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Chapter 85 The Fountain

  • That for six thousand years—and no one knows how many millions of age_efore—the great whales should have been spouting all over the sea, an_prinkling and mistifying the gardens of the deep, as with so many sprinklin_r mistifying pots; and that for some centuries back, thousands of hunter_hould have been close by the fountain of the whale, watching thes_prinklings and spoutings— that all this should be, and yet, that down to thi_lessed minute (fifteen and a quarter minutes past one o’clock P.M. of thi_ixteenth day of December, A.D. 1851), it should still remain a problem,
  • whether these spoutings are, after all, really water, or nothing bu_apor—this is surely a noteworthy thing.
  • Let us, then, look at this matter, along with some interesting item_ontingent. Every one knows that by the peculiar cunning of their gills, th_inny tribes in general breathe the air which at all times is combined wit_he element in which they swim; hence, a herring or a cod might live _entury, and never once raise its head above the surface. But owing to hi_arked 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 h_annot 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; an_hat is still more, his windpipe has no connexion with his mouth. No, h_reathes through his spiracle alone; and this is on the top of his head.
  • If I say, that in any creature breathing is only a function indispensable t_itality, inasmuch as it withdraws from the air a certain element, which bein_ubsequently brought into contact with the blood imparts to the blood it_ivifying principle, I do not think I shall err; though I may possibly us_ome superfluous scientific words. Assume it, and it follows that if all th_lood in a man could be aerated with one breath, he might then seal up hi_ostrils and not fetch another for a considerable time. That is to say, h_ould then live without breathing. Anomalous as it may seem, this is precisel_he case with the whale, who systematically lives, by intervals, his full hou_nd more (when at the bottom) without drawing a single breath, or so much a_n any way inhaling a particle of air; for, remember, he has no gills. How i_his? Between his ribs and on each side of his spine he is supplied with _emarkable involved Cretan labyrinth of vermicelli-like vessels, whic_essels, when he quits the surface, are completely distended with oxygenate_lood. So that for an hour or more, a thousand fathoms in the sea, he carrie_ surplus stock of vitality in him, just as the camel crossing the waterles_esert carries a surplus supply of drink for future use in its fou_upplementary stomachs. The anatomical fact of this labyrinth is indisputable;
  • and that the supposition founded upon it is reasonable and true, seems th_ore cogent to me, when I consider the otherwise inexplicable obstinacy o_hat leviathan in having his spoutings out, as the fishermen phrase it. Thi_s what I mean. If unmolested, upon rising to the surface, the Sperm Whal_ill continue there for a period of time exactly uniform with all his othe_nmolested risings. Say he stays eleven minutes, and jets seventy times, tha_s, respires seventy breaths; then whenever he rises again, he will be sure t_ave his seventy breaths over again, to a minute. Now, if after he fetches _ew breaths you alarm him, so that he sounds, he will be always dodging u_gain to make good his regular allowance of air. And not till those sevent_reaths are told, will he finally go down to stay out his full term below.
  • Remark, however, that in different individuals these rates are different; bu_n any one they are alike. Now, why should the whale thus insist upon havin_is spoutings out, unless it be to replenish his reservoir of air, er_escending for good? How obvious it is it, too, that this necessity for th_hale’s rising exposes him to all the fatal hazards of the chase. For not b_ook or by net could this vast leviathan be caught, when sailing a thousan_athoms beneath the sunlight. Not so much thy skill, then, O hunter, as th_reat necessities that strike the victory to thee!
  • In man, breathing is incessantly going on—one breath only serving for two o_hree pulsations; so that whatever other business he has to attend to, wakin_r sleeping, breathe he must, or die he will. But the Sperm Whale onl_reathes about one seventh or Sunday of his time.
  • It has been said that the whale only breathes through his spout-hole; if i_ould truthfully be added that his spouts are mixed with water, then I opin_e should be furnished with the reason why his sense of smell seem_bliterated in him; for the only thing about him that at all answers to hi_ose is that identical spout-hole; and being so clogged with two elements, i_ould not be expected to have the power of smelling. But owing to the myster_f the spout—whether it be water or whether it be vapor—no absolute certaint_an as yet be arrived at on this head. Sure it is, nevertheless, that th_perm Whale has no proper olfactories. But what does he want of them? N_oses, 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 o_ocks (that open and shut) for the downward retention of air or the upwar_xclusion of water, therefore the whale has no voice; unless you insult him b_aying, that when he so strangely rumbles, he talks through his nose. But the_gain, what has the whale to say? Seldom have I known any profound being tha_ad anything to say to this world, unless forced to stammer out something b_ay of getting a living. Oh! happy that the world is such an excellen_istener!
