Cyril Fernandez’s father taught him to stand in the bows of an open boat and wield a harpoon. It was a valuable skill, knowing how to jump a southern right whale and kill it. Up until 1976, South Africa ran one of the most intensive operations in the history of modern whaling. But then the whale populations dwindled. Cyril witnessed this, and other things

Words by Mike Nicol | 21 Jun, 2015

In 1996, I traced the last man in False Bay to be trained as a harpooner. He was 87 years old and confined to a wheelchair. There was nothing in his face that belied his career or years: the only grey in his black hair was at his temples and in his sideburns, nor could I describe his features as rugged or deeply lined despite a life time spent fishing from ocean-going boats off the western coastline of South Africa and Namibia. He had a quiet voice, so quiet that sometimes it registered as merely a sibilance on the tape recording. In fact he told his stories so fluently that I wondered if he lived more in the past than the present. He smiled as he recounted his memories. The man’s name was Cyril Fernandez.

We talked in a dim, ground floor Sea Point flat that was rented by his granddaughter and her husband. The sea was at the end of the street but he had no view of it from his room. The only indications of his fishing life were a cast of a giant marlin’s head on a chair in a corner and a print of a sailing ship running before the wind hanging on the wall.

In the middle of the nineteenth century his grandfather, Pedro E’ustaquio, a Filipino from Iloilo on the island of Panay, had been shanghaied to help crew a Spanish merchantman and had jumped ship in Simon’s Town bay, roughly 40km south of Cape Town’s CBD. At the dead of night—what other time was there!—Pedro swum ashore and walked along the wagon track to Kalk Bay, a fishing village with a reputation as a Filipino haven. There he was taken by the young men to hide in the caves above the village. Of course, the Spanish captain came looking for him; cursed the villagers for their deception and offered a ransom for the runaway’s return. But the people of Kalk Bay wouldn’t give up their secret. In disgust the captain went back to his ship, sailing out the following day. From his refuge in the mountain E’ustaquio watched the sails of the ship until they disappeared. He was sad: he would never see the Philippines again. But if sadness was the price of freedom, then a new life was worth it. He left his old surname on the mountain.

When he walked into Kalk Bay he said, “My name’s Fernandez. Pedro Fernandez.”

There were no dates to this history: it floated in the memory of his grandson, Cyril Fernandez, with all the immediacy of an anthology of short stories. Which was how he told me the story of his parents’ marriage. When the south-easter started blowing a few days before his wedding, Pedro Fernandez (the son of the stowaway and Cyril’s father) got the itch of money in his fingers. But the wind also brought the stench of whale oil to his nostrils. He knew the cash would not come easily. Pedro shrugged. That was the least of his worries. Of more importance was to take his beloved to get the blessing of his dying mother. This was a task that filled his heart with dread. As he cleaned fish on the Kalk Bay beach Pedro wondered how he could prove to his mother that the beautiful Lydia Luyt was his.

Lydia was a Claremont girl, a servant of Mr Green, a wine merchant who every summer brought his family to holiday in their cottage near the fishing village. It was known that young women from the merchants’ houses had no eyes for fishermen. So Lydia was a catch way beyond the wildest dreams of Pedro. There wasn’t a fisherman in Kalk Bay who hadn’t tried his charm on her and been spurned. Lydia, with her English blood and her soft hands, wasn’t for them. Pedro knew his mother would be sceptical of this good fortune. Words were not proof enough for her.

When Pedro had finished cleaning the fish he took them to sell to Mr Green. As he approached the cottage he could see Lydia’s check petticoat hanging on the washing line. The sight of it lifting so gently in the breeze mesmerised him. How beautiful it was, how fine between his fingers. Then quickly, unseen, he snipped off a square at the hem and slipped it into his pocket.

The next afternoon Pedro and Lydia took the Cape cart from Kalk Bay to St James where his mother and father had a cottage. Pedro was nervous. He could hardly talk. His Adam’s apple juggled in his throat with agitation.

“How do I know she’s really going to be your wife?” the frail Ma-Fernandez breathed at her son.

“Just ask to look at her petticoat,” he replied.

To Lydia’s embarrassment she had to reveal the hem of her petticoat with its missing square.

“What does this prove?” Pedro’s mother demanded in a scratchy voice.

“Would I cut this from a stranger’s petticoat!” declared Pedro flourishing the missing square. “Of course not, I would only take it from the woman who was to be my wife.”

