Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea

by Jules Verne

Part 2, Chapter 12: Sperm Whales and Baleen Whales

Additional Information
  • Year Published: 1870
  • Language: English
  • Country of Origin: France
  • Source: Verne, J. (1870). Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. (F. P. Walter, Trans.). Paris, France: Hetzel.
  • Readability:
    • Flesch–Kincaid Level: 6.5
  • Word Count: 4,146
  • Genre: Science Fiction
  • Keywords: 19th century literature, french literature, jules verne
  • ✎ Cite This
  • Share |


During the night of March 13–14, the Nautilus resumed its southward heading. Once it was abreast of Cape Horn, I thought it would strike west of the cape, make for Pacific seas, and complete its tour of the world. It did nothing of the sort and kept moving toward the southernmost regions. So where was it bound? The pole? That was insanity. I was beginning to think that the captain's recklessness more than justified Ned Land's worst fears.

For a good while the Canadian had said nothing more to me about his escape plans. He had become less sociable, almost sullen. I could see how heavily this protracted imprisonment was weighing on him. I could feel the anger building in him. Whenever he encountered the captain, his eyes would flicker with dark fire, and I was in constant dread that his natural vehemence would cause him to do something rash.

That day, March 14, he and Conseil managed to find me in my stateroom. I asked them the purpose of their visit.

"To put a simple question to you, sir," the Canadian answered me.

"Go on, Ned."

"How many men do you think are on board the Nautilus?"

"I'm unable to say, my friend."

"It seems to me," Ned Land went on, "that it wouldn't take much of a crew to run a ship like this one."

"Correct," I replied. "Under existing conditions some ten men at the most should be enough to operate it."

"All right," the Canadian said, "then why should there be any more than that?"

"Why?" I answered.

I stared at Ned Land, whose motives were easy to guess.

"Because," I said, "if I can trust my hunches, if I truly understand the captain's way of life, his Nautilus isn't simply a ship. It's meant to be a refuge for people like its commander, people who have severed all ties with the shore."

"Perhaps," Conseil said, "but in a nutshell, the Nautilus can hold only a certain number of men, so couldn't Master estimate their maximum?"

"How, Conseil?"

"By calculating it. Master is familiar with the ship's capacity, hence the amount of air it contains; on the other hand, Master knows how much air each man consumes in the act of breathing, and he can compare this data with the fact that the Nautilus must rise to the surface every twenty–four hours . . ."

Conseil didn't finish his sentence, but I could easily see what he was driving at.

"I follow you," I said. "But while they're simple to do, such calculations can give only a very uncertain figure."

"No problem," the Canadian went on insistently.

"Then here's how to calculate it," I replied. "In one hour each man consumes the oxygen contained in 100 liters of air, hence during twenty–four hours the oxygen contained in 2,400 liters. Therefore, we must look for the multiple of 2,400 liters of air that gives us the amount found in the Nautilus."

"Precisely," Conseil said.

"Now then," I went on, "the Nautilus's capacity is 1,500 metric tons, and that of a ton is 1,000 liters, so the Nautilus holds 1,500,000 liters of air, which, divided by 2,400 . . ."

I did a quick pencil calculation.

". . . gives us the quotient of 625. Which is tantamount to saying that the air contained in the Nautilus would be exactly enough for 625 men over twenty–four hours."

"625!" Ned repeated.

"But rest assured," I added, "that between passengers, seamen, or officers, we don't total one–tenth of that figure."

"Which is still too many for three men!" Conseil muttered.

"So, my poor Ned, I can only counsel patience."

"And," Conseil replied, "even more than patience, resignation."

Conseil had said the true word.

"Even so," he went on, "Captain Nemo can't go south forever! He'll surely have to stop, if only at the Ice Bank, and he'll return to the seas of civilization! Then it will be time to resume Ned Land's plans."

The Canadian shook his head, passed his hand over his brow, made no reply, and left us.

