McMurdo’s Camp

Stormy Petrel

What is a Stormy Petrel, or Storm Petrel, and what does it have to do with Sherlock Holmes? In the Canon, we hear of them in two unrelated references.

In The Reigate Puzzle (or Squires, or Squire), Holmes says to his host, Colonel Hayter, after a murder investigation was completed, “My dear Colonel, I am afraid that you must regret the hour that you took in such a stormy petrel as I am.”

Then in The Naval Treaty, Holmes tell Watson, as Watson brings him the note from Tadpole Phelps introducing Holmes to the case, “You are the stormy petrel of crime, Watson.”

A stormy petrel is a bird, a type of sea bird that has learned to seek shelter during storms on the leeward (downwind) side of ships. The stormy petrels seem to have a knack for knowing when they will need shelter, so their appearance often fortells a storm at sea. Over the centuries sailors have learned this, so the term “stormy petrel” is often used to mean something like “trouble brewing”, which was the meaning meant by Holmes.

But as birds, they are pretty interesting. The stormy petrels are among the smallest of sea birds, and spend all their lives at sea, except for 10 to 12 weeks when they go on shore to lay eggs, hatch them, and rear the young. Stormy petrels are found in all oceans, primarily in the northern hemisphere. There are a dozen or so species and sub-species, and the birds are quite plentiful. A couple of types have gone extinct or are endangered, because of their habits of living on specific islands where they have fallen prey to introduced mammals, mainly rats and feral cats.

When raising chicks, the parents feed during the day, and return to the nests at night to feed the chicks by regurgitation. A special stomach gland secrets a highly nutritious oil that becomes part of the chicks’ diet. After fledging, all the famiily members go back to sea and feed on surface swimmers, small organisms or mollusks.

Stormy Petrel

Petrels get their name from the Latin name for St. Peter, who was known to walk on the water. As surface feeders, the petrels fly close to the surface, their legs dangling, giving the appearance of walking on the water.

If you are a literary type, you might be interested in The Song of the Stormy Petrel, by Maksim Ghorky, a poem written in 1901, in Russian.  It glorifies the bravery of the storm petrel flying high in the face of a storm, while other types of  birds cower in fear.

The stormy petrel in the poem was meant to represent the bravery of the Russian Revolutionaries.    It was dangerous to speak out against the Czar, even allegorically.   Ghorky was arrested, but released.

You can read the poem here, in English and in the original Russian:

Over the gray plain of the sea the wind gathers storm-clouds. Between the clouds and the sea proudly soars the stormy petrel, as a streak of black lightning.
Now the waves on wingtip touching, now as an arrow soaring to the clouds, he screams, and — the clouds hear joy in the bird’s proud cry.
In that cry — the lust of the storm! The power of anger, flame of passion and certainty in victory hear the clouds in that cry.
The seagulls groan before the storm, — groan, toss over the sea and are ready to dive their terror to its depths.
And the loons also whimper, — the loons cannot attain joy of life’s struggle: thunder of lightning-bolts frightens them.
The stupid penguin cowardly hides blubber in the rocks … only the proud stormy petrel soars bold and free over the grey sea froth!
Ever darker and lower clouds drop to the sea, waves singing and rending the heights to meet the thunder.
Thunder rumbles. In pounding anger moan the waves, fighting the wind. See the wind grab waves in a lockhold, and in wild fury, throw them on the rocks, smashing emerald masses to drops and mist.
The stormy petrel soars with a scream, a streak of black lightning, as an arrow pierces the clouds, on wing-tip slicing the wave froth.
See him hover, like a demon — proud, black demon of the storm — he laughs, and cries … he laughs atop the clouds, he cries with joy!
In the froth of anger — clever demon, — he has long heard weariness, he knows that the clouds won’t cut the sun — no, the sun will triumph!
The wind roars … Thunder rumbles …
As a blue flame burn clouds over the sea’s abyss. The sea catches arrows of lightning and snuffs them in her depths. As snakes of fire howling in the deep vanish those reflections.
The storm! Soon will break the storm!
The bold stormy petrel proudly flies between the lightning and the frothing anger of the sea; now screams the prophet of victory:
Let the storm burst forth in all fury!
Or, in Russian:
Над седой равниной моря ветер тучи собирает. Между тучами и морем гордо реет Буревестник, чёрной молнии подобный.То крылом волны касаясь, то стрелой взмывая к тучам, он кричит, и — тучи слышат радость в смелом крике птицы.
В этом крике — жажда бури! Силу гнева, пламя страсти и уверенность в победе слышат тучи в этом крике.
Чайки стонут перед бурей, — стонут, мечутся над морем и на дно его готовы спрятать ужас свой пред бурей.
И гагары тоже стонут, — им, гагарам, недоступно наслажденье битвой жизни: гром ударов их пугает.
Глупый пингвин робко прячет тело жирное в утёсах… Только гордый Буревестник реет смело и свободно над седым от пены морем!
Всё мрачней и ниже тучи опускаются над морем, и поют, и рвутся волны к высоте навстречу грому.
Гром грохочет. В пене гнева стонут волны, с ветром споря. Вот охватывает ветер стаи волн объятьем крепким и бросает их с размаху в дикой злобе на утёсы, разбивая в пыль и брызги изумрудные громады.
Буревестник с криком реет, чёрной молнии подобный, как стрела пронзает тучи, пену волн крылом срывает.
Вот он носится, как демон, — гордый, чёрный демон бури, — и смеётся, и рыдает… Он над тучами смеётся, он от радости рыдает!
В гневе грома, — чуткий демон, — он давно усталость слышит, он уверен, что не скроют тучи солнца, — нет, не скроют!
Ветер воет… Гром грохочет…
Синим пламенем пылают стаи туч над бездной моря. Море ловит стрелы молний и в своей пучине гасит. Точно огненные змеи, вьются в море, исчезая, отраженья этих молний.
Буря! Скоро грянет буря!
Это смелый Буревестник гордо реет между молний над ревущим гневно морем; то кричит пророк победы:
Пусть сильнее грянет буря!..

1 Comment »

  1. This is inspiring! ” the sun will triumph!” When I read Sherlock Holmes I am always left feeling that friendship, honor and justice still exist even if just between two like minded souls.Truth and justice will triumph.

    Comment by Maureen Mosher — July 11, 2013 @ 12:54 am

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: