Monday, 25 July 2016

Whitby: Swallowed by a Whale.

Looking down from Whitby Abbey steps on a hot summer's evening, it's not difficult to imagine the harbour below jammed with sailing vessels.

I was listening to Rose, who is a local story teller and tour guide. She was telling us about the days of the herring fishery and about Whitby's amusing characters such as "Gravel Arse" the short legged pirate. She told us about the terrible storms that occur every winter and about the way that collier boats would come into Whitby for shelter and beach themselves on the sands in the bay called "Colliers' Hope". Some boats were inevitably swept past the narrow entrance to the harbour and ran onto rocks at the foot of the cliffs. One of those wrecks inspired Bram Stoker's story of Dracula, whose ship foundered on this very shore.

Whitby always had its back to the land and its face to the sea. The route inland is over high moorland and through narrow valleys and it was never the best way to transport anything. The town was more or less cut off from the country and all trade was by sea, or "the whale road". This made Whitby a natural breeding ground for explorers and adventurers like Captain Cook and William Scoresby. Young Whitby men did not "run away to sea", seafaring was probably the future that all of them aspired to and their families wanted it for them too.
Port Stanley

When James Bartley sailed out of Whitby on the Star of the East in 1891 he was just a teenager. Getting a berth on a whaler was his ticket to fame and fortune and he was proud and excited.

The whaling industry took men from ports like Liverpool and Whitby around the world, to the Americas, Africa the Arctic and Antarctic and through all the oceans. It's no coincidence that Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands is twinned with Whitby and both sport their whalebone arches as a reminder of those whaling days. And the whales are back. I have watched a pod of long, slim Sei whales from the shore, just a short walk from Stanley's harbour, as they cruised past on the surface, looking very like submarines.

It was to the Falkland Islands that the Star of the East was headed. James must have showed real enthusiasm because the skipper gave him an early opportunity to harpoon a whale himself. He stood at the bow of the light whaleboat that was rowed by six strong men with a helmsman at the tiller. James wedged his knee against the stem post to steady himself as they gained on the whale while it was taking in oxygen to prepare to sound for the deeps again. There would only be one chance so he urged the crew on to get really close before he let go of the lance, but he left it too late. The whale was already committed to his dive and the hump in front of James rolled forward and downwards. Inevitably, the huge tail flukes of the whale came up, right under the boat which was thrown aside like a swatted fly. The other whaleboats closed in and rescued the men from the chilling water, but James was missing.

The story goes that the whale was killed the next day and hauled along-side the Star of the East to be dissected. When they opened the stomach, the crew found their young companion in a sorry state with all of his exposed skin, especially around his face, hands and arms, bleached to a deadly whiteness by the acid in the whale's gut. This was to be expected, but the unique thing about this tale is that James Bartley survived, although he lost his sight and was never able to see again.

Accounts vary on the detail, but it seems that our hero was extremely disturbed by his experience and took weeks, or months, to recover enough to work again, but he apparently did.  They say that, when he was at home in England, his mottled, half-eaten appearance terrified children, and even dogs would shy away.

Sperm Whale, "Thar she blows!" Actually he's a boy.
The best known account of the story was not written until the 1920s when Ambrose John Wilson investigated the case as part of study into the possibility of Jonah living in a whale. This was not the only case of a man being swallowed by a whale, but the only one where the man survived, so there was a lot hanging on it. Wilson seems to have believed the story but most scientists remain sceptical, particularly about the length of time that Bartley was starved of oxygen.
Sperm whale sounding.

The only whale that could have swallowed a man whole would be a sperm whale, like Moby Dick. Killer whales could eat a man but they are really just big dolphins and were not hunted like the true whales. The baleen whales only have a narrow gullet because they feed on small fish and krill.

