A Whale of a Story

Ezra Azra

Copyright 2022 by Ezra Azra

Image by JamesDeMers from Pixabay
Image by JamesDeMers from Pixabay.

His nickname was Golly; his official name was Cyril. His family lived on the same road as my family, in our village of Clairwood. He attended the same school as me. He was in standard six when I was in standard one.

After he graduated from school in the 1960's, Golly got a job as a sailor on a whaler boat out of the City of Durban. The whaler boat had a crew of five men, including the captain. 

They hunted whales in the Antarctic ocean. In the Antarctic, below freezing temperatures in blisteringly swift winds, are the norm.

It was a cruel profession. Golly did not like being a whaler. From his accounts to us, nobody liked being a whaler. The work was brutal, in merciless conditions. However, paid employment was nearly impossible to get in our part of the country in those times. He felt so unhappy about killing whales that although every member of the crew was given as much whale meat to take home as he could carry, Golly brought home no whale meat. One of his whaler friends, Ernest Usher, brought us some once. When cooked, the meat was delicious

Whaling was so brutal on the body, that the industry had extreme difficulty hiring the full four sailors needed on a whaler for the three-month season. Most sailors served for only one season. A whaling boat sailed from a home-base in Norway. It took less than a day to arrive at Durban, South Africa. The boat would not set sail from home-base in Norway, until four crew men had been hired in Durban.

Seldom was there a season that went uninterrupted by the whaler having to return to port emptyhanded because an ill sailor had to be brought back. Golly was among the few who seemed to be genetically perfectly equipped to be a whaler sailor. In the years he was a whaler, he was the only one who returned every year.

Curiously, although some seasons were delayed because four were late to find, never was a season cancelled.

When a whale was sighted, the helmsman would set a course in chase. The captain would prepare the harpoon gun. He was the only harponeer on board; the only one who fired the harpoon gun.

The lookout man stationed at the top of the high mast-pole would track the whale with his telescope. His job was to discern if the whale was accompanied by a calf. If it was not, he gave the signal to go in for the kill.

If a group of whales was sighted, the whaler would follow the group until one whale left the group.

When the boat was close enough to the unsuspecting whale, the captain would fire the harpoon. The captain never missed. The harpoon's arrow-point would penetrate deep into the whale's body. From then on, the whalers waited as the whale towed their whaler. It could take up to an hour for the whale to die of exhaustion.

When the whale was dead, the whaler towed the dead whale back to the whaling station located in Durban.

If a whale chose to attack, a whaler boat would not stand a fighting chance. And yet, up until 1975, the last year Golly's hometown was a base for Antarctic whaling, there was no record of such an attack. There are records of isolated incidents involving whales accidentally surfacing from under small craft, capsizing them.

Golly was the cook on the whaler. He was successful most of the time in not witnessing the chase and the kill of an unsuspecting whale. Golly was especially thankful for the inexplicable Whale Industry policy that whale meat was never on the menu on a whaler boat. Nobody has cared to provide a practical or scientific explanation of the policy.

Golly's personal, deeply prejudiced, explanation was that whale meat cooked and eaten on a whale boat would be too closely akin to cannibalism.

The whaling industry was financially profitable enough for it to continue for many years because in a three-month hunting season each year, no more than three whales needed to be killed. More than three every year would have not been practical because, usually, weeks would pass before a whale was sighted that was legally allowed to be killed.

It was in those weeks that Golly spent his free time carving a whale tooth from his collection of whale teeth, into a figure of a whale. It was Golly's labour-of-love in expiation of being complicit in whale-murdering. By the end of the whaling season, Golly returned home with about half-dozen perfectly beautiful hand-sized whale carvings. Family and others urged him to sell them; he never did.

It was the last season for Golly. At the time he could not have known it.

The whaler was in pursuit of its unsuspecting victim. The weather turned violent. It was early afternoon, but the stormy weather made it seem like midnight dark. The captain called off the chase because in the rainstorm, visibility had significantly been diminished.

Whaling boats are designed for all weathers. There never had been a weather-sinking in modern times. The captain had no doubt his boat would be no exception.

In the seconds it took the helmsman to realize there was no communication from the mast-pole lookout, the boat was blown off-course onto shoreline rocks. The damage made it likely the boat would start sinking at any moment.

The captain shot the harpoon into the rocks. The harpoon cable provided a lifeline for the crew to hand-swing to safety on the rocks.

A wave smacked into the boat. It sank. The lifeline cable disappeared underwater. Only the top of the mast-pole was visible. All hope was lost for the five and the boat. The four deckhands did not know at the time that the mast lookout sailor, Ernest Usher, had fallen from his post, and had instantly perished in the storm.

Then, a miracle! The boat slowly emerged and lodged firmly against the rocks. The cable surfaced, intact, and still firmly attached to the harpoon gun at one end, and in the harpoon itself at the other. The harpoon arrow-head spear was firmly embedded in rock. The four scrambled one-by-one, one after the other, captain last, they pushed-pulled themselves upside-down along the cable, hand-over-hand and feet crossed above and against the cable. They stepped onto rock when they reached th harpoon. On the shoreline rocks, they huddled against towering rocks until the storm subsided.

The captain dismissed the miracle as a normal consequence of extreme wave motions during a storm.

By Golly's account to us, the whale they had been chasing but never got close enough to harpoon, had returned. It had braced itself against the boat, and raised it above the water.

Had that whale sensed Golly was on board, and needed help in order to complete his latest whale-carving?

The body of the mast lookout whaler was never recovered. The other four crewmen spent a few days in hospital, and recovered completely.

When the boat sank out of view for a few minutes, the captain had been seriously injured. He was in hospital for more than a few days. When he recovered, the Company housed him in a hotel for a few weeks before his return to Norway.

In those weeks, the Company hired Golly to chauffer the captain around. When the captain returned to Norway, he invited Golly to apply to work for the Company in Norway. Golly's application was successful. The last I heard about Golly, was that he was living happily, in Norway.

When Golly had come back to his home on Cherry Road, Clairwood, after his few days stay in hospital, he gave me a present; the last whale he carved on board, from a whale's tooth.

I am looking at it now, on my table as I am writing this account, over sixty years later.

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