Popular Science Monthly/Volume 4/November 1873/The Shovel-Nosed Shark



THE following sketch from Nature (Fig. 1) represents the jaw of a young shark—a tender innocent, indeed, for, if his life had not been cut short by cruel Fate, he would have attained to the dignity of nine rows of teeth, instead of the poor five which, as you may see inside the mouth, this little victim had been obliged to put up with. A shark's age is counted by the number of rows—and his jaws are the most awful engine of destruction which exists in the animal world: the best possible means that could be devised to seize, to cut and tear, and finally to hold fast any slippery subject, though of no use to chew or masticate.

Still there seems a superfluity of naughtiness in this array of edges and serrated points, set thus, one range following up another, as shown in Fig. 2. What could he want with five rows of teeth? It is almost dangerous to run one's finger over them; the points are like knives, the jagged edges along the finely-modulated curves of each three-cornered tooth are so keenly sharp.

There is a sort of hinge in the middle of both upper and lower jaw, and from this centre the teeth point different ways, gradually diminishing to a mere root. Each is a brightly polished piece of ivory, and each little jag of the graduated saws is exquisitely finished, and varies according to its position. The mouth in question only measures nine and eleven inches across, and is about two feet round, but in a full-grown monster the jaws are wide enough to pass over a man's shoulders without touching them. The snout is rounded, with very small eyes almost at the top of his head.

The shark is the scavenger of the sea, the equivalent of the hyena on land, and he swallows whole whatever offal is flung overboard from the ships bolting it without any action of the teeth, unless when his prey is too large to go conveniently down his throat, and he breaks it up as it passes.

The stomach-coats are extremely strong, and some action seems to go on in it to prepare the food for the gastric juice, as a substitute for the mastication with which other warm-blooded animals reduce it to a pulp in their mouth.

He is so fearless in his voracity, and follows a ship so pertinaciously, that his habits are better known than most of the sea-denizens, and familiarity does not certainly in this instance breed either respect or affection.

With the passengers on board the merchant-vessels to and from Australia, shark-fishing is a favorite pastime. One of these, lately caught, was twenty feet long. "Our ship was at anchor, and I was holding a line over the side, when the rope began to quiver. I felt that I had hooked a large fish, and, pulling it cautiously, a large shark came to the surface. I called out loudly, when all the passengers came to my help. He struggled, however, so violently, lashing the water with his tail, and trying to bite the hook asunder, that we were obliged to keep dipping his head under water, and then haul him up two or three feet so that the water ran down into his stomach. We went on repeating this till he was nearly drowned, then sending a running bowline down the rope by which he was caught, and making it taut under his hindermost fin, we clapped the line round the steam-winch, and turned the steam on. Some then hauled his tail up, while all available hands dragged at the other line which held his

Fig. 1.

PSM V04 D076 Infant shark jaw.jpg

The Jaw of the Infant Shark.

head. As soon as we got him on board, he sent about three feet of the ship's bulwarks out by a lash of his tremendous tail—which was cut off by the boatswain with a hatchet, while a dozen of us with bowie-knives finished him and opened his maw. Inside we found six large snakes, two dozen lobsters, two empty quart-bottles, a sheepskin and horns, and the shank-bones of beef which the cook had thrown over-board two days before. The liver filled two large wash-deck tubs, and when the cook melted it down we got ten gallons of oil, which sold at Brisbane at 4s. 6d. a gallon." When his remains were thrown over the side, they were as usual very soon disposed of by his affectionate friends and relations, waiting near, and delighted to profit by the good fortune. The flesh is not bad eating when young.

