Part 2: Chapters 11 & 12

Chapter 11

The Sargasso Sea

THE Nautilus didn’t change direction. For the time being, then, we had to set aside any hope of returning to European seas. Captain Nemo kept his prow pointing south. Where was he taking us? I was afraid to guess.

That day the Nautilus crossed an odd part of the Atlantic Ocean. No one is unaware of the existence of that great warm–water current known by name as the Gulf Stream. After emerging from channels off Florida, it heads toward Spitzbergen. But before entering the Gulf of Mexico near latitude 44° north, this current divides into two arms; its chief arm makes for the shores of Ireland and Norway while the second flexes southward at the level of the Azores; then it hits the coast of Africa, sweeps in a long oval, and returns to the Caribbean Sea.

Now then, this second arm—more accurately, a collar—forms a ring of warm water around a section of cool, tranquil, motionless ocean called the Sargasso Sea. This is an actual lake in the open Atlantic, and the great current’s waters take at least three years to circle it.

Properly speaking, the Sargasso Sea covers every submerged part of Atlantis. Certain authors have even held that the many weeds strewn over this sea were torn loose from the prairies of that ancient continent. But it’s more likely that these grasses, algae, and fucus plants were carried off from the beaches of Europe and America, then taken as far as this zone by the Gulf Stream. This is one of the reasons why Christopher Columbus assumed the existence of a New World. When the ships of that bold investigator arrived in the Sargasso Sea, they had great difficulty navigating in the midst of these weeds, which, much to their crews’ dismay, slowed them down to a halt; and they wasted three long weeks crossing this sector.

Such was the region our Nautilus was visiting just then: a genuine prairie, a tightly woven carpet of algae, gulfweed, and bladder wrack so dense and compact a craft’s stempost couldn’t tear through it without difficulty. Accordingly, not wanting to entangle his propeller in this weed–choked mass, Captain Nemo stayed at a depth some meters below the surface of the waves.

The name Sargasso comes from the Spanish word sargazo, meaning gulfweed. This gulfweed, the swimming gulfweed or berry carrier, is the chief substance making up this immense shoal. And here’s why these water plants collect in this placid Atlantic basin, according to the expert on the subject, Commander Maury, author of The Physical Geography of the Sea.

The explanation he gives seems to entail a set of conditions that everybody knows: “Now,” Maury says, “if bits of cork or chaff, or any floating substance, be put into a basin, and a circular motion be given to the water, all the light substances will be found crowding together near the center of the pool, where there is the least motion. Just such a basin is the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf Stream, and the Sargasso Sea is the center of the whirl.”

I share Maury’s view, and I was able to study the phenomenon in this exclusive setting where ships rarely go. Above us, huddled among the brown weeds, there floated objects originating from all over: tree trunks ripped from the Rocky Mountains or the Andes and sent floating down the Amazon or the Mississippi, numerous pieces of wreckage, remnants of keels or undersides, bulwarks staved in and so weighed down with seashells and barnacles, they couldn’t rise to the surface of the ocean. And the passing years will someday bear out Maury’s other view that by collecting in this way over the centuries, these substances will be turned to stone by the action of the waters and will then form inexhaustible coalfields. Valuable reserves prepared by farseeing nature for that time when man will have exhausted his mines on the continents.

In the midst of this hopelessly tangled fabric of weeds and fucus plants, I noted some delightful pink–colored, star–shaped alcyon coral, sea anemone trailing the long tresses of their tentacles, some green, red, and blue jellyfish, and especially those big rhizostome jellyfish that Cuvier described, whose bluish parasols are trimmed with violet festoons.

We spent the whole day of February 22 in the Sargasso Sea, where fish that dote on marine plants and crustaceans find plenty to eat. The next day the ocean resumed its usual appearance.

From this moment on, for nineteen days from February 23 to March 12, the Nautilus stayed in the middle of the Atlantic, hustling us along at a constant speed of 100 leagues every twenty–four hours. It was obvious that Captain Nemo wanted to carry out his underwater program, and I had no doubt that he intended, after doubling Cape Horn, to return to the Pacific South Seas.

