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QUESTION OF AN OPEN SEA ROUND THE POLES UPPER AND UNDER CURRENTS OF THE OCEAN-CAUSE THEREOF-HABITS OF THE WHALE AS BEARING ON THE QUESTION-DR. KANE’S DISCOVERY OF AN OPEN SEA IN THE FAR NORTH-NOTES ON THE EXPEDITION-A BEAR-HUNT.

It was long and very naturally supposed that the impenetrable ice of the arctic regions extended to, and, as it were, sealed up the pole.  But from time to time philosophic observers of Nature’s laws began to hint their opinion that there is an open ocean around the pole; and of late years this opinion has all but been converted into a firm belief.

Maury remarks, that like air-like the body-the ocean must have a system of circulation for its waters.  And an attentive study of the currents of the sea, and a close examination of the laws which govern the movements of the waters in their channels of circulation through the ocean, will lead us irresistibly to the conclusion that always, in summer and winter, there must be, somewhere within the arctic circle, a large body of open water.

There is an under-current setting from the Atlantic, northward through Davis’ Straits, into the Arctic Ocean, and a surface-current setting out.

The fact is proved beyond a doubt by the observations of arctic explorers, who have seen immense icebergs drifting rapidly northward against a strong current.  This apparent anomaly could only be accounted for by the fact that a powerful undercurrent carried them northward; and as at least seven times more of these bergs must have been under than above water, we can easily understand how the under-current, acting on the larger mass of each berg, had power to carry it against the surface-current.

This under-current is warm, while the upper-current is cold.  Now we know that according to Nature’s laws, heated water, like heated air, rises to the surface, and cold water sinks to the bottom.  How, then, comes this warm current to be underneath the cold, as soundings have proved it to be?  It is owing to the fact that the under-current is much salter, and therefore heavier (despite its warmth), than the surface-current; which latter, being mingled with the drainage and ice-masses of the arctic regions, is comparatively fresh, and therefore light as well as cold.

The hot and salt waters of the tropics are carried north by the Gulf Stream.  There are here two counteracting agents at work.  Heat inclines the Gulf Stream to rise; saltness inclines it to sink.  During the first part of its journey, as we know, its great heat prevails over the other influence, and it flows as a surface-current.  But, at a certain point in its northward route, it meets with the cold, brackish, ice-bearing currents that flow out of the arctic basin.  Having lost much of its heat (though still possessing a great deal more than the arctic currents), the saltness of the Gulf Stream prevails; it dips below the polar waters, and thenceforth continues its course as an under-current, salt, and comparatively warm.

To state the matter briefly:  The hot water, which ought to keep on the surface because of its heat, is sunk by its superabundant salt; and the cold water, which ought to sink because of its cold, is buoyed on the surface because of its want of salt.

Now arises the question-what becomes of the great quantity of salt that is thus being carried perpetually into the polar basin?  Manifestly it must be carried out again by the surface-current, otherwise the polar basin would of necessity become a basin of salt.  The under-current must, therefore, rise to the surface somewhere near the pole, with its temperature necessarily only a little, if at all, below the freezing-point-which, be it observed, is a warm temperature for such regions.  Here, then, where the warm waters from the south rise to the surface, it is supposed this open Arctic Ocean must exist.

So much for theory.  Now for facts that have been observed, and that tend, more or less, to corroborate this proposition of an open polar sea.  The habits of the whale have gone far to prove it.  The log-books of whalers have for many years been carefully examined and compared by scientific men.  These investigations have led to the discovery “that the tropical regions of the ocean are to the `right’ whale as a sea of fire, through which he cannot pass, and into which he never enters.”  It has also been ascertained that the same kind of whale which is found off the shores of Greenland, in Baffin’s Bay, etcetera, is found in the North Pacific, and about Behring’s Straits; and that the `right’ whale of the southern hemisphere is a different animal from that of the northern.  How, then, came the Greenland whales to pass from the Greenland seas to the Pacific?  Not by the Capes Horn or Good Hope; the “sea of fire” precluded that.  Clearly there was ground here for concluding that they did so through the (supposed) open sea lying beyond, or rather within, the frozen ocean.

It is true the objection might be made, that the same kind of whale which exists in the North Pacific exists also in the North Atlantic, although they never cross over to see each other.  But another discovery has met this objection.