I once spent a couple of weeks studying sperm whales off Norway and they are really fascinating. especially since they dive to such phenomenal depths for food. Supposing Bartley's whale was uninjured, it might have taken him down to depth of more than two kilometers. If the journey down didn't kill him, the trip to the surface would have. However, if James had struck a fateful blow before his boat was smashed, the injured whale may have travelled at speed near the surface, which is what they do if pursued.

Sperm whale painting by Robin Stevenson.
I would like to believe this story. It's certainly a good tale, but maybe there's more to tell?Perhaps James Bartley did have an encounter with a whale and it spat him out when chased. There are so many unanswered questions and discrepancies.

For a start, it seems that Bartley was from Gloucester, not Whitby, and there is no record of him being on the crew of the Star of the East, which was not a whaling vessel, though it was in the Falklands around the right time. The Star of the East was a British ship from Liverpool but it did not sail from Whitby to the Falklands, but from Auckland, New Zealand.

Abbey Steps at Whitby.
I have described the story roughly as Rose, the Whitby storyteller told it to me, with the whaleboat being tipped over as the whale sounded, but one story describes the injured whale going deep and then deliberately coming up under the boat and grabbing it in his jaws. Fatally wounded by the harpoon, it eventually died and came to the surface.

At least there is one solid piece of evidence that several sources write about; James' headstone is in a churchyard in Gloucester. The inscription reads "James Bartley- a modern day Jonah. 1870-1909". But I can't find any trace of it. If anyone has seen the headstone and can point me to it, I will go and look. I'm beginning to think he never existed at all!

In the end, I believe you should never let the truth get in the way of a good story. Just imagine, on a stroll around Whitby's (or Gloucester's) dockside, meeting a lop-sided blind man with ghastly white patches to his skin and perhaps hanks of hair missing. Imagine the tales he might tell to explain his appearance. You might be shocked, even horrified, but also fascinated. Would you buy him a drink? Did he really get that face from being inside a whale or was he scalded by hot oil from the blubber rendering process, or was he, by any chance, an albino?

Friday, 6 September 2013

Dolphin Day

The coastal towns of Massachusetts were at the heart of the 19th century American whaling industry and, because America was the biggest participant in the trade, most of the wealth gained from whaling accrued there. The great Quaker whaling families (Folger, Macy, Starbuck etc.) were based in Nantucket but Boston was the financial capital where they invested their money and also where colleges and churches were founded on whale oil.

In the early days of small, locally-built wooden boats you could see right whales from the beach but soon the local grounds were exhausted and the New England whalers had to travel ever further afield; north to Greenland and even round the Horn and up the rim of the Pacific Ocean to the Galapagos, Hawaii and Alaska.

Today the Georges Bank and the ledges off the New England coast are the new whaling grounds for tourists. Whale-watch tours operate from Boston in Massachusetts and from Kennebunkport and Ipswich in New Hampshire. Eastwards, in the Gulf of Maine, boats go out from Portland, Boothbay Harbour and Bar Harbour and then, at Eastport, the deep water of the Bay of Fundy comes in close enough to watch from shore.

The local newspapers have been running a story that right whales may be breeding in the Gulf of Maine as well as the Bay of Fundy. One report says that 20 calves were produces last winter. The gestation period is 12 months so that mating and breeding takes place at the same place in mid-winter. These animals are extremely rare now with only a few hundred left, meaning that they have gone through a "genetic bottleneck" leaving them with a very small gene pool. Any breeding at all is exciting news. I would dearly love to catch a glimpse of one.

Seasons vary, but my own observation is that whales in general are harder to find in the high tourist season (before Labour Day) than they were 20 years ago. There could be many factors involved but high water temperatures must be one of them.

During our visit in August last year, all of the Bay of Fundy boats (from Maine and Canada) spent a couple of weeks chasing the same two minke whales while the Gulf of Maine had no whales at all. This week there is a humpback mother and calf off New Hampshire and a few minkes, and that's not a lot of whales. But we decided to part with our money and go out from Portland anyway.

