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CHAPTER XI.

RECREATIONS AND SPORTS.

A VERY favourite pastime of the young men is the capture of the flying-fish. This pretty little fish has a body somewhat resembling that of our herring, but is furnished with side fins of disproportionate size, which enable it to travel a considerable distance through the air. It does not readily take to the air unless pursued by some of its finny enemies. The chief of these is the beautiful coryphene, or dolphin as it is called by our seamen. The Colymbians train those coryphenes to pursue the flying-fish, and capture them in nets as they fall exhausted by their flight into the water. As the flying-fish frequent the still waters of the lagoon at particular seasons, parties are formed for their pursuit.

My friend Julian came to me one morning and told me a party was formed to have a flying-fish hunt, and inquired if I would join them, an offer I readily accepted. We numbered about a dozen, and arming ourselves with a hand-net, somewhat resembling an ordinary landing-net, proceeded in search of the game. One of the party had with him a brace of fine lively coryphenes, which he kept close beside him, and which excited my admiration by their agile and graceful movements, and by the brilliant and ever-changing colours of their bodies. The coryphene is a remarkable fish in shape. Its head is large and blunt, its body tapers away to the tail, which is terminated by a swallow-tail-shaped fin. Its back fin is remarkable, extending all along its back, from the top of the head to within a short distance of the end of the tail. It is a large fish, those we had with us being between five feet and six feet long, and sometimes they attain even larger dimensions. Any want of elegance in its shape is compensated by the wonderful beauty of its colours, which at one time are like burnished gold or silver, at others of every colour of the rainbow. Its strength and activity are very great, its sight of the keenest, and its voracity is amazing. When we came near the spot where the flying-fish were supposed to be, we opened out into extended order in search of our game. Presently one of the party intimated that there was a fine covey in front of us. We no longer moved straight forward, but under the guidance of one of the sportsmen, we turned off to one side so as not to disturb the unsuspecting fish. Making a detour, we arranged ourselves in a line, at the distance of about one hundred yards beyond the covey. The young man who had charge of the coryphenes remained behind, keeping—his hounds I was going to say—his fish quite quiet and motionless, until he saw that we were in our places. He then allowed the coryphenes to dart forward among the flying-fish. The latter soon spied their enemy, and, rushing to the surface of the water, spread their wings, and fluttered through the air straight in front of them. Their powers of flight are limited; for, after flying about one hundred yards, they are compelled by the drying of their wings to drop into the water. We had so well calculated our distance, that the shoal fell right among us, and as they fell, a considerable number were captured by us in the hand-nets, and immediately killed by squeezing the head. The most skilful captured in this way six or eight, and even the least adroit managed to bag two or three. The whole business reminded me of driving partridges or grouse at home, and altogether it was most exciting sport. A shoal once started could not be easily induced to rise again; but as shoals were numerous, we managed in the course of the day to get a very heavy bag, which, on arrival at home, we distributed among our friends, to whom these fish were very acceptable, as they are considered a great delicacy.

Another favourite amusement of the Colymbians is shooting wild-fowl. This they do in the following way. They have a straight tube, about two feet long, and a case full of small arrows, about four inches long. Inserting an arrow into the tube, they cautiously approach any birds that may be sitting on the overhanging branch of a tree, or a projecting point of the reef. When sufficiently near their game, they quietly extrude one end of the tube—the other being between their lips—and when they have got the aim, they blow the arrow sharply through the tube, and in this way the more skilful seldom fail to hit a bird at ten or fifteen yards' distance. I was told that the idea of this method of shooting birds was suggested by that curious fish, the beaked chætodon, whose mouth is prolonged into the form of a tube, which the creature brings cunningly above the water, and levels at any insect that may happen to be basking in the sun on an overhanging twig or bank, and, by a well-directed shot, tumbles the unsuspecting insect into the water. A drop of water is what the fish uses as its bullet.

With their little arrows and shooting tubes, the Colymbians kill a great many birds, some of which are tolerably good food. I found the sport rather tame after a few trials, for it somehow went against my native instincts to slaughter sitting game.

I much preferred the shark and turtle hunts in the deep external sea, and would sometimes join the pearl-fishers in their distant expeditions. The pearl-oysters are not found in very deep water, and we had to seek them at a good distance from the islands, in places where the depth of water was not above ten or fifteen fathoms. As we had to traverse a considerable breadth of ocean before reaching these shoal grounds, in order to avoid the attack of sharks, we carried short sticks, with sharp steel points, and if by chance one of these monsters attempted to interfere with us, a few pricks from our weapon soon sent him about his business.

The pearl-oysters are found in extensive beds, and as they are of considerable size, we could not carry off very many. So they are generally opened on the spot, and the pearls, if any, extracted. Immense shoals of fishes surrounded us whilst we were engaged in the work of opening the shells, and the bodies of the oysters were gobbled up as fast as they were extracted. In this way we could gather a considerable number of pearls; and the finest shells were carried off to be used in the manufacture of the Colymbian bank-notes.

The pearl-fishers are sometimes anticipated in their visits to the oyster-beds by shoals of enormous skates, which crunch the shells with their powerful jaws, devouring oysters and pearls, and leaving nothing but broken shells to mark where the bed has been. Sometimes the pearl-fishers find their disagreeable rivals at work on the oyster-bed when they arrive, in which case they have to dispute the possession of the oysters with these ugly fishes. The pointed weapons of the fishers are used with effect upon the skates, who, however, often show fight, and have a vicious way of lashing about their long spiky tails, a blow from which is by no means pleasant.

In these and all other operations in the ocean, each person was provided with a bottle of compressed air for respiration. It sometimes happened when the excursion lasted long, that the compressed air was exhausted before we could get back to the lagoon. In that case we had to ascend to the surface of the water to breathe, dive below again to swim, and again rise to breathe.