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A Hundred Fathoms Deep by Louis Becke


There is still a world or discovery open to the ichthyologist who, in addition to scientific knowledge, is a lover of deep-sea fishing, has some nerve, and is content to undergo some occasional rough experiences, if he elects to begin his researches among the many island groups of the North and South Pacific. I possessed, to some extent, the two latter qualifications; the former, much to my present and lasting regret, I did not. Nearly twenty-six years ago the vessel in which I sailed as supercargo was wrecked on Strong's Island, the eastern outlier of the fertile Caroline Archipelago, and for more than twelve months I devoted the greater part of my time to traversing the mountainous island from end to end, or, accompanied by a hardy and intelligent native, in fishing, either in the peculiarly-formed lagoon at the south end, or two miles or so outside the barrier reef.

The master of the vessel, I may mention, was the notorious, over maligned, and genial Captain Bully Hayes, and from him I had learnt a little about some of the generally unknown deep-sea fish of Polynesia and Melanesia. He had told me that when once sailing between Aneityum and Tanna, in the New Hebrides, shortly after a severe volcanic eruption on the former island had been followed by a submarine convulsion, his brig passed through many hundreds of dead and dying fish of great size, some of which were of a character utterly unknown to any of his native crew—men who came from all parts of the North and South Pacific. More remarkable still, some of these fish had never before been seen by the inhabitants of the islands near which they were found. There were, he said, some five or six kinds, but they were all of the groper family. One of three which was brought on board was discovered floating on the surface when the ship was five miles off Tanna. A boat was lowered, but on getting up to it, the crew found they were unable to lift it from the water; it was, however, towed to the ship, hoisted on board, and cut into three parts, the whole of which were weighed, and reached over 300 lbs. In colour it was a dull grey, with large, closely-adhering scales about the size of a florin; the fins, tail, and lips were blue. Another one, weighing less, had a differently-shaped head, with a curious, pipe-like mouth; this was a uniform dull blue. A similar upturning from the ocean's dark depths of strange fish occurred during a submarine earthquake near Rose Island, a barren spot to the south-west of Samoa. The disturbance threw up vast numbers of fish upon the reefs of Manua, the nearest island of the group, and the natives looked upon their great size and peculiar appearance with unbounded astonishment.

Without desiring to bore the reader with unnecessary details of my own experiences in the South Seas, but because the statement bears on the subject of this article—a subject which has been my delight since I was a boy of ten years of age—I may say that, nine years after the loss of Captain Hayes's vessel on Strong's Island, I was again shipwrecked on Peru, one of the Gilbert, or, as we traders call them, the "Line" Islands. Here I was so fortunate as to take up my residence with one of the local traders, a Swiss named Frank Voliero, who was an ardent deep-sea fisherman, and whose catches were the envy and wonder of the wild and intractable natives among whom he lived; for he had excellent tackle, which enabled him to fish at depths seldom tried by the natives, who have no reason to go beyond sixty or eighty fathoms. In the long interval that had elapsed since my fishing days in the Carolines and my arrival at Peru Island, I had gained such experience in my hobby in many other parts of the Pacific as falls to few men, and the desire to fish in deep water, and get something that astonished the natives of the various islands, had become a passion with me. Voliero and myself went out together frequently, and, did space permit, I should like to describe the fortune that attended us at Peru, as well as my fishing adventures at Strong's Island.

In a former work I have endeavoured to describe that extraordinary nocturnal-feeding fish, the palu , and the manner of its capture by the Malayo-Polynesian islanders of the Equatorial Pacific, and in the present article I shall try to convey to my readers an idea of deep-sea fishing in the South Seas generally. When I was living on the little island of Nanomaga (one of the Ellice Group, situated about 600 miles to the north-west of Samoa), as the one resident trader, I found myself in—if I may use the term—a marine paradise, as far as fishing went. The natives were one and all expert fishermen, extremely jealous of their reputation of being not only the best and most skilful men in Polynesia in the handling of their frail canoes in a heavy surf, but also of being deep-learned in the lore of deep-sea fishing.

My arrival at the island caused no little commotion among the young bloods, each of whose chances of gaining the girl of his heart, and being united to her by the local Samoan missionary teacher, depended in a great measure upon his ability to provide sustenance for her from the sea; for Nanomaga, like the rest of the Ellice Group, is but little more than a richly-verdured sandbank, based upon a foundation of coral, and yielding nothing to its people but coconuts and a coarse species of taro, called puraka. The inhabitants, in their low-lying atolls, possess no running streams, no fertile soil, in which, as in the mountainous isles of Polynesia, the breadfruit, the yam, and the sweet potato grow and flourish side by side with such rich and luscious fruits as the orange and banana, and pineapple—they have but the beneficent coconut and the evergiving sea to supply their needs. And the sea is kind to them, as Nature meant it to be to her own children.

