Saturday, 29 May 2010

Chapter Two - Scene 2

Southern Ocean                                                                                                          Early March

“STEADY as she goes.”

On the bridge of his whale chaser, Shishi Maru Four, Captain Nisso Sasaki gave his final order to the helmsman. He had timed his vessel’s arrival to coincide with the surfacing of the bull sperm whale. Knowing that the animal frequently surfaced within a few hundred feet of the point where it began its dive, he checked the sonar dial again. The green dot indicated the whale was now rising from the sea floor.

Reaching with his left hand for the radio telephone, staring past the helmsman, he called “Taiji Maru, Taiji Maru, do you read me?” The bridge was silent, the noises of the sea and boat but a background murmur to the scene of expectancy.

“Number four, Number four, we read you, over,” broke the stillness of the three waiting men. The vessel’s first officer had joined Sasaki and the helmsman as preparations began for the start of the end of the chase.

“Taiji Maru, I wish to speak with Captain Dan, over,” replied Sasaki, emotionless in front of his crew, his request formal, detached and objective.

“Captain Dan, Captain Dan,” repeated the voice, “will do, over.” The radio crackle ceased abruptly. Tense silence returned.

Gazing out at the long gray swells Sasaki’s mind filled with memories of the traditional rivalry between whalers from Ayukawa, his homeport, and those from Taiji. Yasuguro Dan was from Taiji. A fishing town on the southeast coast of Honshu, Japan’s main island, it lay one hundred and fifty kilometers due south of Osaka. His own hometown, Ayukawa, was nine hundred kilometers further north in a northeast bay on the same island. Both areas had whaling histories, extending back hundreds of years. Musing further, he marveled at how the whale catching methods had developed over that period. Shore based fleets now replaced by whale chasers hunting in packs, roving the feeding grounds of the oceans. The old style cumbersome netting of these leviathans, replaced by modern cannons firing harpoons with exploding heads. The shore based processing factories now superseded by the efficient whaling fleets consisting of a whaling factory ship, a refrigeration vessel, an oil tanker, catcher boats, scouting boats and meat carriers. The factory ships, twenty five thousand tons of floating abattoir, were designed to process sixty thousand kilogram mammals—cutting, gutting, slicing, stripping, rendering them down to oil, bone powder and meat. Their industry was efficient, more efficient than the Soviets and right up there with the Norwegians.

Sasaki allowed a smug smile to form, rivalry forgotten for the moment. Japanese whaling was the best in the world. And, he Nisso Sasaki from Ayukawa was the best whale catcher in the fleet. Eighteen years difference in age—Yasuguro Dan is an old man. Why should I be waiting for an answer from the master of the factory ship? The old man from Taiji. When I get back to Yokohama, I’ll report this delay. He’s too old for this. It’s time he was replaced with a younger, more able skipper--one from Ayukawa.’ His smile broadened in anticipation . . .

“Number four, this is Captain Dan. Do you read me.” The brisk clipped voice that broke the silence brought Sasaki back to the present.

Sasaki’s quick reply matched that of the inquirer. “Makko kujira ETA for surfacing sixteen minutes from now. Estimated length fifteen meters, weight forty thousand kilograms.” Reading from the dials, he continued, “Wind north-north-east eighteen knots and rising, sea moderate, eighteen meters between swells and regular, barometer steady at one thousand and twelve millibars. All stations ready. Message ends, over.” Sasaki released the button on the handset.

There was a brief pause before Yasuguro Dan replied. “Message received. Our ETA your co-ordinates in thirty-five minutes. Carry on. Good luck. Over.”

Replacing the handset, Sasaki reached for his jacket and lifted it over his head. Protected from water and the cold, he felt warm in his waterproof jacket, trousers and rubber sea boots. Picking up earphones, he fitted them over his head and clicked the cord into the radio receiver strapped to his chest. The throat microphone allowed him to communicate directly with the helmsman and first officer on the bridge. Adjusting the jacket hood, he turned to the others. “You know what to do. Let’s make this a good one,” he said. Tone flat. A command not a statement.

Opening the bridge door, he stepped out on to the sloping catwalk linking the bridge to the bow. Gripping the rails tightly with his hands, he walked to the harpoon firing position, carefully matching his steps to the ship’s roll. The wind pulled at his hood and cuffs.