"With Master's permission, I'll make an observation to him," Conseil then told me. "Our poor Ned broods about all the things he can't have. He's haunted by his former life. He seems to miss everything that's denied us. He's obsessed by his old memories and it's breaking his heart. We must understand him. What does he have to occupy him here? Nothing. He isn't a scientist like Master, and he doesn't share our enthusiasm for the sea's wonders. He would risk anything just to enter a tavern in his own country!"

To be sure, the monotony of life on board must have seemed unbearable to the Canadian, who was accustomed to freedom and activity. It was a rare event that could excite him. That day, however, a development occurred that reminded him of his happy years as a harpooner.

Near eleven o'clock in the morning, while on the surface of the ocean, the Nautilus fell in with a herd of baleen whales. This encounter didn't surprise me, because I knew these animals were being hunted so relentlessly that they took refuge in the ocean basins of the high latitudes.

In the maritime world and in the realm of geographic exploration, whales have played a major role. This is the animal that first dragged the Basques in its wake, then Asturian Spaniards, Englishmen, and Dutchmen, emboldening them against the ocean's perils, and leading them to the ends of the earth. Baleen whales like to frequent the southernmost and northernmost seas. Old legends even claim that these cetaceans led fishermen to within a mere seven leagues of the North Pole. Although this feat is fictitious, it will someday come true, because it's likely that by hunting whales in the Arctic or Antarctic regions, man will finally reach this unknown spot on the globe.

We were seated on the platform next to a tranquil sea. The month of March, since it's the equivalent of October in these latitudes, was giving us some fine autumn days. It was the Canadian—on this topic he was never mistaken—who sighted a baleen whale on the eastern horizon. If you looked carefully, you could see its blackish back alternately rise and fall above the waves, five miles from the Nautilus.

"Wow!" Ned Land exclaimed. "If I were on board a whaler, there's an encounter that would be great fun! That's one big animal! Look how high its blowholes are spouting all that air and steam! Damnation! Why am I chained to this hunk of sheet iron!"

"Why, Ned!" I replied. "You still aren't over your old fishing urges?"

"How could a whale fisherman forget his old trade, sir? Who could ever get tired of such exciting hunting?"

"You've never fished these seas, Ned?"

"Never, sir. Just the northernmost seas, equally in the Bering Strait and the Davis Strait."

"So the southern right whale is still unknown to you. Until now it's the bowhead whale you've hunted, and it won't risk going past the warm waters of the equator."

"Oh, professor, what are you feeding me?" the Canadian answered in a tolerably skeptical tone.

"I'm feeding you the facts."

"By thunder! In '65, just two and a half years ago, I to whom you speak, I myself stepped onto the carcass of a whale near Greenland, and its flank still carried the marked harpoon of a whaling ship from the Bering Sea. Now I ask you, after it had been wounded west of America, how could this animal be killed in the east, unless it had cleared the equator and doubled Cape Horn or the Cape of Good Hope?"

"I agree with our friend Ned," Conseil said, "and I'm waiting to hear how Master will reply to him."

"Master will reply, my friends, that baleen whales are localized, according to species, within certain seas that they never leave. And if one of these animals went from the Bering Strait to the Davis Strait, it's quite simply because there's some passageway from the one sea to the other, either along the coasts of Canada or Siberia."

"You expect us to fall for that?" the Canadian asked, tipping me a wink.

"If Master says so," Conseil replied.

"Which means," the Canadian went on, "since I've never fished these waterways, I don't know the whales that frequent them?"

"That's what I've been telling you, Ned."

"All the more reason to get to know them," Conseil answered.

"Look! Look!" the Canadian exclaimed, his voice full of excitement. "It's approaching! It's coming toward us! It's thumbing its nose at me! It knows I can't do a blessed thing to it!"

Ned stamped his foot. Brandishing an imaginary harpoon, his hands positively trembled.

"These cetaceans," he asked, "are they as big as the ones in the northernmost seas?"

"Pretty nearly, Ned."