So Ned Land had good reason to worry. In these wide seas empty of islands, it was no longer feasible to jump ship. Nor did we have any way to counter Captain Nemo’s whims. We had no choice but to acquiesce; but if we couldn’t attain our end through force or cunning, I liked to think we might achieve it through persuasion. Once this voyage was over, might not Captain Nemo consent to set us free in return for our promise never to reveal his existence? Our word of honor, which we sincerely would have kept. However, this delicate question would have to be negotiated with the captain. But how would he receive our demands for freedom? At the very outset and in no uncertain terms, hadn’t he declared that the secret of his life required that we be permanently imprisoned on board the Nautilus? Wouldn’t he see my four–month silence as a tacit acceptance of this situation? Would my returning to this subject arouse suspicions that could jeopardize our escape plans, if we had promising circumstances for trying again later on? I weighed all these considerations, turned them over in my mind, submitted them to Conseil, but he was as baffled as I was. In short, although I’m not easily discouraged, I realized that my chances of ever seeing my fellow men again were shrinking by the day, especially at a time when Captain Nemo was recklessly racing toward the south Atlantic!

During those nineteen days just mentioned, no unique incidents distinguished our voyage. I saw little of the captain. He was at work. In the library I often found books he had left open, especially books on natural history. He had thumbed through my work on the great ocean depths, and the margins were covered with his notes, which sometimes contradicted my theories and formulations. But the captain remained content with this method of refining my work, and he rarely discussed it with me. Sometimes I heard melancholy sounds reverberating from the organ, which he played very expressively, but only at night in the midst of the most secretive darkness, while the Nautilus slumbered in the wilderness of the ocean.

During this part of our voyage, we navigated on the surface of the waves for entire days. The sea was nearly deserted. A few sailing ships, laden for the East Indies, were heading toward the Cape of Good Hope. One day we were chased by the longboats of a whaling vessel, which undoubtedly viewed us as some enormous baleen whale of great value. But Captain Nemo didn’t want these gallant gentlemen wasting their time and energy, so he ended the hunt by diving beneath the waters. This incident seemed to fascinate Ned Land intensely. I’m sure the Canadian was sorry that these fishermen couldn’t harpoon our sheet–iron cetacean and mortally wound it.

During this period the fish Conseil and I observed differed little from those we had already studied in other latitudes. Chief among them were specimens of that dreadful cartilaginous genus that’s divided into three subgenera numbering at least thirty–two species: striped sharks five meters long, the head squat and wider than the body, the caudal fin curved, the back with seven big, black, parallel lines running lengthwise; then perlon sharks, ash gray, pierced with seven gill openings, furnished with a single dorsal fin placed almost exactly in the middle of the body.

Some big dogfish also passed by, a voracious species of shark if there ever was one. With some justice, fishermen’s yarns aren’t to be trusted, but here’s what a few of them relate. Inside the corpse of one of these animals there were found a buffalo head and a whole calf; in another, two tuna and a sailor in uniform; in yet another, a soldier with his saber; in another, finally, a horse with its rider. In candor, none of these sounds like divinely inspired truth. But the fact remains that not a single dogfish let itself get caught in the Nautilus’s nets, so I can’t vouch for their voracity.

Schools of elegant, playful dolphin swam alongside for entire days. They went in groups of five or six, hunting in packs like wolves over the countryside; moreover, they’re just as voracious as dogfish, if I can believe a certain Copenhagen professor who says that from one dolphin’s stomach, he removed thirteen porpoises and fifteen seals. True, it was a killer whale, belonging to the biggest known species, whose length sometimes exceeds twenty–four feet. The family Delphinia numbers ten genera, and the dolphins I saw were akin to the genus Delphinorhynchus, remarkable for an extremely narrow muzzle four times as long as the cranium. Measuring three meters, their bodies were black on top, underneath a pinkish white strewn with small, very scattered spots.

