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White Whales in Captivity, 1899

By Fred Mather


About Beluga Whales

    This article about the capture and display of beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas) was first published in the July 1899 issue of "Appleton's Popular Science Monthly."


    The dolphin family (Delphinidæ) contains nine genera, with only one species in each, but the most interesting one is the white whale (Delphinapterus leucas of Pallas, or D. catodon [Linn] of Gill), because it is the only one that can be kept in confinement and its habits observed under semi-domestication. It has fallen to my lot to care for several of these animals in confinement, and to have a chance to note their peculiarities.

    "The Great New York Aquarium," at Broadway and Thirty-fourth Street, New York city, was built by Messrs. Coup and Reiche, and opened in 1876. Mr. Butler was the superintendent. I supervised fish culture, and when not otherwise engaged made collections of fishes and invertebrates in Bermuda and in other parts. In 1877 I had charge of their branch aquarium at Coney Island. At both places we had many white whales at different times, for the management would keep whales penned up on the St. Lawrence River to replace those which died, and would never show more than two at a time, claiming that they were rare animals and only to be had at "enormous" expense. The aquarium was a private concern; admission fifty cents; and as the owners were W. C. Coup, a former circus proprietor and once the business manager of Barnum's Circus, and Henry Reiche, an animal dealer, who would sell you giraffes, elephants, or white mice, the attractions were duly exaggerated by the press agent, no matter what the facts might be. This is why We kept a reserve stock of white whales. It would never do to have the public know that they were common during the summer in the St. Lawrence, and when one was getting weak another would be sent down, and the public supposed that the same pair was on exhibition all the time.

    This species is common in the North Atlantic, North Pacific, and Arctic Oceans. According to the late Prof. G. Brown Groode, "stragglers have been seen in the Frith of Forth, latitude 56°, while on the American coast several have been taken within the past decade [1880] on the north shore of Cape Cod. They are slightly abundant in New England waters, but in the St. Lawrence River and on the coast of Labrador are plentiful, and the object of a profitable fishery. They abound in the Bering and Okhotsk Seas, and ascend the Yukon River, Alaska, to a distance of seven hundred miles. The names in use are beluga and Whitefish among whalers, porpoise, dauphin blanc, marsouin or marsoon in Canada, and keela luak with the Greenland Eskimos" (Fisheries Industries).

    The white whale grows to be sixteen feet long; we never had one over ten feet in length, but they were billed, showman fashion, to be much longer. An adult will yield from eighty to one hundred gallons of good whale oil, besides several gallons of more valuable oil from the head which is used on clocks and watches under the trade name of "porpoise-jaw oil," which is sent in a crude state to manufacturers on Cape Cod, who refine it and free it from all tendency to gum. The skins make a leather that is waterproof and stands more hard service than any other known leather. Large quantities of it are sent to England and made into "porpoise-hide boots" for sportsmen, and in Canada the hides are converted into mail bags. The flesh is eaten to some extent by the fishermen, fresh, salted, and smoked.

    Zach. Coup said: "I have eaten the fresh steaks several times, and found the meat a fair substitute for beef when the choice was between fish and bacon as a continuous diet, down on the islands where these three things were the only possible variation in the line of animal food, and a very limited choice in the vegetable line, comprising dried beans and rice, for when I was with them there was a scarcity of potatoes for seed, and canned goods had not attained their present popularity, even if these poor fishermen had been able to buy them."

    The fat, oily blubber is an overcoat, a nonconductor of heat, and is between the muscle and the skin, as is largely the case with the hog, and, like the latter animal, there is savory muscle which may be cut into succulent steaks below it.

