Hunting the Dugong

Extract from Jules Verne's "20.000 Leagues".

The Nautilus floated on the surface of the sea, approaching the Arabian coast off Djeddah, when the following occurred:

We were leaning on the sides of the pinnace, talking of one thing and another, when Ned Land, stretching out his hand towards a spot on the sea, said:

"Do you see anything there, sir?"
"No, Ned," I replied; "but I have not your eyes, you know."
"Look well," said Ned, "there, on the starboard beam, about the height of the lantern! Do you not see a mass which seems to move?"
"Certainly," said I, after close attention; "I see something like a long black body on the top of the water."
And certainly before long the black object was not more than a mile from us. It looked like a great sandbank deposited in the open sea. It was a gigantic dugong!
Ned Land looked eagerly. His eyes shone with covetousness at the sight of the animal. His hand seemed ready to harpoon it. One would have thought he was awaiting the moment to throw himself into the sea and attack it in its element.
Portrait Jules Verne
Jules Verne
At this instant Captain Nemo appeared on the platform. He saw the dugong, understood the Canadian's attitude, and, addressing him, said:
"If you held a harpoon just now, Master Land, would it not burn your hand?"
"Just so, sir."
"And you would not be sorry to go back, for one day, to your trade of a fisherman and to add this cetacean to the list of those you have already killed?"
"I should not, sir."
"Well, you can try."
"Thank you, sir," said Ned Land, his eyes flaming.
"Only," continued the Captain, "I advise you for your own sake not to miss the creature."
"Is the dugong dangerous to attack?" I asked, in spite of the Canadian's shrug of the shoulders.
"Yes," replied the Captain; "sometimes the animal turns upon its assailants and overturns their boat. But for Master Land this danger is not to be feared. His eye is prompt, his arm sure."
At this moment seven men of the crew, mute and immovable as ever, mounted the platform. One carried a harpoon and a line similar to those employed in catching whales. The pinnace was lifted from the bridge, pulled from its socket, and let down into the sea. Six oarsmen took their seats, and the coxswain went to the tiller. Ned, Conseil, and I went to the back of the boat.
"You are not coming, Captain?" I asked.
"No, sir; but I wish you good sport."
The boat put off, and, lifted by the six rowers, drew rapidly towards the dugong, which floated about two miles from the Nautilus.
Arrived some cables-length from the cetacean, the speed slackened, and the oars dipped noiselessly into the quiet waters. Ned Land, harpoon in hand, stood in the fore part of the boat. The harpoon used for striking the whale is generally attached to a very long cord which runs out rapidly as the wounded creature draws it after him. But here the cord was not more than ten fathoms long, and the extremity was attached to a small barrel which, by floating, was to show the course the dugong took under the water.
I stood and carefully watched the Canadian's adversary. This dugong, which also bears the name of the halicore, closely resembles the manatee; its oblong body terminated in a lengthened tail, and its lateral fins in perfect fingers. Its difference from the manatee consisted in its upper jaw, which was armed with two long and pointed teeth which formed on each side diverging tusks.
This dugong which Ned Land was preparing to attack was of colossal dimensions; it was more than seven yards long. It did not move, and seemed to be sleeping on the waves, which circumstance made it easier to capture.
The boat approached within six yards of the animal. The oars rested on the rowlocks. I half rose. Ned Land, his body thrown a little back, brandished the harpoon in his experienced hand.

  Illustration from first issue

Suddenly a hissing noise was heard, and the dugong disappeared. The harpoon, although thrown with great force; had apparently only struck the water.
"Curse it!" exclaimed the Canadian furiously; "I have missed it!"
"No," said I; "the creature is wounded--look at the blood; but your weapon has not stuck in his body."
"My harpoon! my harpoon!" cried Ned Land.
The sailors rowed on, and the coxswain made for the floating barrel. The harpoon regained, we followed in pursuit of the animal.
The latter came now and then to the surface to breathe. Its wound had not weakened it, for it shot onwards with great rapidity.
The boat, rowed by strong arms, flew on its track. Several times it approached within some few yards, and the Canadian was ready to strike, but the dugong made off with a sudden plunge,
and it was impossible to reach it.


Imagine the passion which excited impatient Ned Land! He hurled at the unfortunate creature the most energetic expletives in the English tongue. For my part, I was only vexed to see the dugong escape all our attacks.
We pursued it without relaxation for an hour, and I began to think it would prove difficult to capture, when the animal, possessed with the perverse idea of vengeance of which he had cause to repent, turned upon the pinnace and assailed us in its turn.
This manoeuvre did not escape the Canadian.
"Look out!" he cried.
The coxswain said some words in his outlandish tongue, doubtless warning the men to keep on their guard.
The dugong came within twenty feet of the boat, stopped, sniffed the air briskly with its large nostrils (not pierced at the extremity, but in the upper part of its muzzle). Then, taking a spring, he threw himself upon us.
The pinnace could not avoid the shock, and half upset, shipped at least two tons of water, which had to be emptied; but, thanks to the coxswain, we caught it sideways, not full front, so we were not quite overturned. While Ned Land, clinging to the bows, belaboured the gigantic animal with blows from his harpoon, the creature's teeth were buried in the gunwale, and it lifted the whole thing out of the water, as a lion does a roebuck. We were upset over one another, and I know not how the adventure would have ended, if the Canadian, still enraged with the beast, had not struck it to the heart.
I heard its teeth grind on the iron plate, and the dugong disappeared, carrying the harpoon with him. But the barrel soon returned to the surface, and shortly after the body of the animal, turned on its back. The boat came up with it, took it in tow, and made straight for the Nautilus. It required tackle of enormous strength to hoist the dugong on to the platform. It weighed 10,000 lb.
The next day, 11th February, the larder of the Nautilus was enriched by some more delicate game.

"The Project Gutenberg Etext of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea"

SirenenkopfThis tale illustrates the state of the sciences and the appreciation for nature 100 years ago.

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written 23 Jan 00