A whaler remembers

The thought of writing about my experiences as a whaler had occurred to me many times before, but for whatever reason, it had always come to naught. That is until now. The impetus for getting it done before it all disappeared into the greyscale of the distant past, came on Deception Island, on a blustery February day, 2005, when I became acquainted with Bill Block.

We had both come to the Antarctic on the M/S Nordnorge, Bill as one of the expedition’s outstanding naturalists, I as a mere tourist. On hearing of my exploits, Bill suggested I write about them for the British Antarctic Survey. The memories that follow are literally memories. Though some of it is taken from records made at the time, much of the story is as I remember it. Any inaccuracies are unintentional.

* * *

It was November, 1953. I was approaching the end of my second year in architecture at the University of Natal in Durban, South Africa. My friend, Ross Osborne, was about to complete his third. At the same time, the Durban-based Union Whaling Company was preparing her ships for yet another hunting season in the Antarctic. It was then that we heard about a few students having been to The Ice the year before, and spurred by the proscpect of sheer excitement – and of pay that no architect in town could match -we decided to try, too. Our first visit to the Company offices was inconclusive.

The man in charge (a Mr. de Villiers, if I remember correctly), had us come back in a week, with no promise that we would be accepted. However, fate intervened. Ross had gone climbing in the Drakensberg range, and never came back. His fatal fall made headlines in the local papers. The next day, as I arrived at the Union Whaling offices, alone, Mr. de Villiers, clearly taken aback by the tragedy, merely asked if I still wanted to go. I said I did. In his memory, I dedicate this account to Ross.

Our fleet of fourteen ships-the factory ship Abraham Larsen, nine catchers, and four bouy boats-left Durban on the 12th of December, 1953, heading straight south. At some 22,000 tons, F/F Abraham Larsen was, as I recall, the largest of the dozen or so floating factories operating in the Antarctic at that time. She was a massive ship, just over 600 feet long, 80 feet wide, and with a draft approaching 40 feet!

I was part of her 400-man crew, which consisted of about equal numbers of Norwegians, White South Africans, and Coloured South Africans (one should be reminded that this was during Apartheid; coloured meant of mixed race), with no discrimination between them. The captain, Olaf Vestrum, the other officers, as well as the bosuns who were our immediate bosses, were Norwegian. However, claiming London as her home port, the Big Ship, as we liked to call her, flew the Union Jack!

For those, who may not be familiar with the operation of a factory ship, let me offer a brief description. Whales that have been spotted, chased down, and shot by the catchers are gathered up by the bouy boats and ferried to the mother ship, where they are tied up by the slipway, off the ship’s stern. Using powerful steam winches, the carcasses are then winched onto the aft-deck, where flensers cut the blubber and the meat into strips, which are then cut into still smaller pieces to fit the roughly 3-foot diameter boiler openings in the deck, into which the pieces are dumped.

The rest of the carcass is winched forward to the foredeck, where the stomach is discarded (killer whales seemed to love it!), and using steam-powered saws, the backbone is cut into pieces, which, like the blubber and much of the meat, are dumped into the boilers to extract the precious oil. If my memory serves me right, on a good day, working two 12-hour shifts, we could process upward of fifty whales! But not all days were good.

On that first expedition, I worked in the bone gang. My sawman was Sverre Syversen, my boss Andor Hermansen, and my buddy on the bone gang Kenny Joyce, the most cheerful and hard-working fellow on the whole ship. Kenny was, not that it matters, coloured. Before we reached the hunting grounds-also when there were few whales to process-we were kept busy doing anything from helping the crew with the ship’s chores to moving stores from one hold to another, and then back again! All to keep us from brooding over the comforts of life that we were not to see for some time.

Our working hours were from 6 to 6, with a break for lunch (or midnight snack) and a few brief coffee breaks. Occasionally, we were asked to work extra hours cleaning the huge tanks that had been full of diesel fuel and were now needed for whale oil. The dirty tanks stunk to high heaven and were hot as hell, yet when we were finished not a single speck of gunk remained! On one occasion, overtime meant battling a stubborn fire in the meatmeal hold (meatmeal being another whale product, used for fertilizing), which to our delight (sic!) also meant more money for us.

After several days at sea, following a southerly course, we reached the Roaring Forties. What with the 40-foot swells that caused even the Big Ship to wallow, and the catchers to disappear in the troughs, the name is apt indeed. On the 8th day out of Durban, we saw the first iceberg, and the very next day, processed our first whale. We remained in open waters between 55º and 62º S and 11º and 22º E for the next six weeks, hunting first for sperm whales and, beginning early January, per the International Whaling Commission’s rules, for the more profitable baleen whales. Apart from an occasional iceberg, there was just ocean and albatrosses, even a thousand miles from land!

For Christmas, we had fresh pork. Live pigs had been brought along just for that! Aside from this, our food was simple but plentiful, with fiskeboller forming a not insignificant part of the diet. (On the M/S Nordnorge, failing to see them on the menu, I couldn’t help asking the chef if he had any; he did, and served them the next day for lunch; needless to say, they were not a success!).

