unctuousness as though diligently seeking to insure a crop of hair from
the craft's bald keel. He seemed to be working in obedience to some
particular presentiment. Nor did it remain unwarranted by the event.
Towards noon whales were raised; but so soon as the ship sailed down to
them, they turned and fled with swift precipitancy; a disordered flight,
as of Cleopatra's barges from Actium.
Nevertheless, the boats pursued, and Stubb's was foremost. By great
exertion, Tashtego at last succeeded in planting one iron; but the
stricken whale, without at all sounding, still continued his horizontal
flight, with added fleetness. Such unintermitted strainings upon the
planted iron must sooner or later inevitably extract it. It became
imperative to lance the flying whale, or be content to lose him. But
to haul the boat up to his flank was impossible, he swam so fast and
furious. What then remained?
Of all the wondrous devices and dexterities, the sleights of hand and
countless subtleties, to which the veteran whaleman is so often forced,
none exceed that fine manoeuvre with the lance called pitchpoling. Small
sword, or broad sword, in all its exercises boasts nothing like it. It
is only indispensable with an inveterate running whale; its grand
fact and feature is the wonderful distance to which the long lance is
accurately darted from a violently rocking, jerking boat, under extreme
headway. Steel and wood included, the entire spear is some ten or twelve
feet in length; the staff is much slighter than that of the harpoon,
and also of a lighter material--pine. It is furnished with a small rope
called a warp, of considerable length, by which it can be hauled back to
the hand after darting.
But before going further, it is important to mention here, that though
the harpoon may be pitchpoled in the same way with the lance, yet it
is seldom done; and when done, is still less frequently successful,
on account of the greater weight and inferior length of the harpoon as
compared with the lance, which in effect become serious drawbacks. As a
general thing, therefore, you must first get fast to a whale, before any
pitchpoling comes into play.
Look now at Stubb; a man who from his humorous, deliberate coolness and
equanimity in the direst emergencies, was specially qualified to excel
in pitchpoling. Look at him; he stands upright in the tossed bow of the
flying boat; wrapt in fleecy foam, the towing whale is forty feet ahead.
Handling the long lance lightly, glancing twice or thrice along its
length to see if it be exactly straight, Stubb whistlingly gathers up
the coil of the warp in one hand, so as to secure its free end in his
grasp, leaving the rest unobstructed. Then holding the lance full before
his waistband's middle, he levels it at the whale; when, covering
him with it, he steadily depresses the butt-end in his hand, thereby
elevating the point till the weapon stands fairly balanced upon his
palm, fifteen feet in the air. He minds you somewhat of a juggler,
balancing a long staff on his chin. Next moment with a rapid, nameless
impulse, in a superb lofty arch the bright steel spans the foaming
distance, and quivers in the life spot of the whale. Instead of
sparkling water, he now spouts red blood.
"That drove the spigot out of him!" cried Stubb. "'Tis July's immortal
Fourth; all fountains must run wine today! Would now, it were old
Orleans whiskey, or old Ohio, or unspeakable old Monongahela! Then,
Tashtego, lad, I'd have ye hold a canakin to the jet, and we'd drink
round it! Yea, verily, hearts alive, we'd brew choice punch in the
spread of his spout-hole there, and from that live punch-bowl quaff the
Again and again to such gamesome talk, the dexterous dart is repeated,
the spear returning to its master like a greyhound held in skilful
leash. The agonized whale goes into his flurry; the tow-line is
slackened, and the pitchpoler dropping astern, folds his hands, and
mutely watches the monster die.
CHAPTER 85. The Fountain.
That for six thousand years--and no one knows how many millions of ages
before--the great whales should have been spouting all over the sea,
and sprinkling and mistifying the gardens of the deep, as with so
many sprinkling or mistifying pots; and that for some centuries back,
thousands of hunters should have been close by the fountain of the
whale, watching these sprinklings and spoutings--that all this should
be, and yet, that down to this blessed minute (fifteen and a quarter
minutes past one o'clock P.M. of this sixteenth day of December, A.D.
1851), it should still remain a problem, whether these spoutings
are, after all, really water, or nothing but vapour--this is surely a
Let us, then, look at this matter, along with some interesting items
contingent. Every one knows that by the peculiar cunning of their
gills, the finny tribes in general breathe the air which at all times is
combined with the element in which they swim; hence, a herring or a cod
might live a century, and never once raise its head above the surface.
But owing to his marked internal structure which gives him regular
lungs, like a human being's, the whale can only live by inhaling the
disengaged air in the open atmosphere. Wherefore the necessity for
his periodical visits to the upper world. But he cannot in any degree
breathe through his mouth, for, in his ordinary attitude, the Sperm
Whale's mouth is buried at least eight feet beneath the surface; and
what is still more, his windpipe has no connexion with his mouth. No, he
breathes through his spiracle alone; and this is on the top of his head.
