Popular Science Monthly/Volume 26/January 1885/Gladiators of the Sea

IN the ancient city of Siena, secluded among the hills of Northern Italy, Christopher Columbus received his education, and there, over the portal of the old collegiate church, hangs a memento of his
PSM V26 D351 Swordfish.jpg
Fig. 1.—The Sword-Fish (Xiphias gladius).

earliest voyage across the Atlantic. It consists of the arms and armor worn by the discoverer when he first set foot upon land in the New World, and the weapon of a native killed by his men before they reached the shore—the sword of a sword-fish. The names of this fish in he principal languages of Europe are simply variations of the Gladius of ancient Italy, and Xiphias, the name by which Aristotle, the father of zoology, called the same fish twenty-three hundred years ago. At the very inception of binomial nomenclature Linnæus called it Xiphias gladius, by which name it has been known to science ever since. The form of the sword-fish may be seen in Fig. 1. It is without scales. Its color is a rich purplish blue above, shading into silvery white beneath; the lower side of the beak is brownish purple. A sword-fish which does not exceed the average weight of a man is a small fish; the average weight is about three hundred and fifty pounds, and doubtless many attain the weight of five hundred pounds, but fish weighing above six hundred are exceptional. Newspapers are fond of recording the occurrence of giant fish, weighing fifteen hundred pounds and upward, and old sailors will in good faith describe the enormous fish which they saw at sea but could not capture; one well-authenticated instance of accurate weighing, however, is much more valuable. The average extreme length seems to be eleven feet, of which the sword is nearly four feet. A fish has been taken by Captain Benjamin Ashby, a New England sword-fisherman, whose sword measured almost six feet. The fish when salted weighed six hundred and thirty-nine pounds, so that its live weight must have been as much as seven hundred and fifty pounds.

The sword-fish ranges along the Atlantic coast of America from Jamaica to Nova Scotia; it is abundant on the shores of Western Europe, entering the Baltic and Mediterranean Seas, and is found also on the west coast of Africa, about New Zealand, and along the Pacific coast of America from Peru to California. On the coasts of Maine, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island they abound in the summer months; their occurrence off New York is not unusual, but in our Southern waters they do not appear to remain.

A sword-fish when swimming near the surface usually allows its dorsal fin and the upper lobe of its caudal fin to stand out of the water several inches. It is this habit which enables the fisherman to detect the presence of the fish. It commonly swims so slowly that a fishing-smack with a light breeze has no difficulty in overtaking it, but when excited its motions are very rapid and violent. Many curious instances are on record of attacks by this fish upon ships. Ælian, who wrote a little later than 200 a. d., says that the sword-fish has a sharp-pointed snout with which it is able to pierce the sides of a ship and send it to the bottom. He describes the sword as like the beak of the ship known as the trireme, which was rowed with three banks of oars. In 1871 the little yacht Redhot, of New Bedford, was out sword-fishing, and a sword-fish had been hauled in to be lanced, when it attacked the vessel and pierced her side so as to sink her. The London "Daily News" of December 11, 1868, contained the following paragraph, probably from the pen of Professor R. A. Proctor: "Last Wednesday the Court of Common Pleas—rather a strange place, by-the-by, for inquiring into the natural history of fishes—was engaged for several hours in trying to determine under what circumstances a sword-fish might be able to escape scot-free after thrusting his snout into the side of a ship. The gallant ship Dreadnaught, thoroughly repaired and classed A 1 at Lloyd's, had been insured for three thousand pounds against all the risks of the seas. She sailed March 10, 1864, from Colombo for London. Three days later the crew while fishing hooked a sword-fish. Xiphias, however, broke the line, and a few moments after leaped half out of the water, with the object, it should seem, of taking a look at his persecutor, the Dreadnaught. Probably he satisfied himself that the enemy was some abnormally large cetacean, which it was his natural duty to attack forthwith. Be this as it may, the attack was made, and at four o'clock the next morning the captain was awakened with the unwelcome intelligence that the ship had sprung a leak. She was taken back to Colombo, and thence to Cochin, where she was hove down. Near the keel was found a round hole, an inch in diameter, running completely through the copper sheathing and planking. As attacks by sword-fish are included among sea-risks, the insurance company was willing to pay the damages claimed by the owners of the ship if only it could be proved that the hole had really been made by a sword-fish. No instance had ever been recorded in which a sword-fish had been able to withdraw his sword after attacking a ship. A defense was founded on the possibility that the hole had been made in some other way. Professor Owen and Mr. Frank Buckland gave their evidence, but neither of them could state quite positively whether a sword-fish which had passed its beak through three inches of stout planking could withdraw without the loss of its sword. Mr. Buckland said that fish have no power of backing, and expressed his belief that he could hold a sword-fish by the beak; but then he admitted that the fish had considerable lateral power, and might so 'wriggle its sword out of a hole.' And so the insurance company will have to pay nearly six hundred pounds because an ill-tempered fish objected to be hooked, and took its revenge by running full tilt against copper sheathing and oak planking."

