The whales on these stations are too strong and rapid in their movements to be successfully captured in the ordinary way, and not much appears to have been done with them until Captain Svend Foyn, of TŲnsberg, invented and patented in 1860 a particular kind of harpoon which is fired from a swivel gun in the bows of a small steamer.
The guns are steel muzzle-loaders, and the gun harpoon contains a shell which bursts when the fish is fastened. For this purpose the barbs of the harpoon are made movable, and secured by a piece of rope yarn which either slips off in passing through the flesh, or breaks when the strain of the line comes on the harpoon. The opening of the barbs, four in number, breaks a glass tube of sulphuric acid, which runs down into the powder and explodes the shell. The harpooneer tries to fasten the fish in the ribs, or as near as possible to the spinal column.
As the whale is generally killed dead by the shell and almost always sinks, it is necessary that the line should be long enough to reach the bottom where you are fishing ; the usual length is five hundred fathoms of five-inch, with a foregore of thirty fathoms of four and a half inch stuff.
The vessels are rigged as fore and aft schooners, and carry a crow's nest on their foremast. They are also supplied with a very ingenious apparatus for raising the dead whale from the bottom. If the harpooneer fails to strike the fish dead, it often takes hours to kill, necessitating the use of a bomb gun or a lance from a whaleboat carried for the purpose.
The whales are not flensed at sea, but lashed alongside the steamer and towed to the station on shore, where the oil is boiled.
Captain Foyn established his fishery at VadşŲ in 1884, and was successful from the first. The number of stations gradually grew until there were five in 1881 and eight in 1882, when Captain Foyn's patent expired. Since then the number has continued to increase.
The species of whales said to be taken are : Blaahvalen (Balúnoptera Sibbaldi, Gray), Finhvalen (Balúnoptera mus-culus), Seivalen (possibly Balúnoptera laticeps), Knolhvalen (Megaptera boops, Fabricius). The first of these is the largest, reaching sometimes ninety feet.
Owing to the kindness of Captain Thomas Bech, of Christiania, I am enabled to give the dimensions of two of these whalers. Ingebong: Length 81 ft. ; beam 16 ft. 8 in. ; depth 10 ft. 7 in. Gross tonnage 86. Register 25. Price 60,000 kroner (about 3,333 l.). Plan of whale steameróCaptain Bech : Length 90 ft. ; beam 17 ft. 6 in. ; depth 10 ft. 8 in.
They usually steam from nine to ten knots, and carry a crew of nine men all told.
The Emperor of Germany has visited these fishing grounds, and by his skill in fastening fish proved himself in this, as in so many other things, quite an expert.
In 1873 the King of Norway and Sweden gave me a description of the capture of a fish in Varanger Fjord, which his Majesty witnessed a day or two before from his own vessel. Two vessels went out in company, and when the fish were sighted the whaler started in pursuit, the vessel with his Majesty on board following, but keeping in such a position as to be able to see the shot and not to interfere with the sport. After a little manoeuvring the harpooneer got a chance and killed the whale dead, when, as usual, the fish sunk to the bottom ; but, the water being shoal, she was soon raised to the surface and brought alongside. Everything was extremely well managed, as his Majesty had a complete view of the whole proceedings.
The Arctics seem to have an extraordinary and incomprehensible attraction for some people ; and when it is coupled with whaling, to the author it becomes almost irresistible. Indeed, writing this chapter brings back vividly to his imagination the pleasant days he has spent in the ice and on the fishing grounds, until he longs once more to hear the old cry ' A fall !' and seems drawn by some magnetic power towards the north.