The Sighting of the Monster
"It is impossible to meet a whale-ship on the ocean without being struck by her near appearance. The vessel under short sail, with look-outs at the mast-heads, eagerly scanning the wide expanse around them, has a totally different air from those engaged in regular voyage." Currents and Whaling. U. S. EX. EX. [Exploration Expedition]
-- Herman Melville, Moby Dick
Jason arrived in the Pacific Ocean in early January 1851. “Sail Ho!” Captain Seabury came on deck with his glass and searched the top of the approaching vessel’s mainmast for the house flag. He noted that she was ship rigged and he saw the whaleboats hanging from davits at the side; she was a whaleship. Soon he could make out the flag; a blue rectangle with a white rectangle in the center. Jason recognized this as the house flag of whaling agent William R. Rodman of New Bedford. Rodman had only two vessels under his flag at that time, ship Rebecca Sims and bark Columbus. This vessel was ship rigged, therefore could not be bark Columbus, but had to be the 400-ton whaleship Rebecca Sims, Captain Gavitt, hailing from New. Bedford.
Whaleship Charles W. Morgan, at Round Hill, ship rigged. A ship has three masts, square sails on all three.
Bark Greyhound, New Bedford. A bark has three masts, square sails on the fore and main, fore and aft sail on the mizzen.
As was the custom when whaleships met in mid-ocean, the captains agreed to have a gam and sail together for a short time. This was initiated by “speaking the ship,” whereby the ship to windward hoisted her ensign and kept off the ship she wished to speak, both being under sail. The other ship would haul aback, that is put the helm down hard to bring the ship sharp on the wind and haul aback the mainsails and yards while those on the foremast were braced forward. In this position when directly to windward the ship is practically motionless. The speaking ship then sailed directly toward the midship section of the motionless vessel, and sheered off at the last minute to sail close by her stern. The maneuver required an experienced helmsman, the most experienced man at the wheel, to accomplish this. At this time, while crossing by the stern, the two captains exchanged greetings and compliments. Then one captain would invite the other aboard. The captain of the invited ship lowered the starboard boat and was pulled to the whaleship issuing the invitation, while her mate returned the visit in the larboard boat.
When the two ships were from the same home port, news of home, whaleships spoken and whaleships lost was discussed. Great camaraderie prevailed. When they were from different ports, competition was the natural result, each crew trying to out-do the other with the number of whales taken and the number of barrels of oil in the hold. In either case, books, newspapers and letters for home were exchanged. A gam called for rum, food, tobacco and other forms of celebration in the forecastle as well as in the cabin. Greatly exaggerated stories of adventures, whales struck and whales lost were told and countless toasts were drunk to whales, to barrels of oil, to women, to adventures, to captains and mates and to sunrise, plus anything else they laughed about. Each of the crews tried to outdo the other in yarns, songs and stories, as well as in profanity. Forecastles and cabins rang with laughter, the decks were pounded with the stomping of dancing feet while loud choruses of whaling songs reverberated through the hull. Everyone had a festive time singing, telling stories (spinning yarns), learning new songs and shanties, dancing, smoking tobacco and playing games – dominoes and dice were favorites. The whalemen made the dominoes and dice from the jawbone of a sperm whale as part of their scrimshaw pastime while cruising for whales. Good times and new friendships were greatly appreciated during an otherwise boring voyage of four years or more. On a good voyage an average of only one whale was taken in a month. The capture and processing took only a few days of their time, and the crew went back to waiting possibly another month or more for the next whale. Scrimshaw, the etching of sperm whale teeth and bone, filled the days and months. Whaling was called “a great filthy humbug” by famous author Charles Nordhoff, co-author of Mutiny on the Bounty, who endured the whaling boredom. A gam was most welcome by all.
Gam in the foc'stle - from Reuben Delano, Wanderings and Adventures, 1846
The New York Tribune of February 24, 1852 printed a report from Seabury including details of Monongahela’s adventures as she approached the equator.
