A young man and the sea

June 10, 1966. There was an iceberg in sight, and the water temperature was 3.7 degrees. The Japanese whale-catcher No. 17 Kyo Maru was off Newfoundland, having drifted through the brief summer night and resumed the search for migrating whales at first light.

At just after 5 in the morning I was wakened by the voice of the bosun echoing through the loudspeaker system that relayed activity on deck throughout the ship. Struggling into heavy clothes and oilskins, I slung my binoculars around my neck, checked that I had my field notebook and made my way up to the open bridge. Coffee or tea would come later.

The sky was overcast with a dull, leaden stratocumulus. Wind gusted up to gale force. The ship wallowed and pitched, shuddering and thrumming with the roar of the diesel engines. I remembered the words of my dad, who was 27 years in the Royal Navy: “One hand for yourself, one hand for the navy.”

I hung on to the railings and flexed my knees as the rise and fall of the ship played tricks with my body weight. Four-meter waves crashed at four-second intervals into the high flared bows, sending lashings of spray over the ship and throwing white waves to either side like the spreading wings of a giant swan.

Three fin whales had been spotted, and we were chasing them down. It was too windy for me to time their blows, as they were swept away as soon as the whales surfaced. I could see the whales though, the smooth curve of their backs and the small dorsal fins, black against the gray of the sea. We were doing 16 knots at least, even in the rough water, and the whales were barely slower. From the wildly swaying crow’s nest (topu as the crew called it), the bosun shouted down an order of “full speed” through the bridge’s speaker.

We gained slowly on our prey, and with a nod, skipper-gunner Shoji left the bridge and made his way down the catwalk, gripping the rails on each side, bowing his head into the drifts of spray. He reached the gun and kicked the release, crouching behind with legs spread wide, mittened hands on the curved handle as he swung the barrel left and right.

The whales were now cutting through the water like huge dolphins, two of them now breaking left and right. At the bosun’s call, we veered starboard and I saw Shoji slam the breech fully shut and ready to fire, squinting down the bar sight.

The ship was bucking wildly and I had to hang onto the rim of the waist-high steel bulkhead of the upper bridge, eyes narrowed against the cold wind. We got closer and closer, and despite the fact that I always felt a great sadness each time a whale was killed, its blood staining the sea scarlet, the rough, ruthless, wild chase still never failed to grip me with excitement.

The ship got closer and closer until we could clearly see the wedge-shaped head break water, hear the sharp, strong rush of the blow and catch a brief whiff of its fishy scent, then see the mighty back coming up. Shoji’s mittened hand pressed the trigger bar under the handle, and with an ear-ringing bang a steel harpoon, 90 mm in diameter at the shaft, was fired at the whale, its thick line whipping out behind.

It was then that a freak accident occurred. Part of the line, just behind the speeding harpoon, was hit by a rising wave. This slightly deflected the angle of the shaft, and as the cast-iron head of the harpoon, which is shaped like a cone with a flattened point, struck the whale’s back, it failed to penetrate. Instead, trailing line, it shot upward like a rocket. The ship of course was still forging ahead through the waves. Everybody ducked — except me.

Before I knew it, the helmsman had flung me to the deck with a footsweep, covering my body with his. Almost directly above the bridge, the bomb at the end of the harpoon exploded, sending shrapnel through the air to strike the deck, the winch, the sea around us. Mercifully nobody on the bridge, and particularly the man who had risked his own life to protect me, was hurt.

Screwed to the end of the harpoon is the “granat,” about as big as a large sake bottle, filled with smokeless powder. I say “smokeless powder,” but it is actually a mix of nitro-cellulose, alcohol and acetone, pressed, dried, then cut into stuff that looks like finely chopped macaroni. When the gun is fired, a fuse set into this explosive is pulled by the action of the harpoon leaving the barrel. If aim and timing are accurate, the harpoon pierces the whale’s body and two seconds after firing the granat explodes. Then the pull on the harpoon opens out four toggles that had been folded back and held with a cord.

The helmsman sprang to his feet and grabbed the wheel again. The ship cut speed. Other sailors scrambled to winch in the line and the used harpoon, which was now dragging in the water to starboard, banging like crazy on the side of the ship. Up on the bridge the helmsman steered so that the line did not tangle in the propeller, and another man gave a hand and yanked me to my feet. Now realizing what happened, I took of my cap and bowed, mumbling an apology and thanks in Japanese. The helmsman didn’t bother to look at me, but just growled.

“Bakayaro! Kondo ki o tsukero! [Idiot! Next time watch out.]”

With the line and harpoon wound in, the ship resumed the chase and the gun was reloaded. Shoji turned, took off his cap with a little wave and a short bow, giving the rest of us an embarrassed grin.

Those whales evaded us, but by 1 in the afternoon, though the sea was still rough, the wind had died down slightly and the cloud cover was now torn to ragged stratocumulus and high bright altostratus. We eventually gave chase to another fin whale. Thirty minutes later, it was hit and winched alongside, lanced with compressed air to keep it afloat, marked with a buoy and radio beacon, then left to drift.

Toward the evening we were chasing another fin whale, going at full speed, around 18 knots. The whale came up 20 meters from the starboard bow and the gunner fired. I saw the whale hit, heard the dull thump of the exploding granat, but the whale dived, then came up two minutes later, blowing blood every five to 20 seconds.

We dropped speed to 8 knots while the men hurriedly reloaded with a kill-shot harpoon, this one with no line affixed. Nine minutes after the first shot, Shoji fired the kill-shot and the whale went belly up, showing us the asymmetrical black-and-white colors and the accordion-like folds of his belly.

Hundreds of seabirds, kittiwakes, fulmars and gulls, wheeled around us and the widening patch of blood-stained water as the whale was air-lanced, then brought alongside where it was lashed to the ship by its tail. I went down to the mess to enjoy a meal of freshly grilled tail meat dipped in soy sauce and ginger, eaten with rice and pickles and washed down with sake. Shoji came in, looking glum. He hated it when he didn’t kill with a single shot.

It was almost dark when we picked up the floating whale and headed for our base in the little coastal village of Dildo, where the Japanese company Kyokuyo shared the whaling station with a local Newfoundland fishing company. Here the whales would be measured, sampled and flensed, the blubber and meat frozen and sent to Japan, and the rest turned into oil and meal.

I was aboard the catcher as an observer for the Fisheries Research Board of Canada, having spent the previous season at another whaling station in Nova Scotia, that one a joint Norwegian-Canadian operation. Just over two years in Japan practicing karate and attending language school had given me enough Japanese to understand and enjoy the company and conversation of these tough but friendly men. Nothing was said of my “adventure” that morning, but I have never forgotten.

By the way, the No. 17 Kyo Maru was originally a British ship, built in Glasgow to work the Antarctic whaling grounds as Setter 9. It was sold to Japan together with Britain’s whale quota. The British, finding other sources of oil for their margarine, were less interested in whale meat than Japan.

I was aboard this catcher for a month, then at 4 o’clock in the morning of June 13, coming into Dildo wharf with the 33rd fin whale taken that season, the ship’s propeller hit a submerged rock and badly bent the shaft. It was never to whale again, and ended its days in the dry dock at St. John’s.

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