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South! by Sir Ernest Shackleton


By ROBERT S. CLARK, M.A., B.Sc., Lieut. R.N.V.R.

Modern whaling methods were introduced into sub-Antarctic seas in 1904, and operations commenced in the following year at South Georgia. So successful was the initial venture that several companies were floated, and the fishing area was extended to the South Shetlands, the South Orkneys, and as far as 67° S along the western coast of Graham Land. This area lies within the Dependencies of the Falkland Islands, and is under the control of the British Government, and its geographical position offers exceptional opportunities for the successful prosecution of the industry by providing a sufficient number of safe anchorages and widely separated islands, where shore stations have been established. The Dependencies of the Falkland Islands lie roughly within latitude 50° and 65° S. and longitude 25° and 70° W., and include the Falkland Islands, South Georgia, South Sandwich, South Orkney, and South Shetland Islands, and part of Graham Land.

The industry is prosperous, and the products always find a ready market. In this sub-Antarctic area alone, the resulting products more than doubled the world's supply. The total value of the Falkland Island Dependencies in 1913 amounted to £1,252,432, in 1914 to £1,300,978, in 1915 to £1,333,401, and in 1916 to £1,774,570. This has resulted chiefly from the marketing of whale oil and the by-product, guano, and represents for each total a season's capture of several thousand whales. In 1916, the number of whales captured in this area was 11,860, which included 6000 for South Georgia alone. Whale oil, which is now the product of most economic value in the whaling industry, is produced in four grades (some companies adding a fifth). These are Nos. 0, I, II, III, IV, which in 1913 sold at £24, £22, £20, and £18 respectively per ton, net weight, barrels included (there are six barrels to a ton). The 1919 prices have increased to

£72 10s.  per ton (barrels included) less 2½ per cent.
£68 per ton (barrels included) less 2½ per cent.
£65   "    "        "          "          "          "      "
£63   "    "        "          "          "          "      "

Whale oil can be readily transformed into glycerine: it is used in the manufacture of soap, and quite recently, both in this country and in Norway, it has been refined by means of a simple hardening process into a highly palatable and nutritious margarine. Wartime conditions emphasized the importance of the whale oil, and fortunately the supply was fairly constant for the production of the enormous quantities of glycerine required by the country in the manufacture of explosives. In relation to the food supply, it was no less important in saving the country from a "fat" famine, when the country was confronted with the shortage of vegetable and other animal oils. The production of guano, bone-meal, and flesh-meal may pay off the running expenses of a whaling-station, but their value lies, perhaps, more in their individual properties. Flesh-meal makes up into cattle-cake, which forms an excellent fattening food for cattle, while bone-meal and guano are very effective fertilizers. Guano is the meat - generally the residue of distillation - which goes through a process of drying and disintegration, and is mixed with the crushed bone in the proportion of two parts flesh to one part bone. This is done chiefly at the shore stations, and, to a less extent on floating factories, though so far on the latter it has not proved very profitable. Whale flesh, though slightly greasy perhaps and of strong flavour, is quite palatable, and at South Georgia, it made a welcome addition to our bill of fare - the flesh of the hump back being used. A large supply of whale flesh was "shipped" as food for the dogs on the journey South, and this was eaten ravenously. It is interesting to note also the successful rearing of pigs at South Georgia - chiefly, if not entirely, on the whale products. The whalebone or baleen plates, which at one time formed the most valuable article of the Arctic fishery, may here be regarded as of secondary importance. The baleen plates of the southern right whale reach only a length of about 7 ft., and have been valued at £750 per ton, but the number of these whales captured is very small indeed. In the case of the other whalebone whales, the baleen plates are much smaller and of inferior quality - the baleen of the sei whale probably excepted, and this only makes about £85 per ton, Sperm whales have been taken at South Georgia and the South Shetlands, but never in any quantity, being more numerous in warmer areas. The products and their value are too well known to be repeated.

The Endurance reached South Georgia on November 5, 1914, and anchored in King Edward Cove, Cumberland Bay, off Grytviken, the shore station of the Argentina Pesca Company. During the month's stay at the island a considerable amount of time was devoted to a study of the whales and the whaling industry, in the intervals of the general routine of expedition work, and simultaneously with other studies on the general life of this interesting sub-Antarctic island. Visits were made to six of the seven existing stations, observations were made on the whales landed, and useful insight was gathered as to the general working of the industry.

