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Survivor’s Tale From the Jaws of a Sperm Whale

Gemina Garland-Lewis is a National Geographic Young Explorers Grantee recording the stories of former whalers in the Azores who used 19th century techniques until ending their hunts entirely in the 1980s. Greetings all! I’ve just finished my third week in the field documenting the stories of ex-whalers in the Azores, and this week has held...

Gemina Garland-Lewis is a National Geographic Young Explorers Grantee recording the stories of former whalers in the Azores who used 19th century techniques until ending their hunts entirely in the 1980s.

Greetings all! I’ve just finished my third week in the field documenting the stories of ex-whalers in the Azores, and this week has held some of the most incredible stories yet. It’s also brought several chances for me to be involved in the present-day culture surrounding the whaleboats and whaler’s festivals. I’m going to spotlight one man’s story from the week, as it’s too incredible to give the abridged version.

Women make up an important part of the new culture surrounding the whaleboats - I join one of the teams from Horta for a practice before the regatta, where they ended up taking 3rd. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

From the Jaws of a Whale and Back Again

José “Silvino” do Silveira Jorge recalled his incredible story for me while we sat on the harbor wall in his home of São Mateus, Pico, waiting for the sailing regatta to start. He comes from a family of whalers, and on the day of the accident he was the harpooner and his father was the official on the same whaleboat. They were far from home when Silvino threw the first harpoon, but instead of fleeing straight ahead, the whale started circling the boat. Silvino had struck the whale with his lance three times, and his brother in a nearby whaleboat had also struck it once. Because of the whale’s movements, however, they could never get the right shot. Silvino told his father to stop the boat so that the whale would pass them and he could get a better angle. Sure enough, the opportunity came and Silvino threw his lance once again. This time the lance sunk very deeply, and the whale turned over on its side and came under the bow of the boat with its chin, throwing Silvino and three other men into the water.

Sitting in the whaleboat Senhora da Guia as we're towed by the motor launch - just like in the old days, except now it's for a regatta. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

What happened next is the stuff of folklore. Silvino fell into the whale’s mouth, where he was pierced by a tooth at the end of the jaw when the whale closed its mouth on him. He grabbed for the line leading back into the boat, but the whale started to swim downwards with him. As he was pulled beneath the water, he started to say his prayers and his goodbyes. Soon after he realized that he was feeling his wound with the hand that wasn’t holding the line, and he knew the whale had let him go. He was still being pulled downwards, however, and understood they had cut the line from the boat and he was now only holding on to the whale. He let go and swam to the surface, grabbing onto his boat. The whale resurfaced after him, smashing him and breaking three of his ribs.

"Silvino" shows his hands as he talks about always praying for wind while out whaling - rowing too much would greatly damage the men's hands. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

A nearby motor launch boat started to rush towards him to help, but with the fear of the moment the captain didn’t see another man in the water, and would have run him over if Silvino’s other brother on the boat didn’t pull the power to the engines in time. This man was saved and Silvino was taken from the water; now began the rush to the hospital. It was completely dark by the time they arrived in the channel between the islands of Pico and Faial, and a fishing boat in the channel didn’t have their lights on. In the darkness and frenzy of that moment this boat was run over by the motor launch carrying Silvino. A hit and run, the motor launch carried on to port. Silvino had not lost consciousness the whole time, and after arriving at the hospital overheard a doctor saying that he wouldn’t make it. Again he began to say his goodbyes. At this point another doctor, the most trusted in the islands, came in to examine him. After poking around in Silvino’s wounds, he realized the injury was superficial – the tooth had pierced through the side of his abdomen but shot upwards and came out a few inches above, much like a needle stitch. Without damage to his internal organs the doctor said Silvino would live, and he breathed his first sigh of relief of the day.

A whaleboat from Horta sneaks ahead in the sailing regatta in São Mateus. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

He was in the hospital for 30 days recovering, and was whaling again within five months of his release, and for many years after that. When I asked if he ever thought about leaving whaling after the accident, he said that, although he was nervous about going back for several months, he never considered another profession. Whaling nearly took his life, and did end up taking the life of one of his brothers, but this is where he stayed. As I sat next to him watching the whaleboat regatta, I couldn’t stop thinking: you have been in the mouth of a whale, and here you are at age 77, drinking wine in the afternoon sun.

"Silvino," left, watches the regatta with friends in his home of São Mateus on Pico. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

I’d like to thank everyone who helped me get to the island of São Jorge this week to meet with three whalers there. The preservation of whaling culture in São Jorge is incredibly minimal compared to Faial and especially Pico, making these men’s stories some of the least heard on the islands. Two of the whalers I met with in the town of Topo had been whaling together many times, and it was incredible to see them bouncing memories off each other as they recalled their shared stories.

Many decades ago, Augusto Sousa Correia, 82, and Tibério Borba, 87, spent a lot of time whaling together out of Topo, São Jorge. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

Finally I’d like to say a heartfelt goodbye to José Luís Garcia, a whaler I interviewed four years ago who died a week ago. I wasn’t able to speak with him again this time, as he was already in the hospital at the time I arrived. His passing showed me how little time there really is to record the stories of these men before their stories are lost with them.

José Luís Garcia with his lance in 2008. Rest in peace, old whaler. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

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Meet the Author

Gemina Garland-Lewis
Gemina is biologist, photographer, and explorer currently based in Boston, MA. She graduated from Colgate University in 2008 with a degree in Biology and Environmental studies, and is currently working on her Masters in Conservation Medicine at Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. Gemina was a 2008/09 Thomas J. Watson Fellow, traveling to seven countries to study different cultural attitudes towards whales and whaling. For the last three summers she has worked as a trip leader and photography teacher for National Geographic Student Expeditions, taking high school students to Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, and Italy. Gemina is currently in the Azores for her project as a National Geographic Young Explorer, where she will be recording the stories and images of ex-whalers.