Sonia by Knud
Translated by A. I. Roughton
Chance led me to experience my two most remarkable fishing
adventures in the company of two young men, brothers, but encountered
in widely different corners of the earth.
The one place was on Thorup Beach at Bolbjerg, and that man was
called Thomas, a young fisherman, who whiled away a summer's day,
looking, in a friendly way, after us holiday makers of the same age as
himself, and getting much quiet amusement from it.
We sailed his cutter and fished for cod, even though there was no
"r" in the month, and he sat with his knee over the tiller and shifted
the quid in his mouth with much ostentation and a strong sense of the
comic. He had a long crooked nose, and every time he looked at us, and
the thought "Holidaymakers" struck him, he had to push his nose even
further to the side in order to keep a straight face. From some very
earnest and completely veracious accounts of our life we had given
him, he had come to believe that it was the thing—a kind of town
slang—among us to tell tall stories, and from time to time after this
he poured out the most extraordinary nonsense about mermaids and
mermen, sea snakes and hell horses, all of which was intended as an
answer to the incredible lies, we had, in his opinion, tried to put
across him, he wasn't born yesterday either.
On one occasion I swam out with the rope of a net in my hand,
reached the first sand bank and swam some yards against the current so
that I was nearly drowned, swam in again and then we began to haul in.
Ah! these holidaymakers! Now for some fun. Thomas rubbed his nose and
just stood with his hands in his pockets, shifted his quid and
grinned. There'd never be any fish in it, just faith and hope. But
chance had it that I had gone slap into a shoal. The water splashed
silver as the net was hauled in, and there in the drag net lay about a
hundredweight of little fish, about as big as anchovies, which Thomas
threw tenderly back into the water, it was a bleeding shame we could
only use a paleful for bait, and, he explained, unhappily at the same
time they would die if they were only so much as a second out of the
water, and they did too, for they were washed up on the shore and lay
on the beach like thousands of silver coins, the sea-gulls came in
screaming clouds hanging in the air above them, and behind the
sea-gulls one could see the outline of an island.
And up in Greenland I was suddenly reminded of all this by a long
crooked nose with a mouth beneath in which solemnly shifted a quid. I
went straight up to the man. He must be Thomas' brother. Yes,
certainly he was. And while I bubbled over with explanations and the
pleasure of meeting him, the nose with solemnity and reserve called a
halt, there was no recognition on his side. Whose brother was I?
I was entertained and astonished to meet all again up here. The
company's whaler "Sonia", with an easygoing West Jutland crew, Captain
Larsen, from Svinklov, a tremendous man, with wrinkles at the corners
of his eyes and a mass of sandy hair on the back of his powerful
hands. Could anything move him, could anything excite the backbone of
Jutland? One was to have an opportunity to see that something could.
There on the "Sonia", with her crew from Northwest Jutland I had
experience of the most gigantic hunt known to man.
We were lying off Egedesminde one morning early. In the fjord the
water flowed quietly before a moderate breeze, but out in the straits
the great breakers came rolling in under the little grey ship, and
rocked it like a duckling. It was a foretaste of what was to come.
It was only twelve o'clock when the whistle from the outlook forty-
five feet above deck blew. Ping ping!
The "Sonia" swung round to follow his pointing finger. His arm was
the compass needle. By this means we came so near that we on deck
could see the whale's back as it came up and spouted the mixture of
breath and water which shot up in a fine stream from its nostrils. It
was a Finwhale. As long as a church spire, and once its tail rose
right out of the water as it dived, and the mighty tail fin stood a
moment in air above it. The wings of a mighty bird hovered for a
moment like a beacon above the sea.
Down it dived and disappeared, came to the surface again several
times in rapid succession in quite another place, breathed and blew
the three, four, five seconds necessary to take breath and blow off
again before going under again for several minutes. For a whole hour
we followed it with the ship which shot hither and thither in order to
get within twenty or thirty yards distance of it. Once it dived right
under the ship, came to the surface again only a few yards away to
port, and disappeared before we had time to turn round. It took one's
breath away like something supernatural to see such a collosus so
near—a breath of the legendary past blew up from it. Of such a beast
one should find only a handful of bones in the Natural History Museum,
and nothing else save spectacled scientists' theories and their white
fingers pointing to the glass show-case. But the earth lays bare a
glimse of her soul, gives up a little of the past from her womb. There
is a gray wind over foaming sea in the Arctic, and from the vasty
deep, for a few seconds only, is handed like a token to mankind this
symbol of another age, the swimming mastodon.
Behind the gun at the ship's stern stood the Captain and arched his
back. Every shred of broad West Jutland calm had left him, as he
stared tensely after the whale and guessed where it would come up
next. Broad straddled, but elastic in knee and ankle, he waited the
opportunity of the few precious seconds in which he could unloose the
power of three pounds of gunpowder and send the explosive harpoon, big
as an anchor, into the back of the world's largest mammal.
