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Dolphins, Turtles, and Cod, edited by Andrew Lang

From Audubon’s Life, by Robert Buchanan. Sampson Low & Co.

In the excellent life of Mr. Audubon, the American naturalist (published in 1868 by Sampson Low, Marston & Co.), some curious stories are to be found respecting the kinds of fish that he met with in his voyages both through the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico. Audubon’s remarks about the habits of dolphins are especially interesting, and will be read with pleasure by everybody who cares for ‘the sea and all that in them is.’

Dolphins abound in the Gulf of Mexico and the neighbouring seas, and are constantly to be seen chasing flying fish, which are their food. Flying fish can swim more rapidly than the dolphins, which of course are far larger creatures; but if they find themselves much outnumbered, and in danger of being surrounded, they spread the fins that serve them for wings, and fly through the air for a short distance. At first this movement throws out the dolphins, who are unable to follow the example of their prey, but they soon contrive to keep up with the flying fish by giving great bounds into the air; and as the flying fish’s powers are soon exhausted, it is not long before the hunt comes to an end and the dolphins seize the fish as they tumble into the sea.

Sailors are fond of catching dolphins, and generally bait their hooks with a piece of shark’s flesh. When the fish is taken, its friends stay round it till the last moment,  only swimming away as the dolphin is hauled on board. For its size, which is generally about three feet long and has rarely been known to exceed four feet, the dolphin has a remarkably good appetite, and sometimes he eats so much that he is unable to escape from his enemy, the bottle-nosed porpoise. A dolphin that was caught in the Gulf of Mexico was opened by the sailors, and inside him were counted twenty-two flying fish, each one six or seven inches long, and all arranged quite neatly with their tails foremost. Before they have their dinner they are full of fun, and their beautiful blue and gold bodies may often be seen leaping and bounding and diving about the ship—a sight which the sailors always declare portends a gale. Indeed, the stories to which dolphins give rise are many and strange. The negroes believe that a silver coin, fried or boiled in the same water as the fish, will turn into copper if the dolphin is in a state unfit for food; but as no one can swear that he has ever seen the transmutation of the metal, it may be suspected that the tale was invented by the cook for the sake of getting an extra dollar.

About eighty miles from the Peninsula of Florida are a set of low, sandy banks known as the Tortuga or Turtle Islands, from the swarms of turtles which lay their eggs in the sand, and are eagerly sought for by traders.

Turtles are of many sorts, but the green turtle is considered the best, and is boiled down into soup, which is both rich and strengthening. They are cautious creatures, and never approach the shore in the daylight, or without watching carefully for some time to see if the coast is indeed clear. They may be seen on quiet moonlight nights in the months of May and June, lying thirty or forty yards from the beach, listening intently, and every now and then making a loud hissing noise intended to frighten any enemies that may be lurking near. If their quick ears detect any sound,  however faint, they instantly dive and swim to some other place; but if nothing is stirring, they land on the shore, and crawl slowly about with the aid of their flappers, until they find a spot that seems suitable for the hatching of their eggs, which often number two hundred, laid at one time. The operations are begun by the turtle scooping out a hole in the burning sand by means of her hind flappers, using them each by turns, and throwing up the sand into a kind of rampart behind her. This is done so quickly that in less than ten minutes she will often have dug a hole varying from eighteen inches to two feet. When the eggs are carefully placed in separate layers, the loose sand is laid over them, and the hole not only completely hidden but made to look exactly like the rest of the beach, so that no one could ever tell that the surface had been disturbed at all. Then the turtle goes away and leaves the hot sand to do the rest.

In course of time the young turtles, hardly bigger than a five-shilling piece, leave their shells, and make their way to the water, unless, before they are hatched, their nest has been discovered by men, or by the cougars and other wild animals, who feed greedily on them. If they belong to the tribe of the green turtles, they will at once begin to seek for sea plants, and especially a kind of grass, which they bite off near the roots, so as to get the tenderest parts. If they are young hawk-bills, they will nibble the seaweed, and soon go on to crabs and shell-fish, and even little fishes. The loggerheads grow a sharp beak, which enables them to crack the great conch shells, and dig out the fish that lives inside, while the trunk turtle, which is often of an immense size but with a very soft body, loves sea-urchins and shell-fish. All of them can swim so fast that they often seem to be flying, and it needs much quickness of eye and hand to spear them in the water. Even to catch them on shore is a matter of great difficulty, and in general more than one man is required for the service. The turtle is raised  up from behind by a man on his knee, pushing with all his might against her shoulder; but this has to be done with great caution, or else the hunter may get badly bitten. When the turtle is fully raised up, she is thrown over on her back, and, like a sheep in a similar position, can seldom recover herself without help. The turtles, when caught, are put into an enclosure of logs with a sandy or muddy bottom through which the tide flows, and here they are kept and fed by their captors till they are ready for the market. Unlike most creatures, their price is out of all proportion to their weight, and a loggerhead turtle weighing seven hundred pounds has been known to cost no more than a green turtle of thirty.

Early in May, and well into June, the seas extending northwards from Maine to Labrador are alive with ships just starting for the cod fishing. Their vessels are mostly small but well stocked, and a large part of the space below is filled with casks, some full of salt and others empty. These empty ones are reserved for the oil that is procured from the cod.

Every morning, as soon as it is light, some of the crew of each ship enters a small boat, which can be sailed or rowed as is found necessary. When they reach the cod banks every man boards up part of his boat for the fish when caught, and then takes his stand at the end with two lines, baited at the opening of the season with salted mussels, and later with gannets or capelings. These lines are dropped into the sea on either side of the boat, and when the gunwale is almost touching the water and it is dangerous to put in any more fish, they give up work for the morning and return to the harbour. In general, fishing is a silent occupation, but cod fishers are rather a talkative race, and have bets with each other as to the amount of the ‘takes’ of the respective crews. When they get back to their vessels, often anchored eight or ten miles away, they find that the men who have been left behind have set  up long tables on deck, carried the salt barrels on shore, placed all ready the casks for the livers, and cleared the hold of everything but a huge wedge of salt for the salting. Then, after dinner, some of the men row back to the cod banks, while the others set about cleaning, salting, and packing the fish, so as to be quite finished when the men return from their second journey. It is almost always midnight before the work is done, and the men can turn in for their three hours’ sleep.

If, as often happens, the hauls have been very large, the supply soon threatens to become exhausted, so on Sunday the captain sails off for a fresh bank. Then, the men who are the laziest or most unskilful in the matter of fishing take out the cargo that has been already salted, and lay it out on scaffolds which have been set up on the rocks. When the sun has dried the fish for some time, they are turned over; and this process is repeated several times in the day. In the evening they are piled up into large stacks, and protected from the rain and wind. In July the men’s work is in one way less hard than before, for this is the season when the capelings arrive to spawn upon the shores, and where capelings are, cod are sure to follow. Now great nets are used, with one end fastened to the land, and these nets will sometimes produce twenty or thirty thousand fish at a haul.

With so many men engaged in the cod fishing, and considering the number of diseases to which cod are subject, it is perhaps quite as well that each fish should lay such a vast supply of eggs, though out of the eight million laid by one fish which have been counted, it is calculated that, from various causes, only about a hundred thousand come to maturity.