The shark is always attended by a small blue pilot-fish, which swims about five yards in front of him, and evidently guides him and warns him of danger, his unwieldy size and length making it difficult for him to turn. The pilot-fish appears to do his kindly offices from pure friendship, with no filthy lucre of gain; but he probably benefits in some way by the leavings of his great ally, or the small fry which gather round a dead prey. There is another (strictly speaking) parasite which attends the shark—the sucker-fish, about sixteen inches long, which fastens itself on to him by a curious patch at the back of its head, not unlike the sole of an India-rubber shoe: this adheres with such force that a strong man can hardly drag the fish away when it has thus fastened itself to the deck. Sometimes twelve or fifteen of them may be seen hanging on to one shark. Probably they find it convenient to seek their food, thus traveling, as it were, on their own carriage, free of cost or trouble, and rushing through the water at a rate which their unassisted exertions would certainly never attain.

Fig. 2.

PSM V04 D077 Shark teeth.jpg

Fig. 2. Sharks' Teeth.

But, on the other hand, they must endure some very hard quarters of an hour, when their great friend gets into trouble, helplessly hanging on to his fortunes as they are.

The perils of the sea are certainly doubled in the regions where these dreadful jaws are to be found. And the certainty of such a death was one of the most touching parts of the simple heroism shown by the soldiers on board the Birkenhead. As is well known, she was a transport-vessel employed to take out detachments to various regiments in South Africa, with the wives and children. She struck on a pointed rock near Simon's Bay, and it was soon found impossible to save her. The men were drawn up on deck by their commanding officer, and not a man stirred from his place as the women and children were put into the few boats and sent off in safety to the land. Then, standing as firmly as if on parade, with the sharks swimming around, the whole body of men, with their officers, went down in the ill-fated ship, very few of them being able to reach the shore.

There are more gallant things done in quiet, unobserved moments, and obscure corners of the earth, even than before the enemy. It was far more difficult thus in cold blood to face a dreadful death, with no excitement or sympathy from without, than to fight a whole array of cannon in a Balaklava charge.

A young engineer-officer, some years back, was stationed in New Zealand, in a very out-of-the-way district, far from the settled country. He was a gallant fellow, full of high aims and objects; besides which he rode well, shot well, could manage a boat, and swim admirably, and had attained a twofold influence over the natives by his fearless courage and his noble nature.

One stormy winter's afternoon, the sea running excessively high, and a tremendous surf over the bar, a ship was seen laboring into the roadstead of the small village near which he lived; she was hoisting signals of distress, and was believed to be an expected immigrant-vessel, and therefore with women and children on board.

The weather was so bad that there seemed no chance of her outliving the gale, and not a sailor on the shore would lend a hand to help, when Captain Symonds proposed to man a boat. Perhaps it may be said that they knew the perils to be encountered better than a landsman, however expert. Captain Symonds then called upon the Maories to join him, and they immediately followed him into a risk of life which the Englishmen refused to encounter, and for the sake of sufferers not of their own race or country.

The boat pushed off; the wind was on the shore, the surf running in violently, and a cross-sea made it more dangerous; the bay, too, was known to be full of sharks. Still, however, the little boat held on till within a few cables' lengths of the distressed vessel, which was watching them anxiously, when the tremendous heave of a wave struck her side and she was capsized. Captain Symonds was seen swimming undauntedly toward the shore, holding on by an oar, but he was swallowed up by the sharks before he had made any way. Two of the gallant black fellows escaped. The vessel perished in the gale.

It required a far higher kind of courage to face such a death, on that dark stormy winter's evening, in the attempt to rescue unknown passengers on board an unknown ship, than to storm the worst breach ever surmounted in war, surrounded by one's comrades in the heat of a battle raging in one's sight. The simple doing of God's work at the moment when it was required, with no interior bargaining as to the "worth while" of the sacrifice, in this obscure corner of the earth (as it then was), by this young fellow, with his aspirations, his love of life, his healthy longing after distinction, and the distinguished career open to him, made his death as gallant an act as can be found even in the long record of such deeds to be told of our English soldiers and sailors, the largest portion of which are scarcely heard of at the time, and are forgotten quickly afterward.

The sharks are certainly not heroic themselves, but they are the cause of a great deal of heroism in others.—Good Things.