The Sharks of Narborough
BY WILLIAM BEEBE
I ANCHORED the glass-bottomed diving-boat as close to the cliffs of northern Narborough as I dared, in a cove where the water was so deep that the swells remained unbroken until shattered against the lava itself. The rocks at this point showed very clearly their division into successive lava-flows, some like frozen, black molasses-candy six feet thick, alternating with thinner strata in the shape of huge bricks. The topmost layer was the same old ploughed field of cinder crags and snags with which we were so familiar on Albemarle. This is probably the eruption of one hundred years ago of which Morell wrote so vividly.
This, my seventieth descent, took me into a submarine world as strange as and as unlike that of Tagus Cove — which we could still see in the distance from the ship — as that differed from Tower. If they were jungles and deserts, this was a wheat-field. Swallowing as I went, I climbed down and down, and stood at last on a gigantic rounded boulder, thirty feet below the surface.
_ This roundness itself spelled a distinct difference between this and other shores of the Galapagos. The surf had pounded and rolled the rocks on this unprotected coast until they had become huge pebbles. This explained the absence of tide-pools along the shore — the water simply filtering away as soon as the tide-level went down.
The dominant note of the underwater scene in this marvelous islandeddy was the seaweed. Great fields of it extended to the limit of vision, with bare or sponge-covered boulders between. Sargassum, with small berries, grew on long, slender fronds, two or three feet in length, which gave completely to every surge, more so than any land growth to the wind. While I have dived where steady currents hold strong day and night, yet by the very force of circumstances my puny efforts are usually confined to the surgeaffected shore. Like a tide which changes every twelve seconds instead of every twelve hours, the whole underworld swayed outward and then, with infinite grace, inward again. All the innumerable strands of greenish-olive bent and flattened away from me, and then, with the slow movement attained only rarely by such growths as weeping willows, rolled toward and wrapped around me, reaching out toward the steep ascent marking the beginning of that upper world which seemed so little a part of my life at a moment like this.
VOL. 136— NO. 4 A
As the grass shifted and vibrated, many weird little inhabitants were disclosed for a moment, and then scuttled back to shelter — wrasse never seen before or since, twisting worms, crabs, and snails, all identical in color with the weed. The numbers and size of the fish were remarkable, almost every species being represented by larger individuals than elsewhere, perhaps due to the unusual abundance of food on these current-bounded shores. My old friends, Xesurus, the yellowtailed cows, were grazing in schools of two to three hundred, shadowing slowly about the corners of boulders.
I was halfway up a steep slope, and by twisting the boat around with me I succeeded in reaching the summit, where I could look down upon a sinister valley, narrow and dark and deep, with the opposite ridge covered with long, waving weed. As I stretched fulllength upon a mat of the sargassum, a gang — they were too ugly and dangerous looking to be called a school — of giant groupers parted the fronds and drifted through toward me, all dark in tone with the olives and browns. They mouched along, their ugly jaws chewing eternally on the cud of life, when suddenly, without the slightest warning, there came a distinct glow, and next to the last grouper came one of the golden ones. In their evident opinion there was no difference. He impatiently nudged a neighbor and in turn was pushed aside by the fish following him. The most careful dissection shows absolutely no physical difference, and yet, instead of being clad in mottled olive-green of the dullest, darkest shade, he is solid gold from mouth to tail. The weed was appreciably illumined when he passed through it. One strange thing has been that, rare as the golden groupers are, both two years ago and during the present trip it has been only these gorgeously colored individuals that have attacked the propeller of our little outboard motors. Whether the color of the glistening brass attracts this shining caste more than the other duller grouper persons I have no idea.
A few minutes later a shadowy school, a second lot, of even larger groupers swept past in the blue distance with another golden brother in their number. He is all the more wonderful because there are no intermediates — one either has regal golden blood, or is of mottled-brown polloi caste. Here is materialized the mental effect which creates in fairy tales the one most beautiful creature or prince or lady among a host of dull or ugly ones.
