Porpoise History 1895

The New York Reporter and
the Porpoise Hunter
February 27, 1895

An important part of Passamaquoddy Tribal tradition is the ability to play jokes and to get a good laugh, especially towards a city slicker who would have a laugh at the tribal member in the city. So began the story of the New York Sun reporter and the Passamaquoddy porpoise hunter, from shark tales to missing arms this story was laughed about for many nights.

“What do you suppose this oil I am using comes from? Asked the watchmaker. “This oil comes from the jaw of the porpoise they catch in the Bay of Fundy and other places on the coast of Maine. I say they catch the porpoises, but that isn’t exactly the fact, for they don’t catch them any more than the hunter catches the deer he goes out to bag. They hunt the porpoise and shoot them, and immense fellows they are, sometimes weighing 350 pounds. Hunting porpoises in the Bay of Fundy, I know from experience is a decidedly dangerous business, but a great many people get their living from it along the coast.

The most expert porpoise hunters are the Passamaquoddy Indians. They usually camp on Indian beach, bordering on the Bay of Fundy, and there is a sprinkling of whites among them too. I took a winter trip once along the coast of Maine, and at Indian beach I soon noticed that there were a great many men, old and young, both among the Indians and the white men, who had but one arm or one arm and a half, while hands and parts of hands and fingers were missing on others. I finally asked a native what was the cause of the lack or loss of those missing members. “Sharks!” was his grim reply. By further questioning I learned that very frequently when a porpoise is shot on the hunting grounds off the coast its death struggles will not be over before the water all around the hunters boat will bristle with the bayonet like back fins of sharks that have suddenly come from the depths to gulp in the blood that flows from the porpoise. It is seldom that sharks will bite at the carcass of a porpoise, but they will follow it to the boat as the hunters pull it in, and if the latter are not wary with one snap of their terrible jaws take off an arm at the elbow, or at least a hand. I was not anxious to see any one have an arm taken off, but I did want to see a porpoise killed and watch the array of sharks that they said was almost invariably in at the death.

I hired a couple of big Indians to take me with them on a days hunt. Sometimes these Indians will not go out for days, but when they do make up their minds to go out there, no weather is too rough to stop them. They launch their boats at all risks and make a start for the hunting grounds, whether they ever reach them or not. It is by no means an unheard of thing for a boat to start out in tempestuous weather and for neither boat nor hunters to be heard of again unless by chance the waves wash them ashore. Two men go in a boat, but as the boats are made large enough to fetch back 2 or 3 porpoises, weighing from 200 to 300 pounds, there is room enough for a third person if he is anxious to take the risk and share the hardships. The morning I made the third occupant of the boat I speak of was sunny and calm, but it was March, and the Indians told me squarely that it blow great waves before we could hope to get back. But I was resolved to go, and go I did. No one will ever know how I prayed a few hours later to be safe back on the beach.

On the way to the porpoise grounds the Indians told me that it took years to make an expert porpoise hunter out of beginner, and that they put their boys to the task as soon as they are large enough and strong enough. Each Indian had a heavy gun, with a barrel at least a foot longer than an ordinary gun. The bore was smooth and very large. They put in charges of powder that it seemed to me were heavy enough to load a cannon and rammed on top of them a handful of double B shot. We went out 2 miles, and long before we got to the place we were headed for we could hear the porpoises blowing like steam whistles. On clear days the sound is easily heard on the beach.

A stiff nor’easter was coming up, and as the porpoise hunters picked out a porpoise and were upon it the wind became a gale. The higher the waves rolled the more the porpoises seemed to enjoy themselves and the gale didn’t seem to worry the Indians a bit. A big porpoise raised on the crest of a wave a short distance away, and a tremendous report shook the boat. One of the Indians had discharged his gun. The wave brought the porpoise and a crimson tide almost against the boat, and here and there all around it, long black blades darted to and fro above the surface. They didn’t need to tell me what they were, for I knew. They were the black fins of sharks, a dozen at least of which were playing about in that porpoises blood and drinking it. The Indians apparently paying no more attention to the sharks than if they had been bits of floating wood proceeded to land their prize. The one Indian had reached out for the dorsal fin when I saw a flash in the water on the other side. With a sharp cry the Indian jerked back his hand, and blood trickled from a gash on it. “Shark close” he said with no sign of emotion as he wiped the blood on his blouse. Waiting for a favorable roll of the waves, which were rolling alarmingly high now, the Indians unconcerningly reached for the fin again, got it, and the porpoise was raised in the boat.

The Indians take all this risk the year round to get the oil the porpoise yields, the average yield being 3 gallons of blubber oil to a porpoise, which they sell for 90 cents a gallon. It is dried out in the old fashioned soap kettles on the beach. The jaw oil is obtained by hanging the jaw in the can, the heat of which brings it out. A good rich jaw will yield half a pint of oil, but that half pint is worth more than a gallon of blubber oil. It is the very best of oil for watches and delicate mechanism, as the smallest drop of it will oil a watch for months and it never corrodes.