The instrument with which such damage is done is a flat, bony prolongation of the upper jaw, which tapers slightly to a nearly square end. Fig. 2, although representing the weapon of a very young fish, will serve to show the appearance of the upper and under sides of the sword. Its material is not very hard, and it would fail to pierce a ship's timbers but for the enormous swiftness with which it is driven by the charging fish.

An unsigned article in "Harper's Weekly" for October 25, 1879, contains a mention of a sword being found, in 1725, imbedded as deeply in the side of the British ship Leopard as an iron bolt of the same size could be driven by nine strokes of a twenty-five-pound hammer. Yet the fish drove it in at a single thrust. The same writer tells the following still more remarkable story: "On the return of the whale-ship Fortune to Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1827, the stump of a sword-blade of this fish was noticed projecting like a cog outside, which, on being traced, had been driven through the copper sheathing, an inch board under-sheathing, a three-inch plank of hard wood, the solid white-oak timber twelve inches thick, then through another two and-a-half-inch hard oak ceiling, and lastly penetrated the head of an oil-cask, where it stuck, not a drop of the oil having escaped."

One of the traditions of the sea, time-honored, believed by all mariners, handed down in varied phases in a hundred books of ocean travel, relates to the terrific combats between the whale and the swordfish aided by the thresher-shark. The fierce gladiator was said to attack from below, goading his mighty adversary to the surface with his terrible weapon, while the thresher, at the top of the water, belabored him with his long, PSM V26 D354 Sword of young swordfish.jpgFig. 2.—Sword of Young Sword-Fish. lithe tail. Skeptical modern science is not satisfied with this interpretation of any combat at sea seen at a distance. It recognizes the improbability of aggressive partnership between two creatures so different as the sword-fish and a shark, and explains the turbulent encounters occasionally seen at sea by ascribing them to the attacks of the killer-whale upon larger species of the same order.

Such a large animal as the sword-fish can have but few formidable antagonists. The tunny, or horse-mackerel, other sword-fishes, and sharks, are its only peers in size, and of these the sharks are probably its worst foes. Mr. John A. Thomson, of New Bedford, states that the bill-fish is an inveterate enemy. Bill-fish appear about the last of the season, and the sword-fish are sure to leave soon after. Many species of parasites are found upon the sword-fish; some hang on the gills, others fasten themselves to different parts of the alimentary canal, and others still bore into the flesh. They may be divided into two groups, worm-like parasites and crustacean parasites, the latter resembling small crabs and lobsters. Several species, as might be expected from the size of the fish, are among the giants of their races. There is also a species of remora or sucker which is often found attached to the gill-cover of the sword-fish, and to no other fish. It is, however, to be regarded as a messmate rather than as a true parasite. Although sword-fish are so plentiful in American waters, they are never seen of less than three feet in extreme length. Old fishermen who have taken and dressed them by the hundreds state that they have never found any traces of spawn in them. The absence of young fish and spawning females would indicate that they do not breed on our coast. In the Mediterranean the young are so plentiful as to be a common article of food. The appearance of the young fish when about an inch and a half long is shown in Fig. 3.

