‘Out of his nostrils goeth smoke’: whales, whaling and breathing fire

In the second of a series of posts on cetaceans (see also ‘The cetaceans may give rise to some perplexity‘), Project Manager (Bristol) Jess Farr-Cox writes:

Whaling abounds with breathing, breathlessness, air, death, myth and song. Factory whaling boats were airless places, filled with the smell and grease of whales, permanently oily and carrying a crew so different from both land-lubbers and other sailors that R.B. Robertson (a psychologist by training, and ship’s doctor to a whaling vessel in 1950-1) describes all whalemen as ‘psychopaths’. Virgin whalers were ‘baptised’ by being fully immersed in the wake of the ship (once for the agile and multiple times for those too slow to escape)[1], and as well as old and brutal traditions, the whalemen had their own language (a mix of Norwegian, Gaelic and English, although the majority of the technical terms are Norwegian), their own songs (all about whales)[2] and a shared disregard for cleanliness and physical comfort:

Air entered only through the companionway leading down from the deck, and men lived and ate in the accumulated filth of months in an atmosphere thick with the smell of unclean bodies, sweaty clothing, greasy boots and blubber.[3]

Whaling vessels also contained men particularly susceptible to specific health complaints, including the obvious gashes sustained while flensing (removing the flesh from) whales, but there is also a suicide in the course of the brutal, lonely journey Robertson describes, and a prolonged outbreak of respiratory disease:

It would take an epidemiologist to explain properly the South Georgia ’flu that was affecting us all at this time. I can only say vaguely that it seems to be connected with the fact that the resistance to all respiratory infections among the island inhabitants drops sharply during the winter, when they are cut off from all the coughs and sneezes of the rest of the world.[4]

While whalers breath the foetid air in the holds of their factory ship, whales endanger themselves simply by breathing at all: ‘[t]he very breath of a whale could put it in the way of a harpoon’, as Joe Roman puts it.[5] In the cold air of the Southern Antarctic Ocean, Robertson describes how the moisture in the whale’s exhalations freezes in the air as it falls, creating a soft, feathery shape and (crucially for both whale and whaler) hanging in the air for several seconds as it does so. Philip Hoare writes that ‘[i]n whale bone carvings, the Inuit represent the whale’s breath as a feather’ and describes the breath of a finback whale as follows:

whales must make a conscious decision to respire, otherwise their dives would be impossible. With all the force of its massive lungs, it expels exhausted air with the pneumatic sound of a finger held over a bicycle pump. It is a profound exhalation, rather than a spout of sea water; a visible condensation, like human breath on a frosty morning.[6]

Predictably, the blue whale has the largest and most powerful lungs, and therefore the highest and most noticeable spout, up to nine metres above the surface of the sea.[7] In the days before it became a target of commercial whaling, the blue whale was plentiful, and easy to detect by the sheer size of its spouts; as Roman notes, ‘No matter how grotesque or fanciful the monster, it was the spout – the briny white exhalation – that often signified a cetacean’.[8] The blue whale was too swift to be caught by the sluggish whalers; too large to be killed outright by primitive harpoons; and too heavy to pull on board, as (unlike other whale species) blue whales sink shortly after death. Right whales are so named because they were thought to be the ‘correct’ whales to kill, as they yield large quantities of oil and (obligingly) float on the surface after death. However, with the invention of modern explosive and electric harpoons, the mechanical hval kla (‘whale claw’, a huge grab that can pull a whale by the tail onto the deck of a factory ship before it sinks) and a mechanism to inflate dead whales with compressed air, the blue whale suddenly became the prey of choice for whale ships, an onslaught from which its numbers have never recovered.