Once again a huge sea-lion gave me a start. As I stood watching a mist of grazing Xesurus, I felt a sudden waterpressure against my back and legs, and turned in time to see a monstrous black shape bank and veer away, having rushed in a lightning sweep within a foot of me. His eyes were no longer the dull, soft, deerlike, half-seeing organs with which he gazed at me on land, but bright and clear and keen; the long whiskers stood out white and bristling, the mouth partly opened as he turned, and the dog teeth gleamed wickedly. As my eye caught the form I leaped involuntarily toward the ladder, forgetting that I was in a land where mighty acrobatics could be achieved with a push. I landed on a boulder at a height of about four rungs up, and some eight feet beyond the ladder — a standing high jump which broke the world’s record in the upper air by feet. The strangest thing was that whenever I did such a thing as this I accomplished it slowly. I took off with deliberation in spite of my strongest effort, I went through the water with conscious elapse of time, and I landed as in a slow-motion picture.
The instant I leaped I realized my mistake and watched the wonderful form as it swung up from me. It turned just below the surface and again shot down. I think a considerable percentage of these manœuvres was pure side, executed for the benefit of a smaller, probably a lady, sea-lion who hung between earth and air a short distance away and watched. The big male — he was certainly over seven feet long — began his second rush at an acute angle, heading for the bottom some distance away. Turning like a meteor the moment his head touched the waving seaweed, he again cleared me by inches. I could not help flinching, not so much from a fear of being bitten, as from a disbelief that such a great body could possibly stop its impetus and avoid smashing into me. As he passed, I stretched out a hand and felt the smooth, hard body brush against my fingers. This was apparently a surprise to the animal, who in alarm inserted an extra curve into his simple parabola, and in the effort gasped out a mouthful of bubbles. This time he shot to the surface and half out, followed by his admirer, while the string of bubbles ascended slowly— coalescing, as it went, into larger and fewer spheres, like the puff of smoke from an aeroplane engine, or the blossoming of white shrapnel against a blue sky. In each bubble I could see a distorted reflection of myself, my helmet, and all my surroundings.
A glance around showed that every fish had vanished, and not until two or three minutes had passed did they begin slowly to come into view. The sea lions are the masters of these waters, and I was surprised to see even a great turtle slide hastily out of the way when one came too near. Sharks always disappeared with the fish.
Even if the fish had not returned I could have watched the movement of the seaweed for hours, it was so unlike the movement of wheat or grass. The whole mass seemed alive, — a field of Medusa growth, — each stem writhing and curling and twisting of its own volition, in its own particular way, and yet the whole ebbing and flowing as one frond in obedience to the rhythmic breeze. It was the old story over again of the single corpuscle tumbling and rolling individually, while yet helpless in the general current of the blood; and of the colonial organism, each individual ant doing his own work and bound irrevocably to the will of the whole; and — who knows? — it is perhaps no whit different from the apparent freewill personalities of our separate selves, compared with the destiny of the human race.
I sat me down on a couch of golden, blowing weed, with beautiful greenarmed starfish sprawled here and there, and, leaning back, watched the bubbles of my life’s breath tumble out from beneath my arms and shoulders. From invisibility, from the colorless, formless stream of gas flowing down the length of black hose, they became definite spheres, painted and splashed with all the colors in sight. Once, when I was making my first flight in a plane, I had for a short space of time the souldevastating sensation of being suspended motionless in the ether while the earth dropped away from me. That has never been repeated; but here on the bottom of the sea, looking upward, I can as often as I wish conjure up the belief that I am actually looking at a constellation, a galaxy of worlds and stars, rolling majestically through the invisible ether. The background is as mysteriously colorless and formless as space itself must be, and as I peer out through my little rectangular windows I seem to be actually living an experience which only the genius of a Verne or a Wells can imagine into words. It suddenly flashes over me that in giving over my moon and stellar longings for the depths of the sea I have in a manner achieved both.
I have even the sensations of a god, for in each of the spheres I have created I see very distinctly my own image. But I also see many more interesting things, and my moonings in the present instance are brought to an abrupt end by a glint of gold which appears on each globule of air — a fiery pin-point which becomes an oval, and soon a great spot as if a sun were rising behind me. If I were looking at a real planet such a thing might be a tremendous volcanic eruption on the surface. Twisting slightly and peering obliquely through my little periscope, I saw what after all is the most joyous thing in life, an old friend in a new guise — another great golden grouper was just behind me, revealed to me by his reflected image on my ascending breath.
