Saturday, 3 July 2010

Chapter Two - Scene 6

Southern Ocean                                                                                                                    Early March

“CAPTAIN, Captain.” The first officer’s voice stirred Dan from his musings. “Shishi Maru, three hundred and fifty meters off starboard bow.

“Moving to the center of the room, Yasuguro Dan stopped and turned to look forward. From the great height of his command position atop the bridge deck of his ship the Taiji Maru, a twenty-five thousand ton supply and factory vessel, his professional eye inspected the killing ground.

Yasuguro Dan was a typical whaler from Taiji. Short and stocky, he had a flattened and unremarkable face. He was fit and healthy from his demanding, active outdoors life. Only the gray tufts of hair above his cheekbones, beside each ear, revealed his true age. At fifty-three he had over thirty-year’s experience in the whaling industry. A long time. Hands behind his back, he paced across the bridge. He was waiting, and while he waited he let his thoughts roll back.

Since the seventeenth century, when his forebears devised the capturing of larger whales by netting, Taiji had remained the leading whaling village in Japan. A feeling of pride rose within him. Located on the southern coast of the Kii peninsula, his village had always hunted dolphins and pilot whales that passed close by on their seasonal journey to and from the Arctic feeding grounds. Crews in rowing boats were guided by scouts on the cliff top above their village. Signal flags were used to direct the crews, who rounded up the small creatures, driving them into their bay where they could be slaughtered. The ingenious method they developed three hundred years ago progressed to the capture of larger whales ranging from minke to sperm. The hunting techniques had changed accordingly. The rowing crews would surround the whale with a large net. Caught like a fly in a spider’s web, the whale thrashed about until it was exhausted. Sure, other coastal villages had copied the method, but Taiji, the inventor, remained the leader. By classifying whales as fish, their meat became widely accepted, as the Buddhist ethic against killing animals prevailed. It was marvelous how a use was found for every part of the whale. Blubber was turned into oil for fuel, or mixed with vinegar and sold as a pesticide to control insects in the rice paddies. Oil extracted from the bones was used for cooking and sugar making. The gut, tendons and sinews were dried and used to lash wood together or tie armor in place. The baleen, a horny material from the whale’s palate, called whalebone, was incorporated into the tips of fishing rods, pipes and puppet strings. Entrails, which were not eaten, were boiled down to make soup stock. Any unused material was subsequently turned into fertilizer. Nothing was wasted. Even the whale teeth were fashioned into tools or carved into ornaments. Ornaments with magical qualities, able to pass on the great power of the sperm whale to the wearer.

Beams of sunlight burst through the cumulus cloud highlighting the foam tops of the swell like spectators’’ togas at a gladiators’ fight in the coliseum. Wheeling around overhead, several gulls looked down on the scene, preparing to dive for scraps. Below them the two protagonists were locked together, as if in death throes, as the whale chaser and its prey rose and fell with the swell. Lashed along side the chaser, the whale’s smooth, black skin, shone like polished ebony in the rays of the lowering sun. The once mighty leviathan lay floating in a red slick of its own blood.

Through his binoculars, Yasuguro Dan noted that only one harpoon was lodged behind the whale’s head. It had been a clean kill. No need for a second harpoon or even electrocution. ‘That is good,’ he mused, ‘the meat will be good.’ Looking further he saw the bloody slash on the massive body. Slit open immediately after death to let the sea cool the body to prevent bacterial decomposition, this allowed the meat to be used for human consumption.

‘An excellent kill,’ he observed to himself. This extra sperm whale, making ten in all, was a bonus on top of their good season. They had achieved the full limit of 330 minke whales. The little rogues, only a fifth of the size of this massive sperm whale, were legal prey in this part of the world. Yokohama Fisheries, his employers, in Yokohama had reported to the world their official kill some days ago.

He stamped his feet, more in frustration than for warmth. Since the restrictions on commercial killing in the 1986-7 season, the industry had stagnated and life had lost a lot of challenge. Thinking back further, he remembered the early 1960’s. He had been twenty-five years old then. It was the peak killing season when over sixty-six thousand whales were taken by all whaling fleets. Now it was less than half of one percent. ‘Can the industry survive?’ he wondered.

The voices of his officers and crew disturbed his thoughts. The massive bulk of the factory ship turned into the wind. Preparations for the transfer of the dead whale were being made. It would be hauled up the sloping stern and hoisted onto the cutting deck. Reaching for the microphone, he nodded to a crewmember to patch him through to the whale chaser.

