UNDER the guidance of Julian, I was gradually initiated into all the sports and pastimes of the Colymbians. In some of these the ladies take part; but there is one sport of too violent and dangerous a character for women to engage in, so it is pursued by men only. It demands such agility, address and courage, that it is only the most adventurous and daring among the young men who engage in it. When I mention that it is the pursuit of the formidable white shark, the reader will understand that it must be attended by difficulties and dangers which all but the boldest would shrink from.
In remote times, as I was informed, these finny ogres of the ocean were not unfrequent visitors of the calm inland waters, to which they gained access by numerous gaps in the surrounding coral reef. But all these gaps had long ago been filled up, and the reef rendered a perfect barrier against the incursions of these ferocious monsters.
As the numbers of the inhabitants increased the original boundaries of the reef were greatly extended by the planting of corals outside the existing reef, which rapidly grew up. In place of a separate reef which rapidly grew up. In place of a separate reef for each island, one larger reef was thus made, which enclosed all the islands. There are about a dozen islands in all, of different sizes. The largest is about sixty miles in length by about fifteen in breadth, and the remainder range from twenty miles to half a mile in diameter. By this means many hundreds of square miles have been gradually added to the space suitable for human habitation. These new spaces were all amply supplied with air-tubes and electric lamps. The old barriers that had separately surrounded each island were removed, and the additional space was rapidly covered with submarine houses and villas, thus providing accommodation for the ever increasing population. The new reef quickly rose above the level of the highest tides, opposing a perfect barrier against the inroads of the sea. But as it was requisite to secure a continuous flow of fresh water through the enclosed lake, the reef was perforated with tunnels in every direction, which, by means of a system of self-acting valvular doors, permitted the influx and efflux of the ocean currents in a gentle and equable manner. In order to maintain the water of the inland sea at a uniform temperature, these tunnels were pierced at different levels. The water of the ocean near the surface is of a much higher temperature than the deeper water; and when the enclosed water becomes too warm the fresh water is admitted chiefly by the lower tunnels; when it is too cool the influx through the more superficial tunnels soon raises it to the required temperature. By self-acting machinery the upper valves open as the temperature lowers, the lower as the temperature rises. Special inspectors and engineers are appointed to maintain the tunnels and doors in perfect efficiency, and to see that the enclosed water keeps at a uniform temperature. So well are their duties performed that while the enclosed water is always sweet and clear, its temperature never varies above a degree or two, and the flow through the lake is so gentle and so regular that it can scarcely be perceived, and it is hardly strong enough to bend the slender-stemmed seaweeds that adorn the submarine country and give such a charm to the open spaces between the houses.
As the mighty game which was to be attacked no longer existed in the inland sea, it had to be sought beyond the coral barrier, and great preparations had to be made for its pursuit.
On the occasion of my first shark-hunting expedition, to which Julian introduced me, our party consisted of ten young men in the prime of life and strength. We were accompanied by two regular huntsmen, one of whom was a tough old salt who had held the situation for upwards of twenty years, and was believed to be thoroughly conversant with all the ways and wiles of the great white shark, many hundreds of which he had assisted to kill and capture. The other was a younger man, who had assisted the chief huntsmen in many of his perilous expeditions, and who was considered to be scarcely inferior to his elder mate in skill and coolness.
As we should have to quit the region of air-tubes, we were all provided with a metal bottle of compressed oxygenated air, which was suspended by a strap round our necks, and provided with a tube to which we could readily apply our lips when we needed a breath of air.
Each of us carried in his hand a short wooden spear about three feet in length, having at the end a sharp steel point about ten inches long.
The two huntsmen did not carry spears, but each had an instrument formed of a stout iron rod, about eighteen inches in length, armed at both ends with several sharp barbed points springing from a thick knob. They had also a harpoon, to the handle of which was attached a cord, which had at its free end an apparatus which opened out like a small umbrella when the cord was dragged rapidly through the water, presenting a large surface that opposed considerable resistance to the water.
The air-bottles and spears we carried being made so as to have the same specific gravity as the water did not affect our position in it; but the iron weapons of the huntsmen being so much heavier than water would have sunk their bearers, had they not restored their equipoise by inflating some of the cells of their weight-belts.