The Odyssey Whale Watch Tour Co. operates a smart little boat from the tourist quay in Portland Maine. It can comfortably carry about 50 passengers swiftly out to the deep water quite so that trips last about four hours. They do not have the success rate of some of the other operators but offer a refund or a free trip if they let you down. It was a lovely day to be out so we were not too worried, but the signs looked good.

The sea was flat and visibility was excellent. We saw common seals in the harbour and soon passed a flock of small wading birds swimming in the sea. These phalaropes are extraordinary birds that spend most of their time out in the open ocean but breed ashore in the high Arctic. The females are brightly coloured while the males are camouflaged because they are "home-husbands". The hen takes the lead in courtship and lays the eggs but leaves the male to incubate them while she regains her fitness for a quick get-away. Arctic summers are short so a swift turn-around time can be crucial.

Phalaropes often follow whales so I took them to be a good omen. However, it soon became noticeable that there was not a lot of other surface activity going on. We saw few gulls, no auks, skuas or petrels, all of which chase the same food as the whales. We did see a few gannets that were probably chasing mackerel.

Another good indicator is the number of fishing boats over the deep water. When the feeding is good, the upwellings attract big commercial fish like tuna and swordfish and there can be a small city of boats out there; we saw three or four, otherwise all the boats were crewed by lobstermen.

A fellow passenger told me that this was his second trip on the boat. He had a free ticket due to seeing no whales on the last trip. "Looks like another no-show to me."  And so, as far as big cetaceans are concerned, it turned out to be.

After three hours, we had taken a big bite out of the bay, making an arc with about a 10 mile radius. It was very pleasant to be out on the water and I could have hung in there for hours more, but were were heading for home.

Suddenly the sound of the engines changed and we veered off to the north where the skipper had spotted some "commotion in the ocean". I could see gannets plunging and huge splashes so it looked like we might at least see some tuna feeding.

What we found was a sizeable school of Atlantic white-sided dolphins who gave us a half an hour of feverish activity. They did not seem to be hunting so much as playing and socialising, which is common with these highly intelligent, gregarious animals. The school consisted of males with big dorsal fins and smaller females with calves. They rode our bow-wave and then jumped in our wake as we left. They had made our day and saved the Odyssey Whale-watch Company a lot of money.

Red-necked phalaropes.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013


Back on dry land, I am still reading Philip Hoare's "Leviathan" and I heard his new book, "The Sea Inside", being read aloud as BBC Radio 4's Book of the Week. My wife bought me a copy as soon as it came out and it topped the Guardian's Best Seller list this month. I'm going to take it to Maine with me next week. If you are at all interested in whales, or just love a good read, you have to read Philip Hoare.

While the girls went shopping, my son James and I went after sperm whales.

Cambridge is a long way from the sea, but it has its own whales. Most of them are in the University Zoology Department in Downing Street so we headed for there first. Unfortunately it was closed, but we took time to visit the fin whale that adorns the front of the building. I suppose the brutalist, concrete building was designed around the whale. Now the whale seems to be turning to concrete himself as the weather bleaches his framework.

We peeked through the museum's dusty windows to see stacks of crates. All of the stuffed animals and bones have been removed but whales and dolphins still hang from the ceiling. Through the grime, in an unlit room, it looked like the skeletons were swimming round in tank, like those poor orcas in American zoos.

There are two other mueums in Downing Street. The Sedgewick Museum has fossils and minerals, but no whales: the Anthropology Museum specialises in the Pacific Rim and has artefacts such as masks, totem poles and spears that relate to whales and whaling. I will spend a day there looking for whales in miniature.

The Whipple Museum is about the Histrory of Science. I bet they have some lamps that used to run on whale oil, but we were distracted by stacks of ghoulish medical equipment. I have an excuse to go back there too. But our primary traget was to get to the Scott Polar Institute.

