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July 29-31

Catching a Finback

July 29 (AM)

I was awakened by the motion of the ship under way this morning and had scarcely made the deck when a heavy blow from the gun proclaimed Capt. Lane tinkering with the weapon with hardly enough light to see. We fired several primers and decided it was ready to load.

As the sun rose Black-footed Albatrosses began gathering & soon we had 8 following the ship. I tried to bait them up with a long string with a chunk of salt pork tied on the end but had no luck. The boys on the ship said they had caught many of these birds by having them swallow a large piece of meat tied on a string & then hauling them on board. About 8 a.m. we were again in the same locality in which we had left the two whales last night & sure enough two spouts were seen . These two Finbacks proved very tame and were undoubtedly the same pair we were working with last night. Approach was easy and the chance for a shot came very soon. Again, the gun clicked and not until the twelfth time did it explode. The projectile did not hit a fatal spot but it did hit a spot just back of the dorsal fin and where it could not pull out. Then the fun began. The huge beast sounded taking out 200 feet of cable so quick the the winch almost caught on fire. The ship was put on full speed while the winch took in the slack. Back & forth the cable was drawn & withdrawn and for an hour or more no one on board the ship was certain who would win. However, the poor animal thru loss of blood – for with every rise the sea was red for yards around – began to weaken & he was drawn up close to the ship. So close that the great 12 foot flukes slapped violently against the ship’s bow & the whale blew & snorted with its violent attempts to free itself of the torturous projectile. The air pump was now brought into play & a long sharp perforated pipe was stuck into its rectals & soon it was bloated with air and died.

Captain Lane Aiming

The animal’s mate, undoubtedly a cow, left at a 30 mile per hour pace when the shot was fired. 

While we were jockeying for positions to shoot I had ample opportunity to observe Finback whales’ movements in the water. The propelling motion is made entirely with the downward thrust of the flukes while the flippers are used to guide the beasts. From my position high up on the mast & in the crow’s nest I could see them at least 200 feet below the surface of the water & several times saw the flippers give the motion that turned the beast sideways so he could look at the ship over him. At this time the light underparts of the Finback would flash white. The animals did not appear to be very large when well submerged but were enormous when pulled up the deck into the cutting shed. 

As soon as the whale was dead a great heavy chain was passed around his tail & securely fastened to a “bitt” near the bow of the ship - after this operation all the crew felt safe that the whale would not escape.

Finback Tied to Hercules

While the animal was being pumped up 16 Black-footed Albatrosses sat about on the water, some of them within a few feet of the ship.

It was now 11 o’clock & as we were about 40 miles off shore we headed for port with the kill.

We arrived at Trinidad about 3 p.m. & I left the ship with my outfit.

A Conversation with Captain Lane

July 29 (PM)

On arriving at camp I found Bray [A.B. Howell] had put up 31 skins for me during my week’s absence. Amongst the lot were two Phenacomys albipes, one of the rarest of California mammals. We had a very pleasant hour with Capt. Lane after dinner & got some very interesting data from him in conversation. He said that Humpbacks & Calif. Gray Whales are apt to be found close inshore but never Finbacks. They feed in the deep clear water & are seldom within 20 miles of shore. This same feature holds true of Sperms tho their food is entirely different from that of other whales.

Note that the Sperm whale is toothed ("Odontocete"), while the others mentioned here are baleen whales ("Mysticete")

Humpbacks are very slow swimmers and when sounding always show their flukes. It is possible to identify them at a long distance by this habit tho the Calif. Gray shows his flukes at times but they are not elevated to such a vertical position. Lane says that they come up underneath a school of fish, standing on their tail in the water, open their mouths wide & use their very long flippers to scare the fish into their open mouth. The Humpback is the only whale that breaches or jumps out of the water, sometimes clearing the surface 10 feet, when landing after such a leap they always fall on their side or back. This is done to protect the abdominal regions from shock. 

The feeding habits of the Calif. Grays is not well know in the Captain’s experience tho they much prefer shallow water & even the close proximity of rocky shoals & beaches. They are the most vicious of all the whales and will attack small boats without any apparent provocation.

Although often appearing curious of humans in a harmless way, the Gray Whale has been known to ram into boats and also lift them out of the water. Whalers called them the "devil fish".

The speed of different whales was discussed and Capt. Lane said that usually whales traveled from 3 to 6 miles per hour when not excited or molested, but that Finbacks were capable of a maximum of 30 miles per hour, while Humpbacks & Sperms were not good for more than 18 & that for a short distance only. 

The speed of the Finbacks accounts for the lack of parasites on them while the slow old Humpback is sometimes covered with barnacles & other parasites, fish lice, leeches, etc. 

Cal. Grays can attain a 25 mile per hour speed for short spurts but they too are chunky & have a few parasites. The depth to which a whale can dive was discovered & Lane said that he had a Sperm Whale take out 1500 fathoms (=9000 feet) of line without moving the boat, the animal going straight down. This seems almost incredible – but considering their food – huge octopuses – they surely have to go very deep for them. The length of time of submergion [sic] too was talked of & sperms stay down from 45 mintues to 1 hour & 45 minutes, then on rising to the surface take a half hour or longer time to blow. Lane says that Finbacks & Humpbacks can go down 250-300 fathoms & that he had had Humpbacks break their necks on the bottom at 250 fathoms. 

Bray and I talked over the prospects of more pictures of capturing whales & on Mr. Lane’s invitation on the morrow. Wrote a few notes & went down to take the ship at midnight, couldn’t find a skiff with oars in it so unfurled my blanket & slept or tried to sleep on the dock. I was warm enough but every time I drew a breath I was plumb awake for the wind was blowing directly from the cutting shed a hundred feet away & the stench was almost unbearable. That is the first time in my life that foul air has even kept me awake!

Choppy Seas and No Whales

July 30

Capt. Lane & his daughter came to the dock at 4:15 a.m. & we all went aboard. The sea was oily smooth & by sunrise we were well off shore.

Wind came up about 10 a.m. & caused a heavy chop – took northward course paralleling the coast at about 40 miles offshore, saw few Black-footed Albatrosses but not nearly as abundant as yesterday. Traveled all day & didn’t see a “blow”. In late afternoon the sea was running high with decks awash, so put into Crescent City for the night.

Black-footed Albatross on a Rough Sea

Near the small inlets that mark the entrance to the harbor many Murres were seen with their single half-grown young. 

As we entered the harbor two black Oystercatchers were seen.

The Final Day at Sea

July 31

Low thick fog enveloped the whole country early this morning but we put to sea nevertheless, blowing a warning fog whistle every minute. Capt. Lane showed me where he had taken the Calif. Gray Whale several days ago – and indeed it was a dangerous place to work. He had but 16 feet of water & the Hercules draws 13 – when he shot the animal.. In fact it was but a few hundred feet offshore & the high water lies just back of the beach. He told me that many autos stopped to see the play. We came onto a lone Finback about 10 o’clock this morning & worked on it 3 hours without results. In fact the wind had risen so strongly that we had to give it up on account of rough water. I timed many dives & found them to nearly all range from 8 to 11 minutes. The animal was feeding & was within an area of 1 square mile the whole time. Put back to Trinidad where we arrived about 4:30. I quit the ship – for good this time as I have wasted a whole week.