There was something disturbing, even sinister, in this bay at dusk. The solitude of the shore, the roughness of the copper mountains, the white of the salt mines, and the dark water at the mouth of the lagoon, with this sort of island, or white sandbar, it all seemed like a passage into some fantastic world. Legends came to mind, those of devil fish attacking the launches, pulverizing them with their enormous bodies, smacking the water with their tails until no man was left alive. Night overtook us at the entry of the lagoon and we dragged the launch ashore. We set up a makeshift camp, waiting for the first tide of dawn to continue our exploration.
Never could I forget that night. We slept on the shore, without knowing where we were, without even seeing the lights of the Léonore. The men stretched out on the sand, without blankets, as the air was mild without a hint of wind. I tried to sleep, but could hear the noise of their voices. They spoke very quietly, with only the shimmer of the stars vaguely lighting the sand of the shore, listening to the waves coming to die on the beach. Sometimes we heard strange noises from the channel, the wrinkling of water over the giant bodies, and I could smell the characteristic odor of their breath. The harpooners stood up, trying to make them out, following the noise of their breath along the shore.
Later, the moon rose and the sea reappeared, the water of the lagoon smooth, without a ripple, and devoid of whales. Then I fell asleep, wrapped in my coat, my head upon my arms. The wind whistled, the moon rose slowly over the lagoon. I dreamed of what I had not yet seen, of the secret I was on the verge of discovering.
Before dawn we had all woken up together. Maybe the Indian had given the cry in his own tongue: “Awaité Pawana!” which we all had been expecting. He was standing on the beach, alongside the launch, leaning on his harpoon, watching the lagoon. The gray water appeared before us, covered with black marks slowly gliding. I couldn’t believe my eyes; certainly no one was very sure whether or not they were dreaming. Here I beheld what I had sought for so long, what the sailors of Nantucket had once recounted, when the winter sea was covered with fin whales and arctic whales, so numerous that one could have compared them to a herd on a plain.
Along the channel the bodies of devil fish slid slowly, foam whirling around the black backs. One could distinctly hear the tails striking the water and the jets from the blowholes spraying from all sides with a husky sound which resonated in the silence of the bay. One after another, the men approached the waterline, watching. Soon the cries rang out, savage and fierce cries, and I ordered the launch into the water. The draw of the tide was pushing the whales to the top of the channel, from which they penetrated the brackish waters of the lagoon. They were so many that they toppled over each other in places.
Paddling along slowly, the launch followed the route of the whales, close to the shallows to avoid being capsized by the giants. The sea covered almost entirely the sandbar where we had slept. Thousands of birds already darkened the sky, following the same movement, as though they knew what was about to happen.
January 10, towards six o’clock in the morning, we entered the waters of the lagoon. It was just as beautiful as I had dreamed it would be, immense, pale, meeting the sky at the fugitive lines of sandbars and peninsulas. All the way at the end, as though surging out of the sea, mountains of red quartz were already sparking in the sun with an incredible hardness. But it was the water that made one dizzy, this calm and mirror-like water, where immense black bodies pressed together by the hundreds, by the thousands, perhaps. At the front of the launch, beside the Indian harpooner, I watched all this, saying nothing, and it suddenly seemed to me that I had stolen into a lost world, one separated from our own by innumerable centuries. The whales slid gracefully into the lagoon, along the channel between the sandbars. There were some females who had already given birth and were holding their offspring at the surface so that they could capture their first breath. Others, enormous, waited, basking on their flanks, for the moment of birth to arrive. Some distance off, the males were grouped together to keep guard, their enormous forms brought together to form a dark wall.
I do not know how we tore ourselves away from this spectacle, but suddenly, upon my order, the silent hunt begun. The launch headed towards the group, the Indian harpooner up on the prow, holding his loaded gun. Behind him the deck hand readied the line and the floats. The launch streamed through the calm water of the lagoon, almost without noise or wake. Despite the daylight one could no longer see the depths. The water had a troubled, milky color which blended in with the sky. We were all on guard for what was about to occur.
A shadow passed by at a few fathoms off the starboard side, and a long black cloud sliding along just below the surface emerged all at once, became a mountain upright in the air, in a spray of droplets, and fell back to the water with a roar which petrified us all in the space of a single second. The Indian had already pulled the trigger, and the harpoon surged out straight ahead with a shock that stopped the launch, while the cable unwound, whistling. A cry of triumph was held back as the devil fish, a huge female, dove down underwater before we were able to see whether or not we had hit it with the harpoon. But just before going down, she gave out a husky breath which no man could forget. The cable unwound at incredible speed, dragging the brakes which knocked against the edge of the launch like gunshots, and the deckhand watered the wood so it would not catch flame under the friction. A moment later, the whale surged back through the surface of the lagoon in an extraordinary leap that weakened us all, so great were the beauty and force of this body up against the sky. She hung immobile for some fractions of a second and then fell back in a shower of foam, and floated to the surface, lightly across, and we saw blood tint her tongue, redden the breath of her spouting. Silently the launch approached the whale. At the last moment, when a ripple in the water indicated that she was about to move again, the Indian let go the second harpoon which then dug deeply into the whale’s body, just above the joint of the fin, between the ribs, into the heart. At once blood surged through the blowholes in a jet that rocketed skyward, a very clear red, and then fell down upon our heads and the sea like a rain. The immense body convulsed and then was still at the surface, turned on its side, showing the point of the harpoon while the dark patch widened through the lagoon, surrounding the launch. Curiously, the men said nothing more. They placed hook around the top of the head in silence, and the launch made for the estuary of the lagoon, hauling the whale toward the Léonore.
Cries of triumph received us as we arrived. The men set about stowing the body to the flanks of the ship, passing chains around the body from the blowhole to the jaw. Other launches were immediately set to water, taking advantage of the high tide to hunt other devil fish. Toward noon, at low tide, upwards of ten had been killed. It was more than the Léonore could even bring back. We abandoned the largest kills, and turned back for the north, in the direction of the buccaneer campsite.
Translation by Christophe Brunski, AGNI online