From South Georgia the track of the Endurance lay in a direct line to the South Sandwich Group, between Saunders and Candlemas Islands. Then south-easterly and southerly courses were steered to the Coats' Land barrier, along which we steamed for a few hundred miles until forced westward, when we were unfortunately held up in about lat. 76° 34' S. and long. 37° 30' W. on January 19, 1915, by enormous masses of heavy pack-ice. The ship drifted to lat. 76° 59' S., long. 37° 47' W. on March 19, 1915, and then west and north until crushed in lat. 69° 5' S. and long. 51° 30' W. on October 26, 1915. We continued drifting gradually north, afloat on ice-floes, past Graham Land and Joinville Island, and finally took to the boats on April 9, 1916, and reached Elephant Island on April 15. The Falkland Island Dependencies were thus practically circumnavigated, and it may be interesting to compare the records of whales seen in the region outside and to the south of this area with the records and the percentage of each species captured in the intensive fishing area.

The most productive part of the South Atlantic lies south of latitude 50° S., where active operations extend to and even beyond the Antarctic circle. It appears to be the general rule in Antarctic waters that whales are more numerous the closer the association with ice conditions, and there seems to be reasonable grounds for supposing that this may explain the comparatively few whales sighted by Expeditions which have explored the more northerly and more open seas, while the whalers themselves have even asserted that their poor seasons have nearly always coincided with the absence of ice, or with poor ice conditions. At all events, those Expeditions which have penetrated far south and well into the pack-ice have, without exception, reported the presence of whales in large numbers, even in the farthest south latitudes, so that our knowledge of the occurrence of whales in the Antarctic has been largely derived from these Expeditions, whose main object was either the discovery of new land or the Pole itself. The largest number of Antarctic Expeditions has concentrated on the two areas of the South Atlantic and the Ross Sea, and the records of the occurrences of whales have, in consequence, been concentrated in these two localities. In the intervening areas, however, Expeditions, notably the Belgica on the western side and the Gauss on the eastern side of the Antarctic continent, have reported whales in moderately large numbers, so that the stock is by no means confined to the two areas above mentioned.

The effective fishing area may be assumed to lie within a radius of a hundred miles from each shore station and floating-factory anchorage, and a rough estimate of all the Falkland stations works out at 160,000 square miles. The total for the whole Falkland area is about 2,000,000 square miles, which is roughly less than a sixth of the total Antarctic sea area. The question then arises as to how far the "catch percentage" during the short fishing season affects the total stock, but so far one can only conjecture as to the actual results from a comparison of the numbers seen, chiefly by scientific and other Expeditions, in areas outside the intensive fishing area with the numbers and percentage of each species captured in the intensive fishing area. Sufficient evidence, however, seems to point quite definitely to one species - the humpback - being in danger of extermination, but the blue and fin whales - the other two species of rorquals which form the bulk of the captures - appear to be as frequent now as they have ever been.

The whales captured at the various whaling-stations of the Falkland area are confined largely to three species - blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus), fin whale (Balaenoptera physalis), and humpback (Megaptera nodosa); sperm whales (Physeter catodon) and right whales (Balaena glacialis) being only occasional and rare captures, while the sei whale (Balaenoptera borealis) appeared in the captures at South Georgia in 1913, and now forms a large percentage of the captures at the Falkland Islands. During the earlier years of whaling at South Georgia, and up to the fishing season 1910 - Å“11, humpbacks formed practically the total catch. In 1912 - Å“13 the following were the percentages for the three rorquals in the captures at South Georgia and South Shetlands:

Humpback 38 per cent., fin whale 36 per cent., blue whale 20 per cent. Of late years the percentages have altered considerably, blue whales and fin whales predominating, humpbacks decreasing rapidly. In 1915, the South Georgia Whaling Company (Messrs. Salvesen, Leith) captured 1085 whales, consisting of 15 per cent. humpback, 25 per cent. fin whales, 58 per cent. blue whales, and 2 right whales. In the same year the captures of three companies at the South Shetlands gave 1512 whales, and the percentages worked out at 12 per cent. humpbacks, 42 per cent. fin whales, and 45 per cent. blue whales. In 1919, the Southern Whaling and Sealing Company captured (at Stromness, South Georgia) 529 whales, of which 2 per cent. were humpbacks, 51 per cent. fin whales, and 45 per cent. blue whales. These captures do not represent the total catch, but are sufficiently reliable to show how the species are affected. The reduction in numbers of the humpback is very noticeable, and even allowing for the possible increase in size of gear for the capture of the larger and more lucrative blue and fin whales, there is sufficient evidence to warrant the fears that the humpback stock is threatened with extinction.

