Vingt mille lieues sous.., p.36

Vingt mille lieues sous les mers. English, page 36


Vingt mille lieues sous les mers. English

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  "Ships? I doubt it," I replied. "However, they say that in 1820,right in these southern seas, a baleen whale rushed at the Essexand 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 launchedto 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 logicwith which they back up their beliefs. When fishermen first hunted whales400 years ago, these animals grew to bigger sizes than they do today.Reasonably enough, it's assumed that today's whales are smallerbecause they haven't had time to reach their full growth.That's why the Count de Buffon's encyclopedia says that cetaceanscan 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 Nemofor permission to hunt--"

  Before Conseil could finish his sentence, Ned Land scooted downthe 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 watersa mile from the Nautilus.

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

  "Well, sir," the Canadian asked, "couldn't I hunt them, just so Idon'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 authorizedus 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 awarethat's a privilege reserved for mankind, but I don't allow suchmurderous 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 depopulatedall of Baffin Bay, and they'll wipe out a whole class of useful animals.So leave these poor cetaceans alone. They have quite enoughnatural 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 thislecture on hunting ethics. Furnishing such arguments to a professionalharpooner was a waste of words. Ned Land stared at Captain Nemoand 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 hishands 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 enemieswithout counting man. These specimens will soon have to dealwith 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 sometimesencountered 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 willsuffice to disperse these sperm whales. It's armed with a steelspur 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 heardof 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 merelymouth and teeth!"

  Mouth and teeth! There's no better way to describe the long-skulledsperm 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 solelywith whalebone, the sperm whale is equipped with twenty-fivehuge teeth that are twenty centimeters high, have cylindrical,conical summits, and weigh two pounds each. In the top part of thisenormous head, inside big cavities separated by cartilage, you'll find300 to 400 kilograms of that valuable oil called "spermaceti."The sperm whale is an awkward animal, more tadpole than fish,as Professor Fr?dol 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 theirharmless adversaries, but also because they could stay longerunderwater 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 frontof the lounge windows. Captain Nemo made his way to the helmsman'sside to operate his submersible as an engine of destruction.Soon I felt the beats of our propeller getting faster, and wepicked up speed.

  The battle between sperm whales and baleen whales had already begunwhen the Nautilus arrived. It maneuvered to cut into the herdof long-skulled predators. At first the latter showed littleconcern 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 endedup applauding. Brandished in its captain's hands, the Nautilus wassimply a fearsome harpoon. He hurled it at those fleshy masses and ranthem 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 spotso as not to miss its prey, went ahead or astern, obeyed its rudder,dived when the cetacean sank to deeper strata, rose with itwhen 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-skulledpredators couldn't get away. Several times ten or twelve of themteamed up, trying to crush the Nautilus with their sheer mass.Through the windows you could see their enormous mouths pavedwith teeth, their fearsome eyes. Losing all self-control, Ned Landhurled threats and insults at them. You could feel them clingingto 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 grewtranquil 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 explosioncouldn't have slashed, torn, or shredded these fleshy masses withgreater v
iolence. We were floating in the midst of gigantic bodies,bluish on the back, whitish on the belly, and all deformedby enormous protuberances. A few frightened sperm whales werefleeing toward the horizon. The waves were dyed red over an areaof several miles, and the Nautilus was floating in the middleof 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 outburstthat might have had deplorable consequences. But his anger wasdiverted by the sight of a baleen whale that the Nautilus had pulledalongside 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 darkall over. Anatomically, it's distinguished from the white whale andthe 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 babywhale 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 reserveration 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'sattitudes toward Captain Nemo grew worse and worse, and I decidedto keep a close watch on the Canadian's movements and activities.


  The Ice Bank

  THE NAUTILUS resumed its unruffled southbound heading.It went along the 50th meridian with considerable speed.Would it go to the pole? I didn't think so, because every previousattempt to reach this spot on the globe had failed. Besides, the seasonwas already quite advanced, since March 13 on Antarctic shorescorresponds with September 13 in the northernmost regions,which marks the beginning of the equinoctial period.

  On March 14 at latitude 55 degrees, I spotted floating ice,plain pale bits of rubble twenty to twenty-five feet long,which formed reefs over which the sea burst into foam. The Nautilusstayed on the surface of the ocean. Having fished in the Arctic seas,Ned Land was already familiar with the sight of icebergs.Conseil and I were marveling at them for the first time.

  In the sky toward the southern horizon, there stretched a dazzlingwhite band. English whalers have given this the name "ice blink."No matter how heavy the clouds may be, they can't obscurethis phenomenon. It announces the presence of a pack, or shoal, of ice.

  Indeed, larger blocks of ice soon appeared, their brilliance varyingat the whim of the mists. Some of these masses displayed green veins,as if scrawled with undulating lines of copper sulfate. Others lookedlike enormous amethysts, letting the light penetrate their insides.The latter reflected the sun's rays from the thousand facets oftheir crystals. The former, tinted with a bright limestone sheen,would have supplied enough building material to make a whole marble town.

  The farther down south we went, the more these floating islands grewin numbers and prominence. Polar birds nested on them by the thousands.These were petrels, cape pigeons, or puffins, and their callswere deafening. Mistaking the Nautilus for the corpse of a whale,some of them alighted on it and prodded its resonant sheet ironwith pecks of their beaks.

