The Irish Whale Fishery

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  • The Irish Whale FisheryAuthor(s): R. F. ScharffSource: The Irish Naturalist, Vol. 19, No. 11 (Nov., 1910), pp. 229-233Published by: Irish Naturalists' Journal Ltd.Stable URL: .Accessed: 15/06/2014 12:37

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  • November. 1910. The Irish Naturalist. 229



    Some years ago the startling news was published in the

    daily papers that an establishment, with the necessary vessels

    and gear for the capture of whales, was to be set up on the

    west coast of Ireland. It had not previously occurred to

    anyone that whales in sufficient numbers to make such an

    establishment profitable, could be obtained off the Irish coast.

    Even when, ten years ago, I wrote my short paper on the

    whales of Ireland for the Irish Naturalist^ these animals were

    looked upon as interesting stragglers to our marine area

    rather than native mammals.

    But the rumour was perfectly correct The Aranmore

    Whaling Company chartered steamers and built a number of

    sheds on Inishkea, near the peninsula called the Mullet in the

    County Mayo, with the object of capturing whales and pre

    paring their carcases for trading purposes. More recently another company, known as the Blacksod Whaling Company, started the same business on the eastern shores of the Mullet, at a place called Elly Point. Both of these companies are

    under Norwegian management. The fishermen of Norway have always had a taste lor this kind of work, which, indeed, calls forth all their best qualities, pluck, hardihood, and


    Whether these undertakings pay does not concern us here.

    Our interest in the fisheries lies in the fact that they give us

    an insight into a branch of our mammalian fauna which we

    should scarcely have obtained by any other method. Nothing short of capturing a whale will enable us to identify it satis

    factorily. As I mentioned in my list of whales, and their relations the

    porpoises and dolphins, these creatures are all typical mam

    malia. They are warm-blooded, they breathe by means of

    lungs, they possess the vestiges, at any rate, of hairs on their

    bodies, and their young are brought forth alive and nourished

    with the milk of the mother. Their skeletons, moreover, are

    those of mammals and not offish, and only externally are their

    1 Scharff, R. F.; A list of the Irish Cetacea. Irish Naturalist^ vol. ix.,

    pp. 83-90, 1900. A

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  • 230 The Irish Naturalist November*

    bodies fish-like. We can distinguish two well-defined groups, the toothless or Whalebone Whales and the Toothed


    Hitherto the following five whalebone whales had been

    observed on the Irish coast, viz. .?the Southern Right Whale, the Hump-backed Whale, Sibbald's Rorqual, the Common

    Rorqual, and the Cesser Rorqual. Whether we have two Irish Right Whales or only one kind

    is still uncertain. The Norwegians, as Mr. Holt informs me,

    distinguish between the "

    Greenlandshvalen M

    and the " Nord

    kapereu," two whales of the Right Whale type, but what they

    captured and brought to Inishkea in June, 1908, were all

    Nordkaperen, and were identified by Prof. Collett as Balaena

    glacialis. It remains uncertain, therefore, whether the other

    Right Whale (Balaena australis?B. biscayensis), frequents our coasts, or whether the old records are applicable to the "


    The Right Whale is distinguished from the other whalebone

    whales by the absence of the dorsal fin aud of the peculiar long furrows found on the throat of the other species.1

    The value of the five Irish Right Whales taken in 1908 was

    estimated by Prof. Collett as amounting to from ^1,500 to

    ^3,000. A single one of the plates from the mouth of a

    full grown whale is worth about two guineas, and as a

    quarter of a ton of whalebone is sometimes obtained from

    a large specimen, the value of that article alone is about

    ?400. I may mention that there is still a curious miscon

    ception as to the real nature of the substance called "

    whalebone." Some people persist in believing that whale

    bones are the whale's ribs. Others, possibly misled by the

    old feudal law that the tails of all whales belong to the Queen as a perquisite, to furnish Her Majesty's wardrobe with whale

    bone, think that it comes from the animal's tail. The fact, however, is that although all whalebone whales start life with

    rudimentary teeth, these soon disappear and are replaced by a horny substance which grows out from the upper jaw in

    long sheets of triangular plates. The plates are attached to

    the roof of the mouth and are longest towards the middle of

    it. Their outer edge is smooth, the inner frayed into innum

    merable hair-like processes. When the whale opens its mouth

    1 Collett, R?Balaena glaciahs. Proc* Zool. Soc. London, 1909, i.,

    pp. 91-98.

