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Page 411


That for six thousand years—and no one knows how many
millions of ages before—the great whales should have been
spouting all over the sea, and sprinkling and mistifying the
gardens of the deep, as with so many sprinkling or mistifying
pots; and that for some centuries back, thousands of hunters
should have been close by the fountain of the whale, watching
these sprinklings and spoutings—that all this should be, and
yet, that down to this blessed minute (fifteen and a quarter
minutes past one o'clock P.M. of this sixteenth day of December,
A.D. 1851), it should still remain a problem, whether these
spoutings are, after all, really water, or nothing but vapor—this
is surely a noteworthy thing.

Let us, then, look at this matter, along with some interesting
items contingent. Every one knows that by the peculiar cunning
of their gills, the finny tribes in general breathe the air
which at all times is combined with the element in which they
swim; hence, a herring or a cod might live a century, and
never once raise its head above the surface. But owing to his
marked internal structure which gives him regular lungs, like a
human being's, the whale can only live by inhaling the disengaged
air in the open atmosphere. Wherefore the necessity for
his periodical visits to the upper world. But he cannot in any
degree breathe through his mouth, for, in his ordinary attitude,
the Sperm Whale's mouth is buried at least eight feet beneath
the surface; and what is still more, his windpipe has no connexion
with his mouth. No, he breathes through his spiracle
alone; and this is on the top of his head.


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If I say, that in any creature breathing is only a function
indispensable to vitality, inasmuch as it withdraws from the air
a certain element, which being subsequently brought into contact
with the blood imparts to the blood its vivifying principle,
I do not think I shall err; though I may possibly use some
superfluous scientific words. Assume it, and it follows that if
all the blood in a man could be aerated with one breath, he
might then seal up his nostrils and not fetch another for a considerable
time. That is to say, he would then live without
breathing. Anomalous as it may seem, this is precisely the
case with the whale, who systematically lives, by intervals, his
full hour and more (when at the bottom) without drawing a
single breath, or so much as in any way inhaling a particle of
air; for, remember, he has no gills. How is this? Between
his ribs and on each side of his spine he is supplied with a
remarkable involved Cretan labyrinth of vermicelli-like vessels,
which vessels, when he quits the surface, are completely distended
with oxygenated blood. So that for an hour or more, a
thousand fathoms in the sea, he carries a surplus stock of vitality
in him, just as the camel crossing the waterless desert carries
a surplus supply of drink for future use in its four supplementary
stomachs. The anatomical fact of this labyrinth is indisputable;
and that the supposition founded upon it is reasonable
and true, seems the more cogent to me, when I consider the
otherwise inexplicable obstinacy of that leviathan in having his
spoutings out,
as the fishermon phrase it. This is what I mean.
If unmolested, upon rising to the surface, the Sperm Whale will
continue there for a period of time exactly uniform with all his
other unmolested risings. Say he stays eleven minutes, and
jets seventy times, that is, respires seventy breaths; then whenever
he rises again, he will be sure to have his seventy breaths
over again, to a minute. Now, if after he fetches a few breaths
you alarm him, so that he sounds, he will be always dodging
up again to make good his regular allowance of air. And not


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till those seventy breaths are told, will he finally go down to
stay out his full term below. Remark, however, that in different
individuals these rates are different; but in any one they are
alike. Now, why should the whale thus insist upon having his
spoutings out, unless it be to replenish his reservoir of air, ere
descending for good? How obvious is it, too, that this necessity
for the whale's rising exposes him to all the fatal hazards
of the chase. For not by hook or by net could this vast leviathan
be caught, when sailing a thousand fathoms beneath the
sunlight. Not so much thy skill, then, O hunter, as the great
necessities that strike the victory to thee!

In man, breathing is incessantly going on—one breath only
serving for two or three pulsations; so that whatever other business
he has to attend to, waking or sleeping, breathe he must,
or die he will. But the Sperm Whale only breathes about one
seventh or Sunday of his time.

It has been said that the whale only breathes through his
spout-hole; if it could truthfully be added that his spouts are
mixed with water, then I opine we should be furnished with
the reason why his sense of smell seems obliterated in him; for
the only thing about him that at all answers to his nose is that
identical spout-hole; and being so clogged with two elements,
it could not be expected to have the power of smelling. But
owing to the mystery of the spout—whether it be water or
whether it be vapor—no absolute certainty can as yet be arrived
at on this head. Sure it is, nevertheless, that the Sperm Whale
has no proper olfactories. But what does he want of them?
No roses, no violets, no Cologne-water in the sea.

