Popular Science Monthly/Volume 80/January 1912/Collecting on a Coral Reef




ONCE every three weeks a 6,000-ton steamer leaves San Francisco for Sydney. You sail with it six days from gray and cold water to warm and blue, and touch at Honolulu. They let you off for tiffin with poi "cocktails" in a hotel hanging over the sliding surf on wondrous Waikiki. You make the swift drive up the showery Nuuanu Valley past the tombs of the Kamehamehas and the flower gardens of the lei sellers, to the Pali, where you look over the ridge of the island and see the ocean on the other shore. Then you come back and re-embark. Six days more—due south these days and the water all blue and the days all warm and the equator crossed on the fourth day—and you whistle hoarsely in front of a lone mountain towering out of the tropic ocean. Then, as you have knocked, you move slowly in at the open door of a great water-filled bowl, which is simply the yawning crater of a dead volcano that makes all there is of Tutuila, a microscopic island appanage of these imperial United States.

The sides of this bowl, which are the inner faces of the crater, lift swiftly for two thousand feet above the water, and are all clothed and made soft by the velvet-seeming tropic bush that clings to every climbing yard. Around the water's edge runs a narrow strip of gleaming coral sand, and here are the toadstool native house and the white government buildings of the port village, Pago-Pago. Here too are the dense, dark-green heads of bread-fruit trees and the gently curving, lazily swaying, slender trunks of cocoanut palms holding up their heavy feather-duster tops. And along this beach stroll the loafing, chattering, friendly Samoans with their naked shoulders shining with fresh anointment of odorous cocoanut oil and loins encircled with the gaudiest of lava-lava. For this is steamer day, and there are unsophisticated, globetrotting, amateur antiquarians to be sold ancient war clubs to,—clubs hastily whittled out and dented and smoke-blackened since our hoarse whistle sounded before the crater's gate.

But for our coral-reef collecting we are going to the larger German island, Upolu, with its harbor town Apia, made memorable by the great hurricane of '95 which turned warring factions of English, German and American sailors on warships and Samoan braves on shore into common savers of one another's lives. The children of nature showed their God-head in that terrible day and night, and the republican president of eighty millions of people did no more than recognize the brotherhood of man when he sent Seeumanu, sturdy, half-naked chief of a few hundred brown barbarians, the gift of a rich boat to commemorate the day of revelation.

Now Upolu, whereon sits Apia, is about eighty-five miles away from Pago-Pago on Tutuila where the American steamers touch, and so we must descend from the high decks of our 6,000-ton Sydney packet to the spray-wet planks of the Kawau, inter-island messenger and carry-all. I had long had my misgivings about these last eighty-five miles of our ocean voyaging from San Francisco to the Samoan reefs. And these misgivings were not abated when I ventured to ask the captain of the Ventura something of the figures, as to tonnage and knots, of his little ocean sister, the Kawau. Quietly and unexplosively he expectorated over the gunwale of the upper deck where we stood.

"Sir, if the Kawau were alongside I could spit into her funnel from here," said he. Inelegant, perhaps, but sufficiently expressive to give me forthwith a symptom.

It was even so. Thirty-five is the Kawau's tonnage figure. The boats that the bare-legged Paris children sail in the round pool of the Tuileries gardens look larger and roomier to me than the Kawau as I recall these two types of vessels now. But our reef lay eighty-five miles away across the heaving swells of a trade-wind irritated ocean. And the Kawau was the only boat going our way. So we transshipped. Boxes and bags went into a tiny cavity amidships called cabin. We sprawled faa Samoa (native-wise) on the salt-encrusted deck. My own seat was a coil of tarry rope on the stern grating. As the swift tropic twilight fell we issued from the harbor's mouth and rode full tilt against the first great swell. All night were we a-Jousting. "We had, from the start, hardly any symptoms. It all looked too dangerous to waste time or handicap oneself with seasickness. The soft tropic night wore on, while we momentarily expected the apparently certain overwhelming. Far in the middle of the long dark hours, as we slid about on the slippery deck, face to the strange new star pictures of the southern sky, the captain came aft, surrendering the wheel to a native roust-abou—ah, quartermaster, and, opening a microscopic cellular deck-closet, went in, leaving the little door ajar. Soon streamed out a fitful light and the extraordinary sounds of a cheap gramophone, singing "Lead, Kindly Light"! Even the captain had apparently lost all hope!

