Sunday, 16 May 2010

Chapter 1 - Scene 5

Southern Ocean                                                                                                                Early March

CAPTAIN Nisso Sasaki lifted his head slowly from the sonar screen. Giving his eyes time to adjust, he squinted out through the thick plate glass at the gray,-heaving swell. Turning his head without seeing, but knowing the helmsman’s place, he grunted, “Nothing there.”

Still holding onto the sonar cover, he reached into the pocket of his trousers for his cigarettes. He stood up, swaying to maintain his balance, and exchanged the cigarette packet for a lighter. Inhaling deeply, he thought to himself. ‘Damn, after three days it’s always nothing there.’

Stepping carefully behind the helmsman and adjusting his walk to match the moving bridge floor, he crossed to the chart table on the port side. Glancing down at the chart, Sasaki traced the track of his vessel, the whale catcher Shishi Maru Four. They had left the Antarctic whaling grounds three days previously on their journey back to Yokohama. Breathing out a fine stream of smoke, he contemplated the enormous whaling grounds, the feeding area for the baleen whales. In his mind he pictured their dramatic feeding frenzies. Skimmers and gulpers, they propelled themselves powerfully through the ocean, spreading their jaws, catching phenomenal amounts of water, krill and small fish in their dilatable mouths. Then they shut their jaws, lifting their enormous tongues to push the water out through the baleen plates to trap scores of wriggling organisms ready to be swallowed.

Looking down again, he pinpointed the position of the factory ship twenty miles to the southwest and astern. With his right index finger, he traced their proposed course along the edge of the Southern Pacific-Antarctic Ridge on the 1,200-meter depth line. The track of the mighty bull sperm whales. He checked the dial of the depth meter. ‘Still no change. We must be too far west,’ he thought to himself.

“Starboard five degrees,” he ordered tight-lipped.

“Starboard five degrees,” repeated the helmsman turning the wheel slightly. He recognized his captain’s frustration.

After a few minutes spent checking the various read-outs of the instruments at the control panel, Sasaki stalked back to the sonar. Gripping the light shield around the dial, he placed his head on the edge of the cover to view the screen. Waiting for his eyes to re-adjust to the darkness, he concentrated on the black background with the green shapes. The signal from the short burst of sonic energy showed clearly a bottom level of one thousand, two hundred and eighty meters. In between were only scattered groups of color indicating schools of fish close to the surface. Squinting, he peered closer. He was looking for a single light ascending or descending slowly over a ten to fifteen minute period. The unique signature of the deep dive of the large male sperm whale. ‘What was that . . .’ A speck of light moving down. He blinked his eyes and strained again, his instincts tightening his gut in anticipation. It was still there . . . ‘Yes . . .’ At the outer limit of the sonar’s range. ‘Yes, it is still there, descending at a regular rate’.

“Makko kujira,” he breathed to himself, as if not believing what he saw. “Makko kujira, MAKKO KUJIRA,” he shouted, drawing out the last word as he slapped the sonar case in delight. “Makko kujira at seven thousand meters,” he crowed, lifting his head from the screen. Turning to the helmsman, his face contorted by the grin of success, he shouted, “New course bearing oh-five-oh.”

“Oh-five-oh,” repeated the helmsman, smiling as he turned the wheel. “What’ll be our ETA?”

Sasaki’s excitement subsided, his eyes narrowing in suspicion. He resented the helmsman questioning him. Not answering, he turned back and peered into the sonar screen again. Eyes adjusting again to the darkened screen, he held his breath expectantly. ‘Would the small dot appear. Yes there it was, slightly larger and further down. It must be making a deep dive,’ he thought. At this depth the bull whale could be down for say an hour. ‘It’s probably over fifteen meters in length, a real monster. Maybe the biggest of the season.’ His mind raced in speculation. Realism returned as he calculated. ‘Ten minutes minimum on the surface—more than enough time for a kill.’ He smiled confidently to himself. ‘We’ll be there on time!’

He checked the screen again. The dot was almost at the bottom. Mentally he allowed fifteen minutes for the dive, half an hour for the feeding and ten minutes to surface. Estimated time of arrival fifty-five minutes. Standing up, he reached for the hand microphone.

“Taiji Maru! Taiji Maru! Taiji Maru! This is Shishi Maru Four. Do you read me? Over.”

Impatient for the acknowledgment, Sasaki wondered to himself if the Taiji crew had slackened off now the main whaling season was over. ‘Probably on automatic pilot with no one on the bridge or monitoring the radio. Lazy Taiji crew . . .’

“Shishi Maru Four, Shishi Maru Four, we read you loud and clear, over.”

‘Sounds like Yasuguro Dan, the old Taiji bastard,’ Sasaki said to himself. ‘I almost caught you out.

“Taiji Maru this is Shishi Maru Four, makko kujira, makko kujira diving oh-five-oh, depth twelve hundred, say again, twelve hundred meters. ETA fifty-five minutes, sixteen-oh-five. Preparing for kill! Over.”

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