Menhaden, mackerel, bonitoes, blue-fish, and other species which swim in close schools, are the usual food of the sword-fish. A school of small fish has been seen crowded together near the surface, when their enemy appeared rising through the dense mass, and half out of water, and literally fell upon them with the sword and slew them in large numbers. Menhaden have been found floating which have been cut nearly in two by a blow of the sword. It is in pursuit of these fish that the sword-fish come to our Northern Atlantic shores in the summer months. The sword-fishery season opens in the neighborhood of Sandy Hook about the first of June; the fish are very abundant about Block Island and Nantucket in July and August, disappearing with the first cold weather in October. They are, like mackerel, at first very poor and lean, but as the season advances they grow fatter. For many years from three to six thousand have been taken annually on the New England coast, and there are no signs of any decrease or increase in their numbers. It is not unusual for twenty-five or more to be seen in the course of a single day's cruising, and sometimes as many as this are in sight from the mast-head at one time. One Gloucester schooner, the Midnight, Captain Alfred Wixon, took fourteen in one day, in 1877, on George's Banks.

The apparatus ordinarily employed for the capture of the swordfish is a harpoon with a detachable head. The pole is of hard wood, fifteen or sixteen feet in length, and from an inch and a half to two inches in diameter. To this is fastened an iron rod or shank, about two feet long and five eighths of an inch in diameter, and having a deep socket into which the pole sets. Upon the end of the shank fits somewhat securely the head of the harpoon, known to the fishermen by the names "sword-fish iron," "lily-iron," and "Indian dart." The lily-iron consists of a two-pointed piece of metal, having a socket running lengthwise on one side at the middle. In this is inserted the end of the harpoon-shank, and to it or near it is attached also the harpoon-line. When the iron has been plunged point first into the body of the fish, it is released by the withdrawal of the pole from the socket, and, by the pull of the line attached at its middle, is at once turned crosswise to the opening through which it entered, and is thus prevented from withdrawal.

The fish are always harpooned from the end of the bowsprit of a

sailing-vessel. All vessels regularly engaged in this fishery are
PSM V26 D356 Young swordfish and western atlantic spearfish tetrapturus albidus.jpg
Fig. 3.—Young of Sword-Fish

Fig. 4.—The Western Atlantic Spear-Fish
(tetraptus albidus). Poey.