With the first soft gray light of morning we stared hard to port where land should lie. Soon the lifting shores of Upolu took form. We nosed through a narrow opening in the fringing reef and hove-to in a shallow bay bordered shoreward by a flat crescent of white sand beach. Along this beach we could pick out, in the swiftly growing light, the low white houses of Apia. Behind the houses was the dense green mass of the tropic bush sloping upward and broken here and there by the towering even lines of the great cocoanut plantations. Still higher rose the volcanic ridge and peaks that make the roof of the island. The nearer of these forest-covered peaks, lying immediately behind Apia, is Mount Vaea, Stevenson's mountain. On a shoulder of this dark green mountain is Stevenson's grave, with its low, flat tomb like those of the Samoan chieftains. And under this grave-crowned shoulder, lying beautifully in a little open space amid tall trees, is Vailima, the house of the five streams. There are no longer five streams there, but only two, which come trickling down the long hill slopes to pour their slender threads of fresh water into Apia harbor.

A bustling German customs house officer clambered aboard and we went through the formalities of civilized travel. They were less irritating than usual, and soon we were free to choose among the eager naked-backed boatmen that clamored in the water about us like sea gulls quarreling over ship's refuse. Waiula, old grizzle-haired, strongfaced, sinewy-armed Waiula, claimed us by virtue of his special insistence and our natural deference to age. We rowed in past the great rusted hulk of the German warship Adler, lying beached on the reefs, conspicuous relict and reminder of the awful hurricane, and made our way, sleepy-eyed, exhausted and despondent to a two-story frame building on the beach, conspicuously labeled "Tivoli Hotel." Here we sat, silent and helpless, until coffee could be made. With coffee and breakfast and a morning nap, the world was new again and we turned our eager attention to the problem before us, that of getting acquainted with the life of the coral reefs.

The islands of the Pacific are of two types; either all made of coral, or mostly made of volcano with fringing coral reef. Indeed the "all coral" islands are only so on top, for they are simply volcanoes whose summits do not project above the water's surface, but do come near enough it to support a persistent coral growth. This builds up on its volcanic support an atoll or islet rising a few yards above the ocean level. The more striking and beautiful islands are volcanic peaks which lift their great masses for four or five, seven or eight, even for thirteen or fourteen, thousand feet above the water. Most of these volcanoes are dead, but some are alive, as Mauna Loa on Hawaii and the recently reopened and still flaming volcano on Savaii of the Samoan group. But practically every volcano island has its coral reefs, either fringing or barrier or both. Like a ring of Saturn the flat-topped band encircles the volcano's waist at the ocean surface, and in the shallow waters and innumerable pools on the reef the naturalist finds a rich collecting ground. We paid close attention to the tides, and every day the ebb would find us working on the half-exposed reef, prying into crevices, breaking up dead coral masses, wading the green water, and ever scraping intimate acquaintance with uncouth crawling things of the sea, made visible for an hour in their shallow prison pools. Not all uncouth, either, for of marvels of color and pattern, bizarre and beautiful, there was never lack.

In echinoderms, that is, star fishes, brittle stars, sea-urchins and sea cucumbers, the Samoan reef is very rich. I think we took some two dozen species. An abundant star fish is ultramarine blue, with slender, smooth-surfaced rays. A curious large, reddish-brown, ugly-seeming kind has heavy coarse spines an inch or more long, scattered over it, and these spines sting. Many specimens of the brilliant blue star fish were found with arms slightly or badly mutilated, but all regenerating. I have some specimens by me now which show that even a part of a single arm can regenerate all the rest of the body, that is, a new disc and four new arms besides the remainder of the single mutilated arm.