In the immediate northern areas - in the region from latitude 50° S. northward to the equator, which is regarded as next in importance quantitatively to the sub-Antarctic, though nothing like being so productive, the captures are useful for a comparative study in distribution. At Saldanha Bay, Cape Colony, in 1912, 131 whales were captured and the percentages were as follows: 35 per cent. humpback, 13 per cent. fin whale, 4 per cent. blue whale, 46 per cent. sei whale, while nearer the equator, at Port Alexander, the total capture was 322 whales, and the percentages gave 98 per cent. humpback, and only 2 captures each of fin and sei whales. In 1914, at South Africa (chiefly Saldanha Bay and Durban), out of a total of 839 whales 60 per cent. were humpback, 25 per cent. fin whales, and 13 per cent. blue whales. In 1916, out of a total of 853 whales 10 per cent. were humpback, 13 per cent. fin whales, 6 per cent. blue whales, 68 per cent. sperm whales, and 1 per cent. sei whales. In Chilian waters, in 1916, a total of 327 whales gave 31 per cent. humpbacks, 24 per cent. fin whales, 26 per cent. blue whales, 12 per cent. sperm whales, and 5 right whales. There seems then to be a definite interrelation between the two areas. The same species of whales are captured, and the periods of capture alternate with perfect regularity, the fishing season occurring from the end of November to April in the sub-Antarctic and from May to November in the sub-tropics. A few of the companies, however, carry on operations to a limited extent at South Georgia and at the Falkland islands during the southern winter, but the fishing is by no means a profitable undertaking, though proving the presence of whales in this area during the winter months.

The migrations of whales are influenced by two causes:

(1) The distribution of their food-supply;
(2) The position of their breeding-grounds.

In the Antarctic, during the summer months, there is present in the sea an abundance of plant and animal life, and whales which feed on the small plankton organisms are correspondingly numerous, but in winter this state of things is reversed, and whales are poorly represented or absent, at least in the higher latitudes. During the drift of the Endurance samples of plankton were taken almost daily during an Antarctic summer and winter. From December to March, a few minutes haul of a tow-net at the surface was sufficient to choke up the meshes with the plant and animal life, but this abundance of surface life broke off abruptly in April, and subsequent hauls contained very small organisms until the return of daylight and the opening up of the pack-ice. The lower water strata, down to about 100 fathoms, were only a little more productive, and Euphausiae were taken in the hauls - though sparingly. During the winter spent at Elephant Island, our total catch of gentoo penguins amounted to 1436 for the period April 15 to August 30, 1916. All these birds were cut up, the livers and hearts were extracted for food, and the skins were used as fuel. At the same time the stomachs were invariably examined, and a record kept of the contents. The largest proportion of these contained the small crustacean Euphausia, and this generally to the exclusion of other forms. Occasionally, however, small fish were recorded. The quantity of Euphausiae present in most of the stomachs was enormous for the size of the birds. These penguins were migrating, and came ashore only when the bays were clear of ice, as there were several periods of fourteen consecutive days when the bays and the surrounding sea were covered over with a thick compact mass of ice-floes, and then penguins were entirely absent. Euphausiae, then, seem to be present in sufficient quantity in certain, if not in all, sub-Antarctic waters during the southern winter. We may assume then that the migration to the south, during the Antarctic summer, is definitely in search of food. Observations have proved the existence of a northern migration, and it seems highly improbable that this should also be in search of food, but rather for breeding purposes, and it seems that the whales select the more temperate regions for the bringing forth of their young. This view is strengthened by the statistical foetal records, which show the pairing takes place in the northern areas, that the foetus is carried by the mother during the southern migration to the Antarctic, and that the calves are born in the more congenial waters north of the sub-Antarctic area. We have still to prove, however, the possibility of a circumpolar migration, and we are quite in the dark as to the number of whales that remain in sub-Antarctic areas during the Southern winter.

The following is a rough classification of whales, with special reference to those known to occur in the South Atlantic:

               1.  WHALEBONE WHALES (Mystacoceti)
           |                                     |
Right whales (Balaenidae)             Rorquals (Balaenopteridae)
           |                     ________________|_________
Southern right whale             |                        |
(Balaena glacialis)         Finner whales              Humpback
                            (Balaenoptera)       (Megaptera nodosa)
                     Blue whale    (B. musculus)
                     Fin whale     (B. physalis)
                     Sei whale     (B. borealis)
                     Piked whale   (B. acutorostrata)
                     Bryde's whale (B. brydei)

               2. TOOTHED WHALES (Odontoceti)
      |                        |                       |
Sperm whale              Beaked whales              Dolphins
(Physeter catodon) (including bottlenose whales)  (1) Killer
                      (Hyperoodon rostratus)     (Orcinus orca)
                                                  (2) Black Fish
                                              (Globicephalus melas)
                                                  (3) Porpoises
                                              (Lagenorhynchus sp.)

