A SHIFTING REEF
THE YEAR 1866 was marked by a strange event, an unexplainable occurrence which is undoubtedly still fresh in everyone's memory. Those living in coastal towns or in the interior of continents were aroused by all sorts of rumors; but it was seafaring people who were particularly excited. Merchants, shipowners, captains, skippers and masters of Europe and America, naval officers of all countries and the various governments of both continents were deeply concerned over the matter.
Several ships had recently met at sea “an enormous thing,” a long slender object which was sometimes phosphorescent and which was infinitely larger and faster than a whale.
The facts concerning this apparition, entered in various logbooks, agreed closely with one another as to the structure of the object or creature in question, the incredible speed of its movements, the surprising power of its locomotion and the strange life with which it seemed endowed. If it was a member of the whale family, it was larger than any so far classified by scientists. Neither Cuvier, Lacépède, Dumeril nor Quatrefages would have admitted that such a monster could exist—unless they had seen it with their own scientists' eyes.
Taking an average of observations made at different times—and rejecting those timid evaluations which said the object was only two hundred feet long, and also putting aside those exaggerated opinions which said it was a mile wide and three miles long—one could nevertheless conclude that this phenomenal creature was considerably larger than anything at that time recognized by ichthyologists—if it existed at all.
But it did exist—there was no denying this fact any longer—and considering the natural inclination of the human brain toward objects of wonder, one can understand the excitement produced throughout the world by this supernatural apparition. In any case, the idea of putting it into the realm of fiction had to be abandoned.
On July 20, 1866, the steamer Governor Higginson of the Calcutta and Burnach Steam Navigation Company had encountered this moving mass five miles east of the Australian coast. Captain Baker first thought he had sighted an unknown reef; he was even getting ready to plot its exact position when two columns of water spurted out of the inexplicable object and rose with a loud whistling noise to a height of a hundred and fifty feet. So, unless the reef contained a geyser, the Governor Higginson was quite simply in the presence of an unknown aquatic mammal, spurting columns of water mixed with air and vapor out of its blowholes.
A similar thing was observed on July 23 of the same year in Pacific waters, by the Christopher Columbus of the West India and Pacific Steam Navigation Company. This extraordinary creature could therefore move from one place to another with surprising speed, since within a space of only three days, the Governor Higginson and the Christopher Columbus had sighted it at two points on the globe separated by more than 1,500 nautical miles.
Two weeks later and 4,300 miles from this last spot, the Helvetia of the Compagnie Nationale and the Shannon of the Royal Mail Steamship Company, passing on opposite courses in that part of the Atlantic lying between the United States and Europe, signaled one another that they had sighted the monster at 42° 15´ N. Lat. and 60° 35´ W. Long. In this simultaneous observation they felt able to judge the creature's minimum length at more than 350 feet, since it was larger than both ships each of which measured 330 feet over-all. But the largest whales, the Kulammak and Umgullick which live in the waters around the Aleutian Islands, never exceed 180 feet in length, if that much.
These reports arriving one after the other, with fresh observations made on board the liner Le Pereire, a collision between the Etna of the Inman Line and the monster, an official report drawn up by the officers of the French frigate Normandie, and a very reliable sighting made by Commodore Fitz-James' staff on board the Lord Clyde, greatly stirred public opinion. In lighthearted countries, people made jokes about it, but in serious practical-minded countries, such as England, America and Germany, it was a matter of grave concern.
In every big city the monster became the fashion: it was sung about in cafés, derided in newspapers and discussed on the stage. Scandal sheets had a marvelous opportunity to print all kinds of wild stories. Even ordinary newspapers—always short of copy—printed articles about every huge, imaginary monster one could think of, from the white whale, the terrible “Moby Dick” of the far north, to the legendary Norse kraken whose tentacles could entwine a five-hundred-ton ship and drag it to the bottom. Reports of ancient times were mentioned, the opinions of Aristotle and Pliny who admitted to the existence of such monsters, along with those of the Norwegian bishop, Pontoppidan, Paul Heggede and finally Mr. Harrington, whose good faith no one can question when he claims to have seen, while on board the Castillan in 1857, that enormous serpent which until then had been seen in no waters but those of the old Paris newspaper, the Constitutionnel.