Of slender-rayed brittle stars there are brown and green and mottled sorts, some with white cross bands on each arm, and all with the fragile arms breaking away with the least roughness in handling. Often merely the contact with the preserving fluids seems to be sufficient for a general epidemic of arm-shattering. Among the sea urchins a kind with very slender, long, almost needle-like spines is abundant. These spines are not only sharp, but stinging, and often a warning tingle told the exploring hand in crevice or pool bottom of the presence of this well-protected little urchin. Another slender-spined sort has white bands around each spine, so that the thickly beset body is black-and-white barred. A larger kind has its heavy spines each encircled by two or three rings at small distances apart. Still a larger species shows heavy, thick, blunt spines much like miniature baseball bats.

We were not the only sea-urchin collectors on the reef. With each low tide would come forth a score or more of natives, mostly half-clad women and children, who would wade about in the shallow water of the reef and among the scattered pools collecting choice tit-bits for an evening feast. Among these morsels a certain sea-urchin seemed to be favorite. Often the collectors could not restrain their appetites and would crack open the brittle tests, and suck out and swallow raw some choice inner part.

The sea-cucumbers were very abundant; they lay scattered over the whole reef top, in some places one to every square foot. A large greenish-black form about ten inches long, with four-sided body, and unusually firm body wall with short blunt tubercles; a soft-skinned dark-brown form about six inches long when not extended, but capable of great extension, found between tide lines under stones; and a small spotted brown and white kind three to four inches long, were the three most abundant species; but several other kinds were common, among them a small black knobby sort, the real beche de mer of the Samoans. Collecting sea-cucumbers is easy, but preserving them is not. Rough handling of any sort and above all the plunge into the preserving fluid inevitably caused the cucumbers to eject from the mouth opening a considerable portion of their insides, comprising most of the esophagus, stomach and intestines. This extraordinary behavior tended both to ruin the specimens and to make a rather messy lot of preserved material. Occasionally not only cucumber stomach would come out, but also an active and astonished little live fish. This fish, called Fierasfer, seems to have adopted for more or less permanent home the inside of sea-cucumbers. It is a slender, active, bright-eyed little creature which has certainly displayed an extraordinary cleverness in the life-and-death game of hide and seek with its enemies.

Octopuses and squids came to be familiar acquaintances in the reef pools. None of these were large, the pulpy, sack-like body of the largest octopus found being perhaps not more than a foot long, with arms of twice that length, but with its staring eyes and hooked beak and sucker-armed tentacles even a small octopus looks very ferocious and capable of making serious trouble. The squids with their power of ejecting a dark fluid, discoloring all the water in the pool so that nothing could be seen in it, had the further protection of concealment. We scientific collectors were hard pressed in our search for octopuses by the food-hunting natives. These devil-fish are much sought for by natives and are reputed to taste, when cooked, much like chicken. The most effective way of rendering the octopus harmless and helpless in its collector's hands is that of turning it inside out, which is a means regularly practised by the natives. It seems to require, however, a particular knack which we never learned.

There were, of course, hosts of crabs, little crabs, middle-sized crabs and big crabs; red and green and polka-dotted. Rather frightening at first were the active, foot-long Squillas with sharp knife-blade claws. Even more terrifying was a specimen (brought to us by a native) of the great cocoanut crab, Birgus. These tough customers have a body seven or eight inches across, and great long strong legs extending a foot on either side. Their shell was of the hardest and their grasping claws of the strongest. They spend most of their time in the cocoanut plantations, feeding upon the fallen nuts. Just how they get at the tender meat inside the cocoanut shell is more or less a question. The natives tell you that the great crab climbs a cocoanut tree, snips off a cocoanut, thus letting it fall heavily three or four score of feet to the ground. It perchance falls on a stone, but even if not it is likely to be broken, anyway. The crab, descending, then tears open the cracked shell and scoops out the rich food. Perhaps this extraordinary crab does this thing. We never saw it. But that it feeds upon cocoanuts is quite certain. Its flesh is much prized for salad and has a distinct flavor of the nut.

Of the multitude of reef-inhabiting shells and their variety one can not even venture to speak. The natives use many of the smaller gasteropod shells in making necklaces. Often these little shells are strung alternately with red or yellow seeds. The many cowries attract attention, particularly a small white one with light-brown black-bordered ellipse which is the most abundant shell on the reefs. A large fluted shell, called by the Samoans faigua, is not uncommon, and its flesh is eaten raw by the natives. Many of the shells housed active little hermit crabs, and as we worked about the pools there was a continuous rapid scuttling about of these strangely tenanted houses.

