Captain Spofford was a weather-beaten veteran who gave little attention to fine clothes, and greatly preferred his rough jacket and soft hat to what he called "Sunday gear." He was much attached to his telescope, which he had carried nearly a quarter of a century, and on the present occasion he brought it into the cabin, and held it in his hand while he narrated his whaling experiences. He explained that he could talk better in the company of his old spyglass, as it would remind him of things he might forget without its aid, and also check him if he went beyond the truth.
Captain Spofford Telling His Story

"There are very few people in the whaling business now," said he, "compared to the number twenty-five years ago. Whales are growing scarcer every year, and petroleum has taken the place of whale oil. Consequently, the price of the latter is not in proportion to the difficulty of getting it. New Bedford used to be an important seaport, and did an enormous business. It is played out now, and is as dull and sleepy as a cemetery. It was once the great center of the whaling business, and made fortunes for a good many men, but you don't hear of fortunes in whaling nowadays.

"I went to sea from New Bedford when I was twelve years old, and kept at whaling for near on to twenty-seven years. From cabin boy, I crept up through all the ranks, until I became captain and part owner, and it was a good deal of satisfaction to me to be boss of a ship, I can tell you. When I thought I had had enough of it I retired, and bought a small farm. I stocked and ran it after my own fashion, called one of my oxen 'Port' and the other 'Starboard,' had a little mound like my old quarterdeck built in my garden, and used to go there to take my walks. I had a mast with cross trees fixed in this mound, and used to go up there, and stay for hours, and call out 'There she blows!' whenever I saw a bird fly by, or anything moving anywhere. I slept in a hammock under a tent, and when I got real nervous I had one of my farmhands rock me to sleep in the hammock, and throw buckets of water against the sides of the tent, so's I could imagine I was on the sea again. But 'twasn't no use, and I couldn't cure myself of wanting to be on blue water once more. So I left my farm in my wife's hands, and am going out to Shanghai to command a ship whose captain died at Hong Kong five months ago.

"So much for history. Now we'll talk about whales.

"There are several kinds of them, sperm whales, right whales, bowheads, and a whaleman can tell one from the other as easy as a farmer can tell a cart horse from a Shetland pony. The most valuable is the sperm whale, as his oil is much better, and brings more money, and then we get spermaceti from him to make candles of, which we don't get from the others. He's a funny-looking brute, as his head is a third of his whole length, and when you've cut it off, there doesn't seem to be much whale left of him.
A Whale Breaching

"I sailed for years in a sperm whaler in the South Pacific, and had a good many lively times. The sperm whale is the most dangerous of all, and the hardest to kill. He fights with his tail and his mouth, while the others fight only with their tails. A right whale or a bowhead will lash the water and churn it up into foam, and if he hits a boat with his tail, he crushes it as if it was an eggshell. A sperm whale will do all this, and more too. He takes a boat in his mouth, and chews it, which the others never do. And when he chews it, he makes fine work of it, I can tell you, and short work, too.

"Sometimes he takes a shy at a ship, and rushes at it, head on. Two ships are known to have been sunk in this way. One of them was the Essex, which the whale ran into three times, and broke her timbers so that she filled. The crew took to the boats, and made for the coast of South America. One boat was never heard from, one reached the coast, and the third was picked up near Valparaiso with everybody dead but two, and those barely alive. Provisions and water had given out, and another day would have finished the poor fellows. Another ship was the Union, which was stove right under the bows by a single blow from a sperm whale, and went down in half an hour.

"I was fifteen years old when I pulled my first oar in a whaleboat. I was boat-steerer at eighteen, and second mate at twenty, and before I was twenty-one I had known what it was to be in the mouth of a sperm whale. It is hardly necessary to say that I got out of it as fast as I could, and didn't stop to see if my hair was combed and my shirt collar buttoned. A man has no time to put on frills under such circumstances.

"The way of it was this. The lookout in the cross trees, we always keep a man up aloft to look out for whales when we're on cruising ground, the man had called out, 'There she blows!' and everybody was on his feet in an instant.

"'Where away?' shouted the first mate.
There She Blows!

"'Two points on the weather bow.'

"And before the words had done echoing he called out 'There she blows' again, and a moment after again. That meant that he had seen two more whales.

"We put two boats into the water, the first mate's and mine, and away we went. We pulled our best, and the boats fairly bounced through the waves. It was a race to see who could strike the first whale. We had a good half mile to go, and we went like racehorses.

