Jack Shark by Louis Becke
"What is the greatest number of sharks that you have ever seen together at one time?" asked an English lady in San Francisco of Captain Allen, of the New Bedford barque Acorn Barnes.
"Two or three hundred when we have been cutting-in a whale; two or three thousand in Christmas Island lagoon."
Some of the hardy old seaman's listeners smiled somewhat incredulously at the "two or three thousand," but nevertheless he was not only not exaggerating, but might have said five or six thousand. The Christmas Island to which he referred must not be mistaken for the island of the same name in the Indian Ocean--the Cocos-Keeling group. It is in the North Pacific, two degrees north of the equator and 157.30 W., and is a low, sandy atoll, encompassing a spacious but rather shallow lagoon, teeming with non-poisonous fish. It is leased from the Colonial Office by a London firm, who are planting the barren soil with coconut trees and fishing the lagoon for pearl-shell. Like many other of the isolated atolls in the North Pacific, such as the Fannings, Palmyra, and Providence Groups, the lagoon is resorted to by sharks in incredible numbers; and even at the present time the native labourers employed by the firm alluded to make a considerable sum of money by catching sharks and drying the fins and tails for export to Sydney, and thence to China, where they command a price ranging from 6d. to 1s. 6d. per pound, according to quality.
The lagoon sharks are of a different species to the short, thick, wide-jawed "man-eaters," although they are equally dangerous at night time as the deep-sea prowlers. The present writer was for a long time engaged with a native crew in the shark-catching industry in the North Pacific, and therefore had every opportunity of studying Jack Shark and his manners.
On Providence Lagoon (the Ujilong of the natives), once the secret rendezvous of the notorious Captain "Bully" Hayes and his associate adventurer, Captain Ben Peese, I have, at low tide, stood on the edge of the coral reef on one side of South Passage, and gazed in astonishment at the extraordinary numbers of sharks entering the lagoon for their nightly onslaught on the vast bodies of fish with which the water teems. They came on in droves, like sheep, in scores at first, then in hundreds, and then in packed masses, their sharp, black-tipped fins stretching from one side of the passage to the other. As they gained the inside of the lagoon they branched off, some to right and left, others swimming straight on towards the sandy beaches of the chain of islets. From where I stood I could have killed scores of them with a whale lance, or even a club, for they were packed so closely that they literally scraped against the coral walls of the passage; and some Gilbert Islanders who were with me amused themselves by seizing several by their tails and dragging them out upon the reef. They were nearly all of the same size, about seven feet, with long slender bodies, and their markings, shape, and general appearance were those of the shark called by the Samoans moemoeao ("sleeps all day"), though not much more than half their length. The Gilbert Islanders informed me that this species were also bàkwa mata te ao (sleepers by day) at certain seasons of the year, but usually sought their prey by night at all times; and a few months later I had an opportunity afforded me of seeing some hundreds of them asleep. This was outside the barrier reef of the little island of Ailuk, in the Marshall Group. We were endeavouring to find and recover a lost anchor, and were drifting along in a boat in about six fathoms of water; there was not a breath of wind, and consequently we had no need to use water glasses, for even minute objects could be very easily discerned through the crystal water.
"Hallo! look here," said the mate, "we're right on top of a nice little family party of sharks. It's their watch below."
Lying closely together on a bottom of sand and coral débris were about a dozen sharks, heads and tails in perfect line. Their skins were a mottled brown and yellow, like the crustacean-feeding "tiger shark" of Port Jack-son. They lay so perfectly still that the mate lowered a grapnel right on the back of one. He switched his long, thin tail lazily, "shoved" himself along for a few feet, and settled down again to sleep, his bedmates taking no notice of the intruding grapnel. Further on we came across many more--all in parties of from ten to twenty, and all preserving in their slumber a due sense of regularity of outline in the disposition of their long bodies.
The natives of the low-lying equatorial islands--the Kingsmill, Gilbert, Ellice, and Tokelau or Union Groups--are all expert shark fishermen; but the wild people of Paanopa (Ocean Island) stand facile princeps. I have frequently seen four men in a small canoe kill eight or ten sharks (each of which was as long as their frail little craft) within three hours.