  • Now, the spouting canal of the Sperm Whale, chiefly intended as it is for th_onveyance of air, and for several feet laid along, horizontally, just beneat_he upper surface of his head, and a little to one side; this curious canal i_ery much like a gas-pipe laid down in a city on one side of a street. But th_uestion 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, an_ischarged through the spiracle. It is certain that the mouth indirectl_ommunicates with the spouting canal; but it cannot be proved that this is fo_he purpose of discharging water through the spiracle. Because the greates_ecessity for so doing would seem to be, when in feeding he accidentally take_n water. But the Sperm Whale’s food is far beneath the surface, and there h_annot spout even if he would. Besides, if you regard him very closely, an_ime him with your watch, you will find that when unmolested, there is a_ndeviating rhyme between the periods of his jets and the ordinary periods o_espiration.
  • But why pester one with all this reasoning on the subject? Speak out! You hav_een him spout; then declare what the spout is; can you not tell water fro_ir? My dear sir, in this world it is not so easy to settle these plai_hings. I have ever found your plain things the knottiest of all. And as fo_his whale spout, you might almost stand in it, and yet be undecided as t_hat 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 falls from it, when, always,
  • when you are close enough to a whale to get a close view of his spout, he i_n a prodigious commotion, the water cascading all around him. And if at suc_imes you should think that you really perceived drops of moisture in th_pout, how do you know that they are not merely condensed from its vapor; o_ow do you know that they are not those identical drops superficially lodge_n the spout-hole fissure, which is countersunk into the summit of the whale’_ead? 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 _lazing 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 th_recise nature of the whale spout. It will not do for him to be peering int_t, and putting his face in it. You cannot go with your pitcher to thi_ountain and fill it, and bring it away. For even when coming into sligh_ontact with the outer, vapory shreds of the jet, which will often happen,
  • your skin will feverishly smart, from the acridness of the thing so touchin_t. 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, th_kin peeled off from his cheek and arm. Wherefore, among whalemen, the spou_s deemed poisonous; they try to evade it. Another thing; I have heard i_aid, and I do not much doubt it, that if the jet is fairly spouted into you_yes, it will blind you. The wisest thing the investigator can do then, i_eems to me, is to let this deadly spout alone.
  • Still, we can hypothesize, even if we cannot prove and establish. M_ypothesis is this: that the spout is nothing but mist. And besides othe_easons, to this conclusion I am impelled, by considerations touching th_reat inherent dignity and sublimity of the Sperm Whale; I account him n_ommon, shallow being, inasmuch as it is an undisputed fact that he is neve_ound on soundings, or near shores; all other whales sometimes are. He is bot_onderous and profound. And I am convinced that from the heads of al_onderous 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 ac_f thinking deep thoughts. While composing a little treatise on Eternity, _ad the curiosity to place a mirror before me; and ere long saw reflecte_here, a curious involved worming and undulation in the atmosphere over m_ead. The invariable moisture of my hair, while plunged in deep thought, afte_ix cups of hot tea in my thin shingled attic, of an August noon; this seem_n additional argument for the above supposition.
  • And how nobly it raises our conceit of the mighty, misty monster, to behol_im solemnly sailing through a calm tropical sea; his vast, mild head overhun_y a canopy of vapor, engendered by his incommunicable contemplations, an_hat vapor— as you will sometimes see it—glorified by a rainbow, as if Heave_tself had put its seal upon his thoughts. For d’ye see, rainbows do not visi_he clear air; they only irradiate vapor. And so, through all the thick mist_f the dim doubts in my mind, divine intuitions now and then shoot, enkindlin_y 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. Doubt_f all things earthly, and intuitions of some things heavenly; thi_ombination makes neither believer nor infidel, but makes a man who regard_hem both with equal eye.