It is the custom among whalers to have their harpoons marked with date and name of ship, and Dr Scoresby, in his work on arctic voyages mentions several instances of whales having been taken near Behring’s Straits, with harpoons in them bearing the stamp of ships that were known to cruise in the Greenland seas; and the dates on the harpoons were so recent as to preclude the supposition that the said whales had, after being struck, made a voyage round the capes above mentioned,-even were such a voyage possible to them.  All this does not, indeed, absolutely prove the existence of an open arctic sea, but it does, we think, prove the existence of at least an occasionally open sea there, for it is well known that whales cannot travel such immense distances under ice.

But the most conclusive evidence that we have in regard to this subject is the fact, that one of the members of Dr Kane’s expedition, while in search of Sir John Franklin, did actually, on foot, reach what we have every reason to believe was this open sea; but not being able to get their ship into it, the party had no means of exploring it, or extending their investigations.  The account of this discovery is so interesting, and withal so romantic, that we extract a few paragraphs relating to it from Kane’s work.

After spending the dreary winter in the ice-locked and unexplored channels beyond the head of Baffin’s Bay, Kane found his little ship still hopelessly beset in the month of June; he therefore resolved to send out a sledge-party under Morton, one of his best men, to explore the channel to the north of their position.  After twelve days’ travelling they came to the base of the “Great Glacier,” where Morton left his party, and, in company with an Esquimaux named Hans, set out with a dog-sledge to prosecute the journey of exploration.

They walked on the sea-ice in a line parallel with the glacier, and proceeded twenty-eight miles that day, although the snow was knee-deep and soft.  At the place where they encamped a crack enabled them to measure the ice.  It was seven feet five inches thick!  And this in June.  We may mention here, in passing, that Dr Kane never got his vessel out of that frozen strait, which seems to be bound by perpetual ice.  He and his party escaped with their lives; but the vessel that bore them thither is probably still embedded in that ice.

Next day Morton and Hans came to a region of icebergs, which had arrested a previous sledging-party of the same expedition.  “These [icebergs] were generally very high, evidently newly separated from the glacier.  Their surfaces were fresh and glassy, and not like those generally met with in Baffin’s Bay,-less worn, and bluer, and looking in all respects like the face of the Great Glacier.  Many were rectangular, some of them regular squares, a quarter of a mile each way; others more than a mile long.”

To pass amidst these bergs was a matter of labour, difficulty, and danger.  Sometimes the sides of them came so close together, that the men could scarcely squeeze between them, and they were obliged to search for other passages; in doing which, the variation of their compass confused them.  At other times, “a tolerably wide passage would appear between two bergs, which they would gladly follow; then a narrower one; then no opening in front, but one to the side.  Following that a little distance, a blank ice-cliff would close the way altogether, and they were forced to retrace their steps and begin again.”

Thus they puzzled their way through, “like a blind man in the streets of a strange city;” but more difficulties awaited them beyond.  After advancing many miles they were arrested by broad rents in the ice, and were obliged to diverge frequently far out of their course, or to bridge the chasms over by cutting down the ice hummocks and filling them up with loose ice, until the dogs were able to haul the provision-sledge over.

Advancing thus for several days, and encamping on the snow at night, they at last came to a spot where the ice was dangerous.  “It was weak and rotten, and the dogs began to tremble.”  Proceeding at a brisk rate, they had got upon unsafe ice before they were aware of it.  Their course was at the time nearly up the middle of the channel; but as soon as possible they turned, and by a backward circuit reached the shore.  The dogs, as their fashion is, at first lay down and refused to proceed, trembling violently.  The only way to induce the terrified, obstinate brutes to get on, was for Hans to go to a white-looking spot, where the ice was thicker, the soft stuff looking dark; then calling the dogs coaxingly by name, they would crawl to him on their bellies.  So they retreated from place to place, until they reached the firm ice they had quitted.  A half mile brought them to comparatively safe ice, a mile more to good ice again.

In the midst of this danger they had, during the liftings of the fog, sighted open water.  Soon after they saw it plainly.  So many long and dreary months had these men passed since they were gladdened by the sight of open water, that they could scarcely believe their eyes; and Morton declared, that but for the birds which were seen flying about it in great numbers, he would not have believed it.

