Hunting Undersea

Ever since his graduation from Harvard in 1922, OTIS BARTON has been interested in the pursuits of a naturalist, Working in association with Dr. William Beebe he became proficient as a diver and a collector of undersea specimens, especially in the waters of the West Indies. He served on a rocket ship during the tear and saw action in the Philippine Campaign. At the war’s end he realized a long-held ambition when he made a one-man expedition to the Great Barrier Beef of Australia, where the following experiences took place.


NATURE’S most brilliant color patterns are generally conceded to the birds of the tropics. We may crane our necks gazing into the Papuan treetops to see a bird of paradise, or range the Palawan jungle to catch a glimpse of a peacock pheasant, or follow a trail above the Orinoco to start a flight of macaws. For those at home there is always a Monograph of the Pheasants. But this story of mine deals with a different, though no less brilliant world of natural colors, that of the coral-reef fishes as seen from my diving helmet along Australia’s mighty barrier reef.

The equipment of the Third Barton Zoological Expedition had arrived by rail in Cairns from South Queensland, where I had been working during the autumn months of April and May, 1947. Diving suits, air compressors, specimen cans, films, watertight camera boxes, and undersea tripods were contained in four wooden diving chests weighing in all about twelve hundred pounds. My outfit is strictly a one-man affair, the outgrowth of many seasons’ experience in the West Indies and Central America. My expeditions are a private undertaking, made with the object of securing collections for various museums and of producing at the same time jungle and undersea Films of a popular nature.

Now I was on my way to a new field — the Great Barrier Reef, which stretches for more than a thousand miles along the cast coast of Queensland. Here innumerable coral islands are strung out on the shallow slopes of the Australian continental shelf. Some have cores of hard rock; others are keys of pure coral, built up by billions of polyps from the submarine platform. Nearly all have a weather side facing the southeast trade winds, and a leeward side where the sea gardens, scattered on the white coral sands of the bottom, bloom in all their effervescent hues. Here swarm the brightcolored reef fishes which I had come to collect.

Profiting by sad experience in Gladstone two months before, I took pains to secure a motor launch that did not cater to the coral-reef tourist trade. The 45-foot Taleema was owned and operated by Captain H. Williamson, a resident of Cairns of Norwegian ancestry. Before the war he had worked at pearl diving, but now his business was trochus shell and beche-de-mer. An old-timer with one arm was signed on as cook. Henry, our cabin boy, came from an ancient Australian family, and was himself under the official care of the government protector of aborigines. Having been found of a docile and industrious disposition, he had been allowed to leave the mission station and come to the big city to seek employment on coastal vessels.

On June 19, 1947, I made ready for my first dive off Michaelmas Key, about twenty-five miles northeast from Cairns. I donned a shallow water diving helmet, fitted over my diving dress, and heavy rubber boots, which I knew would protect my feet against the poisonous spines of the dreaded Australian stonefish. My diving hose was 150 feet long, enabling me to examine an area of the bottom larger than a football field.

Copyright 1948, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston 16, Mass. All rights reserved.

Thus attired, I clambered down the diving ladder and dropped onto the sandy bottom some fifteen feet below. This depth is ideal for photography. Our first anchorage was a little too near the key, and the water was a trifle smoky from the surf. I could see objects distinctly at only about twenty feet. Even so, there is far more color in the reef here than in the Capricorn Islands six hundred miles to the south. To eyes accustomed to the West Indian reefs, the absence of sea fans, plumes, and rod corals is striking. In their place are great scalloped, pudding-like masses in dull greens, yellows, and pinks. These are the soft corals, the Alcyonaria, typical of the reefs of the far Pacific. Another coral of the Hydrozoan class loomed in gigantic toadstool-shaped edifices. The toad in this underwater world would be about the size of a diver.

A school of squids were first in my sight, but they proved too wary for a photograph, starting away as I approached carrying the massive undersea camera box. I also saw a fish with many branched alga-like fins, known in Australia as a butterfly cod.


MY LARGE camera box has an electric motor inside and is connected to the deck of the Taleema by a long cable. The camera box itself is a cumbersome affair weighing nearly a hundred pounds on deck, but only thirty-five undersea.

