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Jack Shark's Pilot by Louis Becke

 

Early one morning as we in the Palestine , South Sea trading schooner, were sailing slowly between Fotuna and Alofa—two islands lying to the northward of Fiji—one of the native hands came aft and reported two large sharks alongside. The mate at once dived below for his shark hook, while I tried to find a suitable bit of beef in the harness cask. Just as the mate appeared carrying the heavy hook and chain, our skipper, who was lying on the skylight smoking his pipe, although half asleep, inquired if there were "any pilot fish with the brutes."

"Yes, sir," said a sailor who was standing in the waist, looking over the side, "there's quite a lot of 'em. I've never seen so many at one time before. There's nigh on a dozen."

The captain was on his feet in an instant. "Don't lower that hook of yours just yet, Porter," he said to the mate. "I'm going to get those pilot fish first. Tom, bring me up my small fishing line."

"They won't take a hook, will they?" I inquired.

"Just you wait and see, sonny. Ever taste pilot fish?"

" No. Are they good to eat?"

"Best fish in the ocean, barring flying-fish," replied the skipper, as, after examining his line, he cut off both hook and leaden sinker and bent on a small-sized pa —a native-made bonito hook cut out from a solid piece of pearl-shell.

Then jumping up into the whaleboat which hung in davits on the starboard quarter he waited for the sharks to appear, and the mate and I leant over the side and watched. We had not long to wait, for in a few minutes one came swimming quickly up from astern, and was almost immediately joined by the other, which had been hanging about amidships. They were both, however, pretty deep down, and at first I could not discern any pilot fish. The captain, however, made a cast and the hook dropped in the water, about fifty feet in the rear of the sharks; he let it sink for less than half a minute, and then began hauling in the line as quickly as possible, and at the same moment I saw some of the pilot fish quite distinctly—some swimming alongside and some just ahead of their detestable companions, which were now right under the counter. Then something gleamed brightly, and the shining hook appeared, for a second or two only, for two of the "pilots" darted after it with lightning-like rapidity, and presently one came to the surface with a splash, beautifully hooked, and was swung up into the boat.

"Now for some fun," cried the captain, as tossing the fish to us on deck he again lowered the hook. This time it had barely touched the surface of the water when away went the line with a rush right under our keel.

"This is a big fellow," said the skipper, and up came another dark blue and silver beauty about a foot in length, dropping off the hook just in time as he was hoisted clear of the gunwale. Then, in less than ten minutes—so eager were they to rush the hook the moment it struck the water—five more were jumping about upon the deck or in the boat. Then came a calamity, the eighth fish dropped off when half way up and took the hook with him, having swallowed it and bitten through the line.

The captain jumped on deck again and began rooting out his bag for another small-sized pa , but to his disgust could not find one ready for use—none of them having the actual "hook" portion lashed to the shank, and the operation of lashing one of these cleverly-made native hooks takes some little time and patience, for the holes which are bored through the base of the "hook" part in order to lash it to the shank are very small, and only very fine and strong cord, such as banana-fibre, can be used. However, while the irate captain was fussing over his task, the mate and I were watching the movements of the sharks and their little friends with the greatest interest, having promised the captain not to lower the shark hook till he had caught the rest of the pilot fish, for he assured us that they would most likely disappear after the sharks were captured. (I learned from my own experience afterward that he was mistaken, for when a shark is caught at sea his attendants will frequently remain with the ship for weeks, or until another shark appears, in which case they at once attach themselves to him.)