I have driven past it often, but only been in once. From the road you can see a sculpture of Peter Scott (Robert Falcon Scott's son) as a boy, made by his mother. (There is another one of Peter posing as Peter Pan in London's Hyde Park.) By the front door there is a sinister looking gun that looks more industrial than any I have seen; like a tractor part rather than a weapon. It is a harpoon gun from a whaling ship and was made in the 1940s. That means that it was still being used when I was a young man.

Next to the gun there is a cauldron. It is not huge and could have been used to make witches' potions, or to boil up pig-swill on a farm, but it was actually kept on-board ships for rendering blubber. You can find them scattered around the old whaling stations such as the Falklands, Sychelles and South Georgia today. Imagine the thick, black, oily smoke generated by such a fire and the greasy chip-shop slime that would have adhered to the rails and discoloured the sails of whaling ships. Where would you get the wood to light a fire in any of those polar stations? You did not need to; whales and seals burn very well on their own.

Inside the Scott Polar Museum, white is the dominant colour. The current exhibition is about the Inuits and I found no reference to whales but I know they still hunt toothed whales using traditional kayaks. However, a modern Inuit hunt involves dorys with outboard motors and high-powerd rifles.

There is a case of scrimshaw work (designs etched into the teeth of sperm whales) which I found hard to relate to any living creature. Unlike the Nantucket whaler-men who carved whales and sailing ships, our boys seemed to prefer to illustrate pretty ladies. May-be there was abetter market for them ashore?

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Media Summary

by Nicholas Stevenson
How do you measure an Arctic day? Not in hours, minutes and seconds surely? In months and weeks? Or perhaps in the slow, steady rhythm of a whale's heart-beat?

It was late July. The sun had not set since May but we had hardly seen it for a week due to a series of storms that kept us ashore. On this, our last day on the island, it hung red, crackling and fizzing in a shredded sky. The water inside the harbour wall was a mirror, reflecting the sky, the red lighthouse and the old, yellow-painted cod-liver oil factory.

A mink swam out into the shallows and returned with a crab that it ate under the piers of the buildings where the gulls would not steal it from him. Further off, a merganser snorkeled its way across the bay then smashed though it's own reflection and disappeared beneath the water. My watch said it was 1 a.m. It was going to be a whale-day.

My prize for winning a BBC Wildlife story competition was to take part in an Earthwatch expedition of my choice. I chose to watch sperm whales in the Norwegian Arctic, which proved to be quite an adventure; just what I hoped it would be. We were the first six "pathfinder" participants (three Brits and three Americans) on this new project and so we expected there to be a few wrinkles to sort out. The one we encountered was the weather, which is never any-one's fault. We had unusually rough seas most of the time and for two days even the large car-ferries could not sail. Of course this upset our program quite a bit.
The Andenes Fyr.
Andenes is the flat "ness" or point at the north end of the island of Andøya; 300 miles into the Arctic Circle off the top-left corner of Norway. Neither Google Earth or the maps that bought showed detail of the area around our lighthouse, the Andenes Fyr, because it used to be a Cold War naval base. The water is extremely deep very close to the shore, which is why it was a naval base and why it attracts the male sperm whales that come to fatten up and mature on the locally rich pickings of fish and squid.

This was my first Earthwatch trip but the rest of the team were seasoned volunteers. In fact, Warren Stortroan, who is a Minnesotan of Norwegian descent, has been on 77 Earthwatch trips and Ann Schwendener, from Chicago, isn't far behind. I learned a lot from them, especially the fact that the only thing they need is to feel useful and busy, just like my own volunteers at Paxton Pits. They all shunned the idea of just being tourists, especially on the days we could not get out to survey the whales. I, on the other hand, was grateful for time to photograph plants and look for birds.

Our hosts were the MAREFA scientists who come from all over Europe to study whales. They are inspirational young people, as are their international colleagues who work on the tourist boats. They all know their stuff and effortlessly move between speaking Spanish, Italian, English, German and Norwegian. 