Less familiar animals were the various marine worms, brilliantly colored nudibranchs and the unsavory looking fleshy masses of large pteropods. One of these salt-water worms looked almost exactly like the familiar fuzzy brown caterpillar of the Isabella moth that scurries about across our sidewalks and pathways in winter time. The most extraordinary, as well as the most famous, worm of the Samoan reefs is that curious creature called the palolo, which with a certain phase of the moon in November of each year appears in myriads in the shallow reef waters and is gathered with feverish haste by the natives as the choicest food of the whole year's finding. To be accurate, they are not the worms themselves which thus appear, but only certain parts of the worm body, the egg-producing parts, which break off from the rest of the worm, lying in crevices in the reef far below the water's surface. Mayer has recently described the similar habits of an Atlantic palolo common on the Dry Tortugas.

As for the "coral insects" themselves, they have been so often pictured and so much written about, that their graceful shapes and marvelous colors are familiar to all readers. As a matter of fact, we saw curiously little of live coral, and that which we saw was by no means brilliantly colored. The live zone of a coral reef is that part on its outer or seaward margin where the surf is always breaking and the water is pure and clean. The great mass of the reef is composed of dead coral, the shattered, crushed and compacted lime skeletons of millions of dead individuals, and this rock mass, this limestone ledge, is of dirty grayish or brownish white with no beauty of color at all.

Where we did see all the marvel of color and pattern that one must find on a tropic coral reef, or be sadly disappointed, was in the deeper, larger pools near the seaward edge of the reef. Imagine all the most brilliantly colored and strangely patterned tropic butterflies that you have ever seen pinned up in dead rows in museum cases alive and disporting themselves in clear water! You have before you then in your mind's eye no more extraordinary or beautiful sight than that actually afforded by the butterfly fishes of the pools of the tropic coral reefs. Robin's egg blue and indigo, green and cadmium yellow, red, brown and softest rose, scarlet, crimson, magenta, lavender and royal purple, pink, salmon and tawny—all these colors laid on in dots and spots and splashes, in lines and bars and polygons, and you have the paints and the painting of the fish harlequins of the pools. Flashing back and forth, lurking under projecting stones, rushing into dead coral heads and coming reluctantly half paralyzed to the surface as we used the collector's favorite methods, this display of fantastically colored fish life was the most conspicuous feature of each day's seeing.

Off the reef in the deeper water were larger fishes and many of them too also extraordinarily colored and patterned. The parrot fishes with their blue and green ground color and their livid pink and salmon and rose markings were every-day prizes of our divers. The taking of the off-shore fish (in water from two to six fathoms deep) had an element of excitement in it. Small dynamite sticks were exploded in the water to stun the fish and make them easily captured by the naked divers. In one end of a small, wobbly canoe would stand a native with a dynamite stick in one hand and a slow-burning piece of wood, or better, a lighted cigar, in the other. Leaning down backward in the extreme other end of the canoe would be the naturalist! When we reached a good position he would light the short fuse of the explosive and holding it almost to the last moment before explosion (much as a boy holds on to his big firecracker on Fourth of July mornings) he would hurl it overboard. The explosion would take place a few feet under water, and on the moment in would plunge the active divers from a second canoe. Altogether, in our short two months collecting, we took more than five hundred species of fishes from the reefs and shallow adjacent waters of the two Samoan islands. Of these fully one hundred are species hitherto unknown to naturalists.

Of the long, glowing days under the ardent southern sun; of the soft, odorous tropic nights; of the feastings and council meetings with the friendly, hospitable natives; of our glimpses between working hours of the lotus-eating life that makes even the shortest stay in the tropics a fascinating memory and that leaves an ever-persistent longing; of all this there is no space for even a word. We have only now to pack our boxes and specimen cases, to send a stirring petition to the Commandant at Pago-Pago to save us from another ocean trip in the Kawau by sending the American gunboat for us, and to make final transshipment to the great Sydney-San Francisco liner, to make an end of our summer's work and play.