For reasons I might explain in a future column, I spent much of the last couple of years watching crustaceans. George Clooney will soon be starring in a dramatization of this, so keep an eye out for The Men Who Stare At Shrimp.

During one particularly epic stint of prawn-gazing, I found myself wondering where the word “krill” came from. Oh yes, it’s excitement all the way with me.

I logged on to the online Oxford English Dictionary and was quite surprised with what I discovered.

Krill are the small, red shrimp (euphausiaceans, to be precise, but let’s not worry about it) that swarm about in huge numbers in the seas, providing dinner for the largest animals ever to have existed on the planet.  But I’m sure you knew that.

What you might not have known is that the word is Norwegian, meaning “very small fry of fish,” and its first recorded usage in the English language was in a book published in 1907, called Newfoundland And Its Untrodden Ways.

This wasn’t a text I was familiar with, so I searched out a copy of the book from the Memorial University library, and am pleased to say it was well worth the effort.  For this is not so much a book as a window to another time.

The whale-hunter

Written by the British naturalist and hunter John Guille Millais, the book is his story of caribou-tracking, whaling and people-watching in the Newfoundland of the early 20th century.

Ostensibly, the reason he came to The Rock was to find blue whales. Millais, son of Pre-Raphaelite painter, John Everett, was writing a guide to the mammals of Great Britain and Ireland, including all the marine species.

If you know nothing about the railway or the state of the track, you can enjoy the beautiful scenery…

Trouble was, whales weren’t easy to find off the British coasts, especially the giant baleens, so he headed to Newfoundland in 1905 to find them.  After arriving in St John’s, Millais caught the train to Placentia, a journey which he described wryly as “… comparatively safe, and if you know nothing about the railway or the state of the track, you can enjoy the beautiful scenery.”

From Placentia he hopped onto the steamer Glencoe, which took him round to St. Lawrence, where he planned to spend a month on board a whaling ship. Millais noted with amusement that “[e]verything eats cod, even the cows … They are also very partial to whale flesh.”

Sulphur-bottomed stupidity

Industrial whaling was a new phenomenon to the Burin, having only begun a few years earlier, but it had taken off in a big way. This was perhaps unsurprising, given just how much oil and flesh could be obtained from a blue whale.

As denizens of the deep, however, blue whales were poorly understood, and Millais wanted to find out more. He was rather scathing about local terminology, stating that “Americans and Newfoundlanders [knew them] by the stupid name of ‘Sulphur-Bottom’.”

But he respected the men, their knowledge, and their skills, and in mid-August set off to sea in a vessel called the St. Lawrence. The boat’s name was only geographically appropriate, however, as the crew were entirely Norwegian, that nation being the world’s whaling leaders.

The first couple of days at sea were rough, and the boat was forced to retreat to harbour for a few hours. But the weather improved, and, having sailed 120 miles south of St. Lawrence, they found themselves in whale territory.

The perfect swarm

Leach’s petrels marked the spot where fin whales were feeding, with Millais noting that “as the whale dived slowly in a mass of “kril,” these birds were to be seen gathering in a perfect swarm in its wake, and picking the floating crustacea [sic] off the sea.”

Initially, the whalers pursued the fin whales, but they proved elusive. Then two blue whales were spotted, and the chase proper began. The pair, a 90-foot bull and his companion, escaped, but soon after, a smaller male (if a creature 78 feet long can be described in such a way) was spotted.

The hunt documented by Millais is vivid and extraordinary, and he describes it as “one of the red-letter days of my life.” Eventually the whale was harpooned and brought back to shore, but not without a fight, and not without a giant shark appearing on the scene to bite chunks of blubber from the dead whale’s belly.

How much Millais really learned about blue whales from the pursuit is unclear, but his text and illustrations are impressive. And whatever your views on the hunting of whales, it is an amazing insight into a brutal, dangerous and lucrative occupation.

A land before moose

Newfoundland And Its Untrodden Ways isn’t just about whales, though. Indeed, most chapters concern themselves with Millais’s efforts to track and hunt caribou across the interior of the island. He ventured to places no European had ever visited previously, and describes with a mix of humour and insight the wildlife and the people he encounters.

Millais was trekking across a landscape yet to be moosed.

And perhaps of greatest interest to the modern natural historian is that Millais was trekking across a landscape yet to be moosed. With the tens of thousands of beasts roaming the island today, it’s strange to think that they’ve been here for little more than a century, but it was only in 1904 that a quartet was introduced to Howley from New Brunswick.

Millais was there the year after, so it is interesting to read his thoughts on the matter.  He believed moose could be “a great success in Newfoundland from every point of view,” but noted that the recent arrivals “were in such enfeebled state when they were turned out that it is doubtful they survived.”

I am sure he’d be happy to see just how wrong he was.