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  • i9*o. Scharff.?The Irish Whale Fishery. 231

    and floats along the surface of the water for a time, numerous

    minute organisms, chiefly surface Crustacea, find their way into the mouth. When this is closed again, the water is effect

    ually strained out through the sieve-like plates, while the

    internal hairs prevent the food from escaping. Further

    particulars will be found in M r. Beddard's work on whales.1 The general use of whalebone for ladies' dresses is, of course,

    well known, but another use that is made of the fine internal

    fringes has been revealed to me by Mr. W. S. Green, the Chief

    Inspector of Irish Fisheries. He informs me that they are now employed for the manufacture of barristers'wigs, because

    they are light and retain the curl better than ordinary hair. It may not also be generally known that, in the manufacture of high class silks, the fine threads of whalebone are sometimes

    used for stiffening the tissue.

    The whalebone or baleen in the Right Whale is perfectly black in colour. All the other whalebone whales possess whalebone of a much inferior quality, and all have great furrows along the throat and a back fin.

    The largest living mammal, the Blue Whale (Balaenoptera

    Sibbaldt) or *' Blauhval" as the Norwegians call it, belongs to

    this group. Mr. R. M. Barrington tells me that one measur

    ing 88 feet long was obtained off Inishkea in July, 1908. Three other species of the same genus occur off the Irish

    Coast, viz.: the Common Rorqual, called ?" Finhval" by the

    Norwegians, the Northern or Rudolph's Rorqual, or

    "Seihval," and the smallest of all, the Lesser Rorqual, or "

    Vaagehval." Finally, the so-called Humpback or "Knolhval," is easily distinguished from the other whalebone whales by its enormously long white flippers. On the 10th July, 1908,

    Mr. Barrington wrote to me mentioning that 42 whales

    belonging to the following species had passed through the

    factory on Inishkea:

    Right Whale .. .. 5 specimens

    Common Rorqual . . .. 5 ,,

    SibbalcVs Rorqual .. . . 4 ?

    Rudolphi's Rorqual ... 27 ?

    Humpback .. .. 1 ?

    42 ?

    * Beddard. F. E. A Book of Whales. London, 1900. A 2

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  • 232 The Irish Naturalist November,

    Of the toothed whales only the Sperm Whale or Cachalot,

    (Kaskelot in Norwegian) seems to be of any commercial

    *value. To Mr. R. J. Ussher I am indebted for the information

    that four Sperm Whales had been obtained off the west coast

    of Ireland last June. The whale fisheries have not therefore added much to our

    knowledge of this group, and the revised list of the Irish

    Whales, Porpoises and Dolphins is as follows :?

    Whalebone Whales.

    Southern Right Whale {Balaena australis) ?

    Northern ? ,, (B, glacialis). Common Rorqual (Balaenopteta musculus). Sibbald's ,, (B. Sibbaldi). Northern ? (B. borealn). Lesser ? (B, rostrata).

    Humpbacked Whale (Megaptera boops).

    Toothed Whales.

    Sperm Whale (Physeter macrocephalus). Bottle-nosed Whale (Hyperoodon rostralus). Beaked Whale {Mesoplodon bidetis).

    Porpoise (Phocoena communis). Killer (Orca gladiator), Ca'in Whale (Globicephalus melas), Risso's Dolphin (G?ampusgriseus)

    White-beaked Dolphin (Lagenorhynchus albirosMs), White-sided Dolphin {L. acutus). Common Dolphin (Delphinus delphis)* Bottle-nosed Dolphin (Tursiops tursio).