    At first the white whales were not in my care, but, being strange animals, were watched with curiosity. The whale tank was as nearly circular as a twenty-sided tank could be whose glass plates were four feet wide with iron standards between, making a pool of about thirty feet in diameter. The pool was of cement and tapered down to an outlet about three feet below the floor, for drainage, and on the floor the cement basin arose two and a half feet, while the panes of one-inch glass were six feet high, with the water line two feet below the top of the glass. This gave the spectators a view of the animals below water, and of their backs as they came up to blow. The white whale and the harbor porpoise (Phocæna brachycion), known as the herring-hog, etc., do not make as much of a "spout" as the larger whales do; they roll up and exhale either less strongly or with less water over the blow-hole than their larger relatives. They merely send a mist into the air which can not be seen at a distance of a thousand yards, while the "blowing" of the larger whales may be seen for miles. Half a century ago we boys were taught by the text-books that the whale - there was only one mentioned - drew in water through its mouth, strained out the jellyfishes and other life, and then ejected the water, after the manner of a fire engine, through the top of its head. That this nostril, equipped with the best water-tight valve ever invented, enabled an air-breathing mammal to exhale and inhale, without getting much water into its lungs, we never suspected. If we thought about it at all we looked at the whale as a fish, having gills somewhere, and let it go at that. As our laws speak of "whale fisheries" and "seal fisheries" in connection with these great aquatic mammals, it would be just as correct to speak of all animals which frequent the water as "fishes," and legislate on the "muskrat fisheries," "mink fisheries," etc.; there is really no difference.

    I have seen newspaper reports that about thirty years ago a white whale, brought there by a Mr. Cutting, lived in captivity in Boston for two years. Beyond the fact that one was brought there by a Mr. Cutting, and was on exhibition about that time, is all that I have been able to learn, and it is doubtful if it lived one year (see Fisheries Industries, section 1, page 19). One was exhibited at Barnum's old museum, at Broadway and Ann Street, New York, that is said to have lived nine months and was then burned up when that building burned, in March, 1868. As these animals only come into the St. Lawrence, where all live ones have been captured, in May and June, there is no reason to doubt that it did live in confinement for nine months, but none that have been exhibited since that time have survived more than half as long, and I have had personal knowledge of every one since Barnum's.

    Coup's Broadway Aquarium opened on October 11, 1876 - too late to get a white whale that year. But early next spring Mr. Coup sent his brother to the St. Lawrence River for specimens. This brother, "Zach.," had never seen a whale, but he had full instructions concerning their care from Professor Butler, who had charge of the one at Barnum's Museum. There was an air of mystery about he expedition, and in May "Zach." brought a solitary specimen and at once went for more. The town was billed, the daily press was worked in true circus fashion, the crowd came and expressed various opinions. Standing by the tank, I heard strange comments:

    "Do you call that little thing a whale?" This to an attendant.

    "Yes, sir, it's a white whale from the northern coast of Labrador, the only one ever captured or ever seen by the oldest whaleman. It was reported to have been seen near the entrance to Hudson Bay, and Mr. Coup fitted out an expedition and captured it at an expense of over one hundred thousand dollars." He had evidently been reading what the press agent had stuffed into the newspapers.

    The visitor took another look and remarked: "The papers said it was twenty feet long; I should think it might be six feet, but no more."

    "Well," answered the attendant, "water is mitey deceivin', an' that whale is more'n three times as long as it looks. The fact is, the papers did report it to be longer than it is, for when we drew off the water to clean the tank yesterday we put a steel tape over the whale and it measured just nineteen feet eleven inches and a half."

    Then a rural couple came, and she remarked: "Oh, I'm so glad we came here, and can tell the folks that we've seen a real live whale!"

    "Lucy," said he, "this city is full of all kinds of cheats, an' I don't believe that thing is alive more'n Methuselah is; it's some indy-rubber contraption with clockwork in it that makes it go round and puff in that way."

    After the season for hatching trout and salmon was over, in April, I was detailed to build a branch aquarium at Coney Island, with instructions to construct a whale tank the first thing, in order to be ready for the next arrivals. I employed a maker of beer vats, and he brought three-inch planks for the bottom, staves eight feet high, and iron for hoops. The tank was to be twenty-five feet in diameter, with a "chime" nine inches below the bottom, making the tank seven feet deep inside. It was to set with its top eighteen inches above the soil, which was to be the water line, giving the whales five feet and a half of water - little enough when we realize that a ten-foot animal has a diameter of nearly three feet. Heavy timbers were laid under the bottom of the tank, carefully leveled, for no weight can be borne by the staves in a tank of that size.

