Read CHAPTER SEVEN  of The Ocean and its Wonders , free online book, by R.M. Ballantyne, on ReadCentral.com.

WATERSPOUTS CAUSES OF-APPEARANCE-ELECTRICITY-EXPERIMENTS-ARTIFICIAL WATERSPOUTS-SHOWERS OF FISH-MR. ELLIS ON WATERSPOUTS IN THE SOUTH SEAS.

We turn back now from the atmospheric to the aqueous ocean.  Yet so intimate is the connection between the two, that we shall find it impossible to avoid occasional reference to the former.

Our present subject, waterspouts, obliges us to recur for a little to the atmosphere, which we dismissed, or attempted to dismiss, in the last chapter.

There is no doubt that waterspouts are to a great extent, if not altogether, due to the presence of electricity in the air.  When the clouds have been raging for some time in the skies of tropical regions, rendering the darkness bright, and the air tremulous with their dread artillery, they seem to grow unusually thirsty; the ordinary means of water-supply through the atmosphere do not appear to be sufficient for the demand, or war-tax in the shape of water-spouts, that is levied on nature.  The clouds therefore descend to the sea, and, putting down their dark tongues, lick up the water thirstily in the form of waterspouts.

These whirling pillars of water frequently appear in groups of several at a time.  They are of various heights, sometimes ranging up to seven hundred yards, with a thickness of fifty yards, and are very dangerous to ships that happen to come within their influence.

That they are caused by electricity has been proved by experiment- miniature waterspouts have been produced by artificial means; and as Dr Bonzano of New York gives particular directions how the thing ought to be done, we quote his words for the benefit of those who happen to possess electrical machines.

“From the conductor of an electrical machine suspend, by a wire or chain, a small metallic ball (one of wood covered with tinfoil); and under the ball place a rather wide metallic basin, containing some oil of turpentine, at the distance of about three-quarters of an inch.  If the handle of the machine be now turned slowly, the liquid in the basin will begin to move in different directions and form whirlpools.  As the electricity on the conductor accumulates, the troubled liquid will elevate itself in the centre, and at last become attached to the ball.  Draw off the electricity from the conductor, to let the liquid resume its position; a portion of the turpentine remains attached to the ball.  Turn the handle again very slowly, and observe now the few drops adhering to the ball assume a conical shape, with the apex downward; while the liquid under it assumes also a conical shape, the apex upward, until both meet.  As the liquid does not accumulate on the ball, there must necessarily be as great a current downward as upward, giving the column of liquid a rapid circular motion, which continues until the electricity from the conductor is nearly all discharged silently, or until it is discharged by a spark descending into the liquid.  The same phenomena take place with oil or water.  Using the latter liquid, the ball must be brought much nearer, or a much greater quantity of electricity is necessary to raise it.

“If, in this experiment, we let the ball swing to and fro, the little waterspout will travel over its immature sea, carrying its whirlpools along with it.  When it breaks up, a portion of the liquid-and with it anything it may contain-remains attached to the ball.  The fish, seeds, leaves, etcetera, that have fallen to the earth in rain-squalls, may have owed their elevation to the clouds to the same cause that attaches a few drops of the liquid, with its particles of impurities, to the ball.”

There can be no doubt whatever that fish are carried up in waterspouts, because the descent of those creatures from the skies in rain is a well-established fact; and if they did not get there in waterspouts- which, when we consider it, seems most natural-then we are driven to the conclusion that their native region is the sky, which is by no means so natural or so probable.  Many travellers have recorded the fact that small fish have descended in rain.  In a letter written not long ago by a gentleman in Singapore we have the following account of a shower of fish:-

“We experienced a shock of earthquake here on the 16th February last.  Its duration was about two minutes.  Although it caused no damage, its undulatory motion was sufficiently strong to affect certain persons with a sensation akin to sea-sickness.  It was followed by rain in torrents, on the 20th, 21st, and 22nd.  On the latter day especially, we were, for half an hour, surrounded with water to a considerable depth.  We could not see three yards before us.  When the sun came out again, I saw a number of Malays and Chinese filling their baskets with fish contained in the pools formed by the rain.

“They told me the fish had `fallen from heaven,’ and three days later, when the pools were all dried up, there were still many dead fish lying about.  As they lay in my court-yard, which is surrounded by a wall, they could not have been brought in by the overflowing of a torrent; indeed, there is none of any considerable size in the neighbourhood.

“The space covered by these fish might be about fifty acres, comprising the eastern part of the town.  They were very lively, and seemed to be in good health.”

The writer of the above suggests, with some degree of hesitation, that these fish were sucked up by waterspouts.  We think that there need be no hesitation in the matter!

The appearance usually presented by a waterspout is that of a column of aqueous vapour reaching from the sea to the clouds, sometimes straight, more frequently a little bent, and thicker above and below than in the centre of the column.

Mr Ellis, the missionary, in his “Polynesian Researches,” mentions having, with a companion, met and narrowly escaped being overwhelmed by several waterspouts, when passing on one occasion in an open boat between two islands about thirty miles apart.  On the passage they were overtaken by a sudden and violent squall, which lasted several hours; and, in order to avoid being sunk, they tied their masts, oars, and sails in a bundle, and attaching a rope to them, and to the boat, cast them into the sea.  Thus they lay, as it were, at anchor in the lee of this extemporised breakwater.  It was but a feeble barrier, however, against so wild a storm, and the native boatmen were so overcome by fear, that they sat down in the bottom of the boat, and covered their eyes with their hands.