Richard Perry suggests that killer whales understand breathing, in that they have learnt to deliberately drown whales and other creature, and notes (in agreement with cetaceologist Robert Pitman) that drowning is their preferred hunting strategy for many of their prey animals, suggesting that killer whales can distinguish between those that can and can’t hold their breath for long periods.[9] The intelligence and cruelty of killer whales approaches our own when hunting the whale, and Robertson speaks of whalers shooting killer whales to prevent them eating the carcasses of whales already dispatched by whaling vessels, particularly the valuable tongues. It is clear throughout the literature on whales and whaling that whalers have enormous respect for, and an obsessive interest in, the whale species that they hunt (blue, fin, sperm, grey, minke, bowhead, sei, right, humpback etc.), but are divided on killer whales. Norwegian whalers seem repelled by them [10] out of all proportion to the damage that they do to the catch[11], while Australian whalers have been known to co-operate with killer whale pods over a period of several years, allowing the killer whales to eat the tongue in exchange for herding and partially drowning the prey whale. This went on in the early decades of the twentieth century in Twofold Bay, Australia, until the pod was exterminated by Norwegian whalers.[12]

Roman speaks of several cultures who learned to use the spouts of whales to hunt them from the shore, including minke whales being netted in fjords and then shot with arrows, some of them poisoned. Further south in Europe, there were also land-based lookouts in towers alerting whalers (presumably crouching in the sand in a state of cat-like readiness) that a whale had strayed too close to the coast and could be reached by a small, swiftly-launched boat. On his commercial vessel, Robertson describes lookouts perched where we expect them to be:

In the whale hunt it is necessary to have a clear uninterrupted view all round, and the distant feathery spouting of many a whale would be missed if the keen-eyed men searching for it were behind glass … above us, on the crow’s nest or ‘barrel’ at the masthead, the youngest lad on the ship, who by right of his juniority was given the coldest and least attractive job, searched for the elusive and by no means easily spotted puffs of vapour that would disclose our innocent victim. […] I had been searching for a great fountain of water shooting toward the sky, as artists and tale-tellers had taught me to expect, but of course as we were a mile or so away, all there was to see was a feathery and momentary puff of vapour, seeming only a few inches high against the grey sea beyond.[13]

Robertson relates an entire whale hunt in a chapter entitled ‘Hvalblast!’, a Norwegian word for the exhalation of the whale (used aboard his trilingual ship as equivalent to ‘thar she blows!’), meaning literally ‘whale blast’. The respiration of these animals is extraordinary. They contrive to avoid the bends, can remain submerged for great lengths of time, and have enormous lungs. Roman writes that ‘an adult blue whale can inhale 5,000 litres, a roomful of air, before sounding’[14]; Hoare says ‘the [finback] whale shoots out one hundred gallons of air in a second’[15] and Robertson gives the weight of the lungs removed from ‘a fat nice [blue] whale’ as around a ton.[16] The exhalations are sufficiently different that experienced whalers can identify whale species from the shape, size and even smell of the hvalblast. Hoare notes that ‘[i]ts very breath was fearful: sailors believed the spout to be acrid, able to burn skin or even […] cause blindness ‘if the jet is fairly spouted into your eyes.’[17] in modern times, zoologists can do the same with echolocation signatures, which are broken up by the whales surfacing to breath at regular intervals, thus indicating the size of the lungs and therefore the likely species. Roman writes about a pair of acousticians identifying a fin whale in this way, thus avoiding an international incident during the Cold War, in which both Soviet and US submarines had detected an echolocation signature, each assuming it came from an enemy submarine.[18] Whaling abounds with superstition and mythology, and in its infancy, whalers feared that ‘inhaling the moist air [of a hvalblast] could cause dizziness and fainting fits, possibly death’; Hoare would disagree, as quoted above.[19] The Book of Beasts and the Exeter Book both suggest (mistakenly, of course) that whales also exhale underwater to lure fish into their mouths:

The nature of this monster is that whenever it feels hungry, it opens its mouth and blows out a sort of pleasantly-smelling breath, and when the smaller fishes notice the odour of this, they crowd together in the mouth.[20]

