphorescent cataracts swept across the deck, and the spray flew up like a jet of sparks, as we thrashed along into the black unknown.

We were standing aft on the half deck; suddenly the captain, who was at my side, shouted ‘Look out!’

I caught a glimpse of something dark above me to windward and had only just time to clutch the mizzen shrouds [the ropes which support the mast next aft of the main mast] before a big sea broke on the deck and lifted us clean off our feet so that we hung by our arms from the shrouds.

It swept on over the sky-light and towards the men at the wheel.

The Captain had just time to yell:  ‘Let go the wheel!’  The lee steersman [one of two men on the wheel - this one on the side of the boat away from the wind] jumped for the lee boat which was hanging in the davits, and the windward steersman clung on to the nearest support as well as he could, while the wheel spun round protesting shrilly.

If he had tried to hold it he would probably have been hurled to the deck like a lump of meat.  And it was lucky for the man on the lee side that the wave which swamped the [lee] boat did not carry it away.

When the captain swore at him for his lack of sense he only laughed.

This was quite a new sort of existence for a young and inexperienced mind.  It was the life dear to roving high spirits, from the Viking to the seamen and sealers of today...


On the fifth day, (March 15) a stiff gale was still blowing; the seas continued to wash over the bow and amidships...

The cook’s mate came out of the door in the front part of the half deck; he had been aft to the steward to get some provisions for the cook, and had both arms full.  He stood there a moment, waiting until the worst of the water from the last wave had run off.

Then he sprinted along the deck to reach the forward hatchway before another wave came; but a fresh wave rose and broke over the deck.  He ran for his life towards the foremast but was knocked over and carried along by the inrush of water, rolling over and over like a bundle of clothes until he reached the lee side, while he strove heroically to hold on to the remains of his precious burden.  The sailors roared with laughter.  Finally he came to anchor against the lee bulwark, struggled to his feet and tried to save some biscuits which were swimming about in the water.  He looked like a drenched crow as he hopped about and kept on being knocked down again.

Behind us in the wake of the vessel there was frantic excitement and noise among the mallemucks, which had pounced upon and were fighting furiously over the lost provisions that had been washed out through the clearing ports...




Chapter 5  The Saddleback or Greenland Seal and the Breeding Grounds


Man is beyond all comparison the worst enemy of the saddleback [seal].  By reckless slaughter, especially on the breeding grounds, there have for years been destroyed at least one million seals per annum, so that their numbers have greatly decreased, and the proceeds of seal hunting have by degrees greatly diminished...

Next to man the most dangerous enemies of this seal are the polar bear and the grampus or killer whale (Orca gladiator, now Orcinus orca).  The polar bear stalks these seals on the ice, usually while they are asleep, and mostly chooses the young ones.  It cannot manage to capture them in the water except by jumping upon them from the ice.

But in the water the grampus [also known as the orc, orca or killer whale] is the more dangerous, and even such a splendid swimmer as this seal is no match for it.  The seals are therefore mortally afraid of this whale and if it is in the neighbourhood the seals at once go up on the ice and so not enter the water again as long as it is near.

Carroll [a sealer] relates that he has been on floes when seals have rushed on to the ice pursued by ‘sword fish’ (i.e. grampus [orca]) and sharks (he probably means Greenland sharks) and he was obliged to shoot at these brutes to keep them off.  Seals will seek protection between a man’s legs.  They may even hurl themselves into boats in order to save themselves.  Poor creatures!  Of course they do not know that man is even worse than grampuses and sharks.



Chapter 7  Whales


During the following days we continued south and west, mostly in open water along the edge of the ice...  In the evening of May 10th we saw an animal rarely met with in these waters nowadays, a large Greenland Right Whale (Balaena mysticetus) who came up several times not far from the ship, spouting high up into the air.  It is easy to distinguish from the large fin whales by the fact that it has no fin on its back, and therefore it and its lesser relative the North Cape Whale are called smooth backs.  In former times there were great numbers of these valuable whales in the northern waters, mostly along the edge of the ice towards Spitsbergen.  During the 17th and 18th centuries, in particular, whole fleets hunted them chiefly because the vanity of women demanded the long valuable ‘bones’ for their corsets and crinolines.  The blubber was used, amongst other things, for oil lamps.

The Greenland Whale (or the Right or North Whale) does not grow as long as the Blue Whale and the big finner.  It is rarely more than 60 feet... but it is very bulky and heavy...  the average animal yields 17 to 20 tons of oil, and large specimens up to 28 and 30 tons...  The thickness of the blubber may be up to 10 to 20 inches.

As I have stated above, there were numbers of them in earlier centuries in the sea to the west and north west of Spitsbergen and near Jan Mayen, and when during the 17th and 18th centuries... 200 to 300 vessels might gather at Spitsbergen and nearly 2,000 whales were caught every year...  This hunting was mainly carried on by the Dutch and English, but also by Danes and Norwegians, Frenchmen, Spaniards (Basques) and Germans and as is well known, serious disputes arose concerning harbour rights in Spitsbergen, until an agreement was made and they divided the country between them.

But then this whale seriously decreased in numbers.  As early as the beginning of the 18th century... a number of the whalers shifted their hunting grounds to Davis Strait and Baffin Bay and the western coast of Greenland...  In 1814, which was an exceptional year, the English caught 1437 whales in those seas between Greenland and Spitsbergen, but since then the number of whales has decreased alarmingly.  Now there is not a Greenland whale to be seen in the sea near Spitsbergen, and there are not many within the drift ice near the east coast of Greenland.

