Part 1 - Chapter 1
A Shifting Reef
The year 1866 was signalized by a remarkable incident, a
mysterious and inexplicable phenomenon, which doubtless no one has yet forgotten. Not to
mention rumors which agitated the maritime population, and excited the public mind, even
in the interior of continents, seafaring men were particularly excited. Merchants, common
sailors, captains of vessels, skippers, both of Europe and America, naval officers of all
countries, and the Governments of several states on the two continents, were deeply
interested in the matter.
For some time past, vessels had been met by "an
enormous thing," a long object, spindle-shaped, occasionally phosphorescent, and
infinitely larger and more rapid in its movements than a whale.
The facts relating to this apparition (entered in various
log books) agreed in most respects as to the shape of the object or creature in question,
the untiring rapidity of its movements, its surprising power of locomotion, and the
peculiar life with which it seemed endowed. If it was a cetacean, it surpassed in size all
those hitherto classified in science. Taking into consideration the mean of observations
made at divers times- rejecting the timid estimate of those who assigned to this object a
length of two hundred feet, equally with the exaggerated opinions which set it down as a
mile in width and three in length- we might fairly conclude that this mysterious being
surpassed greatly all dimensions admitted by the ichthyologists of the day, if it existed
at all. And that it did exist was an undeniable fact; and, with that tendency which
disposes the human mind in favor of the marvelous, we can understand the excitement
produced in the entire world by this supernatural apparition. As to classing it in the
list of fables, the idea was out of the question.
July 20, 1866, the steamer Governor Higginson, of
the Calcutta and Burnach Steam Navigation Company, had met this moving mass five miles off
the east coast of Australia. Captain Baker thought at first that he was in the presence of
an unknown sand bank; he even prepared to determine its exact position, when two columns
of water, projected by the inexplicable object, shot with a hissing noise a hundred fifty
feet up into the air. Now, unless the sand bank had been submitted to the intermittent
eruption of a geyser, the Governor Higginson had to do neither more nor less than
with an aquatic mammal, unknown till then, which threw up from its blowholes columns of
water mixed with air and vapor.
Similar facts were observed on July 23 in the same year,
in the Pacific Ocean, by the Columbus, of the West India and Pacific Steam
Navigation Company. But this extraordinary cetaceous creature could transport itself from
one place to another with surprising velocity; as, in an interval of three days, the Governor
Higginson and the Columbus had observed it at two different points of the
chart, separated by a distance of more than seven hundred nautical leagues.
Fifteen days later, two thousand miles farther off, the Helvetia,
of the Compagnie-Nationale, and the Shannon, of the Royal Mail Steamship Company,
sailing to windward in that portion of the Atlantic lying between the United States and
Europe, respectively signaled the monster to each other in 42° 15' N. latitude and 60°
35' W. longitude. In these simultaneous observations, they thought themselves justified in
estimating the minimum length of the mammal at more than three hundred fifty feet, as the Shannon
and Helvetia were of smaller dimensions than it, though they measured three hundred
feet over all.
Now the largest whales, those which frequent those parts
of the sea round the Aleutian, Kulammak, and Umgullich islands, have never exceeded the
length of sixty yards, if they attain that.
These reports arriving one after the other, with fresh
observations made on board the transatlantic ship Pereire, a collision which
occurred between the Etna of the Inman line and the monster, a procès verbal
directed by the officers of the French frigate Normandie, a very accurate survey
made by the staff of Commodore Fitz-James on board the Lord Clyde, greatly
influenced public opinion. Light thinking people jested upon the phenomenon, but grave
practical countries, such as England, America, and Germany, treated the matter more
In every place of great resort the monster was the
fashion. They sang of it in the cafes, ridiculed it in the papers, and represented it on
the stage. All kinds of stories were circulated regarding it. There appeared in the papers
caricatures of every gigantic and imaginary creature, from the white whale, the terrible
"Moby Dick" of hyperborean regions, to the immense kraken whose tentacles could
entangle a ship of five hundred tons, and hurry it into the abyss of the ocean. The
legends of ancient times were even resuscitated, and the opinions of Aristotle and Pliny
revived, who admitted the existence of these monsters, as well as the Norwegian tales of
Bishop Pontoppidan, the accounts of Paul Heggede, and, last of all, the reports of Mr.