Old whale-ship.
No harpoon now, just cameras.
Our job was to assist the scientists by recording whale sightings from two whale-safari boats, the car-ferry and the lighthouse, using a GPS and a Dictaphone. We also took photos to identify the whales we found.

Whale-days might involve 12 hours of swaying and bucking (not to mention chucking) about in boats, over 20 miles from shore. Your eyes get tired first, then your hips and back from the constant motion. Finally your arms and shoulders ache from holding on to things all day. I found the lighthouse to be even more tiring due to its steep ladders and the high winds on top. We collapsed into bed around midnight each day and the fact that it was often brighter at 1 a.m. than 1 p.m. didn't bother me at all: I could sleep for England.

Sperm whale.
Note the bite from a killer whale.
My first sperm whale was a brown, blotchy character called Miø. We found him over 30 km from shore over a deep gully in the ocean floor. He waved us goodbye with his tail at around 10.30 pm and stayed down for one hour and ten minutes, coming up in almost the same spot to charge his blood with oxygen before expelling all the air from his body and diving again. He might have gone down 2 km under our boat. The pace of whale watching is other-worldly; it was after 1 a.m. when we reached port that day.

Our home at the foot of the lighthouse was an ideal spot from which to explore the Arctic flora and fauna and you might think that, with 24 hours of daylight a day, we would have plenty of time for walking. On whale-days we were kept very busy and on other days the weather was almost too foul to stagger outside without being roped together. All the same, my plant and bird lists grew each day and I had some surprises.

I knew most of the plants from Scotland, where they are considered to be alpines, but at the crest of the beach I met a most peculiar and spectacular assortment of flowers, all existing near the northern edge of their range. It was the same with the land-birds. Old friends like house sparrows and magpies co-existed with bluethroats, redwings, twites and fieldfares.

Arctic Tern
One evening I gave a talk for the whale-guides and volunteers about the seabirds to be seen from the boats. For all of us, the seabirds, especially the puffins, gave our whale-safaris added value, but it was the whales that we wanted to see. Sperm whales are particularly fascinating because of their complex social life and the fact that they navigate in the dark using echo-location. By our last day we had all seen a dead one and most of us had seen at least one live whale. 

On our last morning-shift we found two new sperm whales to add to the catalogue and then we went out again in the afternoon to find more. Instead we spotted a humpback whale that stayed on the surface for only minutes at a time, and a pod of four killer whales that we followed for over an hour. By the end of the afternoon we were surrounded by over 20 killer whales that came very close to the boat. I will never forget that afternoon.

I would like to thank my Earthwatch colleges for being such brilliant company and the MAREFA project staff for being such attentive hosts.

You can read more about my week in  Norway at 

Jim Stevenson, Paxton Pits Nature Reserve, England.

Saturday, 20 July 2013

And there were whales.

Flukes up.
No picture of a sperm whale can convey the living creature, but we certainly had fun trying. Most of the photos we took were for identification purposes so we needed to have as much of the surfaced whale in view as possible. We especially wanted the dorsal fin from both sides and the tail-flukes from top and bottom. In a normal dive a feeding sperm whale is a very obliging creature, but if you spook him he will slip quietly away in a shallow dive, without showing you his flukes.

Who is looking at who?
Killer whales are on the surface for most of the time, actively hunting and socialising so there is a lot of movement in the photos. Even so, I never once saw the eyes or mouth of a whale in Norway, though I'm sure that the orcas looked us over from the corners of their eyes as they surfaced in the manner of large porpoises.

You can see my photos of whales by clicking on "Pure Flukes".

Birds in Andenes

Bird photography is a specialist business, calling for big lenses and endless patience. I'm just an opportunist so my pictures look very amateur, despite getting pretty close to some remarkable birds.