After a time the rain diminished, the sky began to clear, and the boat’s crew to revive, when suddenly one of the men uttered a cry of consternation, and pointed to an object towards which all eyes were instantly turned.  They beheld a large cylindrical waterspout, extending, like a massive column, from the ocean to the dark and impending clouds.  It was not far distant, and seemed to move slowly towards the boat.

Had Mr Ellis had any doubt as to the danger of a waterspout, the extreme terror exhibited by the natives on this occasion must have removed it; for it was not probable that, just after escaping from the most imminent peril, they would fail back into a much more violent state of terror, unless former experience had given them too good reason to dread the presence of the object they now saw before them.

The roughness of the sea forbade their attempting to hoist a sail in order to avoid the waterspout.  They were compelled, therefore, to summon all the resolution they possessed, to enable them calmly to await its approach, and put their trust in the arm of Jéhovah.

The helm was in the hands of a seaman whose steadiness could be depended on.  The natives were down in the bottom of the boat; they had given way to despair.

Two other waterspouts now came into view, and subsequently a third, if not more, so that they felt as if completely surrounded by them.  Some were well defined, extending in an unbroken line from the sea to the sky, like pillars resting on the ocean as their basis, and supporting the clouds; others, assuming the shape of a funnel or inverted cone attached to the clouds, extended their sharp points to the ocean below.  From the distinctness with which they were seen, it was judged that the furthest could not have been many miles distant.  In some they imagined they could trace the spiral motion of the water as it was drawn up to the clouds, which were every moment being augmented in their portentous darkness.  The sense of personal danger, Mr Ellis confesses, and the certainty of instant destruction if brought within their vortex, prevented a very careful observation of their appearance and accompanying phenomena.

The storm continued all day, and at intervals the party in the boat beheld, through the driving clouds and rain, one or other of those towering waterspouts; which, however, did not come nearer to them.

It is interesting to read the record left by a Christian missionary of his conflicting feelings on that terrible occasion.  Mr Ellis believed that all hope of escape was over, and his mind went through that ordeal which must be the experience of every one who sees the steady approach of speedy death.  He says that during those hours when he sat awaiting his doom, the thought of death itself did not make a deep impression.  “The struggle, the gasp, as the wearied arm should attempt to resist the impetuous waves; the straining vision, that should linger on the last ray of retiring light, as the deepening veil of water would gradually conceal it for ever; and the rolling billows heaving over the sinking and dying body, which, perhaps ere life should be extinct, might become the prey of voracious inhabitants of the deep;”-these things caused scarcely a thought, compared with the immediate prospect of the disembodied spirit being ushered into the presence of its Maker; the account to be rendered, and the awful and unalterable destiny that would await it there.  “These momentous objects,” he says, “absorbed all the powers of the mind, and produced an intensity of feeling, which, for a long time, rendered me almost insensible to the storm, or the liquid columns which threatened our destruction.”

It was now that the missionary could look back with deepest gratitude upon that mercy which had first brought him to a knowledge of the Saviour.  “Him and Him alone,” he adds, “I found to be a refuge, a rock in the storm of contending feelings, on which my soul could cast the anchor of its hope for pardon and acceptance before God...  I could not but think how awful would have been my state, had I in that hour been ignorant of Christ, or had I neglected or despised the offers of his mercy.  Our prayers were offered to Him who is a present help in every time of danger, for ourselves and those who sailed with us; and under these and similar exercises several hours passed away.”

Those prayers were answered, for the waterspouts gradually disappeared, and the boat got safe to land.

In speaking of another waterspout, seen on a subsequent voyage, Mr Ellis tells us that it was well defined,-an unbroken column from the sea to the clouds, which on this occasion were neither dense nor lowering.  Around the outside of the liquid cylinder was a kind of thick mist; and within, a substance resembling steam, ascending apparently with a spiral motion.  The water at its base was considerably agitated with a whirling motion; while the spray which was thrown off from the circle formed by the lower part of the column, rose several feet above the level of the sea.  It passed about a mile astern of the ship.

Occasionally, when passing nearer to a ship than was deemed safe, a waterspout has been dissipated by a cannon-shot, as represented in our engraving.

Such are the usual appearances and actions of waterspouts.  They are not, however, properly named, being simply whirlwinds at sea, instead of whirlwinds on land.  Professor Oersted suggests the name “storm-pillar,” as being a more appropriate term.

It does not follow that a large ship would inevitably be destroyed if brought within the vortex of a waterspout; but it is certain that she would run the risk of being dismasted, and perhaps thrown on her beam-ends.  Navigators have not had sufficient experience of the power of waterspouts to pronounce authoritatively on that point,-and it is to be hoped they never will.

Captain Beechy, in his narrative of a voyage to the Pacific, describes one into which his ship actually entered, and from which he received extremely rough handling before he was set free.  But this might not have been a very large waterspout; and it is not absolutely certain whether he was quite within its vortex, or was merely brushed by the skirts of its outer garment.

Certain it is that waterspouts vary in size and in power; for we read of them passing from the sea to the land, and there rooting up trees, unroofing and overturning houses, dismounting cannon, emptying fish ponds, half emptying harbours, and otherwise exhibiting a degree of force that would undoubtedly sink the largest vessel that ever was built, if brought thoroughly to bear upon it.

The rate of motion in waterspouts varies.  Sometimes they revolve slowly, sometimes with the utmost rapidity.  They often produce violent noise, as, indeed, might be expected; and they are generally accompanied by thunder and lightning, though not invariably so, for they are sometimes observed when the heavens are clear and the sea calm.