"Because I've seen big baleen whales, sir, whales measuring up to 100 feet long! I've even heard that those rorqual whales off the Aleutian Islands sometimes get over 150 feet."

"That strikes me as exaggerated," I replied. "Those animals are only members of the genus Balaenoptera furnished with dorsal fins, and like sperm whales, they're generally smaller than the bowhead whale."

"Oh!" exclaimed the Canadian, whose eyes hadn't left the ocean. "It's getting closer, it's coming into the Nautilus's waters!"

Then, going on with his conversation:

"You talk about sperm whales," he said, "as if they were little beasts! But there are stories of gigantic sperm whales. They're shrewd cetaceans. I hear that some will cover themselves with algae and fucus plants. People mistake them for islets. They pitch camp on top, make themselves at home, light a fire—"

"Build houses," Conseil said.

"Yes, funny man," Ned Land replied. "Then one fine day the animal dives and drags all its occupants down into the depths."

"Like in the voyages of Sinbad the Sailor," I answered, laughing. "Oh, Mr. Land, you're addicted to tall tales! What sperm whales you're handing us! I hope you don't really believe in them!"

"Mr. Naturalist," the Canadian replied in all seriousness, "when it comes to whales, you can believe anything! (Look at that one move! Look at it stealing away!) People claim these animals can circle around the world in just fifteen days."

"I don't say nay."

"But what you undoubtedly don't know, Professor Aronnax, is that at the beginning of the world, whales traveled even quicker."

"Oh really, Ned! And why so?"

"Because in those days their tails moved side to side, like those on fish, in other words, their tails were straight up, thrashing the water from left to right, right to left. But spotting that they swam too fast, our Creator twisted their tails, and ever since they've been thrashing the waves up and down, at the expense of their speed."

"Fine, Ned," I said, then resurrected one of the Canadian's expressions. "You expect us to fall for that?"

"Not too terribly," Ned Land replied, "and no more than if I told you there are whales that are 300 feet long and weigh 1,000,000 pounds."

"That's indeed considerable," I said. "But you must admit that certain cetaceans do grow to significant size, since they're said to supply as much as 120 metric tons of oil."

"That I've seen," the Canadian said.

"I can easily believe it, Ned, just as I can believe that certain baleen whales equal 100 elephants in bulk. Imagine the impact of such a mass if it were launched at full speed!"

"Is it true," Conseil asked, "that they can sink ships?"

"Ships? I doubt it," I replied. "However, they say that in 1820, right in these southern seas, a baleen whale rushed at the Essex and pushed it backward at a speed of four meters per second. Its stern was flooded, and the Essex went down fast."

Ned looked at me with a bantering expression.

"Speaking for myself," he said, "I once got walloped by a whale's tail—in my longboat, needless to say. My companions and I were launched to an altitude of six meters. But next to the Professor's whale, mine was just a baby."

"Do these animals live a long time?" Conseil asked.

"A thousand years," the Canadian replied without hesitation.

"And how, Ned," I asked, "do you know that's so?"

"Because people say so."

"And why do people say so?"

"Because people know so."

"No, Ned! People don't know so, they suppose so, and here's the logic with which they back up their beliefs. When fishermen first hunted whales 400 years ago, these animals grew to bigger sizes than they do today. Reasonably enough, it's assumed that today's whales are smaller because they haven't had time to reach their full growth. That's why the Count de Buffon's encyclopedia says that cetaceans can live, and even must live, for a thousand years. You understand?"

Ned Land didn't understand. He no longer even heard me. That baleen whale kept coming closer. His eyes devoured it.

"Oh!" he exclaimed. "It's not just one whale, it's ten, twenty, a whole gam! And I can't do a thing! I'm tied hand and foot!"

"But Ned my friend," Conseil said, "why not ask Captain Nemo for permission to hunt—"

Before Conseil could finish his sentence, Ned Land scooted down the hatch and ran to look for the captain. A few moments later, the two of them reappeared on the platform.