From these seas I’ll also mention some unusual specimens of croakers, fish from the order Acanthopterygia, family Scienidea. Some authors—more artistic than scientific—claim that these fish are melodious singers, that their voices in unison put on concerts unmatched by human choristers. I don’t say nay, but to my regret these croakers didn’t serenade us as we passed.

Finally, to conclude, Conseil classified a large number of flying fish. Nothing could have made a more unusual sight than the marvelous timing with which dolphins hunt these fish. Whatever the range of its flight, however evasive its trajectory (even up and over the Nautilus), the hapless flying fish always found a dolphin to welcome it with open mouth. These were either flying gurnards or kitelike sea robins, whose lips glowed in the dark, at night scrawling fiery streaks in the air before plunging into the murky waters like so many shooting stars.

Our navigating continued under these conditions until March 13. That day the Nautilus was put to work in some depth–sounding experiments that fascinated me deeply.

By then we had fared nearly 13,000 leagues from our starting point in the Pacific high seas. Our position fix placed us in latitude 45° 37′ south and longitude 37° 53′ west. These were the same waterways where Captain Denham, aboard the Herald, payed out 14,000 meters of sounding line without finding bottom. It was here too that Lieutenant Parker, aboard the American frigate Congress, was unable to reach the underwater soil at 15,149 meters.

Captain Nemo decided to take his Nautilus down to the lowest depths in order to double–check these different soundings. I got ready to record the results of this experiment. The panels in the lounge opened, and maneuvers began for reaching those strata so prodigiously far removed.

It was apparently considered out of the question to dive by filling the ballast tanks. Perhaps they wouldn’t sufficiently increase the Nautilus’s specific gravity. Moreover, in order to come back up, it would be necessary to expel the excess water, and our pumps might not have been strong enough to overcome the outside pressure.

Captain Nemo decided to make for the ocean floor by submerging on an appropriately gradual diagonal with the help of his side fins, which were set at a 45° angle to the Nautilus’s waterline. Then the propeller was brought to its maximum speed, and its four blades churned the waves with indescribable violence.

Under this powerful thrust the Nautilus’s hull quivered like a resonating chord, and the ship sank steadily under the waters. Stationed in the lounge, the captain and I watched the needle swerving swiftly over the pressure gauge. Soon we had gone below the livable zone where most fish reside. Some of these animals can thrive only at the surface of seas or rivers, but a minority can dwell at fairly great depths. Among the latter I observed a species of dogfish called the cow shark that’s equipped with six respiratory slits, the telescope fish with its enormous eyes, the armored gurnard with gray thoracic fins plus black pectoral fins and a breastplate protected by pale red slabs of bone, then finally the grenadier, living at a depth of 1,200 meters, by that point tolerating a pressure of 120 atmospheres.

I asked Captain Nemo if he had observed any fish at more considerable depths.

“Fish? Rarely!” he answered me. “But given the current state of marine science, who are we to presume, what do we really know of these depths?”

“Just this, Captain. In going toward the ocean’s lower strata, we know that vegetable life disappears more quickly than animal life. We know that moving creatures can still be encountered where water plants no longer grow. We know that oysters and pilgrim scallops live in 2,000 meters of water, and that Admiral McClintock, England’s hero of the polar seas, pulled in a live sea star from a depth of 2,500 meters. We know that the crew of the Royal Navy’s Bulldogfished up a starfish from 2,620 fathoms, hence from a depth of more than one vertical league. Would you still say, Captain Nemo, that we really know nothing?”

“No, Professor,” the captain replied, “I wouldn’t be so discourteous. Yet I’ll ask you to explain how these creatures can live at such depths?”

“I explain it on two grounds,” I replied. “In the first place, because vertical currents, which are caused by differences in the water’s salinity and density, can produce enough motion to sustain the rudimentary lifestyles of sea lilies and starfish.”

“True,” the captain put in.

“In the second place, because oxygen is the basis of life, and we know that the amount of oxygen dissolved in salt water increases rather than decreases with depth, that the pressure in these lower strata helps to concentrate their oxygen content.”