They made for the land-ice as fast as possible, and quickly gained it; but the sea-ice had cracked off and sunk so much, that the land-ice presented a wall along the whole coast of about eight or nine feet high.  It was quite perpendicular, in some places overhanging, so that it was a matter of the greatest difficulty they managed to throw up the provisions, clamber up themselves, and haul the dogs and sledge up afterwards.  This accomplished, however, they were safe, and could advance with confidence.  But this mass of land-ice became narrower as they proceeded, till at last it dwindled to a mere narrow ledge, clinging to the high, perpendicular cliffs, and looking as if at any moment it might crumble off and fall with them into the open water between it and the floating sea-ice.

The sea here was very deep and clear.  They could see the bottom quite plainly, although a stone they cast in, the size of a man’s head, took twenty-eight seconds to reach it.

Being now afraid of the ice-ledge, they attempted to find a path along the face of the cliff; but failing in this, Morton determined to leave part of the provisions in “cache,” and proceed with a lighter load.  The cape round which they were travelling, and on the other side of which lay the open water, was extremely bold, and the ice-ledge at the end of it was barely three feet wide; so they were obliged to unloose the dogs, and drive them forward alone, then tilted the sledge on one runner, and thus pushed it past the worst place.

Here the ice on the sea was partly broken up, and a strong tide was running from the southward.  The night before it had been running from the north.  As they advanced, the channel became still more open, and after passing the cape they saw nothing but open water, with innumerable wild sea-birds of every description flying overhead, or disporting in the pools.  Let it by observed here, however, that this was the open water of a strait or channel,-not the great Arctic Sea, about the probable existence of which we have been writing.  Upon the ice-masses near them numerous seals were seen basking.

One thing that struck them much here was, that although strong north winds, amounting to a gale at times, had been blowing for several days, no ice had been brought down from the north into the channel, along the shore of which they travelled.  Thick, damp fogs prevailed, preventing them from seeing far in advance at any time.

At last they came to a place where the broken ice of the shore rendered passage for the sledge impossible.  They therefore tied the dogs, intending to push forward a short way alone.  But they had not been sufficiently careful to secure them; for the poor animals, supposing themselves deserted, no doubt, succeeded in breaking their lines, and rejoined the two men in about an hour after.  This, as it turned out, was rather a fortunate circumstance.

Preparatory to quitting their sledge, the men had loaded themselves with eight pounds of pemmican and two of biscuit, besides the artificial horizon, sextant, and compass, a rifle, and a boathook.  They had not been an hour gone when, as above stated, four of the dogs overtook them.  An hour afterwards they came upon a polar bear with her cub.

The fight that followed, although somewhat foreign to our subject, is so graphically described by Dr Kane, that we think it quite unnecessary to apologise for inserting it here.

“The bear instantly took to flight; but the little one being unable to keep pace with her, she turned back, and, putting her head under its haunches, threw it some distance.  The cub safe for the moment, she would then wheel round and face the dogs, so as to give it a chance to run away; but it always stopped, just as it alighted, till she came up and threw it ahead again; it seemed to expect her aid, and would not go on without it.  Sometimes the mother would run a few yards ahead, as if to coax the young one up to her, and when the dogs came up she would turn and drive them back then, as they dodged her blows, she would rejoin the cub and push on, sometimes putting her head under it, sometimes catching it in her mouth by the nape of the neck.

“For a time she managed her retreat with great celerity, leaving the two men far in the rear.  They had engaged her on the land-ice; but she led the dogs in-shore, up a small stony valley which opened into the interior.  After she had gone a mile and a half, her pace slackened, and, the little one being jaded, she soon came to a halt.

“The men were then only half a mile behind, and running at full speed.  They soon came up to where the dogs were holding her at bay.  The fight was now a desperate one.  The mother never went more than two yards ahead, constantly looking at the cub.  When the dogs came near her, she would sit upon her haunches, and take the little one between her hind-legs, fighting the dogs with her paws, and roaring so that she could have been heard a mile off.  Never was an animal more distressed.  She would stretch her neck and snap at the nearest dog with her shining teeth, whirling her paws like the arms of a windmill.  If she missed her aim, not daring to pursue one dog lest the others should harm the cub, she would give a great roar of baffled rage, and go on pawing and snapping, and facing the ring, grinning at them with her mouth stretched wide.