"Each boat has six people in her, a boat-steerer, as he is called, and five at the oars. The boat-steerer handles the harpoon and lance and directs the whole movement. In fact, for the time, he is captain of the boat.

"The first mate's boat headed me a little, and made for a big fellow on the starboard. I went for another, and we struck almost at the same instant. Within three boat-lengths, I stood up, braced my feet firmly, poised my harpoon, and made ready to strike. The whale didn't know we were about, and was taking it very easy. The bow of the boat was about ten feet from his black skin when I sent the iron spinning and whizzing away, and buried it deep in his flesh. Didn't he give a jump! You can bet he did.

"'Starn all! starn all! for your lives!' I yelled.

"There wasn't a moment lost, and the boat went back by the force of the strong arms of the men."

"The whale lashed about and then 'breached.' That is, he threw his great body out of the water, giving me a chance to get in a second harpoon. Then he sounded, that is, he went down, and the lines ran out so fast that the side of the boat fairly smoked when they went over. He ran off two hundred fathoms of line before he stopped, and then we felt the line slack and knew he would soon be up again.

"Up he came not a hundred yards from where he went down, and as he came up he caught sight of the boat. He went for it as a cat goes for a mouse.

"The sperm whale can't see straight ahead, as his eyes are set far back, and seem to be almost on his sides. He turns partly around to get a glimpse of a boat, then ports his helm, drops his jaw, calculates his distance, and goes ahead at full speed. His jaw is set very low, and sometimes he turns over, or partly over, to strike his blow.
In the Whale's Jaw

"This time he whirled and took the bow of the boat in his mouth, crushing it as though it had been made of paper. We jumped out, the oars flew all around us, the sea was a mass of foam, and the whale chewed the boat as though it was a piece of sugar candy and he hadn't seen any for a month.

"We were all in the water, and nobody hurt. The first mate's boat had killed its whale inside of ten minutes, and before he tried to sound. They left the whale and came to pick us up. Then they hurried and made fast to him, as another ship was coming up alongside of ours, and we might lose our game. It is a rule of the sea that you lose your claim to a whale when you let go, even though you may have killed him. Hang on to him and he's yours, though you may hang with only a trout-line and a minnow-hook. It's been so decided in the courts.

"The captain sent another boat from the ship, and we soon had the satisfaction of seeing my whale dead on the water. He got the lance right in his vitals, and went into his 'flurry,' as we call it. The flurry is the whale's convulsive movements just before death, and sometimes he does great damage as he thrashes about."

Frank wished to know how large the whale was, and how large whales are generally.

"We don't reckon whales by their length," Captain Spofford answered, "but by the number of barrels of oil they make. Ask any old captain how long the largest whale was that he ever took, and the chances are he'll begin to estimate by the length of his ship, and frankly tell you he never measured one. I measured the largest sperm whale I ever took, and found him seventy-nine feet long. He made a hundred and seven barrels of oil. Here's the figures of him: nose to neck, twenty-six feet; neck to hump, twenty-nine feet; hump to tail, seventeen feet; tail, seven feet. His tail was sixteen feet across, and he was forty-one feet six inches around the body. He had fifty-one teeth, and the heaviest weighed twenty-five ounces. We took nineteen barrels of oil from his case, the inside of the head, where we dipped it out with a bucket. I know one captain that captured a sperm whale ninety feet long, that made a hundred and thirty-seven barrels, and there was another sperm taken by the ship Monka, of New Bedford, that made a hundred and forty-five barrels. I don't know how long he was.

"There's a wonderful deal of excitement in fastening to a whale, and having a fight with him. You have the largest game that a hunter could ask for. You have the cool pure air of the ocean, and the blue waters all about you. A thrill goes through every nerve as you rise to throw the sharp iron into the monster's side, and the thrill continues when he plunges wildly about, and sends the line whistling over. He sinks, and he rises again. He dashes away to windward, and struggles to escape. You hold him fast, and, large as he is in proportion to yourself, you feel that he must yield to you, though, perhaps, not until after a hard battle. At length he lies exhausted, and you approach for the final blow with the lance. Another thrilling moment, another, and another, and if fortune is in your favor, your prize is soon motionless before you. And the man who cannot feel an extra beat of his pulse at such a time must be made of cooler stuff than the most of us.