    Sometimes I am asked by visitors to the Museum what is

    done with the carcases of the whales killed by these whale

    fishery companies. Formerly the value of these creatures

    consisted mainly in the large quantities of oil extracted from

    their bodies. Since the introduction of coal gas and of

    mineral oil, the consumption of animal oil for lighting pur

    poses has considerably decreased, but other uses have been

    found for whale oil. The oil is pressed out of the blubber

    which lies under the skin. As the blubber is about one foot

    thick in a full-grown Right Whale, a single large specimen

    yields about 30 barrels of oil. Sperm oil or spermaceti,

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  • *$to. Scharff.? The Irish Whale Fishery. 2$$

    which is obtained from the head of the Sperm Whale, is much used as an ingredient in ointments, and an ordinary sized animal yields as much as 12 barrels. Mr. Southern ascertained that 1843 barrels of oil were turned out this year

    by the Elly Point Company and 1500 by ihe Inishkea Com

    pany, and Captain Bruun very kindly gave me some further

    particulars about the latter which may be of interest to the

    readers of the Irish Naturalist. The two steamers engaged in this fishery obtained 76

    whales during their first year. They were mostly Common

    Rorquals and Northern Rorquals. During the last two

    years 124 whales were caught, but it must be remembered that four steamers are now employed by the companies, instead of two, as during the first year. Captain Bruun stated that every particle of the carcases was used and turned into oil, cattle-food, guano and bone manure. The blubber

    yields the best oil, the bones the second best, while even the

    intestines contain some saleable oil. The flesh is used for

    cattle-food. After the bones and intestines have been boiled, and the oil extracted, the remainder is dried and ground down. Altogether the business, though not a very savoury one, would seem to be rather lucrative, but Captain Bruun states that the expenses are so heavy that little profit remains.

    National Museum Dublin.


    It is with regret that we have to record the early death of Mr. John

    Cottney, Clogher, Hillsborough, who has occasionally contributed

    notes to this Journal, and who was a regular reader of its pages for

    many years. Mr. Cottney was a farmer of a type that is far too rare in

    Ireland, and from his early youth he took an intense interest in nature

    in general and birds in particular. He possessed a really fine and

    valuable collection of eggs well displayed in a good cabinet, which he

    never tired of showing to interested visitors. From his daily occupation Mr* Cottney was in constant touch with nature and his observations had

    the true ring of original research. Possessed of few books, his.

    knowledge of birds, which was extensive, was mostly acquired by intimate

    acquaintance with the wild creatures themselves He taught himself

    the art ot taxidermy, and gained considerable proficiency in mounting birds. Always ready to help others, he made many friends among the

    naturalists of the North, by whom his early death is deplored*

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    Article Contentsp. 229p. 230p. 231p. 232p. 233

    Issue Table of ContentsThe Irish Naturalist, Vol. 19, No. 11 (Nov., 1910), pp. 229-244The Irish Whale Fishery [pp. 229-233]ObituaryJohn Cottney [p. 233-233]

    ReviewsReview: Our Native Sea Slugs [pp. 234-236]Review: Irish Botany for German Readers [p. 236-236]

    Three New Species to "Cybele Hibernica" and "Irish Topographical Botany" [p. 237-237]NotesDraba incana in County Antrim [p. 237-237]Alien Plants at Stranmillis, Belfast [p. 238-238]Campanula Trachelium in Co. Roscommon [p. 238-238]Septoria Lepidii, Desm., a New Irish Fungus [p. 238-238]The Habits of Worms [p. 239-239]Worms in Pots [p. 239-239]Abnormal Coleoptera [p. 240-240]Hydroecia crinanensis in Ireland [p. 240-240]Kerry Mollusca [p. 240-240]The Distribution of Bythinia Leachii in Ireland [p. 240-240]Some Records of Land and Fresh-Water Mollusca from the Counties Roscommon and Longford [pp. 241-242]Is Hyalinia helvetica, Blum, Found in Ireland? [pp. 242-243]New Station for Helix hortensis in Ireland [p. 243-243]The Red-Backed Shrike in Ireland [p. 243-243]Hoopoe in Co. Down [p. 243-243]Arenig Rocks at Courtown, Co. Wexford [p. 244-244]

    Irish Societies [p. 244-244]