The spouts are referred to variously depending on the culture from which the whalers originate, described as minarets or sails by Eastern whalers, and chimneys by Americans and Europeans. In a sea fog, whalers might still find it possible to pursue a whale that was close by, by listening for the (now invisible) spouts.[21] The last breath of a harpooned whale, which is often filled with blood, is referred to on Robertson’s ship by his predominantly Norwegian and Shetland crew as ‘chimney afire’,[22] and indeed there is further crossover here, as Roman demonstrates by beginning chapter 6 of his book with the arresting sentence ‘Whales and fire’. Here, Roman’s focus is on stories (such as those of Sinbad) where fires are lit inside whales by swallowed mariners (or indeed swallowed puppets: some readers may recall that Pinocchio is swallowed by the giant whale Monstro and escapes by lighting a fire in Monstro’s belly). Whales may also have fires lit on their backs, as per medieval bestiaries and their accounts of the gigantic ‘whale island’ Fastitocalon, or St. Brendan on the back of the whale Jasconius (Kingshill and Westwood call him Jasconye), an incident that explains why St. Brendan is, among other things, patron saint of whales. Unlike Fastitocalon, Jasconius proves to be a forgiving beast and later allows St. Brendan to revisit his back in order to say mass. Similar mistaken encounters between whales and fire are described as a regular occurrence off the Irish coast in The Book of Beasts:

Sailing ships that happen to be going that way take it [the whale] to be an island and land on it. Then they make themselves a fireplace. But the Whale, feeling the hotness of the fire, suddenly plunges down into the depths of the deep.[23]

Robertson has a somewhat nastier experience of whales and heat, burning his hand after placing it on the meat of a whale that has been dead for so long that the flesh has started to deteriorate. Insulated by the blubber, it heats up to the point where it scorches, thus explaining the phenomenon of decaying beached whales exploding in a shower of hot and stinking fat. Kingshill and Westwood pass on a tale of a whaler named James Bartley, who was swallowed by a whale and recovered by his astonished crew-mates several hours later during the flensing process. Temporarily deranged by the experience, Bartley remained yellow in the face (his skin having been bleached by the whale’s gastric juices), haunted by terrible dreams of angry whales, and later stated that ‘although he could breathe [inside the whale], the heat was dreadful’.[24] Whales are, in death as in life, stubbornly warm, and might remind us here of the leviathan in the Book of Job, which was said to breathe fire. The leviathan is never described in a way that would unambiguously identify it as a blue whale: it is left as some kind of sea monster, as in Aristotle’s original term for cetaceans, ketodeis (monster-like)[25], or as in the Book of Isaiah, ‘the dragon that is in the sea’.[26] The psalms describe the leviathan as unmolested, alone in the wide ocean:

O Lord, how manifold are thy works! In wisdom has thou made them all: the earth is full of thy riches. So is this great and wide sea, wherein are things creeping innumerable, both small and great beasts. There go the ships: there is that leviathan, whom thou hast made to play therein.[27]

Finally, it is interesting to note that, despite Robertson’s assertions of the deep religious faith of his crew, none of them seem familiar with God’s repeated warnings that He alone can subdue the creature, and that mere men should leave the leviathan be:

Canst thou draw out leviathan with an hook? […] Canst thou fill his skin with barbed irons or his head with fish spears? Lay this hand upon him, remember the battle, do no more […] Out of his mouth go burning lamps, and sparks of fire leap out. Out of his nostrils goeth smoke, as out of a seething pot or cauldron. His breath kindleth coals, and a flame goeth out of his mouth.[28]


[1] Compare this to Philip Hoare’s description of seeing a whale for the first time: ‘With a last plosive whoosh as it fills its lungs, the finback shoots out a mixture of air and salt water and a little whale phlegm, its shiny blowholes closing in an airlock as it prepares to dive. The spume hits my face like a fishy atomizer. I have been breather upon, and it feels like a baptism.’ Philip Hoare, Leviathan or, The Whale (London: Fourth Estate,  2008), p. 29.