The native missionary at Nanomaga was a Samoan. He was intended by nature to be a warrior, a leader of men; or—and no higher praise can I give to his dauntless courage—a boat-header on a sperm whaler. Strong of arm and quick of eye, he was the very man to either throw the harpoon or deal the death-giving thrust or the lance to the monarch of the ocean world; but fate or circumstance had made him a missionary instead. He was a fairly good missionary, but a better fisherman.

Three miles from Nanomaga is a submerged reef, marked on the chart as the Grand Coral Reef, but known to the natives as Tia Kau, "the reef." It is in reality a vast mountain of coral, whose bases lie two hundred fathoms deep, with a flattened summit of about fifty acres in extent, rising to within five fathoms of the surface of the sea. This spot is the resort of incredible numbers of fish, both deep-sea haunting and surface swimming. Some of the latter, such as the pala (not the palu )—a long, scaleless, beautifully-formed fish, with a head of bony plates and teeth like a rip-saw—are of great size, and afford splendid sport, as they are game fighters and almost as powerful as a porpoise. They run to over 100 lbs., and yet are by no means a coarse fish. In the shallow water on the top of this mountain reef there are some eight or nine varieties of rock cod, none of which were of any great size; but far below, at a depth of from fifty to seventy fathoms, there were some truly monstrous fish of this species, and I and my missionary friend had the luck to catch the four largest ever taken—221 lbs., 208 lbs., 118 lbs., and 111 lbs. I had caught when fishing for schnapper, in thirty fathoms off Camden Haven, on the coast of New South Wales, a mottled black and grey rock cod, which weighed 83 lbs., and was assured by the Sydney Museum authorities that such a weight for a rock cod was rare in that part of the Pacific, but that bêche-de-mer fishermen on the Great Barrier Reef had occasionally captured fish of the same variety of double that size and weight.

Not possessing a boat, we fished from a canoe—a light, but strong and beautifully constructed craft, with "whalebacks" fore and aft to keep it from being swamped by seas when facing or running from a surf. The outrigger was formed of a very light wood, called pua , about fourteen inches in circumference. With the teacher and myself there usually went with us a third man, whose duty it was to keep the canoe head to wind, for anchoring in deep water in such a tiny craft was out of the question, as well as dangerous, should a heavy fish or a shark get foul of the outrigger. Capsizes in the daytime we did not mind, but at night numbers of grey sharks were always cruising around, and they were then especially savage and daring.

Leaving the pretty little village, which was embowered in a palm grove on the lee side of the island, we would, if intending to fish on the Tia Kau, make a start before dawn, remain there till the canoe was loaded to her raised gunwale pieces with the weight of fish, and then return. Night fishing on the Tia Kau by a single canoe was forbidden by the kaupule (head men) as being too dangerous on account of the sharks, and so usually from ten to twenty canoes set out together. If one did come to grief through being swamped, or capsized by having the outrigger fouled by a shark, there was always assistance near at hand, and it rarely happened that any of the crew were bitten. In 1872, however, a fearful tragedy occurred on the Tia Kau, when a party of seventy natives—men, women, and children—who were crossing to the neighbouring Island of Nanomea, were attacked by sharks when overtaken on the reef by a squall at night. Only two escaped to tell the tale.

If, however, we meant to try for takuo , a huge variety of the mackerel-tribe, or lahe'u , a magnificent bream-shaped fish, we had no need to go so far as the dangerous Tia Kau; three or four cable-lengths from the beach, and right in front of the village, we could lie in water as smooth as glass, and seventy fathoms in depth. Our bait was invariably flying-fish, freshly caught, or the tentacles of an octopus. My lines were of white American cotton, and I generally used two hooks, one below and one above the sinker, both baited with a whole flying-fish, while my companions preferred wooden or iron hooks, of their own manufacture, and lines made from hibiscus bark or coconut fibre.