Why do these large animals disappear completely from certain areas, though they may be found in considerable numbers in other areas not very far away?  Is it true, as many maintain, that they avoid the areas where they have been hunted most, and that the whales seek shelter farther in among the drift ice where they are more difficult to catch?

I believe the explanation to be a different one.  The whales have their regular seasonal wanderings in the ocean, and each tribe of whales follows its own route.  During the winter the Greenland whales of the sea between Greenland and Spitsbergen live farther south, perhaps north of Iceland.  In spring they go northward along the edge of the ice to the areas where they live during the summer, and these areas vary in the case of the different tribes...  That it was not because of the hunting at Spitsbergen that they were driven to the east coast of Greenland is proved, among other things, by the fact that as early as 1684 or 1686 some Dutch vessels went through the drift ice to the Gael Hamke Bay on Greenland... and found many whales migrating along the shore to the southwest.  Three of these vessels caught 60 whales, and the others also returned with full cargoes.  Thus there was already a fully developed migration of whales in these waters at that period, while there were still hosts of them near Spitsbergen.

The disappearance presumably started in the following manner:  First the large tribe of whales which spent their summers near the Spitsbergen coast was destroyed.  That did not take many years.  Then the whalers turned their attention to the tribe which lived in the sea farther west along the edge of the ‘Western ice,’ until this tribe too also became extinct, and they had to seek those that had their summer grounds farther within the drift ice, nearer the east coast of Greenland, and this tribe has not yet been fully destroyed...

But as I have already said, there are not many left, and those which exist scarcely appear to multiply, a mother whale with a calf being now a rare sight.  After 1882 only a few Scottish whalers have fished east of Greenland, but the number of whales has decreased.  According to Southwell’s statements in 1883 there were caught in this area 1 Greenland whale, in ‘84, 11; ‘85, 12; ‘86, 15; ‘87, 3; ‘88, 4; ‘95, 11; ‘96, 6; ‘97, 1; ‘98, 0 (and none seen),in ‘99,1; 1900,0; 1901,0.
Nansen proved to be correct in his view that Right Whales [called Bowheads in the U.S.A.] are migratory.  The whales were not avoiding regions where whalers had previously destroyed their kin - each tribe has its own migratory route and entire populations were being systematically destroyed as they passed through the killing region.  In the coastal waters around Svarlbard [Spitsbergen] the Right Whale was made extinct in around 30 years.  As the number of whales caught declined their value rocketed. 

The fashion for whalebone corsets meant that by the early 1900’s whalebone was worth so much that the baleen from one or two whales was enough to provide a reasonable profit- the oil was a bonus.  This dually profitable enterprise ended abruptly in 1907 when the market collapsed with the introduction of spring steel to corsetry.  However, there were by this time so few Right whales in the Atlantic that hunting in this region had virtually ceased. 

Pacific Arctic whaling had begun in 1791, Sperm whales being the quarry, but in 1848 a new Arctic population of Bowheads [the American term for Right whales] was discovered.  Commercial whaling operations in the Pacific Arctic ended in 1915, by which time the whale populations had been decimated.

For several thousand years Alaskan Eskimo had hunted whales to the north of Canada from umiaqs using bone or ivory harpoons.  There was a great deal of ritual associated with Eskimo Right whale hunting.


The preparations for hunting involved much planning and religious activity.  There was a period of meditation and celibacy.  The boats and equipment were cleaned and new clothes made for the hunters as religious belief prevented them wearing clothes worn during a previous kill.  The boat was prepared not only by cleaning it but by installation of amulets and pouring on ritual libations of water.  After the kill, further rituals were performed and the dead whale was asked to return the next year. 

These varied rituals may have evolved as a means of controlling hunting pressure and ensured that a balance was maintained between the hunter and his prey.  That is, disastrous experiences following the ‘fishing out’ of local stocks may have brought about the development of rituals which were designed to reduce hunting pressure.  There were no such constraints on the commercial sealers and whalers of Nansen’s time:



The well known whaler, Captain D. Gray, who has fished whales in these waters [the North Atlantic] for many years, declares that during all the years while he was whaling, he did not see more than six mother whales with young ones, and he did not catch a single whale that did not bear scars from being harpooned before.  He recognized several of the whales from year to year.  For instance they saw one whale ‘with a large white splash on its back’ for seven consecutive years in the same area...  We do not know what age whales can attain, but they may certainly live to an exceedingly great age, if they are not caught.  It is undoubtedly extremely rare for a whale from one tribe to join another.  As an interesting incident showing how local the Greenland whale is, I may mention that in September, 1894, Captain M’Kay on the Terra Nova caught an unusually large whale in Davis Strait.  In the blubber was found a harpoon marked Jean of Bo’ness and dated forty years previously.  The Jean was lost on Davis Strait in 1857, and the whale had probably lived all those years within the same area.

The entire history of these whales, as I have told it above, is a shame to humanity; it shows how far we have yet to advance before we become genuinely rational beings.  In one area after another we are extirpating one of the largest animals on earth, and one that does no damage whatever; and we cannot even agree to spare them sufficiently to keep them in existence so that they may be of lasting and certain utility to us.  It seems as though human beings in their insatiable greed are wilfully blind.


Nansen wrote these comments in the year that his countrymen sent the first purpose built factory whaling ship to the South Atlantic.



From where he sat on the bulwark the captain sent a longing glance after the whale, and said:

‘Well boys, if we only had that fellow on board, the whole voyage would be paid for.’

The long whale bones alone in a good whale like that are worth a fortune...

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