Time after time the Finwhale dived, came up and blew. Time after
time "Sonia" wheeled and sprang forward in an effort to come within
range. If we were near it, we went half steam ahead so that the
beating of the screw in the water should not startle it further. When
it disappeared in the deep, the ship took a new course. The
experienced whaler knows by instinct which direction the wary whale
will take, and when it will come to the surface again. When minutes
had gone by after it had disappeared, the harpoon gun was pointing out
over a particular bit of sea, there was nothing but rising and falling
waves to see, but those waves and spray covered the sea depths, and
from those depths might come something, and perhaps just at that spot.
The biggest animal in the world. The harpoon pointed waiting, the
Captain with his shoulder against the stock, like a cat about to
spring. Usually the most popular man in Greenland, equable, radiating
composure and mild benevolence, sandy hair on his powerful hands,
smiling wrinkles round his blue eyes, so imperturbable in their calm
that they usually looked a little over people's heads into the mild
unchanging beyond—but at this moment strength itself, his whole being
charged with a frenzy of watchful tension, every sinew in his body as
taut and effective as his finger on the trigger.
And in yet a different place and out of range the whale had come up
and disappeared. And again the "Sonia" swings round to begin the whole
thing again. And it appears again—for the last time, twenty five
yards in front of the "Sonia" is a blast of air and water from its
nostrils, up between the waves heaves his gigantic body, higher...
higher, one, two...Three seconds.
The three pound charge exploded. The noise was swallowed in the
air, the waves and the excitement, but the harpoon is off on its
journey, has hit the whale, and right inside its body another three
pound charge has exploded.
It is really only a split second before the whale disappears again.
But at the culmination of a nerve-racking event it is as if one's
sense of time becomes distorted. One's brain reproduces so rapidly
that the pictures appear as if in slow motion. A split second becomes
I remember the harpoon line standing like a bow in the air and
every little curve which passed over it afterwards, and the wind which
seemed to be carrying it somewhere. I thought it took a long time.
Then the moment must have come in which the whale reacted to the
harpoon and the internal explosion. It's body tightened and in a
shower of spray it screwed itself under, and I remember the Captain in
full gallop, jump back from the gun and the crew running over the
How quickly the whale had in fact reacted, how rapidly it had
dived, I could see afterwards on the whale line. It STOOD up from its
place on the bottom of the ship, whistling like a driving belt over a
playing drum, and up over a block on the mast, which shuddered and
bent under the strain, down on to another block on deck and out from
the ship's bows, where it shot stiff into the sea, sucked into the
depths like a stick of macaroni, 300 yards, 600 yards, 900 yards. The
hawser as thick as one's wrist becomes elastic when it is fully
The block on the mast, over which it rides, gives way too on its
thick steel springs, but the Captain shouted just the same and the
wireless buzzed; and the "Sonia" began slowly gliding after the
Finwhale so that the line should not snap from a sudden jerk.
A long way off the beast came up and lay still on the surface and
panted. It had only been shot in the blubber. The harpoon was in its
back behind the dorsal fin and no injury done to vital parts from the
explosion. From the "Sonia" they began to play it in. At the same
instant the pain drove the whale to flight again. Again the line must
be let out in order not to snap. 70-80 tons of living flesh hurtled
hither and thither like a torpedo in the water. One saw the waves
whipped to foam by its paroxysms of pain. When it began to get
exhausted, and there was no further danger of the line snapping, then
the whaler "Sonia", 100 tons, 90 foot of steel—was hauled through the
waves after it at a speed of eight to ten knots, while the screw stood
still. Even when the 100 hp engine was set half steam backwards, there
was strong speed ahead—and so an hour went by. This of course told on
the Finwhale's strength, even so it was only after an hour and a
half's running one could come near enough to launch a fresh harpoon
and hit it fatally in the heart right behind the flipper. Then the
blood ran from it. Both in the blast from its nostrils and in great
pumps from the wound, so that suddenly scarlet waves licked its body.
And still once more it tried to flee down to the secret depths,
disappeared so that the rope rattled on the blocks and had to be
slackened. For a minute it remained below, but the hunt was up. It
came up again near the bloody mist which still pumped from it, a fresh
patch of sea changed colour, and all around washed waves which were
like a sunset, till suddenly the Finwhale turned over, rolled on its
side in the bloodfilled sea, and was dead.
There were so and so many tons of oil, so and so many tons of
blubber, besides free winter supplies of meat for a whole colony of
Greenlanders—and the end of the most awe-inspiring life one had ever
Thomas' brother had been standing on the whale's belly, pumping air
into its stomach through an iron tube so that it would float more
easily. When he came back to the ship, and we were towing in, we stood
together at the railing. He was still not so familiar with me as I
with him. Nevertheless he rubbed his nose to one side and said
confidentially: "They're so decent. And just think that if they had as
much bad temper in their bodies as a human being, they could smash us