The sea was alive with great hunchback whales

Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1880 diary
Photo: British Library

On 28th February, seven years before his most famous creation, Sherlock Holmes, was to appear in print, Arthur Conan Doyle left Peterhead on S. S. Hope, a whaling ship led by Captain John Gray that was heading for the Arctic Ocean. Aged twenty and still studying medicine at University in Edinburgh, Doyle had joined the crew as the ship’s surgeon, and for six long months, when he wasn’t tending to the sick, much of his time at sea was dominated by the hunting of whales, seals, narwhals, polar bears and birds. Although he was tasked with keeping the ship’s log for the duration, he also maintained a personal, illustrated diary in which he recorded the brutal realities of such an excursion—often in grim detail.

The Diary Entry

Wednesday August 4th

Came into better ground this morning, there being very many birds and much grease on the water. Watched the Bosun gulls, who are very bad fishers, chasing the poor old kittiwakes until they disgorged their last meal, which the bullies devour in its semidigested condition. Sea was swarming with cetaceans about noon which we lowered away 2 boats for thinking they were bottlenoses, but they proved to be young finner whales, worthless brutes and so powerful that they would run out all our lines, so the boats were recalled. Captain shot a “boatswain.” Saw many Eider ducks. Several swordfish also seen. One of them was chasing a finner whale round the Eclipse. The poor brute was springing right out of the water and making an awful bobbery. Carner put a rifle bullet into one young one about 40 feet long, which went away in a great hurry to tell its ma what they had been doing to it. This sea from Jan Mayen to Iceland might be called the Feather Sea. The surface is literally covered with feathers in many parts. The bottlenosing is an awful spree.

Was called up about 11 PM by the Captain to see a marvelous sight. Never hope to see anything like it again. The sea was simply alive with great hunchback whales, rather a rare variety, you could have thrown a biscuit onto 200 of them, and as far as you could see there was nothing but spoutings and great tails in the air. Some were blowing under the bowsprit, sending the water on to the forecastle, and exciting our Newfoundland tremendously. They are 60–80 feet long, and have extraordinary heads with a hanging pouch like a toad’s from their under jaw. They yield about 3 tons of very inferior oil, and are hard to capture, so that they are not worth pursuing. We lowered away a boat and fired an old loose harpoon into one which went away with a great splash. They differ from finner whales in being white under fins and tail. Some of them gave a peculiar whistle when they blew, which you could hear a couple of miles off.

Further Reading

Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1880 diary, edited by Jon Lellenberg and Daniel Stashower, was published in 2012 by The British Library in the UK and by University of Chicago Press in the US, titled Dangerous Work: Diary of an Arctic Adventure. It’s a beautifully designed book, complete with facsimiles of Doyle’s handwritten and sometimes illustrated diary entries; however, his descriptions of the hunting itself are vivid and detailed, so the book may not be for the squeamish.


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