“When the men came up the little one was perhaps rested, for it was able to turn round with its dam, no matter how quick she moved, so as to keep always in front of her belly.  The five dogs were all the time frisking about her actively, tormenting her like so many gad-flies.  Indeed they made it difficult to take an aim at her without killing them.  But Hans, lying on his elbow, took a quiet aim, and shot her through the head.  She dropped and rolled over dead, without moving a muscle.

“The dogs sprang towards her at once; but the cub jumped upon her body and reared up, for the first time growling hoarsely.  They seemed quite afraid of the little creature, she fought so actively, and made so much noise; and, while tearing mouthfuls of hair from the dead mother, they would spring aside the minute the cub turned towards them.  The men drove the dogs off for a time, but were obliged to shoot the cub at last, as she would not quit the body.

“Hans fired into her head.  It did not reach the brain, though it knocked her down; but she was still able to climb on her mother’s body, and try to defend it, her mouth bleeding like a gutter-spout.  They were obliged to despatch her with stones.”

After skinning the old one they gashed its body, and the dogs fed upon it ravenously.  The little one they cached for themselves against their return.

This little fight quite knocked up Hans the Esquimaux; Morton therefore advanced alone, in the hope of being able to get beyond a huge cape that lay before him.  On reaching it, the grand sight of an apparently boundless ocean of open water met his eye.  Only “four or five small pieces” of ice were seen on the glancing waves of this hitherto unknown sea.  “Viewed from the cliffs,” writes Dr Kane, “and taking thirty-six miles as the mean radius open to reliable survey, this sea had a justly-estimated extent of more than 4000 square miles.”

Here, then, in all probability, is the great Arctic Ocean that has been supposed to exist in a perpetually fluid state round the pole, encircled by a ring of ice that has hitherto presented an impenetrable barrier to all the adventurers of ancient and modern times.  There were several facts connected with this discovery that go far to prove that this ocean is perpetually open.

Further south, where Dr Kane’s brig lay in ice that seemed never to melt, there were few signs of animal life-only a seal or two now and then; but here, on the margin of this far northern sea, were myriads of water-fowl of various kinds.

“The Brent goose,” writes the Doctor, “had not been seen before since entering Smith’s Strait.  It is well known to the polar traveller as a migratory bird of the American continent.  Like the others of the same family, it feeds upon vegetable matter, generally on marine plants, with their adherent molluscan life.  It is rarely or never seen in the interior; and from its habits may be regarded as singularly indicative of open water.  The flocks of this bird, easily distinguished by their wedge-shaped line of flight, now crossed the water obliquely, and disappeared over the land to the north-east.

“The rocks on shore were crowded with sea-swallows, birds whose habits require open water; and they were already breeding.  The gulls were represented by no less than four species.  The kittiwakes-reminding Morton of `old times in Baffin’s Bay’-were again stealing fish from the water (probably the small whiting), and their grim cousins, the burgomasters, enjoying the dinner thus provided at so little cost to themselves.  It was a picture of life all round.

“Here, for the first time, Morton noticed the arctic petrel,-a fact which shows the accuracy of his observation, though he had not been aware of its importance.  This bird had not been met with since we left the north water of the English whalers, more than two hundred miles south of the position on which he stood.  Its food is essentially marine; and it is seldom seen in numbers, except in the highways of open water frequented by the whale and the larger representatives of ocean life.  They were in numbers flitting and hovering over the crests of the waves, like their relatives of kinder climates,-the Cape of Good Hope pigeons, Mother Carey’s chickens, and the pétrels everywhere else.

“It must have been an imposing sight, as Morton stood at this termination of his journey, looking out upon the great waste of waters before him.  Not a speck of ice could be seen.  There, from a height of 480 feet, which commanded a horizon of almost forty miles, his ears were gladdened with the novel music of dashing waves; and a surf, breaking in among the rocks at his feet, stayed his further progress.”

Strong presumptive evidence, all this, that there is an ocean of open water round the pole, and a milder climate there than exists nearer to the arctic circle.  Had the short barrier of ice that intervened between the brig and that mysterious sea been removed, as, perchance, it is sometimes removed by a hot summer, Dr Kane might have been the first to reach the North Pole.  This, however, is reserved for some other navigator.  The gallant Kane now lies in an early grave but some of his enterprising comrades have returned to those regions, bent on solving this problem; and it is possible that, even while we now write, their adventurous keel may be ploughing the waters of the hitherto untraversed and mysterious polar sea.