I did not mount my camera on its undersea tripod on this occasion because I was trying only for a few pictures of the fishes at close range. When pictures involving divers are made, the camera is carefully set up on its tripod. The electric switches may be closed either by the crew on deck or by the diver himself. The rumble of its motor can be heard by the diver, who now feels like a ballet dancer under television.

For collecting the fishes, I use an improved bang stick, developed from a New York Zoological Society model. It is a wooden rod ten feet long, from the end of which dangles a bunch of three electric blasting caps. The wires from this charge are taped along the length of the pole. One of them is connected with a flashlight battery secured to the proximal end.

To knock down a coral-reef fish, I maneuver the caps to within a foot or two of my intended specimen. I then touch the second wire to the button of t he flashlight battery, and thus fire the caps. I can reload this bang stick on the bottom. In some cases lures and baits fastened to the caps are necessary to bring the fish within range. The explosion sends a tremor through the water, which the diver feels in his diaphragm. Luckily for me, my eardrums and head are cushioned by the air inside the diving helmet.

The next day I dove among some beautiful coral heads a mile east of the key. I saw a smallish giant clam close to the top of one reef and blasted it to bits with my bang stick. One bear trap less in these parts. The clam’s heavy shell, several inches thick, proved highly allergic to the sharp brisance of the blasting caps and flew to pieces. Soon the water was alive with long green wrasses and other picking and snipping fishes, which now had a field day in devouring the flesh of the big mollusk.

In a hole under a coral head I saw a big grouper and a big green, white-spotted puffer. I KO’d several of the omnipresent pomacentrids with the bang stick. This common group of coral fishes is even more varied than on the Atlantic reefs. Resembling the pumpkinseed of New England ponds in size and shape, this family represents the ancestral form of the advanced coral eating fishes, the parrots and wrasses. At each blast of the bang stick they showered down in all directions. I picked up one pure white in color.

After lunch and out of uniform I went with our native boys in the tender to the dry reef. It was low tide and I saw two giant clams half out of water, each about four feet long. They were sitting in a hollow in the coral but were not attached. They held their shells open about eighteen inches. The edge of each shell is scalloped into five or six enormous bluntish teeth perhaps a foot long. Between the teeth the mantle protruded widely but did not cover their menacing tips. The mantle is a tough, leathery sheath pleasingly brindled in black and green and covered with minute bluish eyespots. If one passes between the sun and the clam, the valves pull quickly together, closing the opening between them to about six inches. To close the giant trap completely, the clam must draw’ in its mantle all the way; and this takes time, a matter of perhaps two or three minutes.

The action of the closing valves was the same in the case of clams I encountered underseas. If I moved very slowly, the clam did not seem to see me and remained open. I never worried about stepping into or onto so conspicuous an object. But I suppose a diver might easily get his leg caught in one were he off balance or stepping backward. Native divers, so legend has it, have been drowned when so entrapped. Once when I was climbing up the side of a reef the coral crumbled and I crashed down into a grotto uncomfortably close to the gaping, spiked jaws of a Tridacna.

The next day I tried different levels. In thirty feet of water I found myself on a bottom of limy mud at the foot of coral cliffs. Gardens of blue staghorn coral formed a spiky barrier to my progress. These corals looked formidable, but could be broken away like fragile porcelain.

Then I climbed to the top of the reef. Here I was within five feet of the surface, and was tossed about by every swell. I surveyed a tableland of jumbled corals about twenty-five yards in diameter. Snappers, wrasses, and parrots swarmed in flashing brilliance over the rough landscape. Soon a large weed fish of about 150 pounds appeared, but it took flight on seeing me.

A day later I hunted in a beautiful garden behind the main reef. The coral colors were the brightest I had seen so far. Alcyonaria favor greens; the branching corals, blues and purples. Bright reds and orange were rare, other colors common.


ON JUNE 28 we anchored at St. Crispin’s Reef on the outer barrier, after three days spent in repairing at Double Island. The reef to the north is named Agincourt Reef. (Who fought with us on St. Crispin’s Day?) I do not know who originated the names of t he coral reefs on our charts. Could it have been Captain Cook?

That night we caught a 10-foot tiger shark on a hand line. This shark looks like the American tiger but rates as Galeocerdo rayneri as distinguished from our G. articus.