I shall always remember with pleasure my first lahe'u . I was accompanied by the native teacher alone, and we paddled off from the village just after evening service, and brought to about a quarter of a mile outside the reef. The rest of the islanders had gone round in their canoes to the weather side of the little island to fish for takuo , for we were expecting a malaga , or party of visitors from the Island of Nukufetau in a day or two, and unusual supplies of fish had to be obtained, to sustain, not only the island's record as the fishing centre of the universe, but the people's reputation for hospitality. It had been my suggestion to the teacher that he and I, who were unable to accompany the others, should try what we could do nearer home. The night was brilliantly starlight, and the sea as smooth as glass—so smooth that there was not even the faintest swell upon the reef. The trade wind was at rest, and not the faintest breath of air moved the foliage of the coco palms lining the white strip of beach. Now and then a splash or a sudden commotion in the water around us would denote that some hapless flying-fish had taken an aerial flight from a pursuing pala , or that a shark had seized a turtle in his cruel jaws. Lighting our pipes, we lowered our lines together according to island etiquette, and touched bottom at thirty fathoms; then hauled in a fathom or two of line to avoid fouling the coral. In a few minutes my companion hooked an utu , a sluggish fish, somewhat like a salmon in appearance, with shining silvery scales and a broad flat head. As he was hauling in, and I was looking over the side of the canoe to watch it coming up, I felt a sharp, heavy tug at my own line, and, before I could check it, thirty or forty yards of line whizzed through my fingers with lightning speed.

" Lahe'u! " shouted the teacher, hurriedly making his own line fast, and whipping up his paddle. "Don't give out any more line or he will run under the reef, and we shall lose him."

I knew by the vibration and hum of the line as soon as I had it well in hand that there was a heavy and powerful fish at the end. Ioane, disregarding the utu as being of no importance in comparison to a lahe'u , was plunging his paddle rapidly into the water, and endeavouring to back the canoe seaward into deeper water, but, in spite of his efforts and my own, we were being taken quickly inshore. For some two or three minutes the canoe was dragged steadily landward, and I knew that once the lahe'u succeeded in getting underneath the overhanging ledge of reef, there would be but little chance of our taking him except by diving, and diving on a moonless night under a reef, and freeing a fish from jagged branches of coral, is not a pleasant task, although an Ellice Islander does not much mind it. Finding that I could not possibly turn the fish, I asked Ioane what I should do. He told me to let go a few fathoms of line, brace my knee against the thwart, and then trust to the sudden jerk to cant the fish's head one way or the other. I did as I was told. Out flew the line, and then came a shock that made the canoe fairly jump, lifted the outrigger clear out of the water, and all but capsized her. But the ruse was successful, for, with a furious shake, lahe'u changed his course, and started off at a tremendous rate, parallel with the reef, and then gradually headed seaward.

"Let him go," said Ioane, who was carefully watching the tautened-out line, and steering at the same time. "'Tis a strong fish, but he is man tonu (truly hooked), and will now tire. But give him no more line, and haul up to him."

For fully five minutes the canoe went flying over the water, and I continued to haul in line fathom by fathom, until I caught sight of, deep down in the water right ahead, a great phosphorescent boil and bubble. Then the pace began to slacken, as the gallant fighter began to turn from side to side, shaking his head and making futile breaks from port to starboard. Bidding me come amidships with the line, Ioane took in his paddle, and picked up the harpoon which we always carried on the outrigger platform in case of meeting a turtle. Nearer and nearer came the great fish, till, with a splash of phosphorescent light and spray, he came to the surface, beating the water with his forked and bony tail, and still trying to get a chance for another downward run. Then Ioane, waiting his opportunity, sent the iron clean through him from side to side, and I sat down and watched, with a thrill of satisfaction and a sigh of relief, his final flurry. In a few minutes we hauled him alongside, drew the harpoon, and with some difficulty managed to get him over the side and lower him into the bottom of the canoe amidships, where he lay fore and aft, his curved back standing up nearly a foot and a half above the raised gunwale. Although not above four feet in length, he was nearly three in depth, and about sixteen inches thick at the shoulder—a truly noble fish.

" We have done well," said the teacher, with a pleased laugh, as he hauled in his own line and dropped a 6-lb. utu into the canoe. "There will be much talk over this to-morrow, for these people here are very conceited, and think that no one but themselves can catch lahe'u and pala . They will know better now, when they see this one."

We returned to the shore within two hours from the time we left, with my lahe'u , an utu , and five or six salmon-like fish called tau-tau , all nocturnal feeders, and all highly thought of by the natives, especially the latter. The lahe'u we hung up under the missionary's verandah, and at daylight I had the intense satisfaction of seeing a crowd of natives surrounding it, and of hearing their flattering allusions to myself as a papalagi masani tonu futi íka —a white man who really could fish like a native.