The subdivision of whalebone whales is one of degree in the size of the whalebone. These whales have enormously muscular tongues, which press the water through the whalebone lamellae and thus, by a filtering process, retain the small food organisms. The food of the whalebone whales is largely the small crustacea which occur in the plankton, though some whales (humpback, fin whales, and sei whales) feed also on fish. The stomachs examined at South Georgia during December 1914, belonged to the three species, humpbacks, fin whales, and blue whales, and all contained small crustacea - Euphausiae, with a mixture of amphipods. The toothed whales - sperms and bottlenoses - are known to live on squids, and that there is an abundance of this type of food in the Weddell Sea was proved by an examination of penguin and seal stomachs. Emperor penguins (and hundreds of these were examined) were invariably found to contain Cephalopod "beaks," while large, partly digested squids were often observed in Weddell seals. A dorsal fin is present in the rorquals but absent in right whales. With other characters, notably the size of the animal, it serves as a ready mark of identification, but is occasionally confusing owing to the variation in shape in some of the species.

With the exception of several schools of porpoises very few whales were seen during the outward voyage. Not till we approached the Falkland area did they appear in any numbers. Four small schools of fin whales and a few humpbacks were sighted on October 28 and 29, 1914, in lat. 38° 01' S., long. 55° 03' W. and in lat. 40° 35' S., long. 53° 11' W., while Globicephalus melas was seen only once, in lat. 45° 17' S., long. 48° 58' W., on October 31, 1914. At South Georgia, the whales captured at the various stations in December 1914, were blue whales, fin whales, and humpbacks (arranged respectively according to numbers captured). During the fishing season 1914 - Å“15 (from December to March) in the area covered - South Georgia to the South Sandwich Islands and along Coats' Land to the head of the Weddell Sea - the records of whales were by no means numerous. Two records only could with certainty be assigned to the humpback, and these were in the neighbourhood of the South Sandwich Islands. Pack-ice was entered in lat. 59° 55' S., long. 18° 28' W., and blue whales were recorded daily until about 65° S. Between lat. 65° 43' S., long. 17° 30' W., on December 27, 1914, and lat. 69° 59' S., long. 17° 31' W., on January 3, 1915, no whales were seen. On January 4, however, in lat. 69° 59' S., long. 17° 36' W., two large sperm whales appeared close ahead of the ship in fairly open water, and were making westward. They remained sufficiently long on the surface to render their identification easy. Farther south, blue whales were only seen occasionally, and fin whales could only be identified in one or two cases. Killers, however, were numerous, and the lesser piked whale was quite frequent. There was no doubt about the identity of this latter species as it often came close alongside the ship. From April to September (inclusive) the sea was frozen over (with the exception of local "leads"), and whales were found to be absent. In October whales again made their appearance, and from then onwards they were a daily occurrence. Identification of the species, however, was a difficult matter, for the Endurance was crushed and had sunk, and observations were only possible from the ice-floe, or later on from the boats. The high vertical "spout" opening out into a dense spray was often visible, and denoted the presence of blue and fin whales. The lesser piked whale again appeared in the "leads" close to our "camp" floe, and was easily identified. An exceptional opportunity was presented to us on December 6, 1915, when a school of eight bottlenose whales (Hyperoodon rostratus) appeared in small "pool" alongside "Ocean" Camp in lat. 67° 47' S., long. 52° 18' W. These ranged from about 20 ft. to a little over 30 ft. in length, and were of a uniform dark dun colour - the large specimens having a dull yellow appearance. There were no white spots. At the edge of the pack-ice during the first half of April 1916, about lat. 62° S. and long. 54° W. (entrance to Bransfield Strait), whales were exceedingly numerous, and these were chiefly fin whales, though a few seemed to be sei whales. It is interesting to note that the fishing season 1915 - Å“1916 was exceptionally productive - no less than 11,860 whales having been captured in the Falkland area alone.

The South Atlantic whaling industry, then, has reached a critical stage in development. It is now dependent on the captures of the large fin and blue whales, humpbacks having been rapidly reduced in numbers, so that the total stock appears to have been affected. With regard to the other species, the southern right whale has never been abundant in the captures, the sperm whale and the sei whale have shown a good deal of seasonal variation, though never numerous, and the bottlenose and lesser piked whale have so far not been hunted, except in the case of the latter for human food. The vigorous slaughter of whales both in the sub-Antarctic and in the sub-tropics, for the one area reacts on the other, calls for universal legislation to protect the whales from early commercial extinction, and the industry, which is of world-wide economic importance, from having to be abandoned. The British Government, with the control of the world's best fisheries, is thoroughly alive to the situation, and an Inter-departmental Committee, under the direction of the Colonial Office, is at present devising a workable scheme for suitable legislation for the protection of the whales and for the welfare of the industry.