Saturday, January 3, 2009

Ambassador to the Penguins by Eleanor Mathews (2/81)

C2003 353pages 3.5 stars

I would not recommend this to those who are sensitive to violence towards animals or young ones inspired by the current penguin-craze. But I would definitely recommend it to people who enjoy books on exploration and seafaring, bird enthusiast and even to those who enjoy biographies.

I believe Amazon recommended this book to me. I was looking to fill out my Travelogue category. This is not normally an area that I read, but I'm enjoying it and I think I'll continue this genre in the future.
Firstly, I believe the book is mis-titled. The word penguin doesn't even appear until page 186. Once they reach South Georgia Island there is some interaction with penguins, but in my opinion, not enough to name the book as it is. The subtitle is much more accurate. This book is about the year Robert Cushman Murphy spent with the crew of a whaling vessel. Much of the book is about the hunting of whales and elephant seals for their oil. If you can get past the barbarity of the hunting, clubbing and shooting of these animals and the seabirds, it really is a fascinating book and it's well written. In this modern age not many of us have the experience of being on the open water for such an extended period and certainly not under the circumstances Murphy endured.
Many times during this book I was struck by the duality of the men aboard this vessel. They had no compunction of killing sperm whales but when sailing beside other species of whale they did not care to hunt, they would marvel at the beauty and grandeur of the creature. When faced with a large-scale, mechanized whaling factory they balked at the brutality of it. Likewise, Murphy was infatuated with birds yet his mission was to kill hundreds of them as specimens for the museum.
Also in this book is the telling of Murphy's longing for his wife. He had such great anxiety over getting letters out to her. And she prepared a year's worth of messages for him to ration out during the voyage. The few letters reproduced in the book were very moving. It's hard to imagine a newlywed woman finding the strength to encourage her husband to leave her for a year to travel to the ends of the earth. Murphy was quite the romantic and for me, that was really a respite from all of the violence.
I knew going into it that this book is a re-writing of Murphy's Logbook for Grace. It incorporates his photographs from the voyage and I think that's a wonderful addition to the text. However, I wasn't thrilled with the third-person voice. Everytime a quote in first-person would appear it made me think how thrilling it would be if all of it was first-person. That said, Logbook is out of print, so I am grateful that I was able to read Murphy's story at all.

(Spoiler material below. I took notes so I can remember this book in the future. My memory is terrible. I apologize for the length)

In 1911 parts of the globe remained unexplored. The only way to study the Arctic frontier was to cooperate with whaling vessels. In exchange for subsidizing the voyage of a brig, the Daisy, the museum secured passage for one naturalist and cargo space for the specimens he would bring back. At first Robert Cushman Murphy refused the opportunity because he was engaged. It was only at his fiance’s insistence that he agreed to take the posting. He and Grace quickly married and Robert left for South Georgia Island, twelve hundred miles east of Cape Horn. Capt. James Cook came to SGI in 1775. He thought he had reached Australia. Named the island in honor of the King.

Not a single one of the beating hearts on the Daisy had originated on any of the seven continents. Every being aboard was an islander. The captain swelled with pride to have a naturalist in tow. Murphy’s presence “elevated what might have otherwise seemed like an ordinary blubber hunt.” The captain jokingly put Murphy’s position down as ‘assistant navigator’. The truth was that he was capable of navigating by the stars. He accurately identified Mars and Venus. Later in life he confirmed this with a planetarium using the measurements and notations in his logbook.

“Sunrises and sunsets, rainbows...and nights crystal and starry enough to make one gasp, leave nothing to be desired in the way of a spectacular setting here where I am.”

The spirits Murphy used for preserving specimens were falsely labeled Strychnine and Poison to keep the men from drinking it. Only Murphy and the captain knew the truth and Captain Cleveland would ‘”comment loudly at the danger of the liquid.” Sometimes Murphy had trouble getting his specimen preserved before the steward could get it into the galley. He only took the skin (feathers) and sometimes the skeleton. The meat was either given to the steward to prepare for dinner or it was discarded.

Grace sent along a ‘letterbag’ full of messages not only from her but also Robert’s colleagues and family. These were either dated or to be opened only in certain situations (like crossing the equator or if he was in mortal danger and unable to return). Robert was “on his honor not to read ahead.” He also had a box of foodstuffs such as wine, marmalade and chocolate that he could have on holidays and as treats when the ship’s meals became mundane.