    All this was planned, as well as the engine and pumps, and was well under way, when I received an order from Mr. Coup to go to Quebec and bring down two whales while Zach. went for more. Then I learned the secrets of the live white whale trade. The first whale had been kept back until it could be delivered at night, and its transportation was a mystery intended to arouse the curiosity of the public.

    At the railroad station at Quebec two boxes were turned over to me. They were about fifteen feet long, four feet wide, and four feet deep. They were upholstered with "bladder wrack," a most soft cushion, and in each box a white whale lay on these pneumatic cushions. A plug in the bottom of each box had let the water out while the boxes were being lifted by the rope handles on the sides, but when on the cars the plugs were replaced and water to the depth of a foot was poured in; this served to keep the under parts moist, while frequent sponging or the use of a dipper served to keep the skin from drying. The nostril, or "blow-hole," needed the most attention, for it has a valve which must not be allowed to get even partially dry, and a saturated sponge was kept suspended over this all the time during the journey by rail to New York.

    The white whale is a very timid animal, and comes up the St. Lawrence in May and June, when the young are brought forth; it is believed that they then go to the river to avoid their enemies, among which is the "killer" or orca whale. Their food, according to Professor Groode, is "bottom fish, like flounders and halibut, cod, haddock, salmon, squids, and prawns." From my knowledge of this whale in confinement I am surprised at the above list, for those under my observation not only preferred live eels, but could not swallow one whose diameter was over one inch, and it was difficult to get quantities of eels as small as three quarters of an inch in diameter, especially when an adult whale would consume about twenty pounds in a day. When larger eels were placed in the tank they would be taken out dead in a day or two with their sides scratched and torn by the small teeth of the whale which had failed to swallow it. We tried other food, for eels are quite expensive in New York city, costing fifteen and eighteen cents per pound, but the whales refused small flatfish, flounders, etc., and the only other food they ate was small tomcods. They refused dead herrings and all fish that were cut in pieces.

    The animals are captured at the small French fishing village of Rivière l'Ouelle, on Isle aux Coudres, seventy miles below Quebec, where life is as primitive as it was two hundred years ago in this, one of the oldest of Canadian settlements. Luke Tilden, one of our aquarium men, who went up with Zach. Coup, told of the capture of the whales, and the following is from notes taken by me as Luke told it: The men all fish and the women do a little gardening, but their harvest is the marsouin, a name common to the white whale and to the black porpoise. A fair white whale will weight eight hundred pounds and yield nearly one hundred gallons of oil worth fifty cents per gallon, so that when they trap twenty in a season it means prosperity to the colony; in 1874 they took one hundred, but the catch has fallen off since. "When we reached the island," said Luke, "we went straight to Father Alixe Pelletier and donated ten dollars to the Church for prayers for our success, and it was well invested."

    The good old man is the head of that colony and keeps everything straight. In 1863 there was an epidemic of indifference to the Church, and the men went to the bad, got drunk, fought, fished on Sundays, and reviled the priest, withholding all dues to him. Then he said, 'God is angry with you, and to punish you will send no more marsouin until you repent.' They laughed at him, and for three years no marsouin came to them, and they were very poor. They went to the father on a Christmas day and implored him to intercede for them, and he did. The next spring there was a great catch of marsouin, and the men have remained faithful since.

    "The tides here rise and fall some twenty feet, and the whales are trapped in an inclosure made of poles, the entrance to which is closed when a school enters. The pound is about a mile square, and is made of slim poles put two feet apart, space enough to let a whale through, but they will not attempt it. The tide falls and leaves them on the mud, quaking with fear. When we want live ones the boxes are made, padded with seaweed, shoved out over the mud, tipped on one side, and the whale rolled into it, where its struggles soon put it on an even keel, and then it gives up and does nothing but breathe as the boxes are taken on board a schooner for Quebec."

    I was fortunate in getting the above story from Luke Tilden, for a few weeks afterward he died in the aquarium; and Zach. Coup would tell nothing that could be relied on, not even to the locality where the whales were caught.