To my left the rope from the anchorweight led up in a graceful curve to the distant, dark silhouette of the boat. Now and then a window opened in the ruffled ceiling and framed the anxious face of my faithful assistant peering down, on the lookout for approaching danger. The face vanished, the window slammed shut as the water glass was withdrawn — and I am again visually lost to the upper world.
Two small, black forms approach from the offshore side of my aquatic sky, looking from below like the keels of funny, diminutive tugboats, but driven by a pair of most efficient propellers. These were rather turbines of sorts, furling and unfurling in a curling, spiral manner, which offered the most and the least resistance respectively to the water. Long rudder tails, two slender, sharp beaks, and sinuous snaky necks came into view, and a swirl sent both birds into my world — meaning complete submersion for them. There followed a chase which no man’s eyes have ever seen before — a pair of flightless cormorants pursuing a scarlet sea-bass, viewed from below. The fish saw them coming and fled at full speed, not in a straight line, but in a series of zigzags, perhaps, like a chased hen, seeing the pursuers first out of one eye, on one side, then out of the other, apparently on that side. The cormorants separated, one diving deeply while the other followed its prey directly. Soon the confused fish dived at right angles, and before it had time to turn again was in the beak of the second bird. The moment he was captured, both birds relaxed every muscle, and with dangling wings and feet let themselves be drawn up to the surface. There, even from my depth, I watched a second race begin, and surmised the details of what I had seen enacted twice the day before from the boat — a cormorant coming up with a fish and instantly chased by another, both traveling at such high speed that, with wings spattering and feet going, their entire bodies were almost out of water. At the first opportunity there was a quick upward toss, reversing the fish, and a gulp, and down it went headfirst. On this occasion I saw only the frantic disturbance of the surface, rapid dodging, and then cessation of motion, after which the leading bird immersed and shook its beak in the water several times, and I knew that if I so chose I could write in my journal that Nannopterum harrisii includes Paranthias furcifer as an article of diet.
The surface ripples had hardly ceased when a cloud drifted across my sky. And at this place may I digress parenthetically long enough to make a certain point clear. As I ramble on of the adventures and sights which came to me in my underworld, there would seem to occur there almost a rhythmic succession of happenings, one after the other, as with circus performers who wait in the wings for their turn to come. This works a hopeless injustice to this water world. Please remember that the exigencies of my place in that world and the physical make-up of my helmet enabled me to see only the merest fraction of occurrences even in an acute-angled single direction. A horse with blinders is a reasonable simile; or, better still, a half-blind old man, crippled with rheumatism and palsy, dropped suddenly into the busiest of a city’s streets and requested to narrate the happenings about him, and give to them some sort of explanation!
Now, again, the ripples of the surface above me had scarcely died away to the usual heaving, opaque, moonstone appearance of my water sky, when a cloud came drifting past. If I had been looking behind me some time before, and had eyes which could penetrate the wall of blueness in the distance, this cloud might at first have seemed no bigger than a man’s hand. Overhead, however, it was large enough to darken the whole bottom, and, except along the rim, formed a solid mass. At least twenty thousand slender little Galapagos snappers floated over and around me. They were only two to three inches in length, slender and sinuous, grayish-black above, silvery below, with seven or more narrow dark stripes running parallel down the head and body. This was the clear-cut vision I had as the host drifted slowly, almost without individual movement, toward and over me. Some danger, unknown to me, wrought a whirlwind in this living cloud, and instantly every fish vanished, the whole becoming a mass of blurred lines — a great gray something out of focus. As quickly, fear passed, and every fish again became clearetched in its place among its thousands of fellows. Slowly all passed from view, a few hundreds along the lower edge sifting through the uppermost fringe of weeds. It occurred to me then that their man-given name was a singularly appropriate one — Xenocys, strange swift! It should have been Xenocys xenocys; they were too delicate, too immaterial, for any noun.