If I say, that in any creature breathing is only a function
indispensable to vitality, inasmuch as it withdraws from the air a
certain element, which being subsequently brought into contact with the
blood imparts to the blood its vivifying principle, I do not think I
shall err; though I may possibly use some superfluous scientific words.
Assume it, and it follows that if all the blood in a man could be
aerated with one breath, he might then seal up his nostrils and not
fetch another for a considerable time. That is to say, he would then
live without breathing. Anomalous as it may seem, this is precisely the
case with the whale, who systematically lives, by intervals, his full
hour and more (when at the bottom) without drawing a single breath, or
so much as in any way inhaling a particle of air; for, remember, he has
no gills. How is this? Between his ribs and on each side of his spine
he is supplied with a remarkable involved Cretan labyrinth of
vermicelli-like vessels, which vessels, when he quits the surface, are
completely distended with oxygenated blood. So that for an hour or more,
a thousand fathoms in the sea, he carries a surplus stock of vitality in
him, just as the camel crossing the waterless desert carries a surplus
supply of drink for future use in its four supplementary stomachs.
The anatomical fact of this labyrinth is indisputable; and that the
supposition founded upon it is reasonable and true, seems the more
cogent to me, when I consider the otherwise inexplicable obstinacy of
that leviathan in HAVING HIS SPOUTINGS OUT, as the fishermen phrase
it. This is what I mean. If unmolested, upon rising to the surface, the
Sperm Whale will continue there for a period of time exactly uniform
with all his other unmolested risings. Say he stays eleven minutes, and
jets seventy times, that is, respires seventy breaths; then whenever he
rises again, he will be sure to have his seventy breaths over again, to
a minute. Now, if after he fetches a few breaths you alarm him, so that
he sounds, he will be always dodging up again to make good his regular
allowance of air. And not till those seventy breaths are told, will he
finally go down to stay out his full term below. Remark, however, that
in different individuals these rates are different; but in any one
they are alike. Now, why should the whale thus insist upon having his
spoutings out, unless it be to replenish his reservoir of air, ere
descending for good? How obvious is it, too, that this necessity for the
whale's rising exposes him to all the fatal hazards of the chase. For
not by hook or by net could this vast leviathan be caught, when sailing
a thousand fathoms beneath the sunlight. Not so much thy skill, then, O
hunter, as the great necessities that strike the victory to thee!
In man, breathing is incessantly going on--one breath only serving
for two or three pulsations; so that whatever other business he has to
attend to, waking or sleeping, breathe he must, or die he will. But the
Sperm Whale only breathes about one seventh or Sunday of his time.
It has been said that the whale only breathes through his spout-hole; if
it could truthfully be added that his spouts are mixed with water, then
I opine we should be furnished with the reason why his sense of smell
seems obliterated in him; for the only thing about him that at all
answers to his nose is that identical spout-hole; and being so clogged
with two elements, it could not be expected to have the power of
smelling. But owing to the mystery of the spout--whether it be water or
whether it be vapour--no absolute certainty can as yet be arrived at on
this head. Sure it is, nevertheless, that the Sperm Whale has no proper
olfactories. But what does he want of them? No roses, no violets, no
Cologne-water in the sea.
Furthermore, as his windpipe solely opens into the tube of his spouting
canal, and as that long canal--like the grand Erie Canal--is furnished
with a sort of locks (that open and shut) for the downward retention of
air or the upward exclusion of water, therefore the whale has no voice;
unless you insult him by saying, that when he so strangely rumbles,
he talks through his nose. But then again, what has the whale to say?
Seldom have I known any profound being that had anything to say to
this world, unless forced to stammer out something by way of getting a
living. Oh! happy that the world is such an excellent listener!
Now, the spouting canal of the Sperm Whale, chiefly intended as it
is for the conveyance of air, and for several feet laid along,
horizontally, just beneath the upper surface of his head, and a little
to one side; this curious canal is very much like a gas-pipe laid down
in a city on one side of a street. But the question returns whether this
gas-pipe is also a water-pipe; in other words, whether the spout of the
Sperm Whale is the mere vapour of the exhaled breath, or whether that
exhaled breath is mixed with water taken in at the mouth, and
discharged through the spiracle. It is certain that the mouth indirectly
communicates with the spouting canal; but it cannot be proved that this
is for the purpose of discharging water through the spiracle. Because
the greatest necessity for so doing would seem to be, when in feeding he
accidentally takes in water. But the Sperm Whale's food is far beneath
the surface, and there he cannot spout even if he would. Besides, if
you regard him very closely, and time him with your watch, you will find
that when unmolested, there is an undeviating rhyme between the periods
of his jets and the ordinary periods of respiration.