Harrington (whose good faith no one could suspect), who affirmed that, being on board the Castillan,
in 1857, he had seen this enormous serpent, which had never until that time frequented any
other seas but those of the ancient "Constitutionnel".
Then burst forth the interminable controversy between the
credulous and the incredulous in the societies of savants and scientific journals.
"The question of the monster" inflamed all minds. Editors of scientific
journals, quarreling with believers in the supernatural, spilled seas of ink during this
memorable campaign, some even drawing blood; for, from the sea serpent, they came to
For six months war was waged with various fortune in the
leading articles of the Geographical Institution of Brazil, the Royal Academy of Science
of Berlin, the British Association, the Smithsonian Institution of Washington, in the
discussions of the "Indian Archipelago," in le Cosmos of the Abbe Moigno, in the
Mitteilungen of Petermann, in the scientific chronicles of the great journals of France
and other countries. The cheaper journals replied keenly and with inexhaustible zest.
These satirical writers parodied a remark of Linnaeus, quoted by the adversaries of the
monster, maintaining "that nature did not make fools," and adjured their
contemporaries not to give the lie to nature, by admitting the existence of krakens, sea
serpents, "Moby Dicks," and other lucubrations of delirious sailors. At length
an article in a well-known satirical journal by a favorite contributor, the chief of the
staff, settled the monster, like Hippolytus, giving it the death blow amidst a universal
burst of laughter. Wit had conquered science.
During the first months of the year 1867, the question
seemed buried never to revive, when new facts were brought before the public. It was then
no longer a scientific problem to be solved, but a real danger seriously to be avoided.
The question took quite another shape. The monster became a small island, a rock, a reef,
but a reef of indefinite and shifting proportions.
On March 5, 1867, the Moravian, of the Montreal
Ocean Company, finding herself during the night in 27° 30' latitude and 72° 15'
longitude, struck on her starboard quarter a rock, marked in no chart for that part of the
sea. Under the combined efforts of the wind and its four hundred horse power, it was going
at the rate of thirteen knots. Had it not been for the superior strength of the hull of
the Moravian, she would have been broken by the shock, and gone down with the 237
passengers she was bringing home from Canada.
The accident happened about five o'clock in the morning,
as the day was breaking. The officers of the quarterdeck hurried to the after part of the
vessel. They examined the sea with the most scrupulous attention. They saw nothing but a
strong eddy about three cables' length distant, as if the surface had been violently
agitated. The bearings of the place were taken exactly, and the Moravian continued its
route without apparent damage. Had it struck on a submerged rock, or on an enormous wreck?
They could not tell; but on examination of the ship's bottom when undergoing repairs, it
was found that part of her keel was broken.
This fact, so grave in itself, might perhaps have been
forgotten like many others, if, three weeks after, it had not been reenacted under similar
circumstances. But, thanks to the nationality of the victim of the shock, thanks to the
reputation of the company to which the vessel belonged, the circumstance became
April 13, 1867, the sea being beautiful, the breeze
favorable, the Scotia of the Cunard Company's line found herself in 15° 12'
longitude and 45° 37' latitude. She was going at the speed of thirteen and a half knots.
At seventeen minutes past four in the afternoon, while the
passengers were assembled at lunch in the great saloon, a slight shock was felt on the
hull of the Scotia, on her quarter, a little aft of the port paddle.
The Scotia had not struck, but she had been struck,
and seemingly by something rather sharp and penetrating than blunt. The shock had been so
slight that no one had been alarmed, had it not been for the shouts of the carpenter's
watch, who rushed on to the bridge, exclaiming, "We are sinking! we are
sinking!" At first the passengers were much frightened, but Captain Anderson hastened
to reassure them. The danger could not be imminent. The Scotia, divided into seven
compartments by strong partitions, could brave with impunity any leak. Captain Anderson
went down immediately into the hold. He found that the sea was pouring into the fifth
compartment; and the rapidity of the influx proved that the force of the water was
considerable. Fortunately this compartment did not hold the boilers, or the fires would
have been immediately extinguished. Captain Anderson ordered the engines to be stopped at
once, and one of the men went down to ascertain the extent of the injury. Some minutes
afterwards they discovered the existence of a large hole of two yards in diameter, in the
ship's bottom. Such, a leak could not be stopped; and the Scotia, her paddles half
submerged, was obliged to continue her course. She was then three hundred miles from Cape
Clear, and after three days' delay, which caused great uneasiness in Liverpool, she
entered the basin of the company.