  During this navigating in the midst of the ice, Captain Nemooften stayed on the platform. He observed these desertedwaterways carefully. I saw his calm eyes sometimes perk up.In these polar seas forbidden to man, did he feel right at home,the lord of these unreachable regions? Perhaps. But he didn't say.He stood still, reviving only when his pilot's instincts took over.Then, steering his Nautilus with consummate dexterity, he skillfullydodged the masses of ice, some of which measured several milesin length, their heights varying from seventy to eighty meters.Often the horizon seemed completely closed off. Abreast of latitude60 degrees, every passageway had disappeared. Searching with care,Captain Nemo soon found a narrow opening into which he brazenly slipped,well aware, however, that it would close behind him.

  Guided by his skillful hands, the Nautilus passed by all these differentmasses of ice, which are classified by size and shape with a precisionthat enraptured Conseil: "icebergs," or mountains; "ice fields,"or smooth, limitless tracts; "drift ice," or floating floes;"packs," or broken tracts, called "patches" when they're circularand "streams" when they form long strips.

  The temperature was fairly low. Exposed to the outside air,the thermometer marked -2 degrees to

  -3 degrees centigrade. But we were warmly dressed in furs,for which seals and aquatic bears had paid the price. Evenly heatedby all its electric equipment, the Nautilus's interior defiedthe most intense cold. Moreover, to find a bearable temperature,the ship had only to sink just a few meters beneath the waves.

  Two months earlier we would have enjoyed perpetual daylight inthis latitude; but night already fell for three or four hours, and laterit would cast six months of shadow over these circumpolar regions.

  On March 15 we passed beyond the latitude of the South Shetland andSouth Orkney Islands. The captain told me that many tribes of sealsused to inhabit these shores; but English and American whalers,in a frenzy of destruction, slaughtered all the adults,including pregnant females, and where life and activity once existed,those fishermen left behind only silence and death.

  Going along the 55th meridian, the Nautilus cut the Antarctic Circleon March 16 near eight o'clock in the morning. Ice completelysurrounded us and closed off the horizon. Nevertheless, Captain Nemowent from passageway to passageway, always proceeding south.

  "But where's he going?" I asked.

  "Straight ahead," Conseil replied. "Ultimately, when he can't goany farther, he'll stop."

  "I wouldn't bet on it!" I replied.

  And in all honesty, I confess that this venturesome excursionwas far from displeasing to me. I can't express the intensityof my amazement at the beauties of these new regions.The ice struck superb poses. Here, its general effect suggestedan oriental town with countless minarets and mosques. There, a cityin ruins, flung to the ground by convulsions in the earth.These views were varied continuously by the sun's oblique rays,or were completely swallowed up by gray mists in the middle of blizzards.Then explosions, cave-ins, and great iceberg somersaults would occurall around us, altering the scenery like the changing landscapein a diorama.

  If the Nautilus was submerged during these losses of balance, we heardthe resulting noises spread under the waters with frightful intensity,and the collapse of these masses created daunting eddies downto the ocean's lower strata. The Nautilus then rolled and pitchedlike a ship left to the fury of the elements.

  Often, no longer seeing any way out, I thought we were imprisonedfor good, but Captain Nemo, guided by his instincts, discovered newpassageways from the tiniest indications. He was never wrongwhen he observed slender threads of bluish water streaking throughthese ice fields. Accordingly, I was sure that he had alreadyrisked his Nautilus in the midst of the Antarctic seas.

  However, during the day of March 16, these tracts of ice completelybarred our path. It wasn't the Ice Bank as yet, just huge icefi
elds cemented together by the cold. This obstacle couldn't stopCaptain Nemo, and he launched his ship against the ice fieldswith hideous violence. The Nautilus went into these brittlemasses like a wedge, splitting them with dreadful cracklings.It was an old-fashioned battering ram propelled with infinite power.Hurled aloft, ice rubble fell back around us like hail.Through brute force alone, the submersible carved out a channelfor itself. Carried away by its momentum, the ship sometimes mountedon top of these tracts of ice and crushed them with its weight,or at other times, when cooped up beneath the ice fields, it splitthem with simple pitching movements, creating wide punctures.

  Violent squalls assaulted us during the daytime. Thanks to certainheavy mists, we couldn't see from one end of the platform to the other.The wind shifted abruptly to every point on the compass.The snow was piling up in such packed layers, it had to be chippedloose with blows from picks. Even in a temperature of merely -5degrees centigrade, every outside part of the Nautilus was coveredwith ice. A ship's rigging would have been unusable, because allits tackle would have jammed in the grooves of the pulleys.Only a craft without sails, driven by an electric motor that neededno coal, could face such high latitudes.

  Under these conditions the barometer generally stayed quite low.It fell as far as 73.5 centimeters. Our compass indicationsno longer offered any guarantees. The deranged needles wouldmark contradictory directions as we approached the southernmagnetic pole, which doesn't coincide with the South Pole proper.In fact, according to the astronomer Hansteen, this magnetic pole islocated fairly close to latitude 70 degrees and longitude 130 degrees,or abiding by the observations of Louis-Isidore Duperrey, in longitude135 degrees and latitude 70 degrees 30'. Hence we had to transportcompasses to different parts of the ship, take many readings,and strike an average. Often we could chart our course only by guesswork,a less than satisfactory method in the midst of these windingpassageways whose landmarks change continuously.


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