My sea lion returned for a last look, but slewed off, and then a turtle, almost as long as myself, swam into my ken. He was much more satisfactory a constellation than those in the heavens, of most of which I have never been able to make head or tail. But he was also a turtle at its best. Until one has looked up and seen eight hundred pounds of sea turtle floating lightly as thistledown overhead, balanced so exactly between bottom and surface that the slightest half-inch of flipper motion is sufficient to turn the great mass partly over and send it ahead a yard — until then one has never really seen a turtle. Two years ago when I visited these islands, I watched the little penguins waddling about with their Charlie Chaplin gait; I saw the cormorants awkwardly climbing over land, even hauling themselves along by means of a crook in their necks; the sea lions unlovelily caterpillaring along the ground; and great hulks of turtles ploughing their way as much through as over the sand of the beaches. It was now my privilege to see these same creatures in their chosen element, graceful, glorified reincarnations of their terrestrial activities. In all this I had no false illusions concerning my own relative functioning. While I have never heard any rumor as to my possessing any grace even at my best, yet on these same islands and beaches I can at least correlate my activity, and I can easily run down any of the creatures that I am discussing. Whereas here at the sea bottom I sprawl awkwardly, clutching at waving weeds to keep from being washed away by the gentle swell, peering out of a metal case infinitely more ugly than the turtle’s skull, and superior to them only in my hearty admiration of their perfect coördination in an exquisitely adapted environment.
My nice turtle friend still floated motionless when suddenly he was the means of my making a delightful discovery in Einstein relativity — making clear the fact that he was motionless and yet not motionless. I was resting lightly on a bed of weeds with a generous tuft of them in each hand. I was aware that with every surge there was a very decided movement of the whole mass, but as everything in sight was equally shifted my mind registered no definite motion. Of one thing only was I certain: that, however we plants and organisms at the bottom were blowing and vibrating back and forth, the turtle at least, isolated in mid-water, was as still as the distant rocks themselves. Becoming cramped, I decided to stand upright for a while, and gently lowered my feet until I felt them fit into convenient crevices of the concealed rocks beneath me. This gave me safe anchorage, and in a minute more all my surroundings, my whole world, went trailing off as far as it could; then, with equal unanimity, all faithfully returned. I glanced upward and was as astonished as if, when on land, I should suddenly see the moon or sun begin to bob back and forth in the sky, for my turtle was behaving like everything else and was being swayed back and forth, suspended in the invisible medium, exactly as we at the bottom.
To look back upon it, no more silly lack of reasoning could be imagined on my part; but when you leave the world for which God made you, and willfully enter other strange ones, it is reasonable to suppose that your senses and brain have to become readjusted as well as your more physical being. For five minutes I derived infinite delight from alternately swaying with the weed and holding to the rock, and thereby at will giving to my turtle absolute stability or rhythmical swaying through space. He seemed quite unaffected by the theory, but appeared fascinated by the sight of this strange copper-headed, white-skinned, wormlike being, with an enormously long, curving tentacle from the tip of its nose, forever pouring forth a mass of white, bubbly gas — a being that idiotically kept standing up and sitting down. Never for an instant did the great chelonian take its eyes from me. If I could put down what it actually thought of me, no halting words of mine would be necessary in this essay.
And still the turtle hung in the sky when two penguins arrived. For a time they swam around in little intersecting circles, constantly plunging their heads beneath the water to stare at me. Finally curiosity overcame them, they could stand it no longer, and down they came, clad in mantles of silvery bubble-sheen. They encircled me once and started on another round, but then became fascinated by the black hose and, after an examination, half paddled, half drifted, to the surface and were gone.