The engineers visited the Scotia, which was put in
dry dock. They could scarcely believe it possible; at two yards and a half below watermark
was a regular rent, in the form of an isosceles triangle. The broken place in the iron
plates was so perfectly defined, that it could not have been more neatly done by a punch.
It was clear, then, that the instrument producing the perforation was not of a common
stamp; and after having been driven with prodigious strength, and piercing an iron plate 1
3/8 inches thick, had withdrawn itself by a retrograde motion truly inexplicable.
Such was the last fact, which resulted in exciting once
more the torrent of public opinion. From this moment all unlucky casualties which could
not be otherwise accounted for were put down to the monster.
Upon this imaginary creature rested the responsibility of
all these shipwrecks, which unfortunately were considerable; for of three thousand ships
whose loss was annually recorded at Lloyds, the number of sailing and steam ships supposed
to be totally lost, from the absence of an news, amounted to not less than two hundred!
Now, it was the "monster" who, justly or
unjustly, was accused of their disappearance, and, thanks to it, communication between the
different continents became more and more dangerous. The public demanded peremptorily that
the seas should at any price be relieved from this formidable cetacean.
Part 1 - Chapter 2
Pro and Con
At the period when these events took place, I had just
returned from a scientific research in the disagreeable territory of Nebraska, in the
United States. In virtue of my office as Assistant Professor in the Museum of Natural
History in Paris, the French Government had attached me to that expedition. After six
months in Nebraska, I arrived in New York toward the end of March, laden with a precious
collection. My departure for France was fixed for the first days in May. Meanwhile, I was
occupying myself in classifying my mineralogical, botanical, and zoological riches, when
the accident happened to the Scotia.
I was perfectly up in the subject which was the question
of the day. How could I be otherwise? I had and re-read all the American and European
papers without being any nearer a conclusion. This mystery puzzled me. Under the
impossibility of forming an opinion, I jumped from one extreme to the other. That there
really was something could not be doubted, and the incredulous were invited to put their
finger on the wound of the Scotia.
On my arrival at New York, the question was at its height.
The hypothesis of the floating island, and the unapproachable sand bank, supported by
minds little competent to form a judgment, was abandoned. And, indeed, unless this shoal
had a machine in its stomach, how could it change its position with such astonishing
From the same cause, the idea of a floating hull of an
enormous wreck was given up.
There remained then only two possible solutions of the
question, which created two distinct parties: on one side, those who were for a monster of
colossal strength; on the other, those who were for a submarine vessel of enormous motive
But this last hypothesis, plausible as it was, could not
stand against inquiries made in both worlds. That a private gentleman should have such a
machine at his command was not likely. Where, when, and how was it built? How could its
construction have been kept secret? Certainly a Government might possess such a
destructive machine. And in these disastrous times, when the ingenuity of man has
multiplied the power of weapons of war, it was possible that, without the knowledge of
others, a state might try to work such a formidable engine. After the chassepots came the
torpedoes, after the torpedoes the submarine rams, then the reaction. At least, I hope so.
But the hypothesis of a war machine fell before the
declaration of Governments. As public interest was question, and transatlantic
communications suffered, their veracity could not be doubted. But, how admit that the
construction of this submarine boat had escaped the public eye? For a private gentleman to
keep the secret under such circumstances would be very difficult, and for a state whose
every act is persistently watched by powerful rivals, certainly impossible.
After inquiries made in England, France, Russia, Prussia,
Spain, Italy, and America, even in Turkey, the hypothesis of a submarine monitor was
Upon my arrival in New York, several persons did me the
honor of consulting me on the phenomenon in question. I had published in France a work in
quarto, in two volumes, entitled, Mysteries of the Great Submarine Grounds. This book,
highly approved of in the learned world, gained for me a special reputation in this rather
obscure branch of natural history. My advice was asked. As long as I could deny the
reality of the fact, I confined myself to a decided negative. But soon finding myself
driven into a corner, I was obliged to explain myself categorically. And even "the
Honorable Pierre Aronnax, Professor in the Museum of Paris," was called upon by the New
York Herald to express a definite opinion of some sort. I did something. I spoke, for
want of power to hold my tongue. I discussed the question in all its forms, politically
and scientifically; and I give here an extract from a carefully studied article which I
published in the number of April 30. It ran as follows:
"After examining one by one the different hypotheses,
rejecting all other suggestions, it becomes necessary to admit the existence of a marine
animal of enormous power.
"The great depths of the ocean are entirely unknown
to us. Soundings cannot reach them. What passes in those remote depths- what beings live,
or can live, twelve or fifteen miles beneath the surface of the waters- what is the
organization of these animals, we can scarcely conjecture. However, the solution of the
problem submitted to me may modify the form of the dilemma. Either we do know all the
varieties of beings which people our planet, or we do not. If we do not know them all- if
Nature has still secrets in ichthyology for us, nothing is more conformable to reason than
to admit the existence of fishes, or cetaceans- of other kinds, or even of new species, of
an organization formed to inhabit the strata inaccessible to soundings, and which an
accident of some sort, either fantastical or capricious, has brought at long intervals to
the upper level of the ocean.
"If, on the contrary, we do know all living
kinds, we must necessarily seek for the animal in question amongst those marine beings
already classed; and, in that case, I should be disposed to admit the existence of a
"The common narwhal, or unicorn of the sea, often
attains a length of sixty feet. Increase its size fivefold or tenfold, give it strength
proportionate to its size, lengthen its destructive weapons, and you obtain the animal
required. It will have the proportions determined by the officers of the Shannon,
the instrument required by the perforation of the Scotia, and the power necessary
to pierce the hull of the steamer.
"Indeed the narwhal is armed with a sort of ivory
sword, a halberd, according to the expression of certain naturalists. The principal tusk
has the hardness of steel. Some of these tusks have been found buried in the bodies of
whales, which the unicorn always attacks with success. Others have been drawn out, not
without trouble, from the bottom of ships, which they had pierced through and through, as
a gimlet pierces a barrel. The Museum of the Faculty of Medicine of Paris possesses one of
these defensive weapons, two yards and a quarter in length, and fifteen inches in diameter
at the base.
"Very well! suppose this weapon to be six times
stronger, and the animal ten times more powerful; launch it at the rate of twenty miles an
hour, and you obtain a shock capable of producing the catastrophe required. Until further
information, therefore, I shall maintain it to be a sea unicorn of colossal dimensions,
armed, not with a halberd, but with a real spur, as the armored frigates, or the
"rams" of war, whose massiveness and motive power it would possess at the same
time. Thus may this inexplicable phenomenon be explained, unless there be something over
and above all that one has ever conjectured, seen, perceived, or experienced; which is
just within the bounds of possibility."
These last words were cowardly on my part; but, up to a
certain point, I wished to shelter my dignity as professor, and not give too much cause
for laughter to the Americans, who laugh well when they do laugh. I reserved for myself a
way of escape. In effect, however, I admitted the existence of the "monster." My
article was warmly discussed, which procured it a high reputation. It rallied round it a
certain number of partisans. The solution it proposed gave, at least, full liberty to the
imagination. The human mind delights in grand conceptions of supernatural beings. And the
sea is precisely their best vehicle, the only medium through which these giants (against
which terrestrial animals, such as elephants or rhinoceroses, are as nothing) can be
produced or developed.
The industrial and commercial papers treated the question
chiefly from this point of view. The Shipping and Mercantile Gazette, the Lloyds'
List, the Packet-Boat, and the Maritime and Colonial Review, all papers
devoted to insurance companies which threatened to raise their rates of premium, were
unanimous on this point. Public opinion had been pronounced. The United States was the
first in the field; and in New York they made preparations for an expedition destined to
pursue this narwhal. A frigate of great speed, the Abraham Lincoln, was put in
commission as soon as possible. The arsenals were opened to Commander Farragut, who
hastened the arming of his frigate; but, as it always happens, the moment it was decided
to pursue the monster, the monster did not appear. For two months no one heard it spoken
of. No ship met with it. It seemed as if this unicorn knew of the plots weaving around it.
It had been so much talked of, even through the Atlantic cable, that jesters pretended
that this slender fly had stopped a telegram on its passage, and was making the most of
So when the frigate had been armed for a long campaign,
and provided with formidable fishing apparatus, no one could tell what course to pursue.
Impatience grew apace, when, on July 2, they learned that a steamer of the line of San
Francisco, from California to Shanghai, had seen the animal three weeks before in the
North Pacific Ocean. The excitement caused by this news was extreme. The ship was
revictualed and well stocked with coal.
Three hours before the Abraham Lincoln left
Brooklyn pier, I received a letter worded as follows:
To M. ARONNAX,
Professor in the Museum of Paris,
Fifth Avenue Hotel, New York.
Sir: If you will consent to join the Abraham Lincoln in this expedition,
the Government of the United States will with pleasure see France
represented in the enterprise. Commander Farragut has a cabin at
Very cordially yours,
J. B. HOBSON,
Secretary of Marine
Part 1 - Chapter 3
I Form My Resolution
Three seconds before the arrival of J. B. Hobson's letter,
I no more thought of pursuing the unicorn than of attempting the passage of the North Sea.
Three seconds after reading the letter of the honorable Secretary of Marine, I felt that
my true vocation, the sole end of my life, was to chase this disturbing monster, and purge
it from the world.
But I had just returned from a fatiguing journey, weary
and longing for repose. I aspired to nothing more than again seeing my country, my
friends, my little lodging ing by the Jardins des Plants, my dear and precious
collections. But nothing could keep me back! I forgot all- fatigue, friends, and
collections- and accepted without hesitation the offer of the American Government.
"Besides," thought I, "all roads lead back to Europe; and the unicorn may
be amiable enough to hurry me toward the coast of France. This worthy animal may allow
itself to be caught in the seas of Europe (for my particular benefit), and I will not
bring back less than half a yard of his ivory halberd to the Museum of Natural
History." But in the meanwhile I must seek this narwhal in the North Pacific Ocean,
which, to return to France, was taking the road to the antipodes.
"Conseil," I called, in an impatient voice.
Conseil was my servant, a true, devoted Flemish boy, who
had accompanied me in all my travels. I liked him, and he returned the liking well. He was
phlegmatic by nature, regular from principle, zealous from habit, evincing little
disturbance at the different surprises of life, very quick with his hands, and apt at any
service required of him; and, despite his name, never giving advice- even when asked for
Conseil had followed me for the last ten years wherever
science led. Never once did he complain of the length or fatigue of a journey, never make
an objection to pack his portmanteau for whatever country it might be, or however far
away, whether China or the Congo. Besides all this, he had good health, which defied all
sickness, and solid muscles, but no nerves; good morals are understood. This boy was
thirty years old, and his age to that of his master as fifteen to twenty. May I be excused
for saying that I was forty years old?
But Conseil had one fault, he was ceremonious to a degree,
and would never speak to me but in the third person, which was sometimes provoking.
"Conseil," said I again, beginning with feverish
hands to make preparations for my departure.
Certainly I was sure of this devoted boy. As a rule, I
never asked him if it were convenient for him or not to follow. me in my travels; but this
time the expedition in question might be prolonged, and the enterprise might be hazardous
in pursuit of an animal capable of sinking a frigate as easily as a nutshell. Here there
was matter for reflection even to the most impassive man in the world. What would Conseil
"Conseil," I called a third time.
"Did you call, Sir?" said he, entering.
"Yes, my boy; make preparations for me and yourself
too. We leave in two hours."
"As you please, Sir," replied Conseil, quietly.
"Not an instant to lose; lock in my trunk all
traveling untensils coats, shirts, and stockings without counting, as many as you can, and
"And your collections, Sir?" observed Conseil.
"We will think of them by and by."
"What! the archiotherium, the hyracotherium, the
oreodons, cheropotamus, and the other skins?"
"They will keep them at the hotel."
"And your live Babiroussa, Sir?"
"They will feed it during our absence; besides, I
will give orders to forward our menagerie to France."
"We are not returning to Paris, then?" said
"Oh! certainly," I answered, evasively, "by
making a curve."
"Will the curve please you, Sir?"
"Oh! it will be nothing; not quite so direct a road,
that is all. We take our passage in the Abraham Lincoln."