It was said that we had enough food to last us through the winter, should we become trapped in ice. Drink of the stronger kind was rationed. Every Sunday, each table of ten was given one bottle of aquavit or gin. The men had a choice of either getting one shot each or drawing cards for the bottle. At our table, one fellow opted for the shot, the rest drew cards. And so it came to pass that at one point during the expedition I, who drank not much, won the bottle three weeks in a row! The booze was duly traded for other, more practical stuff.

With the arrival of February, 1954, we set course for Antarctica proper, crossing the Circle on the 10th, and staying close to the pack, between 9º and 45º East, for the next five weeks, till stoppfangst. It took us ten stormy days to get back to Durban, where we arrived on the 29th of March. To explain to the 21st-century reader, stoppfangst was the day the IWC radioed the ships that the quota for the season was full and all operations were to cease. Naturally, it was a day of celebration. We were returning home! For the record, we had caught and processed 2206 whales-1698 fin whales, 347 blue whales (including two 99-footers!), 157 sperm whales, and 4 humpbacks.

Three seasons later, after completing my studies, I returned. As it turned out, the 1956/57 season was to be Union Whaling’s last, as the ships were sold to a Japanese buyer. While we had spent the 1953/54 season almost directly south of the African continent, this time we headed west. We left Durban on the 15th of December, again due south, but on the ninth day, turned west. The day before, we had lost Odd Dahlberg. Odd was crew on one of our catchers. As I recall it, he had been injured some months before we sailed, declared fit to go, but then succumbed to an unexpected relapse.

We buried him at sea. Keeping a steady westerly heading, we passed between the South Sandwich Islands in the early hours of New Year’s Day. A glorious sight it was! Leaving South Georgia far to starboard, we reached our hunting grounds, which extended from just north of Elephant Island diagonally into the Bellingshausen Sea, around the 5th of January. Over the next eight weeks, frequently changing course, we followed the prey as far as 86º W and 69º S. On the way back, we sailed through the Bransfield Strait, across the Weddell Sea, to the coast of Queen Maud Land, before turning north toward Africa. We returned to Durban on the 28th of March.

This time out, I worked on the aft-deck in the blubber gang, under Hans Solberg, a true gentleman. Might I say that physically the work was a little less demanding than it had been in the bone gang? The perks of seniority, as was the increased pay (per unit oil produced), which remained heavily dependent on the catch. I do not recall the exact numbers, but our production was roughly 30 percent down from what it had been three years before. Even more telling was the drop in blue whales caught-from 347 down to two! But it was still a good season.

We had no helicopter, so finding the whales was up to the catchers, who much of the time operated out of sight of the mother ship. Our ‘eyes’ were confined to radar, which was of little use for whale spotting, and not much better for navigation. I recall running into a large pack of ice, whose limits the radar failed to see, forcing us to plow right through it, with the catchers following like ducklings. One day in the Bransfield Strait, I remember asking the mate about the ugly black rocks that dotted the waters. “We have no maps,” he confided, while gingerly urging the ship on. Times surely have changed.

One of the highlights of our existence was a mid-season visit from a tanker, which took on the processed whale oil and supplied us with fuel for the fleet. And brought us post! The tanker stayed with us, tied to the Big Ship, with three or four whale carcasses as buffers, for several days. The carcasses were later discarded, because by the time the tanker left they were much too rotten to be processed. Bunkering of the catchers and buoy boats was effected in much the same manner, but with just one whale as buffer. Quite often, maybe because of my knack in operating things mechanical, I was assigned to the winch. In rough seas, it was a touchy operation. I well remember the time I had to pluck a basketful of men off the deck of the catcher, as it was bobbing up and down like a cork!

Minor injuries aside, we were a healthy lot. If my memory serves me right, only once did our red-headed doctor-Axel Frøili was his name-have to operate, and that was just for an inflamed appendix. And only once did he have to tend to a poor fellow, who had lost his footing while crossing the plank between our ship and the supply tanker and plunged into the frigid waters. The doc had an uncanny knack for patching people up and with a minimum of fuss getting them back to work.

Whaling is a smelly business, smelly and dirty. No amount of words can convey the scene, with heaps of meat, bone and blubber stacked high on the slippery, blood-soaked deck. Whenever there was a break in the action, the men were ordered to “spul the deck” and the deck would be duly hosed down. More important than (vainly) trying to keep it clean was reducing contamination due to rotting residue.

It was a temporary deck, which we ripped up and discarded at the end of the season. The permanent deck and the ship’s superstructure were scrubbed and painted on the way home till they shone like new! This did not remove the smell, though. It is said-not that I can confirm it, because after a hot shower or two I considered myself squeaky clean-that even weeks after making landfall one could smell a whaler a mile away!

One of the favourite stories on board the Big Ship was the inevitably erroneous rumour that we were running low on fuel and would have to make for Montevideo. Even Aruba was mentioned! Visions of sandy beaches, juicy drinks, and buxom girls! None of this happened, of course. Another was to tell tall tales from South Georgia, not that any of us had ever been there. As my own wife and now grown children may attest, those tales have persevered through five decades. They are every bit as true today as they were in The Ice fifty years ago.

As I conclude this story, I remember with fondness and respect all the men I had the privilege to sail with on the good ship Abraham Larsen. No doubt many are no longer with us, but to those who are, skol! And I remember the penguins, standing at attention as we passed their floes and bergs, and the glorious twilight.

Harvard, Massachusetts – July 2005

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