Two mighty schools of Xesurus passed me, grazing slowly. When within six feet they left off their eternal feeding and formed up into more or less orderly ranks which flowed like some enormously long sea-serpent around the identical corners of rocks where had passed the leaders yards and yards in advance. Invariably the formation of an irregular line led very close to me, the closing-up of ranks evidently being connected with the presence of danger or at least something suspicious or strange. It was an amusing sensation to have these hundreds of fish file past, all rolling their eyes at me as they went. I felt almost embarrassed at times, as perhaps ‘the remains’ must occasionally feel as the viewing crowds stream past. With these yellow-tailed cows were widely scattered single individuals of a species of fish which we never caught or identified. In shape and in the general grayish-blue color of body they bore a considerable resemblance to the Xesurus, their characteristic marks being two white spots above the eyes; but they were not grazers, nor even, I believe, herbivorous. I never saw them graze even when the school of their associates remained in one spot, doing nothing else for a half-hour but scrape the algæ from the rocks. Once, too, I saw one of these white-spotted chaps pursue a small fish, and though he did not capture it, yet I could not mistake his intent — there was nothing of play or yet of sudden anger in the attempt, but a very evident desire for food. They were much more timorous than the yellowtailed surgeon fish, and at any hint of danger would dart into the thick of the school. All this makes me think that they are very likely examples of real mimicry, gaining a good percentage of immunity by the resemblance to and close association with fish which by their great numbers and poisonous spines are well able to fight off ordinary dangers.
When I rolled over and looked about, there came to me a vision of the abundance of life in the sea. The cloud of little fishes had gone, even the ubiquitous yellow-tailed surgeons were out of sight for once, and yet from where I sat I could see not fewer than seven or eight hundred fish, not counting the wrasse and gobies that played around my fingers as thickly as grasshoppers in a hayfield. Out of the blue-green distance or up from frond-draped depths good-sized gray sharks appeared now and then. Two came slowly toward me, closer with the in-surge, and then floating farther off with the out-swing. They turned first one, then the other, yellow, catlike eye toward me, and after a good look veered off. Near them were playing round-headed pigfish; a few Xesurus swam still closer; and even small scarlet snappers, the prey of almost every hungry fish or aquatic bird, even these went by without any show of nervousness. The pair of sharks passed on, almost unnoticed, and all the mass of life of this wonder world seemed going smoothly and undisturbed. Far away in the dim distance one of the sharks appeared again, or it may have been another — when, looking around me, I saw every fish vanishing. While I have mentioned what must seem an identical occurrence before, yet this was as different as a great battle is from a street accident. Through copper and glass and air I sensed some peril very unlike the former reaction to the sea lion, and I rapidly climbed a half-dozen rungs, swallowing hard as I went to adjust to the new altitude. Clinging close to the ladder, I looked everywhere, but saw nothing but waving seaweed. The distant shark had vanished, together with all the hosts of fish, even the bullying, fearless groupers. I was the only living thing except the starfish and the tiny waving heads of the hydroids which grew in clusters among the thinner growths of weed, as violets appear amid high grass. Whether the distant shark was of some different, very dreaded kind, or whether some still more inimical thing had appeared, fearful even to the strange shark, I shall never know. Five minutes later, fear had again passed, and life, not death, was dominant.
I climbed to the surface at last, my teeth chattering from the prolonged immersion. This water, although in no sense the Humboldt current, is much cooler than that at Cocos, and I become numb and chilled without knowing it. Excitement and concentrated interest keep me keyed up, and the constant need of balance requires that every muscle be taut; then, when I reach the surface and relax, the chill seems to enter my very bones. Fortunately there is always either rowing or pumping to do, and this soon warms me.
During my last dive I had noticed five or six new species of fish and, hoping to hook some of the smaller ones, I decided to get some bait. I had the boat backed near the shore, and at a propitious moment, on the crest of one of the lesser swells, I leaped off. The scarlet crabs here are remarkably tame, far more so than on any of the other islands — a fact for which I can in no way account. The casual visits of man may be, of course, ruled out, as having nothing to do with it, and yet here birds and fish, the crabs’ most deadly enemies, are unusually abundant.
With two big scarlet crabs, I vaulted back on the crest of another convenient little swell, fortunately just avoiding the succeeding three, any one of which would have tossed our cockleshell high up on the jagged lava. I found to my disappointment that we had between us only one hook, and that a large one. However, I anchored again near the spot where I had last dived and threw over the hook. I immediately caught one of the roundheaded pigfish. As I was pulling a second one in, a six-foot shark swung toward him, and this gave me a hint upon which I acted at once. I pulled in the fish quickly and studied the situation through the water glass. Two sharks were swimming slowly about the very rock where I had been sitting a few minutes before, probably the same individuals who had then been so curious about me. A small group of the pigfish swam around, over, and below the sharks, as they had also done when I was submerged, sometimes passing within a foot of the sharks’ mouths without the slightest show of emotion, of fear or otherwise. An angel fish and two yellow-tailed cows passed; a golden grouper and two deep-green giants of the same species milled around beneath the boat, now and then cocking their eyes up at us.