"As you think proper, Sir," coolly replied
"You see, my friend, it has to do with the monster,
the famous narwhal. We are going to purge it from the seas. The author of a work in
quarto, in two volumes, on the Mysteries of the Great Submarine Grounds cannot forbear
embarking with Commander Farragut. A glorious mission, but a dangerous one! We cannot tell
where we may go; these animals can be very capricious. But we will go whether or no; we
have got a captain who is pretty wide-awake."
I opened a credit account for Babiroussa, and, Conseil
following, I jumped into a cab. Our luggage was transported to the deck of the frigate
immediately. I hastened on board and asked for Commander Farragut. One of the sailors
conducted me to the poop, where I found myself in the presence of a good-looking officer,
who held out, his hand to me.
"Monsieur Pierre Aronnax?" said he.
"Himself," replied I; "Commander
"You are welcome, Professor; your cabin is ready for
I bowed, and desired to be conducted to the cabin destined
The Abraham Lincoln had been well chosen and
equipped for her new destination. She was a frigate of great speed, fitted with
high-pressure engines which admitted a pressure of seven atmospheres. Under this the Abraham
Lincoln attained the mean speed of nearly eighteen and a third knots an hour- a
considerable speed, but, nevertheless, insufficient to grapple with this gigantic
The interior arrangements. of the frigate corresponded to
its nautical qualities. I was well satisfied with my cabin, which was in the after part,
opening upon the gun room.
"We shall be well off here," said I to Conseil.
"As well, by your honor's leave, as a hermit crab in
the shell of a whelk," said Conseil.
I left Conseil to stow our trunks conveniently away, and
remounted the poop in order to survey the preparations for departure.
At that moment Commander Farragut was ordering the last
moorings to be cast loose which held the Abraham Lincoln to the pier of Brooklyn.
So in a quarter of an hour, perhaps less, the frigate would have sailed without me. I
should have missed this extraordinary, supernatural, and incredible expedition, the
recital of which may well meet with some scepticism.
But Commander Farragut would not lose a day nor an hour in
scouring the seas in which the animal had been sighted. He sent for the engineer.
"Is the steam full on?" asked he.
"Yes, sir," replied the engineer.
"Go ahead," cried Commander Farragut.
The quay of Brooklyn, and all that part of New York
bordering on the East River, was crowded with spectators. Three cheers burst successively
from five hundred thousand throats; thousands of handkerchiefs were waved above the heads
of the compact mass, saluting the Abraham Lincoln, until she reached the waters of
the Hudson, at the point of that elongated peninsula which forms the town of New York.
Then the frigate, following the coast of New Jersey along the right bank of the beautiful
river, covered with villas, passed between the forts, which saluted her with their
heaviest guns. The Abraham Lincoln answered by hoisting the American colors three
times, whose thirty-nine stars shone resplendent from the mizzen peak; then modifying its
speed to take the narrow channel marked by buoys placed in the inner bay formed by Sandy
Hook Point, it coasted the long sandy beach, where some thousands of spectators gave it
one final cheer. The escort of boats and tenders still followed the frigate, and did not
leave her until they came abreast of the lightship, whose two lights marked the entrance
of the New York channel.
Six bells struck, the pilot got into his boat, and
rejoined the little schooner which was waiting under our lee, the fires were made up, the
screw beat the waves more rapidly, the frigate skirted the low yellow coast of Long
Island; and at eight bells, after having lost sight in the northwest of the lights of Fire
Island, she ran at full steam on to the dark waters of the Atlantic.
Part 1 - Chapter 4
Captain Farragut was a good seaman, worthy of the frigate
he commanded. His vessel and he were one. He was the soul of it. On the question of the
cetacean there was no doubt in his mind, and he would not allow the existence of the
animal to be disputed on board. He believed in it, as certain good women believe in the
leviathan- by faith, not by reason. The monster did exist, and he had sworn to rid the
seas of it. He was a kind of Knight of Rhodes, a second Dieudonne de Gozon, going to meet
the serpent which desolated the island. Either Captain Farragut would kill the narwhal, or
the narwhal would kill the captain. There was no third course.
The officers on board shared the opinion of their chief.