Captain Nemo observed the herd of cetaceans cavorting on the waters a mile from the Nautilus.

"They're southern right whales," he said. "There goes the fortune of a whole whaling fleet."

"Well, sir," the Canadian asked, "couldn't I hunt them, just so I don't forget my old harpooning trade?"

"Hunt them? What for?" Captain Nemo replied. "Simply to destroy them? We have no use for whale oil on this ship."

"But, sir," the Canadian went on, "in the Red Sea you authorized us to chase a dugong!"

"There it was an issue of obtaining fresh meat for my crew. Here it would be killing for the sake of killing. I'm well aware that's a privilege reserved for mankind, but I don't allow such murderous pastimes. When your peers, Mr. Land, destroy decent, harmless creatures like the southern right whale or the bowhead whale, they commit a reprehensible offense. Thus they've already depopulated all of Baffin Bay, and they'll wipe out a whole class of useful animals. So leave these poor cetaceans alone. They have quite enough natural enemies, such as sperm whales, swordfish, and sawfish, without you meddling with them."

I'll let the reader decide what faces the Canadian made during this lecture on hunting ethics. Furnishing such arguments to a professional harpooner was a waste of words. Ned Land stared at Captain Nemo and obviously missed his meaning. But the captain was right. Thanks to the mindless, barbaric bloodthirstiness of fishermen, the last baleen whale will someday disappear from the ocean.

Ned Land whistled "Yankee Doodle" between his teeth, stuffed his hands in his pockets, and turned his back on us.

Meanwhile Captain Nemo studied the herd of cetaceans, then addressed me:

"I was right to claim that baleen whales have enough natural enemies without counting man. These specimens will soon have to deal with mighty opponents. Eight miles to leeward, Professor Aronnax, can you see those blackish specks moving about?"

"Yes, Captain," I replied.

"Those are sperm whales, dreadful animals that I've sometimes encountered in herds of 200 or 300! As for them, they're cruel, destructive beasts, and they deserve to be exterminated."

The Canadian turned swiftly at these last words.

"Well, Captain," I said, "on behalf of the baleen whales, there's still time—"

"It's pointless to run any risks, professor. The Nautilus will suffice to disperse these sperm whales. It's armed with a steel spur quite equal to Mr. Land's harpoon, I imagine."

The Canadian didn't even bother shrugging his shoulders. Attacking cetaceans with thrusts from a spur! Who ever heard of such malarkey!

"Wait and see, Professor Aronnax," Captain Nemo said. "We'll show you a style of hunting with which you aren't yet familiar. We'll take no pity on these ferocious cetaceans. They're merely mouth and teeth!"

Mouth and teeth! There's no better way to describe the long–skulled sperm whale, whose length sometimes exceeds twenty–five meters. The enormous head of this cetacean occupies about a third of its body. Better armed than a baleen whale, whose upper jaw is adorned solely with whalebone, the sperm whale is equipped with twenty–five huge teeth that are twenty centimeters high, have cylindrical, conical summits, and weigh two pounds each. In the top part of this enormous head, inside big cavities separated by cartilage, you'll find 300 to 400 kilograms of that valuable oil called "spermaceti." The sperm whale is an awkward animal, more tadpole than fish, as Professor Frédol has noted. It's poorly constructed, being "defective," so to speak, over the whole left side of its frame, with good eyesight only in its right eye.

Meanwhile that monstrous herd kept coming closer. It had seen the baleen whales and was preparing to attack. You could tell in advance that the sperm whales would be victorious, not only because they were better built for fighting than their harmless adversaries, but also because they could stay longer underwater before returning to breathe at the surface.

There was just time to run to the rescue of the baleen whales. The Nautilus proceeded to midwater. Conseil, Ned, and I sat in front of the lounge windows. Captain Nemo made his way to the helmsman's side to operate his submersible as an engine of destruction. Soon I felt the beats of our propeller getting faster, and we picked up speed.