supplied with an apparatus for the support of the harpooner, which consists of a wooden platform about two feet square, upon which the harpooner stands, and an upright bar of iron three feet high, rising from the tip of the bowsprit just in front of this platform. At the top of this bar is a bow of iron in a nearly circular form, to surround the waist of the harpooner. This structure is called the "rest" or the "pulpit." A man is always stationed at the mast-head, whence, with the keen eye which practice has given him, he can easily descry the tell-tale dorsal fins at a distance of two or three miles. When a fish has been sighted, the watch "sings out," and the vessel is steered directly toward it. The skipper takes his place in the pulpit, holding the harpoon with both hands by the upper end, and directing the man at the wheel by voice and gesture how to steer. When the fish is from six to ten feet in front of the vessel, it is struck. The harpoon is not thrown; the strong arm of the harpooner punches the dart into the back of the fish beside the dorsal fin, and the pole is withdrawn. The line is from fifty to one hundred and fifty fathoms long, and the end is either made fast on board the smack, or attached to a keg or some other form of buoy and thrown overboard. After the fish has exhausted himself by dragging the buoy through the water, it is picked up, the fish is hauled alongside, and killed with a lance. In the mean time, several other fish may have been struck and left to tire themselves out in the same way. The following interesting account of the taking of a sword-fish is from an article by Mr. C. F. Holder, published several years ago in "Forest and Stream": "The man waited until we were almost upon them, and as one of them turned, as if in idle curiosity, to see what the great shadow meant, he hurled a spear, and the next moment the huge fish sprang from the water and, with a furious twist, tried to shake out the iron. So great was the effort that it fell on its side with a crash, and for a moment was still, but it was only for a second. The line jumped into activity, and rushed out so you could not follow it, now swaying to and fro and making the water fly like rain. About fifty feet of line had gone out, when six of us managed to get a fair hold on the line, and attempted to try our strength. If six individuals were ever jerked around in a more vivacious manner, they have my utmost sympathies. Now the swordfish would land us all together in a heap, then slacken up, and take us unawares, throwing us to the deck with a force that fully came up to my preconceived ideas of the sport. He would undoubtedly have dragged us all overboard if the rope had not been sure and fast. This sort of fun was kept up for about fifteen minutes, when the fish perceptibly weakened, and the long rushes to the right and left grew feebler and feebler, until we ventured to haul in. At last we had the brute alongside. A rope was rigged from the peak and fastened around the long sword, and the monster was rolled on board the sloop. We measured our game, which was nine feet six inches long. Though I have frequently caught sharks which measured thirteen feet, I never saw any that showed near the strength of this peculiar creature." This marine gladiator is not always content to seek only to escape. He knows the capabilities of the weapon which he wields, and sometimes proves a powerful antagonist, sending his pursuers' vessel into harbor almost sinking from injuries which he has inflicted. The fishermen, too, occasionally receive injuries from his sword. One of Captain Ashby's crew was severely wounded by a sword-fish which thrust its beak through the bottom of a boat in which the man was standing, and penetrated two inches into his naked heel. One or two instances are on record of the capture of sword-fish upon an ordinary hand-line, and it is probable that this is much more common than has been usually supposed. Within the past few years it has not been unusual for sword-fish to become entangled in the long lines of halibut-fishermen on the northern banks. This manner of taking them is, of course, purely accidental, and is rather vexatious than otherwise to the fishermen.

The bulk of the yearly catch is sold fresh. Most of the fish are taken into New Bedford, and some are carried to New London. Until quite recently nearly all were disposed of in that vicinity. About 1864 a few were sent to Boston as an experiment, and the demand for sword-fish in that market has since rapidly increased. It is not well known in New York. When the first fish reaches New Bedford, it is eagerly sought at twenty cents a pound retail. In 1873 within forty-eight hours after the arrival of the first one, fifty-two were brought in, bringing the retail price down to eight and ten cents, for which the fish clear of bone is usually retailed throughout the season. The wholesale price for "clean fish" is about twelve cents for the first catch, falling rapidly to two or three cents. The fish is of a gray color, its texture is coarse, somewhat resembling halibut, and though a trifle oily is a very acceptable article of food. Its flavor is by many considered fine, and is not unlike that of the bluefish. Sword-fish are usually cut up into steaks, thick slices across the body, which may be broiled or boiled.

In Fig. 4 is shown another member of the sword-fish family, the bill-fish or spear-fish. It occurs on our Atlantic coast from the West Indies to Southern New England, and in nearly the same foreign waters in which its more celebrated relative is found. It resembles the sword-fish in movements and manner of feeding. About Mauritius they are taken in deep water with hook and line, or speared when near the surface. When hooked or speared they are said to make for the boats, taking tremendous leaps in the air, and if care is not taken they will jump into the boats, or pierce them with their bills, to the great consternation of the fishermen. The species attains a large size, one having been seen measuring twenty-six feet. The fish is highly esteemed in the Mauritius. Near the backbone it is of a salmon-color; lower down it is red and like coarse beef.

The sail-fish is a member of this family, and is especially notable for its enormous dorsal fin. Its range may be said to be from 30° south to 40° north latitude.

PSM V26 D359 The american sailfish istiophorus americanus.jpg
Fig. 5.—The American Sail-Fish (Histiophorus Americanus).