My technique (if you can call it that) is to put my 300 mm lens onto my Nikon and set the camera to sports mode. Then I take as many pictures as I can in the hope that just one of them will be sharp. In good light with a sitting duck you can get good results, but a flying bird, from a boat, in the middle of an Arctic gale, with rain and sea spray all over the place is a bit of a challenge.

You can view some of my photos at "Andenes Birds".

I think my Arctic Tern is probably my best shot. He was trying to kill me at the time, as I walked near his nest on the quayside. We saw hundreds of these archetypal migratory birds every day. Soon they will be on their way to the South Atlantic or even the South Pacific. They must experience more daylight in a year than any other animal on this planet, including ourselves.

Terns and puffins carry food to their young and you can actually see the sand-eels in their mouths as they fly. This makes them attractive to klepto-parasites such as Arctic skuas. I also saw a great skua from the ferry once, but the scarcest and most elegant of these piratical birds is the long-tailed skua. They look like terns when they fly, which must enable them to get pretty close to their prey without being spotted.

Apart from fulmars, we only saw one petrel; a tiny Leach's petrel which was following the whales.

Arctic skua.
Divers or loons nest on the freshwater tarns inland and fly to the coast to feed. I saw red throated and black throated divers in flight, but never on the water. However, the local sea-duck population could be watched inside the harbour. Eiders were the most common ducks but we also saw common and velvet scoters, mergansers and goosanders. Whooper swans nested in the lakes near the airport.

The list of land-birds is short but quite special, with sparrows, redwings and fieldfares to be found around the houses and nearby woods.  Wheatears  and twites were everywhere along the beach crest and any open ground while blue-throats and ring-ouzels were seen higher up. I was surprised to find a colony of sand-martins in a stockpile of sand at a builder's yard.

I think Andenes would make an excellent bird observatory in September and October when birds stream down the coast from the high Arctic. A ringing station for passerines at the base of the lighthouse could be manned every morning while visible migration could be monitored from the lighthouse or the ferry. I suspect that geese and swans pass through in good numbers. Waders could be monitored daily by simply walking the beach.

There is an observatory down at Lista, near Stavanger that pulls in spectacular numbers of birds in Autumn, including a lot of Finnish birds on their way to the UK. Andenes could turn up some real surprises as it is so much further north.

Flowers of Andøya

Giant hogweed
In the short time I was there I tried to get to grips with the wildflowers that grew near the Andenes lighthouse and beyond.

The first thing that struck me was the wealth of species to be found there, some of which were old friends from Scotland, the English seaside, lowland grassland and the tops of the Pennines. Many would turn out to be alpines or Arctic versions of the plants I knew. Some were entirely new to me.

It was my quest for arctic birds that first led me to the Botanical Gardens in Tromsø where I fell in love with the semi-wild woodland area that constitutes the geology trail. Beneath the canopy of the dwarf forest where redwings sang, I found dwarf cornel, geraniums, cow wheat and pig-nut. In an opening further up I found a perfect miniature bog with cotton grass, sundew, cloudberry and heather.

Around the houses in Tromsø and in Andenes I was astonished to see masses of giant hogweed. It is an invasive alien that can give you a nasty rash, but the locals are rather proud of it in Tromsø. It was everywhere.

"Fire-weed" in Tromsø
The long daylight hours between May and August and the warming influence of the Atlantic make for a vigorous growing season. The sheer number of flowering plants is staggering and I could see the seed-heads of many more such as primulas, gentians and saxifrages that had already bloomed. Even so, in July there was a whole array of later bloomers such as asters to be found still in bud.

If you are an amateur botanist interested in the arctic flora but not wanting to be a full blown Amundsen, I'd say that you could do no better than go to the Norwegian islands in the Arctic Circle. Tromsø would be my starting point and I would also like to try the Lofoton Islands.

If you have never seen this kind of flora before, the nearest thing we have in the UK is the machair of the Outer Hebrides, particularly on the Uists, Coll and Tyree.
Dwarf cornel.

You can see my slideshow at "Andenes Flora"