They were ever chatting, discussing, and calculating the various chances of a meeting,
watching narrowly the vast surface of the ocean. More than one took up his quarters
voluntarily in the crosstrees, who would have cursed such a berth under any other
circumstances. As long as the sun described its daily course, the rigging was crowded with
sailors, whose feet were burnt to such an extent by the heat of the deck as to render it
unbearable; still the Abraham Lincoln had not yet breasted the suspected waters of
the Pacific. As to the ship's company, they desired nothing better than to meet the
unicorn, to harpoon it, hoist it on board, and despatch it. They watched the sea with
Besides, Captain Farragut had spoken of a certain sum of
two thousand dollars, set apart for whoever should first sight the monster, were he cabin
boy, common seaman, or officer.
I leave you to judge how eyes were used on board the Abraham
For my own part, I was not behind the others, and left to
no one my share of daily observations. The frigate might have been called the Argus,
for a hundred reasons. Only one amongst us, Conseil, seemed to protest by his indifference
against the question which so interested us all, and seemed to be out of keeping with the
general enthusiasm on board.
I have said that Captain Farragut had carefully provided
his ship with every apparatus for catching the gigantic cetacean. No whaler had ever been
better armed. We possessed every known engine, from the harpoon thrown by the hand to the
barbed arrows of the blunderbuss, and the explosive balls of the duck gun. On the
forecastle lay the perfection of a breech-loading gun, very thick at the breech, and very
narrow in the bore, the model of which had been in the Exhibition of 1867. This precious
weapon of American origin could throw with ease a conical projectile of nine pounds to a
mean distance of ten miles.
Thus the Abraham Lincoln wanted for no means of
destruction; and, what was better still, she had on board Ned Land, the prince of
Ned Land was a Canadian, with an uncommon quickness of
hand, and who knew no equal in his dangerous occupation. Skill, coolness, audacity, and
cunning, he possessed in a superior degree, and it must be a cunning whale or a singularly
"cute" cachalot to escape the stroke of his harpoon.
Ned Land was about forty years of age; he was a tall man
(more than six feet high), strongly built, grave and taciturn, occasionally violent, and
very passionate when contradicted. His person attracted attention, but above all, the
boldness of his look, which gave a singular expression to his face.
Who calls himself Canadian calls himself French; and
little communicative as Ned Land was, I must admit that he took a certain liking for me.
My nationality drew him to me, no doubt. It was an opportunity for him to talk, and for me
to hear, that old language of Rabelais, which is still in use in some Canadian provinces.
The harpooner's family was originally from Quebec, and was already a tribe of hardy
fishermen when this town belonged to France.
Little by little, Ned Land acquired a taste for chatting,
and I loved to hear the recital of his adventures in the polar seas. He related his
fishing, and his combats, with natural poetry of expression; his recital took the form of
an epic poem, and I seemed to be listening to a Canadian Homer singing the Iliad of the
regions of the North.
I am portraying this hardy companion as I really knew him.
We are old friends now, united in that unchangeable friendship which is born and cemented
amidst extreme dangers. Ah, brave Ned! I ask no more than to live a hundred years longer,
that I may have more time to dwell the longer on your memory.
Now, what was Ned Land's opinion upon the question of the
marine monster? I must admit that he did not believe in the unicorn, and was the only one
on board who did not share that universal conviction. He even avoided the subject, which I
one day thought it my duty to press upon him. One magnificent evening, July the thirtieth-
that is to say, three weeks after our departure- the frigate was abreast of Cape Blanc,
thirty miles to leeward of the coast of Patagonia. We had crossed the tropic of Capricorn,
and the Strait of Magellan opened less than seven hundred miles to the south. Before eight
days were over, the Abraham Lincoln would be plowing the waters of the Pacific.
Seated on the poop, Ned Land and I were chatting of one
thing and another as we looked at this mysterious sea, whose great depths had up to this
time been inaccessible to the eye of man. I naturally led up the conversation to the giant
unicorn, and examined the various chances of success or failure of the expedition. But
seeing that Ned Land let me speak without saying too much himself, I pressed him wore
"Well, Ned," said I, "is it possible that
you are not convinced of the existence of this cetacean that we are following? Have you
any particular reason for being so incredulous?"
The harpooner looked at me fixedly for some moments before
answering, struck his broad forehead with his hand (a habit of his), as if to collect
himself, and said at last, "Perhaps I have, Mr. Aronnax."