I baited the hook with a toothsome bit of crab and lowered it. All the pigfish rushed it at once, and as it descended the sharks and groupers followed with mild interest, almost brushing against it, but wary of the line. Failing to elicit any more practical attention from the golden grouper, I allowed one of the pigfish to take the bait and hook. Then, watching very carefully, I checked his downward rush, and swung him upward. He struggled fiercely, and like an electric shock every shark and grouper turned toward him. Without being able to itemize any definite series of altered swimming actions, I knew that something radical had happened. The remainder of the school of pigfish, while they stayed in the neighborhood, yet gathered together in a group and milled slowly in a small circle. There was no question that, from being a quiet, slowly swimming, casually interested lot of fish, the three groups — pigfish, groupers, and sharks — had become surcharged with interest focused on the fish in trouble.
I drew the hooked fish close to the boat, and could plainly see that the hook had passed only around the horny maxillary. There was not a drop of blood in the water, and the disability of the fish consisted only in its attachment to the line. Yet the very instant the struggle to free itself began, the groupers and sharks, from being at least in appearance friendly, or certainly wholly disregarding the pigfish, became concertedly inimical, focused upon it with the most hostile feeling of an enemy and its prey.
For half an hour I played upon this reaction and learned more than I had ever seen or read of the attacking and feeding habits of groupers and sharks. When the struggling began, the sharks all turned toward the hooked fish. Not only the one nearest, who must easily have seen it for himself, but two far off turned at the same instant, and within a few seconds two more from quite invisible distances and different directions. What I saw seemed to prove conclusively that sharks, like vultures, watch one another and know at once when prey has been sighted by one of their fellows. The numerous sharks thus call one another all unintentionally; as happened when one of our party caught a shark at Cocos, and in an incredibly short time there were seventeen close by. On the other hand, it must be admitted that sharks differ from vultures as widely as the poles in the matter of scent. Vultures probably all but lack this sense, while we know that fish have it well developed. But, even in the case of blood in the water, it seems to me that diffusion cannot be nearly rapid enough to account for the instantaneous reaction on sharks near and far. The phenomenon is as remarkable in general aspects as the apparent materialization from the air of a host of vultures where a few minutes before none were visible.
Even more than this problem did the method of feeding of sharks and groupers hold my attention. After making sure of the first phase of interest, I allowed a six-foot shark to approach the hooked pigfish. It came rather slowly, then with increased speed, and finally made an ineffectual snap at the fish. The third time it seized it by the tail and, with a strong sideways twist of the whole body, tore the piece off. The second fish attacked was pulled off the hook, and two sharks then made a simultaneous rush at it. So awkward were they that one caught his jaw in the other’s teeth and for a moment both swished about in a vortex of foam at the side of the boat.
I noted carefully about thirty distinct efforts or attacks on the hooked fish, and only three times was I able by manœuvring the fish to get the shark to turn even sideways — never once on its back, as the books so glibly relate. I sacrificed seven pigfish, and then tried to get the golden grouper, but it was too wary. A giant five-foot green grouper, larger than any we had taken thus far, was becoming more and more excited, however, and when I had tolled him close to the surface I let my fish lure drift loosely. One swift snap and the entire fish disappeared; then a single slight nod of the head, and the line parted cleanly. The general effect was of much greater force and power exerted in a short space of time than in the case of the sharks. When it comes to lasting power, however, the groupers fight for only a short time after being landed, while the sharks smash and thrash until they are actually cut to pieces.
After this exhibition I would, without hesitation, have dived in the helmet again in the very spot. I had had these sharks close to me a little while before; and, although my efforts under water seem to me no less awkward and helpless than those of a hooked pigfish, yet to these so-called man-eaters there is apparently all the difference in the world, and I am certain I should be absolutely safe from attack. The pigfish which entered into the experiment with no enthusiasm or volition were Orthopristis forbesi, the groupers were Mycteroperca olfax, and the sharks were Carcharias galapagensis.