"But you don't get all the whales you see, by a long shot. Many a whale gets away before you can fasten to him, and many another whale, after you have laid on and fastened, will escape you. He sinks, and tears the iron loose. He runs away to windward ten or twenty miles an hour, and you must cut the line to save your lives. He smashes the boat, and perhaps kills some of his assailants. He dies below the surface, and when he dies there he stays below, and you lose him, and sometimes he shows such an amount of toughness that he seems to bear a charmed life. We fight him with harpoon and lance, and in these later days they have an invention called the bomb lance or whaling gun. A bombshell is thrown into him with a gun like a large musket, and it explodes down among his vitals. There's another gun that is fastened to the shaft of a harpoon, and goes off when the whale tightens the line, and there's another that throws a lance halfway through him. Well, there are whales that can stand all these things and live.
Captain Hunting's Fight

"Captain Hunting, of New Bedford, had the worst fight that I know of, while he was on a cruise in the South Atlantic. When he struck the fellow, it was a tough old bull that had been through fights before, I reckon, the whale didn't try to escape, but turned on the boat, bit her in two, and kept on thrashing the wreck until he broke it up completely. Another boat picked up the crew and took them to the ship, and then two other boats went in on him. Each of them got in two irons, and that made him mad. He turned around and chewed those boats, and he stuck closely to business until there wasn't a mouthful left. The twelve swimmers were picked up by the boat which had taken the first lot to the ship. Two of the crew had climbed on his back, and he didn't seem to mind them. He kept on chewing away at the oars, sails, masts, planks, and other fragments of the boats, and whenever anything touched his body, he turned and munched away at it. There he was with six harpoons in him, and each harpoon had three hundred fathoms of line attached to it. Captain Hunting got out two spare boats, and started with them and the saved boat to renew the fight. He got alongside and sent a bomb lance charged with six inches of powder right into the whale's vitals, just back of his fin. When the lance was fired, he turned and tore through the boat like a hurricane, scattering everything. The sun was setting, four boats were gone with all their gear and twelve hundred fathoms of line, the spare boats were poorly provided, the crew was wearied and discouraged, and Captain Hunting hauled off and admitted himself beaten by a whale."

The nondescript individual whom we saw among the passengers early in the voyage had joined the party, and heard the story of Captain Hunting's whale. When it was ended, he ventured to say something on the subject of whaling.

"That wasn't a circumstance," he remarked, "to the great whale that used to hang around the Philippine Islands. He was reckoned to be a king, as all the other whales took off their hats to him, and used to get down on their front knees when he came around. His skin was like leather, and he was stuck so full of harpoons that he looked like a porcupine under a magnifying glass. Every ship that saw him used to put an iron into him, and I reckon you could get up a good history of the whale fishery if you could read the ships' names on all of them irons. Lots of whalers fought with him, but he always came out first best. Captain Sammis of the Ananias had the closest acquaintance with him, and the way he tells it is this:

"'We'd laid into him, and his old jaw came up and bit off the bow of the boat. As he bit he gave a fling, like, and sent me up in the air, and when I came down, there was the whale, end up and mouth open waiting for me. His throat looked like a whitewashed cellar door, but I saw his teeth were wore smooth down to the gums, and that gave me some consolation. When I struck his throat he snapped for me, but I had good headway, and disappeared like a piece of cake in a family of children. When I was splashing against the soft sides of his stomach, I heard his jaws snapping like the flapping of a mainsail.

"'I was rather used up and tired out, and a little bewildered, and so I sat down on the southwest corner of his liver, and crossed my legs while I got my wits together. It wasn't dark down there, as there was ten thousand of them little sea jellies shinin' there, like second-hand stars, in the wrinkles of his stomach, and then there was lots of room too. By-an'-by, while I was lookin' round, I saw a black patch on the starboard side of his stomach, and went over to examine it. There I found printed in ink, in big letters, "Jonah, B.C. 1607." Then I knew where I was, and I began to feel real bad.
A Free Ride

"'I opened my tobacco box to take a mouthful of fine-cut to steady my nerves. I suppose my hand was a little unsteady. Anyhow, I dropped some of the tobacco on the floor of the whale's stomach. It gave a convulsive jump, and I saw at once the whale wasn't used to it. I picked up a jackknife I saw layin' on the floor, and cut a ping of tobacco into fine snuff, and scattered it around in the little wrinkles in the stomach. You should have seen how the medicine worked. The stomach began to heave as though a young earthquake had opened up under it, and then it squirmed and twisted, and finally turned wrong side out, and flopped me into the sea. The mate's boat was there picking up the people from the smashed boat, and just as they had given me up for lost they saw me and took me in. They laughed when I told them of the inside of the whale, and the printin' I saw there, but when I showed them the old jackknife with the American eagle on one side and Jonah's name on the other, they stopped laughin' and looked serious. It is always well to have something on hand when you are tellin' a true story, and that knife was enough.'