[2] See, for example, Stuart M. Frank’s ‘Classic American Whaling Songs’, Maritime Life & Traditions, Spring 2005 (16), p. 16.

[3] Felix Riesenberg, The Pacific Ocean (London: Museum Press Ltd., 1947), p. 212.

[4] R.B. Robertson, Of Whales and Men (London: Macmillan, 1956), p. 77.

[5] Joe Roman, Whale (London: Reaktion Books, 2006), p. 116.

[6] Hoare, Leviathan, pp. 215 and 28.

[7] Roman, Whale, pp. 128-129.

[8] ibid., p. 26.

[9] Robert Pitman, as cited in Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell, The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2015), p. 139; see also Richard Perry, The Unknown Ocean (Newton Abbott: David & Charles, 1972), pp. 238-239. However, as I have argued elsewhere (see The fish that is black), it can be dangerous to anthropomorphise animals. We simply don’t have enough scientific data to do this with any confidence: to misappropriate both Nagel and Aristotle (On Respiration, part 9), ‘The main reason why these writers [Diogenes and others] have not given a good account of these facts is that they have no acquaintance with the internal organs’.

[10] Whalers were manned by ‘the scum of the earth […] of all the scarred, battered and bitter annals of the sea, some of the worst came out of the whaling voyages.’ Riesenberg, Pacific, pp. 201-202.

[11] See my blog post on The Filthy Comma (The fish that is black) for a fuller account of this hatred of killer whales, and Captain Scott’s breathless account of orcas attempting to hunt his dogs from the water.

[12] Whitehead and Rendell, Whales and Dolphins, pp. 142-143.

[13] Robertson, Of Whales, pp. 82-86.

[14] Roman, Whale, p. 116.

[15] Hoare, Leviathan, p. 28.

[16] Robertson, Of Whales, p. 98

[17] Hoare, Leviathan, p. 147. The observation about ‘fairly spouting’ into the eyes is made by Ishmael in Moby Dick. Herman Melville described his earlier novel Redburn as ‘trash […] wrote it to buy some tobacco.’ Herman Melville, as quoted by Hoare, Leviathan, p. 173.

[18] Roman, Whale, pp. 154-155.

[19] Ibid., p. 8.

[20] The Book of Beasts, Being a Translation from a Latin Bestiary of the Twelfth Century, translated and edited by T.H. White (New York, Dover Publications, 1954), p. 198. Kingshill and Westwood suggest that this idea may have arisen from ‘the sweet smell of ambergris, a waxy substance found in the intestine of the sperm whale and long valued as an ingredient of perfume’. Sophia Kingshill and Jennifer Westwood, The Fabled Coast: Legends and Traditions from around the shores of Britain and Ireland (London, Random House, 2015), p. 281.

[21] Roman, Whale, p. 158.

[22] Robertson, Of Whales, p. 89.

[23] The Book of Beasts, p. 197.

[24] Kingshill and Westwood, The Fabled Coast, pp. 166-168; quotation p. 168. Bartley is likely to have been unimpressed by George Orwell’s assertion in his essay ‘Inside a Whale’ that ‘being inside a whale is a very comfortable, cosy, homelike thought’. George Orwell, as quoted by Hoare, Leviathan, p. 156.

[25] Armand Marie Leroi, The Lagoon: How Aristotle Invented Science (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), p. 105.

[26] Isaiah, chapter 27, verse 1 (King James). We might compare this to Psalm 74, verse 13: ‘thou breakest the heads of the dragons in the waters.’

[27] Psalm 104, verse 24-26 (King James).

[28] Job, chapter 41, verses 1, 7-8, 19-21 (King James).

Jess Farr-Cox

Jess is the Bristol project manager for Life of Breath. She is also a freelance proof-reader, copy-editor, indexer, teacher and writer.

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