It was then that in scientific societies and journals an interminable argument broke out between those who believed in the monster and those who did not. The “question of the monster” had everyone aroused. Newspapermen, who always pretend to be on the side of scientists and against those who live by their imagination, spilled gallons of ink during this memorable campaign; and some even spilled two or three drops of blood, after arguments that had started over sea serpents and ended in the most violent personal insults.
For six months this war was waged with varying fortune. Serious, weighty articles were published by the Brazilian Geographical Institute, the Royal Scientific Academy of Berlin, the British Association and the Smithsonian Institute in Washington; others appeared in the Indian Archipelago, in Abbé Moigno's Cosmos, in Petermann's Mittheilungen and in the science sections of all the important newspapers of France and other countries. The smaller newspapers replied with inexhaustible energy. Their writers, cleverly parodying a saying of Linnaeus which had been quoted by the adversaries of the monster, stated that “nature does not make fools” and called on their contemporaries not to contradict nature by seriously discussing krakens, sea serpents, “Moby Dicks” and other reports of delirious sailors. Finally, in a much-dreaded satirical newspaper, its favorite writer took care of the whole matter by attacking the monster like Hippolytus, dealing it a death blow and finishing it off in the midst of universal laughter. Wit had conquered science.
During the first months of the year 1867 the whole question seemed buried never to be revived, when new facts were brought before the public. It was no longer a question of a scientific problem to be solved, but of a real danger seriously to be avoided. The whole matter took on another aspect. The monster now became a small island, rock or reef, but a reef that was vague, shifting and indeterminate.
On March 5, 1867, the Moravian of the Montreal Ocean Company, sailing at night in 27° 30´ Lat. and 72° 15´ Long., struck on its starboard side a rock indicated on no chart. It had been cruising at thirteen knots, under the combined force of the wind and its 400-horsepower engines. Had it not been for the superior quality of its hull, the Moravian undoubtedly would have been split open by the blow and sunk with the 237 passengers it was bringing back from Canada.
The accident took place at about five in the morning, toward daybreak. The officers on watch rushed to the after part of the ship. They examined the sea carefully and saw nothing but an area of swirling water about a third of a mile away, as if the surface had been violently agitated. Their position was noted, and the Moravian continued on its way, apparently without any serious damage. Had it struck a submerged rock, or the enormous wreck of some sunken ship? There was no way of knowing, but an inspection of its hull in drydock showed that part of the keel had been broken.
Even this, although extremely serious in itself, might perhaps have been forgotten, like so many other occurrences, if three weeks later it had not been re-enacted under similar circumstances. But because of the nationality of the ship involved in this new collision and the reputation of the company to which it belonged, this event caused a tremendous stir.
There is no one who has not heard of the famous English shipowner, Cunard. In 1840 this shrewd businessman started a postal service between Liverpool and Halifax with three wooden side-wheel ships of 1,162 tons each and equipped with engines capable of developing 400 horsepower. Eight years later the company's fleet was increased by four ships of 1,820 tons each and with 650-horsepower engines, and then two years after this, by two other vessels with yet greater tonnage and power. In 1853 the Cunard Line, whose mail-carrying privileges had just been renewed, successively added to its fleet the Arabia, the Persia, the China, the Scotia, the Java and the Russia, all of them very fast and larger than any ships which had ever plied the seas, except for the Great Eastern. Thus in 1867 the company owned twelve ships, eight with side-wheels and four with propellers.
If I give these brief details, it is so that everyone might know the importance of this ship company, known the world over for the intelligent way in which it is run. No transoceanic venture has been more cleverly organized, and none crowned with such success. In twenty-six years Cunard ships have crossed the Atlantic two thousand times, without missing a single voyage, with never a delay and without ever losing a single letter, man or ship. This is why passengers, in spite of strong competition from French liners, still choose the Cunard Line in preference to all others, as would appear from a survey of official documents of the last few years. No one, therefore, will be surprised at the stir caused by an accident involving one of its finest steamers.
Copyright © 2003 by Jules Verne. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.