No observations have been made upon the sail-fish in this country. In the life of Sir Stamford Raffles there is the following account from Singapore, under date of November 30, 1822: "The only amusing discovery we have recently made is that of a sailing-fish, called by the natives Ikan layer, of about ten or twelve feet long, which hoists a main-sail, and often sails in the manner of a native boat, and with considerable swiftness. I have sent a set of the sails home, as they are beautifully cut, and form a model for a fast sailing-boat. When a school of these are under sail together they are frequently mistaken for a fleet of native boats." The appearance of this fish is shown in Fig. 5.

A sketch of the gladiators of the sea would not be complete without some mention of the saw-fish and the narwhal. The saw-fish family is allied to the sharks, having a similar elongated and rounded body, and unequal tail-lobes. They are found in most warm seas and even near the poles; one species is met with all along the Atlantic coast of the United States. They are rapid swimmers. The mouth is on the under side of the head, and is furnished with teeth which are adapted to crushing crustaceans and similar creatures upon which they feed, and not for tearing flesh. Behind the eyes they have two large blow-holes.

The common saw-fish reaches a length of twelve to fifteen feet, of which the saw is about one third. It carries a much uglier weapon than the sword-fish, for along the edges of its beak are set pointed conical teeth, two or three inches apart. The number of teeth on each side varies from twenty to thirty. The "saw" is not used by being drawn backward and forward: in killing small fishes for food, the saw-fish charges among them, striking to the right and left with the serrated edges of its beak, and generally succeeds in disabling a considerable number. When a whale is the creature attacked, this terrible weapon is plunged into the soft, blubber-covered body of the cetacean, the saw-fish avoiding by superior agility the strokes of the tortured animal's tail, any one of which would end the career of the daring gladiator. His weapon is often found deeply imbedded in the side of a ship, and even after the death of its original owner the beak may still inflict grievous wounds, for the Polynesians are fond of using it as a sword.

The narwhal belongs to the order of whales, and hence is not a fish. When full grown it reaches a length of about sixteen feet; it has the rounded body and horizontally flattened tail of the whales, but its head is small and rounded more like that of the seal. It inhabits the Arctic seas, and is a valuable game for the Greenlanders, as its flesh is much prized by them, and it yields a moderate quantity of very delicate oil. The color of its skin is gray, varied by darker streaks and patches, and shading from almost black above to white underneath. The curious horn to which the narwhal owes its fame is not a prolongation of the jaw as in the case of the fishes just described, but is a long tooth, like the tusks of the elephant or the boar. In the upper jaw of the young narwhal are found two small tusks, which in the female regularly remain undeveloped throughout her life. In the male the left tusk grows into a spirally grooved rod, sometimes attaining the length of ten feet. A large narwhal's tusk has no small commercial value, for the. ivory is very hard and solid, will take a high polish, and keeps its beautiful whiteness a long time. Several ingenious speculations have been made in regard to the use of this remarkable growth; killing fish for food and breaking breathing-holes through the ice are two uses suggested which fail to account for the long tusk being confined to the males. The females certainly can not live on air alone, nor without air, and they can not count on always having a male near to wait upon them. It is more probably to be accounted for by the same reasons which explain the possession of horns, tusks, or mane by the males only of some land mammals. Rarely the right tusk is developed instead of the left, and sometimes the female has a weapon like that of her mate. One female has been taken with both tusks developed, one being seven feet in length, the other five inches longer. Like his fellow-gladiators of the sea, the narwhal will occasionally thrust his gigantic foil into the side of a ship, where it usually breaks off, and, fitting the hole like a plug, seldom causes a leak. Narwhals are generally seen in herds of fifteen or twenty; they will come close about a ship, apparently from curiosity, and it is one of the most entertaining sights of the northern seas to watch them plunging about, spouting spray from their blow-holes, and clashing their long weapons together as if fencing.

  1. This article is largely made up from "Materials for a History of the Sword-fishes," by G. Brown Goode, in the "United States Fish Commission Report for 1880," from which the cuts have also been obtained.