Near the coral barrier was a large cage containing a fine pack of lively pilot-fish, each about a foot long, their beautiful grey body encircled by several bands of bright blue. The huntsmen opened the door of the cage and allowed about a score to issue forth. They seemed to understand what they were wanted for, and frisked and gambolled round and about our party just like little dogs, evidently delighted at the prospect of the hunt.
These little fish, as is well known to naturalists, feel a strange attraction for the white shark, and are constantly seen in his company. Unlike other fish they have no fear of the fierce monster, but will pursue him wherever he goes, darting at his eyes, body and fins, and even approaching so near his mouth as to make it difficult to understand how they escape certain death from his lancet-shaped teeth, unless the shark entertains a friendly feeling for them.
This propensity of the pilot-fish has been utilized by the Colymbians, who train packs of them in order to scent out the quarry and guide the bold hunters to their huge game.
White sharks in these regions attain to a prodigious size. Specimens have been killed nearly forty feet long, with such capacious mouths that it would be easy for them to swallow a man at one gulp.
Raising the door that closed one of the tunnels, we all, including the pilot-fishes, which danced merrily before us, passed through the tunnel and emerged into the ocean beyond.
The appearance of the water beyond the barrier is quite different to what it is within the reef. There, as I have said, it is not very deep, and the bottom is composed of corals, astræas, madrepores, and seaweeds. But beyond the barrier at this point we came almost at once into water so deep that no bottom could be seen, and we looked down into a dark blue void which reflected no light from its depths. The appearance looking upward was also quite different. There was the circular opening with its thin prismatic border through which the sky was visible and any seafowl that might be flying overhead, but beyond the circular opening all was like a dark mirror, reflecting nothing but the white bodies of those of our party who were at a little distance from me.
As soon as we had gained the open sea, the pilot-fish left off their gambols and set themselves seriously to their work. They kept pretty close together and proceeded to hunt the water like well-trained pointers. We let them go some fifty yards in advance, and, preserving that distance between us, carefully watched their movements. For a considerable time they went wheeling about in every direction, always keeping well together, and moving to right or left as if all animated by one impulse.
All at once they left off wheeling about, and moved steadily forward in one direction, but so slowly and cautiously that they hardly seemed to move a fin.
The old huntsman, who was close to me, and under whose special charge I was advised to place myself, tapped on my arm: "He is not far off."
Advancing cautiously after our finny guides, it was not long before we perceived the dim outline of a gigantic shark suspended motionless in the water.
I confess to having experienced a most uncomfortable sensation as our diminishing distance revealed the stupendous proportions of this tiger of the sea.
The plucky little pack of pilot-fishes were soon alongside of him, and quitting their close formation, they distributed themselves on all sides of the unsuspecting brute. They darted at his head, his body, his fins, and especially at his eyes. Their vivacious attacks seemed rather to please the shark, who only showed signs of life by a slight quiver of his dorsal fin, or a languid movement of his dull but wicked-looking eye.
While the attention of the monster was thus occupied by his tiny teazers, the younger huntsman had crept up cautiously behind and beneath him, and on getting within a convenient distance he launched his harpoon at the fish's belly with such a sure aim that it buried itself over its projecting barbs in his body. At the same instant the previous apathy of the animal was changed to the wildest and most excited action. With vigorous strokes of his powerful tail he darted rapidly forwards. The little-pilot fish scampered off in every direction, and we followed as fast as we could the retreating form of the wounded, but still powerful creature. The umbrella-like appendage to the harpoon opening up offered a considerable obstacle to the shark's progress through the water, so that we were enabled to keep him well in sight. Our pack of pilot-fish, aware that their services were not required in the present state of matters, formed into a close phalanx and kept behind us. The pain of the harpoon or the obstruction caused by its drag soon caused the shark to relax the speed of his pace and enabled us to come to close quarters.
