National Geographic : 1956 Jul
The National Geographic Magazine "We'll use Dorado herself this time," Skip per Douglas decided. And use her he did, twisting and turning within the narrow un marked channels, backing all engines when shoals rose suddenly beneath her, going ahead as whales were sighted near by. Still we had no clear shots. It seemed almost as if the whales were playing tag with Dorado. Then came welcome news: "Ballena repaired and ready to lower." Our hard working crew had fitted the powerboat with the new propeller and shaft, made the patch watertight and the sturdy craft seaworthy once again. We anchored immediately. Within minutes the boat was lowered away. This time it was a true whaleboat, for in place of its rudder torn away by the whale, an oar now served as a tiller. We were soon away, with Skipper Douglas, Sam Matthews, and "Captain Ephraim" man ning the rescue skiff in the wake of Ballena. The tide had turned, and whales were every where. As we moved across the shallows, eddy ing with swift-running tide, we could hear the monsters blowing. As each surfaced, across the calm water came a long throaty "whoooooosh," somewhat like a locomotive in a railroad station releasing a burst of steam. "Thar She Blows" Signals a Chase On Ballena Dr. King cried out, "Thar she blows!" With Paul Levesque he stood ready with the guns. The boats turned to gether to give chase. A group of full-grown whales moved slowly upchannel. Gleaming backs, showing white barnacle patches, rolled above the surface, submerged, and then sur faced again a few minutes later. Ballena's first approach proved too fast. When they next appeared, the whales were behind her but still coming straight ahead. Apparently, unlike the female that previously had attacked, these whales were quite un disturbed by the boat. Ballena made a wide, cautious turn and edged up once again. Without any warning, the enormous head of a gray shot straight up out of the water in a spy-hop. Spray showered from its sides. "Fire!" shouted Levesque. Both harpoon guns cracked simultaneously. Lines flashed outward from the reels at the muzzles. The upright whale gave a massive shudder and fell away to one side in a white thrash of water. "Let's get out of here!" someone aboard Ballena shouted. Behind the boat an orange marker buoy shot away, leaving a foamy wake. Certainly one dart had struck the whale and buried itself strongly. Dr. King, with the last turn of electric wire snagged on the reel of his gun, found his weapon jerked from his hands. It hung above the water, held by a safety line to the boat. In a flash Bud Gardiner jerked a knife from a sheath at his waist and cut the taut rope. Line, gun-and knife-snapped outward, spun, and vanished beneath the waves. Whale's Charge Snaps Line The wire from the fouled gun must have snapped in the whale's first great lunge. Ap parently the other barb pulled free, for a second later the orange marker drifted lazily to a stop. When we pulled it in, a single arrow trailed from the twisted line. Such was our final foray against our re luctant patients. We had lost a gun, and nearly lost a boat. We had learned much about the touchiness of whales at the height of their calving season. We had found once more that our heartbeat-hunting weapons were not yet adequate for their job. Even if we could have stayed several weeks more inside Scammon Lagoon, we doubt that we could have achieved our goal on this oc casion. The seeming ease with which the harpooned whale snapped our connecting cable made it apparent that far stouter line would be necessary to hold a connection. It was time now to depart. Once again we heard Donald Douglas say, "Captain Ephraim, be not downhearted! The Captain Scammon Club will convene here again. And next time perhaps we'll come after mama whale in a helicopter. Let her try to stave us in then!" Valuable Experience Gained As Johnny Martin lifted our northward bound plane and roared across Scammon's wide expanse, Dorado lay slim and white be neath us, preparing for its voyage home. We were not downhearted. We had failed, but it was a profitable failure, for we knew now where our shortcomings lay. We will surely go back, winding through Douglas Channel past Cardiac Island and Geographic Island, to record the heartbeat of the wary grays.