But why pester one with all this reasoning on the subject? Speak out!
You have seen him spout; then declare what the spout is; can you not
tell water from air? My dear sir, in this world it is not so easy to
settle these plain things. I have ever found your plain things the
knottiest of all. And as for this whale spout, you might almost stand in
it, and yet be undecided as to what it is precisely.
The central body of it is hidden in the snowy sparkling mist enveloping
it; and how can you certainly tell whether any water falls from it,
when, always, when you are close enough to a whale to get a close view
of his spout, he is in a prodigious commotion, the water cascading
all around him. And if at such times you should think that you really
perceived drops of moisture in the spout, how do you know that they are
not merely condensed from its vapour; or how do you know that they
are not those identical drops superficially lodged in the spout-hole
fissure, which is countersunk into the summit of the whale's head? For
even when tranquilly swimming through the mid-day sea in a calm, with
his elevated hump sun-dried as a dromedary's in the desert; even then,
the whale always carries a small basin of water on his head, as under
a blazing sun you will sometimes see a cavity in a rock filled up with
Nor is it at all prudent for the hunter to be over curious touching the
precise nature of the whale spout. It will not do for him to be peering
into it, and putting his face in it. You cannot go with your pitcher to
this fountain and fill it, and bring it away. For even when coming into
slight contact with the outer, vapoury shreds of the jet, which will
often happen, your skin will feverishly smart, from the acridness of
the thing so touching it. And I know one, who coming into still closer
contact with the spout, whether with some scientific object in view,
or otherwise, I cannot say, the skin peeled off from his cheek and arm.
Wherefore, among whalemen, the spout is deemed poisonous; they try to
evade it. Another thing; I have heard it said, and I do not much doubt
it, that if the jet is fairly spouted into your eyes, it will blind you.
The wisest thing the investigator can do then, it seems to me, is to let
this deadly spout alone.
Still, we can hypothesize, even if we cannot prove and establish. My
hypothesis is this: that the spout is nothing but mist. And besides
other reasons, to this conclusion I am impelled, by considerations
touching the great inherent dignity and sublimity of the Sperm Whale;
I account him no common, shallow being, inasmuch as it is an undisputed
fact that he is never found on soundings, or near shores; all other
whales sometimes are. He is both ponderous and profound. And I am
convinced that from the heads of all ponderous profound beings, such as
Plato, Pyrrho, the Devil, Jupiter, Dante, and so on, there always goes
up a certain semi-visible steam, while in the act of thinking deep
thoughts. While composing a little treatise on Eternity, I had the
curiosity to place a mirror before me; and ere long saw reflected there,
a curious involved worming and undulation in the atmosphere over my
head. The invariable moisture of my hair, while plunged in deep thought,
after six cups of hot tea in my thin shingled attic, of an August noon;
this seems an additional argument for the above supposition.
And how nobly it raises our conceit of the mighty, misty monster, to
behold him solemnly sailing through a calm tropical sea; his vast, mild
head overhung by a canopy of vapour, engendered by his incommunicable
contemplations, and that vapour--as you will sometimes see it--glorified
by a rainbow, as if Heaven itself had put its seal upon his thoughts.
For, d'ye see, rainbows do not visit the clear air; they only irradiate
vapour. And so, through all the thick mists of the dim doubts in my
mind, divine intuitions now and then shoot, enkindling my fog with a
heavenly ray. And for this I thank God; for all have doubts; many deny;
but doubts or denials, few along with them, have intuitions. Doubts
of all things earthly, and intuitions of some things heavenly; this
combination makes neither believer nor infidel, but makes a man who
regards them both with equal eye.
CHAPTER 86. The Tail.
Other poets have warbled the praises of the soft eye of the antelope,
and the lovely plumage of the bird that never alights; less celestial, I
celebrate a tail.
Reckoning the largest sized Sperm Whale's tail to begin at that point of
the trunk where it tapers to about the girth of a man, it comprises
upon its upper surface alone, an area of at least fifty square feet. The
compact round body of its root expands into two broad, firm, flat palms
or flukes, gradually shoaling away to less than an inch in thickness.
At the crotch or junction, these flukes slightly overlap, then sideways
recede from each other like wings, leaving a wide vacancy between. In
no living thing are the lines of beauty more exquisitely defined than in
the crescentic borders of these flukes. At its utmost expansion in the
full grown whale, the tail will considerably exceed twenty feet across.