At once, he seemed to resolve no longer to fly from his tormentors, but, turning rapidly, he rushed boldly among us, his eyes glaring at us with a malignant expression of fishy ferocity. With much address, the hunters avoided his onslaught, and as he darted through their ranks, they dodged on one side, and several well-directed thrusts of their sharp spears added to the fury of the animal. As it passed the old huntsman, he dexterously planted his harpoon in the shark's flank, which doubled the obstacle to his passage through the water. Slowly turning, he again made for his enemies, who scattered to either side as before, all but the old huntsman, who rather threw himself in the direct line of the now slowly moving fish. He was slightly above the shark's level, and as the monster came beneath him, it suddenly turned round, belly upwards, opening its awful jaws, armed with a triple row of sharpest teeth. I was horror-struck, thinking it was all over with the gallant old huntsman. But I did not know his resources. Unawed by the gaping cavity that was opened to engulf him, the old hero thrust his hand, in which he held the iron weapon before described, deep into the creature's mouth. The jaws were suddenly approximated, but the pronged and barbed iron instrument, sticking into the flesh above and below, kept them from shutting, and the baffled monster lashed about him in impotent fury, "Now, boys, close in upon him!" signed the sturdy veteran, and we all rushed at the enfeebled creature with a will. A dozen spears were plunged into his bleeding flanks, quickly withdrawn, and plunged in again and again, and in a few moments this thing of terror lay a lifeless corpse in the blood-stained water. We measured him as he lay, and found that his length from snout to tip of tail was just thirty-one feet four inches. His gaping mouth had a triple row of sharp flat teeth, lying inclined towards his throat, rendering it impossible for any living thing that had once got into his capacious mouth to be withdrawn or ejected.
I asked the huntsman how we were to transport our magnificent bag to the reef. "Well," he said, "had we been farther from the reef, we should have had to drag him back as best we might. But as we are only about half a mile from home we need not be put to that trouble. Here, Jack!" he signalled to his companion, "go and whistle for the seals."
Jack immediately Began to mount to the surface, and I accompanied him, anxious to see what was coming next. On our heads rising above the surface of the water, we could just see the top of the reef, where several persons seemed to be on the outlook for us. Jack blew a shrill whistle on his fingers, whereupon a man, who was evidently watching for the signal, slipped the chain off the necks of two of the watch seals which lay beside him. These animals immediately flopped into the water and disappeared. In a few minutes their round bullet heads popped up beside us, and their large, intelligent-looking but flattish eye seemed to say, "Here we are; what do you wish us to do?" Jack patted them on the crown, and pointing down below, descended head-foremost. The seals and I quickly followed, and we were soon beside the rest of the company, who were waiting for our arrival. The harpoon-cords, which still hung from the shark's body, were fastened to the collars the seals wore, and they immediately set off with their heavy burden at a pretty good pace.
As the big body moved off, the little pilot-fish frisked around it as if in the exuberance of delight at the visible result of the day's hunt. The huntsmen went along with the seals to assist in getting the shark into the inhabited sea.
The sportsmen followed at their leisure discussing the events of the chase, and disputing with one another as to the relative size, strength and ferocity of this compared with other sharks they had hunted. One of the party produced a bottle filled with compressed exhilarating gas, which was passed from hand to hand, and increased our gaiety.
In this way we gained the enclosed sea, where we found a large number of ladies and gentlemen assembled to meet and congratulate us on our success. None of our party had been injured by the shark, if I except a smart smack on the back one of them had received from a whisk of his tail. I was told that accidents seldom happened, for though the shark looked so fierce and formidable, it was, on the whole, a stupid creature, and the awkward position of its mouth on the under surface of the head, rendering it always necessary for it to turn found on its back before it could bite at anything above it, always allowed a tolerably agile person to elude its snap. Legs and arms had occasionally been lost by inhabitants of Colymbia, but such accidents rarely, if ever, occurred to the hunters. The victims were almost invariably unarmed turtle-hunters or pearl-fishers, whom the sharks caught unawares.
The body of the shark, which was the perquisite of the professional huntsmen, was sold by them to the butchers. The flesh, though coarse and strong flavoured, finds a ready sale among the poorer people, and the skin is in great request for professors' collars, for straps and book-covers.
During my stay in Colymbia, I frequently enjoyed the exciting sport of shark-hunting. Sometimes we would fail to find a fish; sometimes the game, after being wounded, would make his escape, with a harpoon sticking in his body; sometimes we were so fortunate as to meet with two in company, both of which we would bag; and, sometimes, we would capture a brace or two of turtle, which we would bring home alive. But I need not detail the incidents of other shark-hunts, as I have so much more to say about other features of life in Colymbia.