The shark took the line about two in the morning, jerking a loop of rope out from under my pillow. What a forlorn feeling to have to get up again and wrestle on the dark deck with a hooked tiger! At last I brought him alongside and noted that the hook was lodged in the comer of his lip and that the chain of the hook had twisted around his tail. He was practically uninjured. We could hope, therefore, to make a tiger shark movie in the morning.

After daybreak, while we were preparing to film the tiger, a large gray nurse shark, perhaps sixteen feet long, circled the launch. It rolled out of the water like a porpoise and seemed to look our deck over with baleful eyes turned back in their sockets. This monster is Carcharias arenarius, the worst man-eater in Australia. Several times it circled the launch, then made off.

As I went through the early stages of these preparations, I could not help recalling the long series of bitter struggles and disappointments I had had in the days before the war. It is almost impossible to get all the factors right for a successful shark film. First the shark must be secured uninjured by the hook — that is, not hooked in either the throat or gills. To hold the shark until morning is not easy. They are Houdinis at twisting and biting their way out of wire loop and hemp ropes. Attacks by other sharks are not uncommon, especially in the Gulf of Panama, where the shovelnose sharks hunt in packs of five to eight.

Early in the morning the prospective movie shark must be suspended by an invisible wire, and hung from the boom a few feet clear of the bottom. The point of attachment of the wire to the tough hide of the shark’s back must be at the center of gravity, so that the shark remains suspended on an even keel. The vessel must then be secured by several anchors so that the actor will remain in exactly one spot over the bottom. After these arrangements, the big camera must be set up on its tripod to cover the shark at his lowest or down position — that is, the position he assumes in suspension when not actively swimming about.

The diver then walks over to the shark and biffs it one on the nose. In my case I use a wild boar spear. The shark opens its mouth wide in a silent underwater roar and makes its rush. Held by the wire (I hope), the shark’s rush takes it on a curved course up to the surface, where it thrashes around in fury, sometimes tangling in the diving ladder or propeller. At last it tires and begins to circle down to the low point. This is the moment for which the diver is waiting. First he closes the electric switch of the big camera (which all too often does not run!). After he hears the camera rumble into action, he steps into the movie himself and awaits the approaching shark, standing with spear poised to strike a defending blow. If the shark does not turn aside, the diver must duck down and allow the long body to pass over his head, trusting that the wire will prevent the shark’s gaping jaws from reaching him.

In the rehearsal of our Australian actor on June 29 I failed to allow for the heavy head of Galeocerdo rayneri. While setting up the camera and tripod, I noticed that the shark was nosing down. I walked over to it and tried to straighten it out with the handle of my combat spear. The big jaws flashed into action in a yawning lunge at my arm. I parried with the spear handle and backed away. The shark shot off to the surface thrashing and twisting on the wire, which it broke. On deck the boys witnessed its hasty departure after the giant Carcharias.

Well, there went the tiger and our chance to get the film. I walked over to a coral head and, concentrating on smaller business, saw for the first time a bright gold fish with a white head, possibly a species of Amphiprion, a small pomacentrid that lives in sea anemones. I added it. to my list of uncollected species which I have clearly observed.

On July 1 we made Cooktown, where Captain Cook stopped for repairs at the mouth of the Endeavour River. This is an old gold-mining town — now a ghost town. It is surrounded with rolling green pasture land. The scrub here is almost tropical forest. We enjoyed an excellent steak dinner and afterwards took on provisions and another native boy as deck hand. Cooktown is the edge of civilization. From here to Thursday Island, nearly four hundred miles north, there are no towns.

As we continued north, the winds forced us to take shelter at Cape Flattery. Lizard Island, our destination, loomed about twenty miles out to sea, a rocky island about twelve miles inside the outer reefs. There we would be able to work until our supplies forced a return.


I WENT ashore at Cape Flattery and hunted for wild pigs, but had no luck.

Lizard Island, the “ very sea-mark of my utmost sail,” has lofty walls of granite which shielded us from the relentless trade winds. All about were stretches of white sand dotted with sea gardens. Several fishing vessels were sheltering here. The skippers said the wind might last at least a week more. It certainly complicated the diving.

