Melville Bay, although perfectly navigable, was not wholly
free of ice; immense ice-fields could be seen stretching to the
horizon; here and there appeared a few icebergs, but they stood
motionless as if anchored in the ice. The Forward went under
full steam through broad passes where she had plenty of sailing-room.
The wind shifted frequently from one point of the compass to another.
The variability of the wind in the arctic seas is a remarkable
fact, and very often only a few minutes intervene between a calm
and a frightful tempest. This was Hatteras's experience on the
23d of June, in the middle of this huge bay.
The steadiest winds blow generally from the ice to the open
sea, and are very cold. On that day the thermometer fell several
degrees; the wind shifted to the southward, and the heavy
gusts, having passed over the ice, discharged themselves of their
dampness under the form of a thick snow. Hatteras immediately
ordered the sails which were aiding the engine to be reefed; but
before this could be done his main-topsail was carried away.
Hatteras gave his orders with the utmost coolness, and did not
leave the deck during the storm; he was obliged to run before
the gale. The wind raised very heavy waves which hurled about
pieces of ice of every shape, torn from the neighboring ice-fields;
the brig was tossed about like a child's toy, and ice was dashed
against its hull; at one moment it rose perpendicularly to the top
of a mountain of water; its steel prow shone like molten metal;
then it sank into an abyss, sending forth great whirls of smoke,
while the screw revolved out the water with a fearful clatter.
Rain and snow fell in torrents.
The doctor could not miss such a chance to get wet to the
skin; he remained on deck, gazing at the storm with all the
admiration such a spectacle cannot fail to draw forth. One
standing next to him could not have heard his voice; so he said
nothing, but looked, and soon he saw a singular phenomenon, one
peculiar to the northern seas.
The tempest was confined to a small space of about three or four
miles; in fact, the wind loses much of its force in passing over
the ice, and cannot carry its violence very far; every now and
then the doctor would see, through some rift in the storm, a clear
sky and a quiet sea beyond the ice-fields; hence the Forward had
only to make her way through the passes to find smooth sailing;
but she ran a risk of being dashed against the moving masses
which obeyed the motion of the waves. Notwithstanding, Hatteras
succeeded in a few hours in carrying his vessel into smooth
water, while the violence of the storm, now at its worst at the
horizon, was dying away within a few cable-lengths from the
Melville Bay then looked very different; by the influence
of the winds and waves a large number of icebergs had been
detached from the shores and were now floating northward,
continually crashing against one another. They could be
counted by hundreds; but the bay is very broad, and the brig
avoided them without difficulty. The sight of these floating
masses, which seemed to be racing together, was indeed magnificent.
The doctor was wild with enthusiasm about it, when Simpson,
the harpooner, came up to him and asked him to notice the changing
tints of the sea, which varied from deep blue to olive green;
long bands ran from north to south with edges so sharply cut
that the line of division could be seen as far as the horizon.
Sometimes a transparent sheet would stretch out from an opaque
“Well, Dr. Clawbonny, what do you think of that?” said
“I agree, my friend, with what Scoresby said about these
differently colored waters,” answered the doctor, “namely, that
the blue water does not contain the millions of animalcules
and medusæ which the green water contains; he made a great
many experiments to test it, and I am ready to agree with
“0, but there's something else it shows!”
“What is that?”
“Well, if the Forward were only a whaler, I believe we should
have some sport.”
“But,” answered the doctor, “I
don't see any whales.”
“We shall very soon, though, I
promise you. It's great luck for a
whaler to see those green patches in
“Why so?” asked the doctor, whose
curiosity was aroused by these remarks
of a man who had had experience in
what he was talking about.
“Because,” answered Simpson, “it
is in that green water that most of the
whales are caught.”
“What is the reason, Simpson?”
“Because they get more food there.”
“You are sure of that I”
“0, I have seen it a hundred times in Baffin's Bay! I don't see
why the same should n't be the case in Melville Bay.”
“You must be right, Simpson.”
“And see,” Simpson continued as he leaned over the rail,—“see
“One would say it was the track of a ship.”
“Well,” said Simpson, “it's an oily substance that the whale
leaves behind it. Really, the whale itself can't be far off.”