“Number four? Number four? Do you read me? Over,” he said in his clipped manner.

“We read you loud and clear. Over,” came the immediate reply from Nisso Sasaki, who had been waiting for the call.

“Congratulations Captain, you have made a good kill. Makko kujira was an excellent choice. An extra bonus for us all!” He paused. “When can we make the transfer? The light may not hold for much longer,” he added. “Over.”

“Ready for transfer,” came Nisso Sasaki’s curt reply.

‘Efficiency or just pique,’ thought Yasuguro Dan. ‘Sasaki always was sensitive to the suggestions of others. Typical Ayukawan. Arrogant, ambitious and determined. Always out to prove themselves.’ He smiled to himself. ‘Sasaki is a good operator. He runs a tidy ship and he has the best record for kills. But, he has to be kept on his toes.’

A line, which had been passed to the whale chaser, was securely attached around the whale’s tail, below the massive flukes. Watching the operation from his elevated position, Yasuguro Dan thought through the next phase of the operation. The huge lifeless mass of the whale’s body would be winched, tail first, up the sloping stern onto the working deck.

The first task was to cut off the head, severing it from the body just below the skull. A difficult job that required careful dissection, first by the fleshing knives and then by the long bladed chain saws. By maneuvering the huge weight of the whale with lifting tackle connected to chains, which were attached by hooks to the body, the gruesome butchers would be able to hack the head from the body. Then the bulk of the body would be dragged further in. Before it came to a standstill a gang of flensers would attack it. Armed with long-handled, razor sharp knives, they would slice great slits down the length of the whale. Wires would then be attached to the blubber and cranked in by the winch so that strips of blubber would be torn off the underlying flesh. The remainder of the carcass, like a great-unpeeled banana, would be turned over and hauled up further where it would be skillfully trimmed of its meat. The bone-cutting men with their chainsaws would dismember the skeleton.

Yasuguro Dan watched as the whale began to be winched up the stern. The transfer was going smoothly. Mentally he continued his review. The blubber, meat and bones would be processed separately. The meat would be quickly cut into standard portions and size and then transferred below to the preparation room. Here it would be carefully checked, graded and marked before being quick-frozen. This retained the good eating qualities desired by his people.

The tongue, subcutaneous blubber, oil-rich organs and internal tissue would be reduced in rotary steam cookers. These horizontal cookers contained a rotating drum with baffles that broke up the blubber and facilitated the removal of oil. The process normally took only two to four hours.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the deck, the bones would be dragged up a slipway to a large steam saw that would cut them into manageable pieces. These would be fed into a pressure cooker where they would be cooked for twenty-four hours to express the high quality oil. The solid residue would be ground up as bonemeal. But because of a shortage of men, this operation would be left for several days.

Yasuguro Dan took two steps forward to obtain a better view aft through the rear windows of the bridge. The tail of the enormous headless body, being hauled by the heavy winch, was now below him on the main working deck. The flensers were at work. He admired their artistry in this mammoth dissection as they cut in through the delicate pink blubber to expose the whale’s flesh.

As he watched, the leader and two of his team thrust their sharp cutting spades deep into the whale’s guts. Withdrawing them, they carefully smelt the blades for any trace of ambergris. With cries of exaltation, they lifted their bloody blades high inducing the others to join them. The whaleman’s ultimate hope, ambergris, was there. Yasuguro Dan acknowledged the leader’s salute, and turned to smile at the other members on the bridge on hearing an excited crewman shout, “Ambergris!”

Further back toward the stern, another team was attacking the massive head. The lower part called the ‘junk’, contained spermaceti in a matrix of tough white fibers. The steam of the chainsaws clouded his vision as the junk was cut off and put to one side for later treatment. Then the upper part of the head, the ‘case’, would be carefully opened to reveal the huge reservoir of pure spermaceti. This would be sealed in casks for later refining.

But his main attention was fixed on the removal of the jaw. The scream of the chainsaws rose above the overall din as they hacked though the bone and flesh. Finally, the severed jaw, covered in blood and gore, was pulled from the rest of the head. Immediately a crewman, with a swift flick, dug a steel hook into the jaw and attached it by a chain to one of the deck fittings. It was anchored and so could not be lost. Yasuguro Dan, his passive face set, watched attentively, and wondered, ‘How many teeth will there be this time?’

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