I spent most of the morning in the diving helmet filming giant clams, some of which here are about four feet long and of massive girth. I used a stout spear handle to simulate the foot of an unlucky diver. If the handle was jammed down vigorously through the clam’s mantle and body onto the adductor muscle, the mollusk’s grip on the wooden handle remained weak, and I could easily withdraw the spear. But if the handle was placed on top of the mantle in a horizontal position just inside the gaping teeth of the valves, then the mighty shells closed on it with a vise-like grip. Seizing the other end of the stout handle, I could pry the clam up onto its end. I estimated that it would weigh seven hundred pounds in air, but submerged it loses perhaps three fourths of this weight. In one case I waited a good fifteen minutes for the clam to loosen its grip on my spear handle.

I banged successfully a brown and white goatfish and a butterfly with a black peduncular saddle — both on my list of uncollected coral fishes. When the hunting is going well, I use a burlap bag to hold the fishes which I knock out. It also contains my supply of bang-stick ammunition and my knife. When I return to the deck for lunch, the fishes are transferred to one of our 7-gallon milk cans, which contain various formaldehyde solutions.

I saw the orange goatfish. As before, it was followed everywhere by a dark wrass of about the same size. The goatfishes of these waters are impressive. They favor a sandy pasturage at the side of the reef. Although they are comparatively wary of the bang stick, I can often approach close enough to see the twin barbels on their chins shaking as they munch away among the polyp debris. I also got a small orange Siganus which proved to have only twelve dorsal and six anal spines.

I dove on the steep-sided reef and banged four species of butterflies. One is green and white and shaped like a sail — a species of Heniochus, not a true butterfly fish.

Later I shifted to a shallow sea garden where I saw several baby Zebrasomas flitting like insects among the coral blossoms, but I could not bring one down. I banged at a fish which was shaped like a boomerang — probably a young species of Platax or Heniochus — and got my hand on it, but it slipped away. I downed a large bigeye in a coral cavern. The purples and blues of the coral heads were very pleasing in these sea gardens.

I have revised my old list of coral-reef fishes clearly observed but not yet taken. When a fish is taken I strike him off the list. The active list, therefore, always points to the fishes which I must pursue on the next day.


1. Brown and yellow wrass, common everywhere, but wary. The wrass family is represented at Cape Cod by the cunner and tautog. They are snippers par excellence.

2. Brown and yellow Gomphosus, with a long curved bill — very shy of bang stick. It too is a wrass.

3. Small, dark wrass with orange lips, which darts into chinks in the coral.

4. Brindled gobby, common on sand at the edge of a reef — intelligent, wary.

5. All orange or gold goatfish.

6. Small wrass, gold in front, purple behind — a flitter among the coral flowers.

7. Orange Siganus or trevally with two black bars on shoulder — an uuromantic vegetarian, closely related to doctors but lacking armed peduncles.

8. Insect-like Zebrasoma with wing-like fins, orange striped with black.

9. White wrass with gold and black spots — a bright angle among the more carnally colored.

10. Argus pheasant-colored angle with angulate vertical fins.

11. Goatfish, white with longitudinal gold stripe.

12. General group of blue-green parrots; several here. These are the largest and most conspicuous coral snipping fishes. Large incisor teeth recall a parrot’s bill. I cannot get near enough to describe the various species.

13. Gold wrass with green markings on head.

14. Elongated species of boomerang fish. Probably a baby Platax.

15. Striped weed fish — a giant wrass.

16. Gold Amphiprion with white head — “something rich and strange.”

17. Small doctor, dark with wiiite tail. The doctor or tang is a coral-reef browser which carries spines on its caudal peduncle. This family stands close to the ancestral form of the odd fellows, the puffers, triggers, and boxfish.

18. Small dark wrass, white posteriorly with dark peduncular spot.

19. Large doctor, gray, diagonal orange bar through eye.

On July 7 I returned to the sea garden I had visited earlier. I banged a strange gobby with a crest on its head at the entrance of its burrow. The explosion KO’d it completely before it could withdraw below. I saw another golden goatfish, No. 5, and close by, an all-gold wrass with greenish fins. I stunned the golden goatfish, but it managed to plunge into a hole in a coral head. I blasted the head and retrieved the No. 5 intact.

The next day we cruised across calmer seas six miles to Eagle Island. I dove in about twenty feet of water on a bottom of coarse, white, coral debris. I was able to compare two schools of Sigani. The barred and spotted species are not the same. I saw, but did not get, Nos. 2, 3, 4, 11, 12, and 19 of my list. I pursued a ridiculous little clown fish covered with large light spots and dark circles, and tried to seize it with my hand, but it took refuge in a coral head and I had to resort to the bang stick. This species is now known to be the baby of a formidable snapper.