In fact, the atmosphere was filled with a strong fishy smell.
The doctor began to examine the surface of the sea, and the harpooner's
prediction was soon verified. Foker was heard shouting
“A whale to leeward!”
All turned their eyes in that direction; a low spout was seen
rising from the sea about a mile from the brig.
“There she spouts!” shouted Simpson, whose experienced eye
soon detected it.
“It's gone,” said the doctor.
“We could soon find it again, if it were necessary,” said Simpson,
But to his great
no one had dared
to ask it, Hatteras
gave the order to
lower and man the
whale-boat; he was
glad to give the
men some distraction,
and also to get
a few barrels of oil.
They heard the order
with great satisfaction.
Four sailors took their places in the whale-boat; Johnson took
the helm; Simpson stood in the bow, harpoon in hand. The
doctor insisted on joining the party. The sea was quite smooth.
The whale-boat went very fast, and in about ten minutes she was
a mile from the brig.
The whale, having taken another breath, had dived again; but
soon it came up and projected fifteen feet into the air that combination
of gases and mucous fluid which escapes from its ventholes.
“There, there!” cried Simpson, pointing to a place about eight
hundred yards from the boat.
They approached it rapidly; and the brig, having also seen it,
drew near slowly.
The huge monster kept appearing above the waves, showing its
black back, which resembled a great rock in the sea; a whale
never swims rapidly unless pursued, and this one was letting
itself be rocked by the waves.
The hunters approached in silence, choosing the green water,
which was so opaque as to prevent the whale from seeing them.
It is always exciting to watch a frail bat attacking one of these
monsters; this one was about one hundred and thirty feet long,
and often between latitude 72° and 80° whales are found more
than one hundred and twenty-four feet long; ancient writers have
often spoken of some longer than seven hundred feet, but they
are imaginary animals.
Soon the boat was very near the whale. Simpson made a sign,
the men stopped rowing, and, brandishing his harpoon, he hurled it
skilfully; this, with sharp barbs, sank into the thick layers of fat.
The wounded whale dived rapidly. At once the four oars were
unshipped; the rope which was attached to the harpoon ran out
rapidly, and the boat was dragged along while Johnson steered it
The whale swam away from the brig and hastened towards the
moving icebergs; for half an hour it went on in this way; the
cord had to be kept wet to prevent its taking fire from friction.
When the animal seemed to go more slowly, the rope was dragged
back and carefully coiled; the whale rose again to the surface,
lashing violently with its tail; huge spouts of water were dashed
up by it and fell in torrents on the boat, which now approached
rapidly; Simpson had taken a long lance and was prepared to
meet the whale face to face.
But it plunged rapidly into a pass between two icebergs. Further
pursuit seemed dangerous.
“The devil!” said Johnson.
“Forward, forward, my friends,” shouted Simpson, eager for
the chase; “the whale is ours.”
“But we can't follow it among the icebergs,” answered Johnson,
turning the boat away.
“Yes, yes!” cried Simpson.
“No, no!” said some of the sailors.
“Yes!” cried others.
During this discussion the whale had got between two icebergs
which the wind and waves were driving together.
The whale-boat was in danger of being dragged into this dangerous
pass, when Johnson sprang forward, axe in hand, and out
It was time; the two icebergs met with irresistible force,
crushing the whale between them.
“Lost!” cried Simpson.
“Saved!” said Johnson.
“Upon my word,” said the doctor, who had not flinched, “that
was well worth seeing!”
The crushing power of these mountains is enormous. The
whale was the victim of an accident that is very frequent in these
waters. Scoresby tells us that in the course of a single summer
thirty whalers have been lost in this way in Baffin's Bay; he saw
a three-master crushed in one minute between two walls of ice,
which drew together with fearful rapidity and sank the ship with
all on board. Two other ships he himself saw cut through, as if
by a long lance, by huge pieces of ice more than a hundred feet
A few moments later the whale-boat returned to the brig, and
was hauled up to its usual place on deck.
“That's a lesson,” said Shandon, aloud, “for those who are
foolhardy enough to venture into the passes!”