Arriving at the firing platform atop the high, flared bows of Shishi Maru Four, he looked down the eight meters to the water below. Behind him, between the platform and the bridge, was the forward mast. Positioned twenty-two meters above sea level in the crow’s nest a sharp-eyed crewmember was already in place, scanning the sea with binoculars. Like Sasaki, he communicated with the bridge by radio.

Attaching the safety harness to his waist, Sasaki took up his position, feet astride behind the cannon. He swiveled it around on its bases so that its ninety millimeter barrel faced towards him. Carefully, he checked that the seventy kilogram, one-point-eight meter long, steel harpoon was correctly loaded, noting the wire loop through the shaft connected to one hundred and thirty meters of nylon forerunner. Attached to a two hundred meter length of manila, it[what?] ran down under the firing platform then rose high to a sheave under the crow’s nest. Then down around a drum winch into the hold between the mast and deckhouse. His hands fondled the four ten centimeter barbed flukes tied in against the shaft. They would pivot on hinges and fly out after the harpoon was embedded in the whale. He smiled in anticipation.

Finally, he checked the grenade containing one hundred and seventy grams of explosive powder. This was screwed into the tip of the harpoon. It had a fuse set to detonate the grenade three seconds after the harpoon had entered the whale’s body. Swinging the gun back into its firing position, he took hold of the pistol-like grip, finger on the trigger. As he locked his body in with the movement of the boat, he spoke into the throat microphone, “Gun ready. Time before it blows?”

“Two minutes to first surfacing.” The first officer’s voice, loud with tension, filled his ears.

“Tell look-out I want its size and position within its first three breaths. And he is to count aloud the breaths after each surfacing. Over.” Sasaki’s command was brief, compelling and controlled.

“Start the count-down to surfacing now.” The first officer relayed the instruction to the lookout.

“Fifty-four, fifty-three, fifty-two,” the first officer’s voice intoned through his headphones.

Alone on the platform, like an actor on the stage, Sasaki mentally ran through the procedure that would evolve as the hunt went through its various stages. It was critical that they assessed the whale’s length accurately. The rule of thumb was that for every third of a meter of a sperm whale’s length, it would spout once at the surface and spend one minute submerged during the subsequent dive. At fifteen meters this bull would remain on the surface for less than ten minutes. This had to be extended by chasing him to exhaustion.

He reflected that the manila rope could not stand the strain of being stretched between the wounded and dying whale fighting its last fight, and the whale catcher bouncing over the waves. The whale had to be played as a rainbow trout is played on the finest tackle. The line had to be let out or taken in, as the pull on it varied. To prevent sudden tugs from snapping it, the line ran through a sheave that was attached to a rope. The rope ran to the masthead, and then down through a series of accumulation springs in the hold. As tension in the whale-line increased, the sheave was pulled down, the springs stretched, and the strain on the whale-line decreased. The movements of whale and the catcher would be continually moderated by the play in the accumulated springs.

“Fifteen, fourteen, thirteen.” The first officer’s voice stabbed through Sasaki’s thoughts as he made his last minute check. Everything was in order.

“Four, three, two, one, BLOOOWS,” came as a high pitched shout.

“Sixty meters straight ahead—makko kujira fifteen meters,” the first officer relayed, now calm.

“Makko kujira where are you?” Sasaki whispered to himself. Lifted by the swell, the range of his view opened to reveal the tell tale sign of the sperm whale. The fine mist of its spout rising seven meters to the left at fourty five degrees, indicated that the whale catcher was coming up fast behind the leviathan. “Now I’ve got you,” Sasaki said to himself. The engine noise would frighten the whale into a series of shallow and short dives until, exhausted, it would lie panting on the surface, unable to escape.

“Tsukamaeru zo!” Sasaki shouted to himself as the frightened whale dived early before full recovery, “I’ll get you soon!”

Eight minutes passed before the catcher began to slow down and maneuver into the final killing position. Sasaki, waving with his left hand, directed the chaser’s course.

“Twenty-five, twenty-six, twenty-seven,” the counting of the breaths continued, in his ear, as he sighted along the rod above the gun barrel.

“Thirty-two, thirty-three, thirty-four,” the voice over the microphone continued, like a death chant. The whale’s back began to hump out of the water. Sasaki felt his mouth become dry as his concentration increased with the approach to the ideal position. The area behind the head became exposed. He tightened his finger on the trigger.

“Now! Now!”

A cloud of smoke signaled the WHOOMP of the explosion as the harpoon fired out at fifty kilometers per hour into its prey.

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