    The white whale is the only one of its tribe that can be captured in the manner related, because of its cowardly timidity. The harbor porpoise, or "herring-hog," would jump nets and break barricades or die. It would not bear the confinement of an aquarium, for it would leap out of the tanks or dash its brains out in trying to do so; but, once placed in a tank of either salt or fresh water, the white whale starts to circle it, always to the left, with the sun, and contentedly blows at intervals of from five to fifteen minutes, and seems as contented as a canary bird in its cage.

    The whale does not always swim in circles to the left when free, and why it does so in confinement is a question. I merely assert the fact. Perhaps wiser men know why perfectly still water in a washbowl will rotate to the left with an accelerated motion when the plug is withdrawn, but I do not. As the motion to the left is invariable there must be a rule for it, but, granting that this motion has some relation to the motion of the earth, the question of how this affects the voluntary movements of an animal remains to be answered. I have watched over a dozen white whales in captivity, dumped into tanks from the most convenient side without regard to the direction of their heads, and every one turned and circled to the left. The question arises, Why do they do this? At the new aquarium now at Battery Park, New York city, the big sturgeon always circles to the left except when feeding.

    The two whales at Coney Island were good-sized ones, nearly ten feet long, and they raced around, side by side, and played for nearly two hours before they began to take the eels which had been in the tank several days, although the large mammals had been without food for at least seven days. On the way down I had noticed a difference in the sound of their breathing, that of the female being sharp and clear, while her mate seemed to have a hoarseness, and occasionally gave something like a cough. I called attention to this and told Mr. Coup that the animal had some lung trouble. He consulted a man who professed to know about these animals, and then reported his opinion that the cough was nothing to fear, "merely a little water in the blow-hole."

    "This may be true," I replied; "I'm not a medical man, but I've heard many consumptives cough, and that whale imitates them. I doubt if it lives a month."

    It lived just twenty-six days after its arrival at Coney Island. The last five days of its life it took no food, and its labored breathing was annoying to all who knew the cause of it. Then came a touching display of affection. The female slackened her pace day by day to accommodate it to that of her constantly weakening companion, and as the end neared she put her broad transverse tail under his and propelled him along. He stopped breathing at 10 A. M., but his mate kept up her efforts, occasionally making a swift run around the tank, as if to say, "Come, follow me" and then slowing up at his side, resumed the work of sculling him along, as before. Rude men expressed pity for the living one, and after my men had rigged a derrick and hoisted her mate from the pool she would rise higher out of water when she came up to blow, remembering that he had gone out over the top of the tank. An autopsy by local physicians, whose names have been forgotten, assisted by a medical student then in my employ, now Dr. J. R. Latham, 126 West Eleventh Street, New York city, disclosed the fact that the whale died of pneumonia.

    A white whale which reached the Broadway aquarium about July 1st, after mine came, lived seven months, dying January 28, 1878. My whale was either diseased when captured or took a cold at Isle aux Coudres. The New York one was sound all summer, and I told Mr. Coup that it might live for years, but the artificial heat of the aquarium in winter was not what a subarctic animal could endure, and it succumbed as most of Peary's Eskimos did in New York last winter. The autopsy on this whale was performed by Dr. F. D. Weisse, professor of practical and surgical anatomy of the medical department of the University of the City of New York, assisted by Prof. J. W. I. Arnold, of the same university, and Dr. Liautard, superintendent of the Veterinary College. They agreed that pneumonia was the cause of death, induced by a change of temperature of the water in which the animal had been kept. The official measurements of this female specimen, whose organs were kept in the two institutions named, were: nine feet six inches from snout to tail tips; three feet between tips of caudal fins, with a body breadth of twenty inches and a head breadth of thirteen inches. The lungs, weighing twenty-two pounds, presented on dissection the appearance of having been affected with chronic catarrhal pneumonia. The liver weighed nineteen pounds. The four stomachs were all free from any trace of previous disease.