By the time they got back to Kalk Bay, radiant with the blessings of the old woman on her death bed, the south-easter was set and roaring. Pedro Fernandez looked at the impossible sea and knew there would be good catches when the wind went down. He knew too that with this wind the butcher, grocer and baker would give him meat, cheese, eggs, bread, vegetables, fruit, dates, nuts, wine, whatever he wanted for the wedding feast. The south-easter guaranteed repayment.

In that howling summer gale Pedro and Lydia were married. The wind gave them a week’s honeymoon, for no one could put to sea in such a maelstrom. When one night it stopped, abruptly, unexpectedly, Pedro woke at the sudden quiet. In the early light he and Lydia went down to the beach: washed up on the rocks was a dead whale.

“It’s ours,” he whispered to her. “Quick, give me your petticoat. We claim the whale.”

Poor Lydia, the Claremont girl, awkwardly stepped out of her petticoat and watched as her Pedro tied the garment to an oar and plunged the oar into the whale’s blubber.

“There,” he said, “now it’s ours.”

And then poor Lydia who’d never had to clean a fish watched her husband cut a door into the carcass and disappear into the belly of the beast. Poor Lydia shut her eyes and prayed to the Virgin Mary. When she looked again Pedro stood before her grinning. He was covered in blood and gore. Poor Lydia wanted to faint. Fetch tins, he told her. Fetch wood and coal. Under the huge iron cauldrons that Norwegian whalers had long ago abandoned on the beach Pedro built fires.

“But why are we doing this?” asked Lydia.

“You’ll see,” he replied. And showed her what to do.

For two days Pedro laboured in the slime and ooze and stench and dimness. He cut off strips of fat from the stomach and took them like sacred offerings to his wife. In the cauldrons she melted them down until a fine oil bubbled on the surface, which she ladled into the tins. For two days Pedro and Lydia stank of whale. Their clothes were saturated. Whatever they touched became greasy and contaminated. Lydia wondered if she would smell like this for the rest of her life. It made her want to cry.

“Don’t worry,” said Pedro. “It’ll be worth it.”

For those two days the people of Kalk Bay joked about the foolishness of Pedro and Lydia who were so deluded by love as to think they could compete with the Norwegian whalers stationed at Cape Hangklip across False Bay. No, it was rank foolishness, the Norwegians had long cornered the market. All these two were doing was smelling the place out with the reek of boiling fat. Pedro paid no heed.

When the job was done, he made a fire in their backyard and destroyed their clothes. No soap on earth could wash the smell and the oil out of them he told Lydia. Clothes were precious she reminded him, thinking longingly of her ruined petticoat. Don’t worry, he said to her, soon there would be enough money to buy new trousers and dresses. The best there were.

That night Pedro decanted the oil into old bottles he’d scrounged from the villagers. He cut plugs of wood as stoppers. The next day Pedro took a sack full of bottles to town. He caught the Cape cart to Wynberg and the train to Cape Town. The merchants snapped up his oil. “But don’t bring us anymore,” they cautioned him, “we’re now overstocked.” Pedro went home with money-filled pockets jingling and a new check petticoat wrapped in tissue paper. He had married the most beautiful girl on the peninsula and she’d turned out to be lady luck. Pedro’s heart was singing. He and Lydia would be the envy of Kalk Bay.

And then the south-easter began to blow again. For a week it whipped the bay: the waves seethed against the rocks, dead gannets washed up in the tideline, a salty haze drifted across the mountain. The fishermen talked of steenbras, hottentot, yellowtail, mackerel. Maybe even tunny blown in. Or another whale torn lose from the Norwegian whaling ships. Imagine that, they said. Those Norwegians were always losing whales, perhaps they’d lose another.

Which is what happened. On the morning the wind went down a whale carcass lay on the beach. This time everybody wanted a piece of the prize except Pedro and Lydia. Pedro said he would rather go fishing. Lydia said she had housework to do. You’re too late Pedro tried to tell them. You shouldn’t compete with the Norwegians. But no one believed him until the merchants of Cape Town, crossing their arms, shaking their heads, said, no, no, no, we don’t want any more oil.