Later I dove on a steep-sided reef and filmed a green and black parrot and green and blue parrots. I got No. 11, the gold-striped goatfish, and added to my list of fishes seen a golden gobby that burrows in the sand. I blew up the burrow but did not find the specimen. A spotted bass—of perhaps forty pounds — of the Rypticus genus swaggered in front of its coral grotto. It rolled its eyes, waved its fins at passing snappers, and remained in one spot all the while — a grotesque figure.

On July 17 we were back again at Michaelmas Key homeward bound. I saw a black goatfish with an orange spot on its peduncle. I took thirty undersea still pictures in Kodachrome along the edge of the reef and in its enclosed lagoon. The camera box was at bust working better.

Our two native boys and I visited the dry reef at low tide and there cornered and caught a hawksbill turtle. The boys cast their spears seemingly out into space, but the weapons nearly always land on a large lagoon fish. They are not so clever aboard the launch. Henry could not even attach a wire to a battery, although I had shown him how several times.

The following day I again dove in the splendid sea garden. I observed the golden wrass with greenish fins and the argus angle, both on my list, and banged a new black and white Amphiprion. I also banged at an ivory-white wrass, but it recovered and spiraled away. An hour later I came across it lying in the open, dead. Even in death it seemed to shed a soft light on the eery world around.

Next we proceeded to some rich coral gardens at Arlington Reef. Here I saw a new goatfish, black in front, white in the middle, yellow behind. I filmed a large school of Moorish idols (Zanclus cornutus), a species which ranges from Panama across the Pacific and Indian Oceans to Suez. Most of the large, bright-colored coral fish here have an enormous range and have been taken in Hawaii.

On July 21 we paused at St. Crispin’s Reef on the outer barrier in hopes of getting a new close-up of Carcharias, the great nurse shark, but none were to be found.

I dove in a beautiful garden, and again saw the gold Amphiprion with a white head. Before descending to get this fish, I threw a stick of dynamite from the deck. Descending after the explosion, I found many fish scattered far and wide on the bottom. I made out the small gold and purple body of the wrass lying under a coral cliff, and got my hand on it, but it slipped away. Returning to the ladder, I was startled by two large fish which approached from above and stopped in the mid-depths to look down at me. They were a pair of magnificent unicorns — steel gray with blue spurs on the sides of the tail, each over four feet long.

Returning to the diving ladder, I met an exceedingly tame red and silver brim, which was devouring small fishes stunned by the stick of dynamite. It let me approach and dangle the blasting caps over its ear. I returned to deck bearing a 30-pound fish for dinner, of the best eating variety.

After five stormy days at St. Crispin’s Reef spent in trying to catch the giant Carcharias, the Talcema returned to Cairns on August 8 and I decided to wind up the expedition. During my eight months in Australia expenses had run at about a thousand dollars a month, but were nearly twice as high for the months spent at sea as for those spent in the bush.

I had shot 4000 feet of black and white movie film underseas, and 800 feet of 16mm. Kodachrome film, of which 400 feet were spoiled by using an A-mount lens in a C-mount camera. My fifty Kodachrome stills came out considerably too blue, probably because I did not use a haze filter.

The big milk cans containing the coral-reef fishes followed me home, arriving at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology on December 7, and there I began the taxonomic study at once. Most of the brilliant colors were much faded. A fish which was gold or bright orange on the reef is now a weak yellow. Reds have gone to dusky brown, and blues are approaching various shades of gray. Only those of green remained in their pristine brilliance.

In all I classified 209 species in 96 genera and 36 families. One species is definitely new to science. Only fourteen fishes remained on my “uncollected list.” I believe, therefore, that this collection is fairly comprehensive as to the fishes of the Great Barrier Reef’s coral gardens.

Each specimen is now in its own bottle of alcohol labeled as to genus, species, and author. Soon they will take their place among the ghosts of bottled fishes in the labyrinthic vaults of the fish department. Here they will sit side by side with collections made by Alexander Agassiz and by older explorers of more than 150 years ago.

And shortly after this paper appears I shall again be in my diving helmet on my way to another sea garden, this time off the coast of Nassau.