    In looking up the life history of the white whale when opportunity offered, during the last twenty years I have consulted many old whalemen, and they all say that whales of all kinds take their babies on their flukes and scull them along as my female sculled her dying and dead partner. This must be a fact, for the little one could never swim with its parent. But another question arises: Is this purely a female instinct to provide for its young, which was, in the case of my pair, developed into a desire to preserve a companion? or, in other words, would a male have done this, or would a female have done it if she were free and had other companions? Was it love for her mate, or a feeling of selfishness at her lonely position? My female was afterward sent to England in the old transportation box, and was nine days without food, for they will not swallow food in transit, and it lived four days in London, clearing more than enough to pay for the animal and all expenses.

    When the free aquarium at Battery Park, New York city, was opened, December 10, 1896, there was talk of getting white whales the next spring, but there was no way to employ men to go for them at a stated salary, as they would have to pass a civil-service examination and become regularly appointed employees of the city. In this emergency Mr. Eugene G. Blackford came forward and advanced the money for the expedition, and it started early in May. On June 4th Professor Butler delivered a pair of them to the superintendent, Dr. Bean. I was aware of their coming, and was at the aquarium, and so was Dr. Latham. The male was lead-colored, was said to be a year and a half old, and was nine feet long. The female was of the usual cream-color, ten feet and a half long, and was said to be a year older than her mate. It is known that young and immature specimens are darker than adults, but I am skeptical about the ages, especially as there is a half year credited to each at the exact time the young are brought forth, and do not know on what the ages are based further than that the young are darker in color for a time.

    "How does the breathing of the big one sound to you?" the doctor asked.

    "Like ours at Coney Island that died from lung trouble," I replied, "and I would not have brought that animal down unless it was the only one to be had during the season."

    "I think I'll give her about ten days to live," replied the doctor.

    As these were not my whales, I declined to talk of their prospects of life to several reporters who knew me, and the whale in question died of pneumonia on June 11th, just a week after its arrival in New York, and several days before the trained ear of Dr. Latham had allotted its span of life.

    The male came to its death by an accident at 9 P. M. on June 24th, just twenty days after arrival. An eel got into its blow-hole and it drowned. According to an account published in the New York Sun of Monday, July 26, 1897, said to be obtained from Dr. Tarleton H. Bean, director of the aquarium, the whale "was as healthy a one as ever spouted until late on Friday afternoon, the 24th, when one of the keepers noticed that something was wrong. His attention was attracted by the loud wheezing that accompanied each blow that the whale made when he came up for air. The wheezing could be heard all over the aquarium. Dr. Bean was sent for. He was certain that the whale's lungs were all right. He cited a fact, known to the custodian and to all the keepers, that the mammal for the past month had remained under water a little longer after he came to the surface to blow. This convinced Dr. Bean that the whale's lungs were sound and that some other cause of illness must be found."

    Then the whale coughed out a piece of an eel that it had bit in two, and as it came up to blow again there was another piece hanging from the blow-hole which could not shut, and so let water into the lungs. Dr. Bean ordered the water drawn off the tank in order to get at the animal, but a former superintendent, who had planned the tanks, had put in such small drainage pipes that by the time the water was drawn down so that the men could get at the whale it was dead.

    I do not believe that a white whale lived two years in Boston, because this subarctic animal could not endure the extremes of Boston's temperatures without contracting lung disease in some form. Think of such an animal living through climatic conditions that an Eskimo can not stand, and in a public institution where thousands of people are vitiating the air!

    Animals which live wholly in water are more susceptible to changes of temperature than those which live on land. The white whale can be kept the year round in New York city if it can have a refrigerating plant to give it the temperature which it needs, and proper food.

    We bring polar bears to New York which suffer in summer, if not in our comparatively mild winters, and tropical animals which barely survive, but these land mammals are not so susceptible to climatic influences as are the fishes and the purely aquatic mammals, like the whales. These can never be kept long by the crude means which have been employed. From the purest air they have been changed to the more or less vitiated air where thousands of human beings are crowded and in a temperature which is unnatural. If we would keep them we must give them better chances for living than in open tanks in the summer temperature of New York.