National Geographic : 1956 Jul
Hunting the Heartbeat of a Whale motor. Dr. King and Paul Levesque donned life jackets to go to Ballena's aid themselves. They had scarcely shoved off-and promptly stalled their motor-when the radio came to life once more. Mr. Douglas's voice boomed out: "Old Captain Scammon, He was sure right These mama whales Can stand up and fight! "We're O. K. now, Dorado," he reported. "We've rigged a soft patch over the hole. We're being towed in." Just then, around a low spit of sand dunes that hid the long channel where they had van ished, reappeared two small dots. Leading was our outboard-powered guard boat, Petrel ita, throwing a frothy wake. Behind it trailed Ballena, canted at a crazy angle. We could see four figures bailing away in the wounded speedboat. Charlie Langlais was steering Petrelita (opposite). "Dr. White," the loud-speaker said, "we think you should take Bosun Jenks's cardio gram as soon as we get back. The whale stove in the bottom right beneath him!" Laughingly, I agreed to measure all their heartbeats. "Did you get the whale's cardio gram?" I asked anxiously. "Get a cardiogram!" came the reply. "We didn't even throw a harpoon at her. She just didn't like us." Irate Mother Attacks Boat Their story was soon told. Ballena had found many whales in the nursery. Finally the hunters came upon a mother and her calf following a slow course down the channel. The boat began a cautious approach. Suddenly the young whale leaped as if in fright, clearing its mother's back. Then the great female, twice as long as Ballena's 18 feet, veered directly toward the boat. Before the rudder could be thrown over, the whale had struck. The boat lurched upward as the charging cetacean lifted it like a chip of wood. The engine stopped... started again ... stalled a second time. Scant seconds passed. Then came a splin tering impact-whether from the whale's lash ing tail flukes or from a butt with its nose, the passengers could not tell. Water gushed into the boat. Mr. Douglas reached for the radiophone. Equipment was shifted to an after seat. With whatever came to hand-cardboard box, cof fee can, even a hat-the hunters began to bail. They stayed afloat, by shifting to one side and lifting the hole partly out of the water, until Petrelita arrived from its patrol station half a mile away and towed them quickly to a near-by shoal. There Don Douglas, Jr., jumped overboard and rigged a canvas tar paulin over the outside of the hole. By fast thinking they saved their boat and brought her home. Hoisted aboard, Ballena proved to have lost her rudder; her propeller was bent beyond use, its shaft and supports twisted 15 degrees off line. Search Goes On in Remaining Boats A council of war was in order. Should we continue our quest? "Of course," came the answer. "We have two boats left. Captain Ephraim, be not downhearted!" I was "Captain Ephraim"-so dubbed after an old-time New England whaler-and Cap tain Ephraim at that moment was indeed downhearted. I was remembering Dr. Har vey's prophetic words. While half our crew worked long hours patching Ballena's wounds, Dorado returned to her anchorage in "Conant's Cove"; the cockleshell Petrelita was fitted out with bright orange marker buoys at the end of sturdy harpoon lines, and with these she moved to the edge of a steep-sided shoal several hun dred yards from the main boat. There she sat, bobbing forlornly. Whales swam to and fro, up and down "Douglas Channel." But not a whale came within range of the hunters' harpoon guns. While the outboard patrol went on, a second watch was maintained from the bow of Dorado, with crossbows and a hand har poon at the ready. Only once, that after noon, was the harpoon thrown. The long lance must have struck a glancing blow. It hit the target, but the whale merely gave it a flirt of the tail and was gone. So ended still another day of disappoint ment. Worse, our time was running out. Johnny Martin, the Douglas Company's chief pilot, had flown a new propeller shaft for Ballena down to us, landing on a dry lake bed several miles from our anchorage. When the plane went back the next after noon, two of us would have to be aboard. The date of President Eisenhower's examina tion was at hand for me. Dr. King had an urgent appointment in Seattle.