"But, Ned, you, a whaler by profession, familiarized
with all the great marine mammalia; you, whose imagination might easily accept the
hypothesis of enormous cetaceans, you ought to be the last to doubt under such
"That is just what deceives you, Professor,"
replied Ned. "That the vulgar should believe in extraordinary comets traversing
space, and in the existence of antediluvian monsters in the heart of the globe, may well
be; but neither astronomer nor geologist believes in such chimeras. As a whaler I have
followed many a cetacean harpooned a great number, and killed several; but, however strong
or well-armed they may have been, neither their tails nor their weapons would have been
able even to scratch the iron plates of a steamer."
"But, Ned, they tell of ships which the tusk of the
narwhal has pierced through and through."
"Wooden ships- that is possible," replied the
Canadian; "but I have never seen it done; and, until further proof, I deny that
whales, cetaceans, or sea unicorns could ever produce the effect you describe."
"Well, Ned, I repeat it with a conviction resting on
the logic of facts. I believe in the existence of a mammal powerfully organized, belonging
to the branch of vertebrata, like the whales, the cachalots, or the dolphins, and
furnished with a horn of defense of great penetrating power."
"Hum!" said the harpooner, shaking his head with
the air of a man who would not be convinced.
"Notice one thing, my worthy Canadian," I
resumed. "If such an animal is in existence, if it inhabits the depths of the ocean,
if it frequents the strata lying miles below the surface of the water, it must necessarily
possess an organization the strength of which would defy all comparison."
"And why this powerful organization?" demanded
"Because it requires incalculable strength to keep
one's self in these strata and resist their pressure. Listen to me. Let us admit that the
pressure of the atmosphere is represented by the weight of a column of water 32 feet high.
In reality the column of water would be shorter, as we are speaking of sea water, the
density of which is greater than that of fresh water. Very well, when you dive, Ned, as
many times 32 feet of water as there are above you, so many times does your body bear a
pressure equal to that of the atmosphere, that is to say, 15 pounds for each square inch
of its surface. It follows then, that at 320 feet this pressure equals that of 10
atmospheres, of 100 atmospheres at 3,200 feet, and of 1,000 atmospheres at 32,000 feet;
that is, about 6 miles; which is equivalent to saying that, if you could attain this depth
in the ocean, each square three-eighths of an inch of the surface of your body would bear
a pressure of 5,600 pounds. Ah! my brave Ned, do you know how many square inches you carry
on the surface of your body?"
"I have no idea, Mr. Aronnax."
"About 6,500; and, as in reality the atmospheric
pressure is about 15 pounds to the square inch, your 6,500 square inches bear at this
moment a pressure of 97,500 pounds."
"Without my perceiving it?"
"Without your perceiving it. And if you are not
crushed by such a pressure, it is because the air penetrates the interior of your body
with equal pressure. Hence, perfect equilibrium between the interior and exterior
pressure, which thus neutralize each other, and which allows you to bear, it without
inconvenience. But in the water it is another thing."
"Yes, I understand," replied Ned, becoming more
attentive; "because the water surrounds me, but does not penetrate."
"Precisely, Ned: so that at 32 feet beneath the
surface of the sea you would undergo a pressure of 97,500 pounds; at 320 feet, ten times
that pressure; at 3,200 feet, a hundred times that pressure; lastly, at 32,000 feet, a
thousand times that pressure would be 97,500,000 pounds; that is to say, that you would be
flattened as if you had been drawn from the plates of a hydraulic machine!"
"The devil!" exclaimed Ned.
"Very well, my worthy harpooner, if some vertebrate,
several hundred yards long, and large in proportion, can maintain itself in such depths,
of those whose surface is represented by millions of square inches, that is by tens of
millions of pounds, we must estimate the pressure they undergo. Consider, then, what must
be the resistance of their bony structure, and the strength of their organization to
withstand such pressure!"
"Why!" exclaimed Ned Land, "they must be
made of iron plates eight inches thick, like the armored frigates."
"As you say, Ned. And think what destruction such a
mass would cause, if hurled with the speed of an express train against the hull of a
"Yes- certainly- perhaps," replied the Canadian,
shaken by these figures, but not yet willing to give in.
"Well, have I convinced you?"
"You have convinced me of one thing, sir, which is
that, if such animals do exist at the bottom of the seas, they must necessarily be as
strong as you say."
"But if they do not exist, mine obstinate harpooner,
how explain the accident to the Scotia?"