Cyril Fernandez recounted the story in his quiet smiling voice. “My father was a good harpooner,” he added. “He taught me to be a harpooner, but I never harpooned a whale.” Cyril was born too late. By the time he was old enough to stand in the bows of an open boat being rowed achingly towards a slow-moving southern right, there were few whales coming to mate or calve in False Bay. For one thing, their numbers were declining. For another, the Norwegians in their steam-powered whaling ships mounted with harpoon guns got them first.

But when Cyril was young there were still men on the coast who had the gear and the will to hunt any whale should the opportunity arise. One of these was George Cotton from Tristan da Cunha who had a trekking licence to fish off Simon’s Town beach.

“There was a man called George Cotton, tall man, darkish,” told Cyril. “And then there was a whale in the bay. Cotton was trekking on the beach in Simon’s Town, Long Beach in Simon’s Town, when he got a report that there was a whale in the bay, so he went out with his trek boat. He had his gear, his whaling gear, ropes and harpoons and so on. At Kalk Bay there was also an old man who had whaling gear, an old coloured Portuguese, Mr Michaels. He came from Cape Verde. He had harpoons and bombs. The old man could get these bombs from Portugal or somewhere.

“Anyhow. Cotton went out and they harpooned the whale. Now these ropes of his had been lying there in the sheds for so long that naturally they had got dry and rotten and so on. So Cotton’s rope broke. You know when you harpoon a whale by hand from an open boat it sets off and you play it until it bleeds itself to its death and then you tow it back to shore. There’s another story I can tell you about a whale that took the run after it was harpooned and the whale took the run and it ran so far out of False Bay that the crew had to cut the rope and row back home. But now Cotton’s rope broke and Cotton lost the whale. He did not have bombs so he couldn’t kill the whale before it broke his ropes.

“My brother with the skipper of the boat, The Chrissie, saw what had happened and they saw that the whale was coming towards Kalk Bay. So they got a crew together and they rowed out with old Mr Michaels as the harpooner. They got near the whale and they harpooned it. The old man was already so old but he had the true style of the whale harpooner. When they got the whale alongside he jumped onto the whale and drove the lance into the soft spot of the whale and killed it. Then they towed the whale in.

“At that time the harbour was built already. I was a youngster and I was there to watch them bring the whale in. Now Cotton was watching through his binoculars from Simon’s Town and he could see the whale had been caught by somebody else. He knows his harpoon is in that whale and as such it means that that whale is his. Cotton came to Kalk Bay on the train and he came onto the long pier. Now he was a tall thin man and had a very gruff voice. When he got in amongst the people looking at the whale he stood on the edge of the harbour there and shouted down to the men in The Chrissie: ‘I CLAIM THE WHALE!’

“Those few words took them to court. And only then did Cotton realise that the whale did not belong to him even though his harpoon was in it. If his harpoon had had his name, George Cotton, and address then the whale would have been his. But his harpoon was unsigned so he lost the whale. The people on The Chrissie didn’t have their harpoons signed but they had their ropes attached to it. So Cotton did not have the whale, just a loose harpoon in the whale.”

In Moby Dick, when Stubb kills a whale, Herman Melville writes: “[The whale] rolled not in brine but in blood, which bubbled and seethed for furlongs behind in their wake. The slanting sun playing upon this crimson pond in the sea, sent back its reflection into every face, so that they all glowed to each other like red men.”

Cyril Fernandez again: “You see the dying part takes a long time. The dying part can take a very long time. The harpoon is merely to keep the whale hooked and you wait until it weakens. But the whale can set off with boat and all and later on you are so far away from land that they would rather cut the rope than be drawn right away to sea. How quickly the whale dies when it’s weakened and alongside all depends on how brave the harpooners are. Usually when the whale is alongside they jump onto the whale to kill it with the lance. They put it in the soft spot. They also used bombs. A bomb is about this long”—he indicated about 60cm—“and about as thick as this”—he made a circle with his forefinger and thumb. “You push that bomb into the whale and there is a trigger on the bomb that as it goes into the whale it goes off and the bomb bursts inside the whale. When it bursts it shoots out all little assegais and they break up the whale’s blood vessels and what-have-you and the whale dies.”

Cyril cleared his throat. He looked at me. “Those were the ways they killed a whale in the olden times,” he said. *

Mike Nicol is a journalist, writer and teacher. He has published several books, including the novels The Ibis Tapestry (1998) and Of Cops & Robbers (2013) and non-fiction works A Good-Looking Corpse (1991) and The Waiting Country (1995)