The Daisy took sperm whales and would not hunt humpbacks or orcas. The men could tell the species of a whale by the shape and angle of its waterspout. They would hunt the whales in open boats of about 10 men with hand-held harpoons. The harpoons would not kill the whale. Once the whale tired (one took nine hours to give in) the mate would stab it with a lance in a vital area. The men would row the boats back to the Daisy with the dead whale in tow. They would cut and peel the fat and skin from the carcass in a spiral. Some sections weighed about a ton. They would heat the blubber in vats. A good whale would produce about 40 barrels of oil. The front third of the whale was a cavity of spermaceti, which was liquid at body temperature and a white wax when cool. They would slit the skin and ladle it out. It was three times as valuable as blubber oil. If the animal was too large to hoist for draining then they lowered a sailor down into the head to scoop it out. The carcass was cut loose into the sea.

Whale meat is lean and dark like beef. They ate whale meat as steaks or meatballs. They also had shark and dolphin, albacore, seabirds and even turtle. “On good days” the cook would fry doughnuts (in whale oil).

Murphy saw more birds than he could believe existed on earth. “There were millions and millions of petrels and albatrosses, filling the air like the snowflakes of a blizzard.” He made a quill from an albatross feather, which he used to write his journal entry.

One island had grasshoppers “so large he mistook them for birds more than once.”

The rat terrier they brought onto the ship would not hunt rats but did go after cockroaches. When birds from islands would come out to the ship “the ever-present cockroaches were too big for them to eat.” One photograph “would have come out well if it had not been for the cockroaches walking across the glass plate while the gelatin was still soft, Little legs made a hundred punctures in the emulsion.”

“It wad a full-moon night on a flat sea. Murphy grew nostalgic. ‘If you were here,’ he wrote to Grace, ‘I’d take you for a row in the dory.’ (which he had named after her)
“It is hard to be writing the last few lines that may come to you for many a month. I’ll leave a bottle note at any uninhabited island we touch, and drop others overboard at the Equator and the Tropic of Capricorn. Perhaps some day one of them will come to our grandchildren!”
Shocked and delighted to find a post office on the island and that he could send letters to Grace. He eagerly sent a package off to her and encouraged her to sell the stamps postmarked from South Georgia, knowing that they would be valuable to a collector. Only one of her letters ever caught up to him. The rest were returned to her over the next two years. The one letter he received had a pressed four-leaf clover inside of it. She wrote “One leaf is for faith and one for hope and one for love, you know. God put another in for luck.”
“I wake with your name on my lips. I am learning sacrifice and patience,”
“I cried when your letters came. I did not know such letters could be written.”
The letterbag envelope she marked for their first anniversary held pieces of flowers from her wedding bouquet.
In the winter Murphy’s fingers swelled and he was forced to remove his wedding ring, so he wore it on a cord around his neck.

When they reached the island Captain Cleveland was shocked to find a whale processing facility on it. They used steam-powered boats with mounted hundred-pound harpoons. Sixty blue whales had been brought in. Each blue whale typically renders 120 barrels of oil. By the next night, all but two or three had been converted to oil and fertilizer. The captain was “goggle-eyed over the big-scale butchery of modern whaling.”

By the time of Murphy’s journey, over a million seals on South Georgia Island had been killed for their fur. While Robert was busy with his seabirds, the crew of the Daisy killed seals for their blubber. “Seeds of horror at the carnage began to germinate.” Towards the last third of the book, Murphy’s disdain at the slaughter of the elephant seals becomes more pronounced. The crew was killing between 40 and 80 seals a day. Murphy was upset because most were cows and not bulls. As a biologist, he was very concerned at what would happen to the population.

The penguins had no fear of humans. The men soon learned that the birds liked to be scratched on their backs and would nip at the men if they did not scratch them. Murphy observed and visited the penguin colonies quite often. One day he decided to actually pick one up.
“The outraged bird screeched, beat a tattoo with its flippers that stung even through thick polar garments, bit, squirmed, kicked and fought like a demon. The tussle continued for about a minute, and I was just about to give up and drop the furious armful when it abruptly quieted down.”

On Thanksgiving the steward prepared penguin meat. Murphy did not like it and proclaimed it "only fit to consume if one were facing starvation". He also did not care for their eggs because the whites remain translucent when cooked.

Part of the island was uncharted. Murphy named several glaciers, including one for Grace.

Murphy procured over five hundred specimens of birds for the museum.

When Murphy was eighty-three he was invited aboard the first cruise ship to go to South Georgia Island. He accepted provided that Grace could accompany him and she did, at age eighty-one. She was completely deaf and had severe scoliosis.

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