The general appearance of this very beautiful animal will be more readily
perceived by an examination of the accompanying highly finished and accurate
Plate, than by any words which we can use. The original, by Mr. Syme, was taken
from an individual which for nearly three months during the summer of 1815 was
observed to inhabit the Frith of Forth, passing upwards almost every day with
the tide, and returning with the ebbing of the waters. During this time it was
generally known under the name of the White Whale, and was supposed frequently
to be in pursuit of salmon. Many fruitless attempts were made to secure it; but
at length it was killed by the salmon-fishers, by means of spears and fire-arms.
It was purchased by Mr. Bald of Alloa, and transmitted by him to Professor
Jameson, and is now in the Royal Museum at Edinburgh. It was examined by Drs.
Barclay and Neil, whose observations are published in Trans. Wernerian Soc. vol.
Dr. Neil well observes that the shape of this animal is highly symmetrical, and
at once suggests the idea of perfect adaptation to rapid progressive motion in
water. It resembles generally a double cone, one end of which is considerably
shorter than the other. Its head is small and lengthened, and over the forehead
there is a thick round cushion of flesh and fat: the body continues to swell as
far as the pectoral fins, and from this point gradually diminishes to the
setting on of the tail. Its length varies from twelve to twenty feet. Its
pectorals are large, thick, and oval. The tail is also powerful; is bent under
the body in swimming, and worked with such force, that it impels the Beluga
forward, says Giesecki, with the velocity of an arrow. The color is usually a
uniform and beautiful cream color, whilst the younger ones are marked with
brownish spots, and occasionally are somewhat of a blue or slatey color.
Scorseby remarks that he has seen some of a yellowish color, approaching to
orange; and this agrees with the statement of Fabricius, who says they are
white, sometimes tinged with red. Many contradictory accounts are given of the
number of teeth, unquestionably arising from the fact that in this whale, as in
most of the genera, the teeth have the greatest tendency to drop out as the
animal becomes aged; thus clearly showing how objectionable and difficult it is
to make these parts the ground-work of classification. Anderson states that the
Beluga has no teeth in the upper jaw, and that this is the universal opinion of
the Greenland fishers (ii. 150), whilst there are eight on each side in the
lower 00/88 Dr. Neil gives the teeth 99/66 i. e. nine on each side in upper, and
six on each side in lower; and Crantz 89/66. Cuvier, however, states them 99/99;
in all fiftyfour ; and this is probably another proof of his great accuracy. In
the above enumeration, there is the authority of Neil, and we may add, of Crantz,
for nine, nine, in the upper; and Fabricius expressly states that he had counted
nine, nine, in the lower ; which, he adds, were like the single molores of
quadrupeds. If, however, we are so slow in arriving at certainty in the dental
apparatus of the Beluga, when are we, by this means, to determine species in
many of the other Cetacea ?
The spiracle is situated in the vertex, and has its horns turned backwards; the
eye is scarcely larger than in man, the iris is blue; Dr. Barclay confirms the
statement of Cuvier, that in this and the neighbouring species there is nothing
like a true olfactory nerve ; there is no external ear, and no appearance even
of a meatus auditorius; the mouth is small in proportion to the size of the
animal. As the apparatus of the windpipe is different in different genera, we
shall here refer the reader to Pallas' interesting description of the valve of
the blowing canal, which was introduced in our sketch of the Comparative Anatomy
of the Order, and which will he found on p. 62. To this we now add the account
given by the late Dr. Barclay of the windpipe itself. " The arytenoid
cartilages, as in man, appeared at first view to rest on the margin of the
cricoid; hut on opening the larynx they were observed to enter more than an inch
within the cricoid, and to form the fissure which corresponds with our rima
glottidis. From the atlantal margin of the cricoid, they gradually converged
till they come into contact, and inclined dorsad; their length was seven inches.
The epiglottis was six inches in length, inclining dorsad. These meeting with a
membrane interposed, formed a tube, which crossed the pharynx, and was directed
to the lower orifice of the breathing tube." We shall subjoin one other
observation of this distinguished individual, as it regards an extraordinary
structure elsewhere alluded to in these pages. (See page 50.) After observing
that in this animal, as in many fishes, the spinal cord may be examined through
certain apertures without disturbing the bones, he remarks, that a portion of
the cord was found to be covered with a semi-cylindrical mass on each side,
formed of a tough spongy elastic substance, with large vessels running through
it, and freely anatomizing. These two cylinders occupied by far the greatest
part of the spinal canal; the medullary cord, where examined, not being larger
than that of man at the middle of the neck. (Loc. Cit. p. 393.)
The food of the Beluga is said to he cod, haddocks, flounders, and smaller fish
of this description. It seeks them with perseverance, pursues them with ardour,
and devours them with avidity.
Its favorite haunts are evidently the higher latitudes of the Arctic Regions.
They are plentiful in Hudson's Bay, Davis Straits, and on some parts of the
northern coasts of Asia and America, where they frequent the large rivers.
Steller mentions them as being found at Kamschatka; and according to Charleroix,
they are numerous in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and go with the tide as high as
Quebec. There are fisheries both for them and the porpoise in that river. A
considerable quantity of oil is obtained, and of their skins is made a sort of
Morocco leather, thin, yet strong enough to resist a musket-ball (Pen. Art. Zool.
i. 183). They also abound near Disco Island in Greenland, and are not uncommon
in Spitzbergen. Mr. Scorseby never observed them lower than Jan Mayen's Land.
This navigator also remarks, that he has seldom seen them among the ice, but in
those places where the water is clearest and smoothest. They are not at all shy,
but often follow the ships, and tumble about the boats in herds of thirty or
forty; bespangling the surface with their splendid whiteness. They are seldom
pursued by the whale fishers, not only because it is difficult to strike them,
on account of their great activity; but because the harpoon often gives way; and
they are, moreover, of comparatively little value when killed. It is only a few
stragglers that are seen in the southern latitudes, or even on the European
shores. Besides the one mentioned above, Colonel Imrie, in 1793, saw two young
ones which had heen cast upon the beach in the Pentland Frith, some miles to the
east of Thurso. They were both males, between seven and eight feet long; they
were white, mottled with brownish-grey.
Sir Charles Giesecki describes the White "Whale as a migrating animal, which
visits the west coast of Greenland regularly every year about the end of
November. He remarks that, next to the seal, it is the most useful animal
captured by the natives, and it comes at a season when their provisions fall
very short. It arrives in herds, in stormy weather, with the wind from the
south-west. It is captured by the natives with harpoons and strong nets; in the
latter case, the nets are extended across the narrow sounds between the islands,
and when a shoal is thus interrupted in its course seaward, the individuals are
attacked with lances, and great numbers are frequently killed. The flesh is
somewhat similar to that of beef, of a bright red colour, though somewhat oily.
According to Hans Egede, " His flesh as well as the fat, has no bad taste, and
when it is marinated with vinegar and salt, it is as well tasted as any pork
whatever; the fins also, and the tail, pickled or sauced, are very good eating;
so that he is very good cheer." Its oil is of the best, whitest, and finest
quality. Some of the internal membranes are used for windows, and some as
bed-curtains; the sinews furnish the best sort of strong thread.
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