"That same captain," he continued, "was once out for a whale, but when they killed him, they were ten miles from the ship. The captain got on the dead whale, and sent the boat back to let the ship know where they were. After they had gone, a storm came on and drove the ship away, and there the captain stayed three weeks. He stuck an oar into the whale to hang on to, and the third week a ship hove in sight. As he didn't know what she was, he hoisted the American flag, which he happened to have a picture of on his pocket handkerchief, and pretty soon the ship hung out her colors, and her captain came on board. Captain Sammis was tired of the monotony of life on a whale, and so he sold out his interest to the visitor. He got half the oil and a passage to Honolulu, where he found his own craft all right."

"You say he remained three weeks on the back of that whale," said one of the listeners.

"Yes, I said three weeks."

"Well, how did he live all that time?"

"How can I tell?" was the reply. "That's none of my business. Probably he took his meals at the nearest restaurant and slept at home. And if you don't believe my story, I can't help it, I've done the best I can."
Shooting at a Waterspout

With this remark he rose and walked away. It was agreed that there was a certain air of improbability about his narrations, and Frank ventured the suggestion that the stranger would never get into trouble on account of telling too much truth.

They had a curiosity to know something about the man. Doctor Bronson questioned the purser and ascertained that he was entered on the passenger list as Mr. A. of America, but whence he came, or what was his business, no one could tell. He had spoken to but few persons since they left port, and the bulk of his conversation had been devoted to stories like those about the whaling business.

In short, he was a riddle no one could make out, and very soon he received from the other passengers the nickname of "The Mystery." Fred suggested that Mystery and Mr. A. were so nearly alike that the one name was as good as the other.

While they were discussing him, he returned suddenly and said: "The Captain says there are indications of a waterspout tomorrow, and perhaps we may be destroyed by it."

With these words he withdrew, and was not seen anymore that evening. Fred wished to know what a waterspout was like, and was promptly set at rest by the Doctor.

"A waterspout," the latter remarked, "is often seen in the tropics, but rarely in this latitude. The clouds lie quite close to the water, and there appears to be a whirling motion to the latter. Then the cloud and the sea beneath it become united by a column of water, and this column is what we call a waterspout. It is generally believed that the water rises, through this spout, from the sea to the clouds, and sailors are fearful of coming near them lest their ships may be deluged and sunk. They usually endeavor to destroy them by firing guns at them, and this was done on board a ship where I was once a passenger. When the ball struck the spout, there was a fall of water sufficient to have sunk us if we had been beneath it, and we all felt thankful that we had escaped the danger."


Study the chapter for one week.

Over the week:

  • Read and/or listen to the chapter.
  • Review the vocabulary terms.
  • Complete the enrichment activities.


Spyglass: A small portable telescope.
Whaling: The practice of hunting whales.
Whale Oil: Any of various oils and fats extracted from the blubber of whales and used in the manufacture of soap, lubricants, and historically illuminating oil.
Cabin Boy: A boy or young man who is employed to serve as an attendant for passengers or crew members on a ship.
Quarterdeck: The aft part of the upper deck of a ship, normally reserved for officers.
Mast: A tall, slim post or tower, usually tapering upward, used to support, for example, the sails on a ship.
Waterspout: A whirlwind or tornado that forms or passes over water.


Activity 1: Narrate the Chapter

  • Narrate the events aloud in your own words.

Activity 2: Study the Chapter Pictures

  • Study the chapter pictures and describe how each relates to the story.

Activity 3: Observe the Modern Equivalent

  • Examine a chapter location in modern times: The city of Shanghai, China.

Activity 4: Map the Chapter

Find the countries of Japan and China on the map of the world.

Find the following locations discussed in the chapter:

  • New Bedford, Massachusetts - Captain Spofford's boyhood seaport city (Abbreviated 'New Bed.')
  • Shanghai, China - The city and country where Captain Spofford is traveling
  • Hong Kong - The location where Captain Spofford's predecessor died
  • Japan in relation to Shanghai and Hong Kong

Activity 5: Map the Chapter on a Globe

  • Repeat the mapwork from Activity 4 on a three-dimensional globe.