The battle between sperm whales and baleen whales had already begun when the Nautilus arrived. It maneuvered to cut into the herd of long–skulled predators. At first the latter showed little concern at the sight of this new monster meddling in the battle. But they soon had to sidestep its thrusts.

What a struggle! Ned Land quickly grew enthusiastic and even ended up applauding. Brandished in its captain's hands, the Nautilus was simply a fearsome harpoon. He hurled it at those fleshy masses and ran them clean through, leaving behind two squirming animal halves. As for those daunting strokes of the tail hitting our sides, the ship never felt them. No more than the collisions it caused. One sperm whale exterminated, it ran at another, tacked on the spot so as not to miss its prey, went ahead or astern, obeyed its rudder, dived when the cetacean sank to deeper strata, rose with it when it returned to the surface, struck it head–on or slantwise, hacked at it or tore it, and from every direction and at any speed, skewered it with its dreadful spur.

What bloodshed! What a hubbub on the surface of the waves! What sharp hisses and snorts unique to these frightened animals! Their tails churned the normally peaceful strata into actual billows.

This Homeric slaughter dragged on for an hour, and the long–skulled predators couldn't get away. Several times ten or twelve of them teamed up, trying to crush the Nautilus with their sheer mass. Through the windows you could see their enormous mouths paved with teeth, their fearsome eyes. Losing all self–control, Ned Land hurled threats and insults at them. You could feel them clinging to the submersible like hounds atop a wild boar in the underbrush. But by forcing the pace of its propeller, the Nautilus carried them off, dragged them under, or brought them back to the upper level of the waters, untroubled by their enormous weight or their powerful grip.

Finally this mass of sperm whales thinned out. The waves grew tranquil again. I felt us rising to the surface of the ocean. The hatch opened and we rushed onto the platform.

The sea was covered with mutilated corpses. A fearsome explosion couldn't have slashed, torn, or shredded these fleshy masses with greater violence. We were floating in the midst of gigantic bodies, bluish on the back, whitish on the belly, and all deformed by enormous protuberances. A few frightened sperm whales were fleeing toward the horizon. The waves were dyed red over an area of several miles, and the Nautilus was floating in the middle of a sea of blood.

Captain Nemo rejoined us.

"Well, Mr. Land?" he said.

"Well, sir," replied the Canadian, whose enthusiasm had subsided, "it's a dreadful sight for sure. But I'm a hunter not a butcher, and this is plain butchery."

"It was a slaughter of destructive animals," the captain replied, "and the Nautilus is no butcher knife."

"I prefer my harpoon," the Canadian answered.

"To each his own," the captain replied, staring intently at Ned Land.

I was in dread the latter would give way to some violent outburst that might have had deplorable consequences. But his anger was diverted by the sight of a baleen whale that the Nautilus had pulled alongside of just then.

This animal had been unable to escape the teeth of those sperm whales. I recognized the southern right whale, its head squat, its body dark all over. Anatomically, it's distinguished from the white whale and the black right whale by the fusion of its seven cervical vertebrae, and it numbers two more ribs than its relatives. Floating on its side, its belly riddled with bites, the poor cetacean was dead. Still hanging from the tip of its mutilated fin was a little baby whale that it had been unable to rescue from the slaughter. Its open mouth let water flow through its whalebone like a murmuring surf.

Captain Nemo guided the Nautilus next to the animal's corpse. Two of his men climbed onto the whale's flank, and to my astonishment, I saw them draw from its udders all the milk they held, in other words, enough to fill two or three casks.

The captain offered me a cup of this still–warm milk. I couldn't help showing my distaste for such a beverage. He assured me that this milk was excellent, no different from cow's milk.

I sampled it and agreed. So this milk was a worthwhile reserve ration for us, because in the form of salt butter or cheese, it would provide a pleasant change of pace from our standard fare.

From that day on, I noted with some uneasiness that Ned Land's attitudes toward Captain Nemo grew worse and worse, and I decided to keep a close watch on the Canadian's movements and activities.