Both sharks were now swimming almost on the surface, so close to the ship that they could have been caught in a running bowline or harpooned with the greatest ease; and in fact our native crew, who were very partial to shark's flesh, had both harpoon and bowline in readiness in case the cunning brutes would not take a bait. They were both of great size—the largest being over twelve or thirteen feet in length. With the smaller one were three pilot fish, one swimming directly under the end of its nose, the others just over its eyes; the larger had but one attendant, which kept continually changing its position, sometimes being on one side, then on another, then disappearing for a few moments underneath the monster's belly, or pressing itself so closely against the creature's side that it appeared as if it was adhering to it. I had never before seen these fish at such close quarters, and their extraordinary activity and seeming attachment to their savage companions was most astonishing to witness; occasionally when either of the sharks would cease moving, they would take up a position within a few inches of its jaws, remain there a few seconds, and then swim under its belly and reappear at the tail, then slowly make their way along its back or sides to the hideous head again. Sometimes, either singly or all together, they would dart away on either side, but quickly returned, never being absent more than a minute. These brief excursions showed them to be extremely swift, yet when they returned to their huge companions they instantly became—at least to all appearance—intensely sluggish and languid in their movements, and swam in an undecided, indefinite sort of manner as if thoroughly exhausted. But this was but in appearance, for suddenly they would again shoot away along the surface of the water with lightning-like rapidity, disappear from view of the keenest eye, and, ere you could count five, again be beside the vessel swimming as leisurely, if not as lazily, as if they were incapable of quickening their speed.

Having his line ready again, the captain now began fishing from the stern, and succeeded in catching three of the remaining four, the last one (which our natives said was the fish which had swallowed the first hook) refusing even to look at the tempting bit of iridescent pearl-shell. Then the impatient mate lowered his bait over the stern, having first passed the line outboard and given the end to three or four of the crew, who stood in the waist ready to haul in. The smaller of the two sharks was at once hooked, and when dragged up alongside amidships struggled and lashed about so furiously that the big fellow came lumbering up to see what was the matter, and Billy Rotumah, our native boatswain, who was watching for him, promptly drove a harpoon socket deeply into him between the shoulders; then, after some difficulty, a couple of running bowlines settled them both in a comfortable position to be stunned with an axe.

The schooner was at this time within a few miles of a small village on Alofa, named Mua, and presently a boat manned by natives boarded us to sell yams, taro, pineapples, and bananas, all of which we bought from them in exchange for the sharks' livers and some huge pieces of flesh weighing two or three hundred pounds. These people (who resemble the Samoans in appearance and language) were much impressed and terrified when they saw the pilot fish which had been caught, and told our crew that ours would be an unlucky ship—that we had done a dangerous and foolish thing. Their feeling on the subject was strong; for when I asked them if they would take two or three of the fish on shore to Father Hervé, one of the French priests living on Fotuna, who was an old friend, they started back in mingled terror and indignation, and absolutely declined to even touch them. Taking one of the pilot fish up I held it by the head between my forefinger and thumb and asked the natives if they did not consider it good to look at.

"True," replied a fine, stalwart young fellow, speaking in Samoan, "it is good to look at," and then he added gravely, "Talofa lava ia te outou i le vaa nei, ua lata mai ne aso malaia ma le tigā" ("Alas for all you people on this ship, there is a day of disaster and sorrow near you").

I tried to ascertain the cause of their terror, but could only elicit the statement that to kill a pilot fish meant direful misfortune. No sensible man, they asserted, would do such a senseless and saua (cruel) thing, and to eat one was an abomination unutterable.

As soon as our visitors had left I hurried to make a closer examination of our prizes before the cook took possession of them. Of the eleven, only one was over a foot in length, the rest ranged from five to ten inches. The beautiful dark blue of the head and along the back, so noticeable when first caught, had now lost its brilliancy, and the four wide vertical black stripes on the sides had also become dulled, although the silvery belly was still as bright as a new dollar. The eyes were rather large for such a small fish, and all the fins were blue-black, with a narrow white line running along the edges. Their appearance even an hour after death was very handsome, and in shape they were much like a very plump trout. In the stomachs of some we found small flying squid, little shrimps, and other Crustacea.

Our Manila-man cook, although not a genius, certainly knew how to fry fish, and that morning we had for breakfast some of Jack Shark's pilots—the most delicately-flavoured deep-sea fish I have ever tasted—except, perhaps, that wonderful and beautiful creature, the flying-fish.