Furthermore, as his windpipe solely opens into the tube of his
spouting canal, and as that long canal—like the grand Erie Canal
—is furnished with a sort of locks (that open and shut) for the
downward retention of air or the upward exclusion of water,
therefore the whale has no voice; unless you insult him by saying,
that when he so strangely rumbles, he talks through his nose. But


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then again, what has the whale to say? Seldom have I known
any profound being that had anything to say to this world,
unless forced to stammer out something by way of getting a
living. Oh! happy that the world is such an excellent

Now, the spouting canal of the Sperm Whale, chiefly intended
as it is for the conveyance of air, and for several feet
laid along, horizontally, just beneath the upper surface of his
head, and a little to one side; this curious canal is very much
like a gas-pipe laid down in a city on one side of a street. But
the question returns whether this gas-pipe is also a water-pipe;
in other words, whether the spout of the Sperm Whale is the
mere vapor of the exhaled breath, or whether that exhaled
breath is mixed with water taken in at the mouth, and discharged
through the spiracle. It is certain that the mouth
indirectly communicates with the spouting canal; but it cannot
be proved that this is for the purpose of discharging water
through the spiracle. Because the greatest necessity for so
doing would seem to be, when in feeding he accidentally takes
in water. But the Sperm Whale's food is far beneath the surface,
and there he cannot spout even if he would. Besides, if
you regard him very closely, and time him with your watch,
you will find that when unmolested, there is an undeviating
rhyme between the periods of his jets and the ordinary periods
of respiration.

But why pester one with all this reasoning on the subject?
Speak out! You have seen him spout; then declare what the
spout is; can you not tell water from air? My dear sir, in this
world it is not so easy to settle these plain things. I have ever
found your plain things the knottiest of all. And as for this
whale spout, you might almost stand in it, and yet be undecided
as to what it is precisely.

The central body of it is hidden in the snowy sparkling mist
enveloping it; and how can you certainly tell whether any water


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falls from it, when, always, when you are close enough to a
whale to get a close view of his spout, he is in a prodigious
commotion, the water cascading all around him. And if at
such times you should think that you really perceived drops of
moisture in the spout, how do you know that they are not
merely condensed from its vapor; or how do you know that
they are not those identical drops superficially lodged in the
spout-hole fissure, which is countersunk into the summit of the
whale's head? For even when tranquilly swimming through
the mid-day sea in a calm, with his elevated hump sun-dried as
a dromedary's in the desert; even then, the whale always carries
a small basin of water on his head, as under a blazing sun
you will sometimes see a cavity in a rock filled up with rain.

Nor is it at all prudent for the hunter to be over curious
touching the precise nature of the whale spout. It will not do
for him to be peering into it, and putting his face in it. You
cannot go with your pitcher to this fountain and fill it, and
bring it away. For even when coming into slight contact with
the outer, vapory shreds of the jet, which will often happen,
your skin will feverishly smart, from the acridness of the thing
so touching it. And I know one, who coming into still closer
contact with the spout, whether with some scientific object in
view, or otherwise, I cannot say, the skin peeled off from his
cheek and arm. Wherefore, among whalemen, the spout is
deemed poisonous; they try to evade it. Another thing; I
have heard it said, and I do not much doubt it, that if the jet
is fairly spouted into your eyes, it will blind you. The wisest
thing the investigator can do then, it seems to me, is to let this
deadly spout alone.

Still, we can hypothesize, even if we cannot prove and
establish. My hypothesis is this: that the spout is nothing but
mist. And besides other reasons, to this conclusion I am impelled,
by considerations touching the great inherent dignity and
sublimity of the Sperm Whale; I account him no common,


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shallow being, inasmuch as it is an undisputed fact that he is
never found on soundings, or near shores; all other whales sometimes
are. He is both ponderous and profound. And I am
convinced that from the heads of all ponderous profound beings,
such as Plato, Pyrrho, the Devil, Jupiter, Dante, and so on,
there always goes up a certain semi-visible steam, while in the
act of thinking deep thoughts. While composing a little
treatise on Eternity, I had the curiosity to place a mirror before
me; and ere long saw reflected there, a curious involved
worming and undulation in the atmosphere over my head. The
invariable moisture of my hair, while plunged in deep thought,
after six cups of hot tea in my thin shingled attic, of an August
noon; this seems an additional argument for the above supposition.

And how nobly it raises our conceit of the mighty, misty
monster, to behold him solemnly sailing through a calm tropical
sea; his vast, mild head overhung by a canopy of vapor, engendered
by his incommunicable contemplations, and that
vapor—as you will sometimes see it—glorified by a rainbow, as
if Heaven itself had put its seal upon his thoughts. For, d'ye
see, rainbows do not visit the clear air; they only irradiate
vapor. And so, through all the thick mists of the dim doubts
in my mind, divine intuitions now and then shoot, enkindling
my fog with a heavenly ray. And for this I thank God; for
all have doubts; many deny; but doubts or denials, few along
with them, have intuitions. Doubts of all things earthly, and
intuitions of some things heavenly; this combination makes
neither believer nor infidel, but makes a man who regards them
both with equal eye.