The entire member seems a dense webbed bed of welded sinews; but cut
into it, and you find that three distinct strata compose it:--upper,
middle, and lower. The fibres in the upper and lower layers, are
long and horizontal; those of the middle one, very short, and running
crosswise between the outside layers. This triune structure, as much as
anything else, imparts power to the tail. To the student of old Roman
walls, the middle layer will furnish a curious parallel to the thin
course of tiles always alternating with the stone in those wonderful
relics of the antique, and which undoubtedly contribute so much to the
great strength of the masonry.
But as if this vast local power in the tendinous tail were not enough,
the whole bulk of the leviathan is knit over with a warp and woof of
muscular fibres and filaments, which passing on either side the loins
and running down into the flukes, insensibly blend with them, and
largely contribute to their might; so that in the tail the confluent
measureless force of the whole whale seems concentrated to a point.
Could annihilation occur to matter, this were the thing to do it.
Nor does this--its amazing strength, at all tend to cripple the graceful
flexion of its motions; where infantileness of ease undulates through
a Titanism of power. On the contrary, those motions derive their most
appalling beauty from it. Real strength never impairs beauty or harmony,
but it often bestows it; and in everything imposingly beautiful,
strength has much to do with the magic. Take away the tied tendons that
all over seem bursting from the marble in the carved Hercules, and its
charm would be gone. As devout Eckerman lifted the linen sheet from the
naked corpse of Goethe, he was overwhelmed with the massive chest of the
man, that seemed as a Roman triumphal arch. When Angelo paints even God
the Father in human form, mark what robustness is there. And whatever
they may reveal of the divine love in the Son, the soft, curled,
hermaphroditical Italian pictures, in which his idea has been most
successfully embodied; these pictures, so destitute as they are of all
brawniness, hint nothing of any power, but the mere negative, feminine
one of submission and endurance, which on all hands it is conceded, form
the peculiar practical virtues of his teachings.
Such is the subtle elasticity of the organ I treat of, that whether
wielded in sport, or in earnest, or in anger, whatever be the mood it
be in, its flexions are invariably marked by exceeding grace. Therein no
fairy's arm can transcend it.
Five great motions are peculiar to it. First, when used as a fin for
progression; Second, when used as a mace in battle; Third, in sweeping;
Fourth, in lobtailing; Fifth, in peaking flukes.
First: Being horizontal in its position, the Leviathan's tail acts in
a different manner from the tails of all other sea creatures. It never
wriggles. In man or fish, wriggling is a sign of inferiority. To the
whale, his tail is the sole means of propulsion. Scroll-wise coiled
forwards beneath the body, and then rapidly sprung backwards, it is this
which gives that singular darting, leaping motion to the monster when
furiously swimming. His side-fins only serve to steer by.
Second: It is a little significant, that while one sperm whale only
fights another sperm whale with his head and jaw, nevertheless, in his
conflicts with man, he chiefly and contemptuously uses his tail. In
striking at a boat, he swiftly curves away his flukes from it, and the
blow is only inflicted by the recoil. If it be made in the unobstructed
air, especially if it descend to its mark, the stroke is then simply
irresistible. No ribs of man or boat can withstand it. Your only
salvation lies in eluding it; but if it comes sideways through the
opposing water, then partly owing to the light buoyancy of the whale
boat, and the elasticity of its materials, a cracked rib or a dashed
plank or two, a sort of stitch in the side, is generally the most
serious result. These submerged side blows are so often received in the
fishery, that they are accounted mere child's play. Some one strips off
a frock, and the hole is stopped.
Third: I cannot demonstrate it, but it seems to me, that in the whale
the sense of touch is concentrated in the tail; for in this respect
there is a delicacy in it only equalled by the daintiness of the
elephant's trunk. This delicacy is chiefly evinced in the action of
sweeping, when in maidenly gentleness the whale with a certain soft
slowness moves his immense flukes from side to side upon the surface
of the sea; and if he feel but a sailor's whisker, woe to that sailor,
whiskers and all. What tenderness there is in that preliminary touch!
Had this tail any prehensile power, I should straightway bethink me of
Darmonodes' elephant that so frequented the flower-market, and with
low salutations presented nosegays to damsels, and then caressed their
zones. On more accounts than one, a pity it is that the whale does not
possess this prehensile virtue in his tail; for I have heard of yet
another elephant, that when wounded in the fight, curved round his trunk
and extracted the dart.
Fourth: Stealing unawares upon the whale in the fancied security of the
middle of solitary seas, you find him unbent from the vast corpulence
of his dignity, and kitten-like, he plays on the ocean as if it were a
hearth. But still you see his power in his play. The broad palms of
his tail are flirted high into the air; then smiting the surface, the
thunderous concussion resounds for miles. You would almost think a great
gun had been discharged; and if you noticed the light wreath of vapour
from the spiracle at his other extremity, you would think that that was