“Oho! We know that, do we?” Captain Nemo replied in a tone of mild surprise. “Well, Professor, we have good reason to know it because it’s the truth. I might add, in fact, that the air bladders of fish contain more nitrogen than oxygen when these animals are caught at the surface of the water, and conversely, more oxygen than nitrogen when they’re pulled up from the lower depths. Which bears out your formulation. But let’s continue our observations.”

My eyes flew back to the pressure gauge. The instrument indicated a depth of 6,000 meters. Our submergence had been going on for an hour. The Nautilus slid downward on its slanting fins, still sinking. These deserted waters were wonderfully clear, with a transparency impossible to convey. An hour later we were at 13,000 meters—about three and a quarter vertical leagues—and the ocean floor was nowhere in sight.

However, at 14,000 meters I saw blackish peaks rising in the midst of the waters. But these summits could have belonged to mountains as high or even higher than the Himalayas or Mt. Blanc, and the extent of these depths remained incalculable.

Despite the powerful pressures it was undergoing, the Nautilus sank still deeper. I could feel its sheet–iron plates trembling down to their riveted joins; metal bars arched; bulkheads groaned; the lounge windows seemed to be warping inward under the water’s pressure. And this whole sturdy mechanism would surely have given way, if, as its captain had said, it weren’t capable of resisting like a solid block.

While grazing these rocky slopes lost under the waters, I still spotted some seashells, tube worms, lively annelid worms from the genus Spirorbis, and certain starfish specimens.

But soon these last representatives of animal life vanished, and three vertical leagues down, the Nautilus passed below the limits of underwater existence just as an air balloon rises above the breathable zones in the sky. We reached a depth of 16,000 meters—four vertical leagues—and by then the Nautilus’s plating was tolerating a pressure of 1,600 atmospheres, in other words, 1,600 kilograms per each square centimeter on its surface!

“What an experience!” I exclaimed. “Traveling these deep regions where no man has ever ventured before! Look, captain! Look at these magnificent rocks, these uninhabited caves, these last global haunts where life is no longer possible! What unheard–of scenery, and why are we reduced to preserving it only as a memory?”

“Would you like,” Captain Nemo asked me, “to bring back more than just a memory?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that nothing could be easier than taking a photograph of this underwater region!”

Before I had time to express the surprise this new proposition caused me, a camera was carried into the lounge at Captain Nemo’s request. The liquid setting, electrically lit, unfolded with perfect clarity through the wide–open panels. No shadows, no blurs, thanks to our artificial light. Not even sunshine could have been better for our purposes. With the thrust of its propeller curbed by the slant of its fins, the Nautilus stood still. The camera was aimed at the scenery on the ocean floor, and in a few seconds we had a perfect negative.

I attach a print of the positive. In it you can view these primordial rocks that have never seen the light of day, this nether granite that forms the powerful foundation of our globe, the deep caves cut into the stony mass, the outlines of incomparable distinctness whose far edges stand out in black as if from the brush of certain Flemish painters. In the distance is a mountainous horizon, a wondrously undulating line that makes up the background of this landscape. The general effect of these smooth rocks is indescribable: black, polished, without moss or other blemish, carved into strange shapes, sitting firmly on a carpet of sand that sparkled beneath our streams of electric light.

Meanwhile, his photographic operations over, Captain Nemo told me:

“Let’s go back up, professor. We mustn’t push our luck and expose the Nautilus too long to these pressures.”

“Let’s go back up!” I replied.

“Hold on tight.”

Before I had time to realize why the captain made this recommendation, I was hurled to the carpet.

Its fins set vertically, its propeller thrown in gear at the captain’s signal, the Nautilus rose with lightning speed, shooting upward like an air balloon into the sky. Vibrating resonantly, it knifed through the watery mass. Not a single detail was visible. In four minutes it had cleared the four vertical leagues separating it from the surface of the ocean, and after emerging like a flying fish, it fell back into the sea, making the waves leap to prodigious heights.

Chapter 12

Sperm Whales and Baleen Whales

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.

Chapter List