Winds had been light and without direction for several days. On the morning of January 13, 1851, the wind became steady out of the south-south-west, threatening a gale. At latitude 13° 10’ S, and longitude 131° 50’ W, south of the equator in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, one of the two men on lookout in the hoops at the crosstrees called out, “White water!” Captain Seabury called back, “Where away?” “Two points on the lee bow!” the lookout called back.
Captain Seabury went aloft with a glass and searched the horizon in the direction specified by the lookout. After a half hour he saw nothing and assumed the white water was simply a shoal of porpoises. At 7:30 a.m. Seabury ordered the mate to call all hands, square in the yards, and send out the port studdingsails. During breakfast he wanted to continue the watch just in case what was seen was more than porpoises. Hopefully what was seen was a shoal of sperm whales.
Photo: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/Department of Commerce
As Jason Seabury came down from his lookout, before he reached the deck the lookout, Onnetu Vanjau, a Marquesan Islander, called out. "Oh! Look! Me see! - too much!" All eyes were instantly directed to the lookout to ascertain where he was looking, and then all eyes turned to the lee quarter. Seabury saw a glimpse of blackskin just before the creature disappeared beneath the water. Again Onnetu Vanjau called out, "No whale - too much - too big - too long. Me no see all same dat fellar - me fraid." Jason Seabury couldn't determine the direction in which the creature was headed. He luffed the ship and came aback, ordering the lines to be put in the whaleboats and the crews to stand by. After scanning the horizon for an hour, he gave up and braced forward and went below.
The lookout had been taunted by the crew, saying he had seen nothing. Much merriment was to be enjoyed at the expense of the islander. Eager to prove them wrong, Onnetu continued the lookout with renewed enthusiasm. Within only a few minutes he called out again with more vehemence than before. Jason Seabury rushed on deck calling, “Where away?” Looking in the direction the lookout pointed, speechless, he immediately saw a mile off to leeward what he called, “the strangest creature I had ever seen on the ocean." Every crew member stared at it in wonder.
Sperm whale spouting. Note the square head,
single spout angled forward from the front of the head.
Photo: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/
Department of Commerce
The monster spouted showing two spouts, so it was not a sperm whale which has a single spout. The spouts were from the front of the head or snout ruling out baleen whales. Its head did not have the huge squared-off look of a sperm whale, and it was not the huge head of baleen whales that housed some six hundred strips of baleen up the thirteen feet long. The creature’s head was more like that of an enormous alligator. If not a sperm whale or baleen whale, its identification was perplexing. The creature swam through the water with great speed, certainly faster than a whale. Its color was black to dark brown on the head and back, with a brownish white underside. Could it be a great shark? But sharks don’t spout. It’s undulating motion while swimming was up and down, not sideways, so it was not a reptile; the up and down motion is typical of a mammal. And reptiles don't spout. Its size was enormous, longer than any shark or sperm whale, longer than anything ever seen by these seasoned whalemen. Also, there was something about the motion of the head that was different; the monster raised its head above the waves and moved about as if looking for something, not like any whale, shark or squid. The giant squid was not a possible subject because it did not spout nor raise its head above the water. The giant squid was never seen; its existence was known only from the huge sucker marks from its tentacles on sperm whales’ bodies, and from pieces and tentacles found in the stomachs of sperm whales. The ancient Kraken was a giant squid or octopus, a creature feared by seamen. The crew knew the unseen giant squid well since it was the primary food of sperm whales; this was definitely not a squid.
Captain Seabury continued his observations:
It was apparently still, but 'shobbing' up and down, as we say of sperm whales. I knew it was not a whale. The head I could not see, but the body had a motion like the waving of a rope when shaken and held in the hand. Every eye in the ship regarded it attentively, and not a word was spoken or sound uttered. In a few minutes the whole length of the body rose and lay on the water; it was of an enormous length. Presently the extremity or tail moved or vibrated, agitating the water, and then the head rose entirely above the water, and moved sideways slowly, as if the monster was in agony or suffocating.Everyone stared intently at the monster, their minds swirling with questions and disbelief. No one uttered a sound as they tried to figure out what this was, and indeed to believe what they saw.
Jason Seabury broke the ship's silence with a cry, "It is a sea serpent; stand by the boats."
Copyright © 2007, 2008 Thomas Lytle. All rights reserved.