Brammo Bay has its garden of coral — a border of pretty, quaint and varied growth springing up along the verge of deep water. It is not as it used to be — no less lovely than a flower-garden of the land. Terrestrial storms work as much if not greater havoc in the shallow places of the sea as on the land. Pearl-shell divers assert that ordinary “rough weather” is imperceptible at a depth of two fathoms; while ten fathoms are generally accepted as the extreme limit of wave action, however violent the surface commotion. Yet in the shallow sea, within the Barrier Reef in times of storm and stress, not only are groves of marine plants torn and wrenched up, but huge lumps of coral rock are shattered or thrown bodily out of place and piled up on “uproarious beaches.”
A storm in March, 1903, which did scarcely any damage to vegetation ashore, destroyed most of the fantastic forms which made the coral garden enchanting. In its commotion, too, the sea lost its purity. The sediment and ooze of decades were churned up, and, as the agitation ceased, were precipitated — a brown furry, slimy mud, all over the garden — smothering the industrious polyps to whom all its prettiness was due. Order is being restored, fresh and vigorous shoots sprouting up from the fulvid basis; but it may be many years before the damage is wholly repaired and the original beauty of the garden restored, for the “growth” of coral — the skeletons of the polyps — is methodical and very slow. We speak of coral as if it were a plant, yet the reproduction is by means of eggs, and the polyp is as much an animal as a horse or an elephant.
In times past the marine garden comprised several acres in which were plants of almost every conceivable shape and form, and more or less bright and delicate in colour. Fancy may feign shrubs, standard and clipped; elaborate bouquets, bunches of grapes, compact cauliflowers, frail red fans. Rounded, skull-like protuberances with the convolutions of the brain exposed, stag-horns, whip-thongs yards long, masses of pink and white resembling fanciful confectionery, intricate lace-work in the deepest indigo blue, have their appointed places. Some of the spreading plant-like growths are snow-white, tipped with mauve, lemon-coloured tipped with white, white tipped with lemon and pale blue.
On the rocks rest stalkless mushrooms, gills uppermost, which blossom as pom-pom chrysanthemums; rough nodules, boat — and canoe-shaped dishes of coral. Adhering to the rocks are thin, flaky, brittle growths resembling vine-leaves, brown and golden-yellow; goblets and cups, tiered epergnes, distorted saucers, eccentric vases, crazily-shaped dishes. Clams and cowries and other molluscs people the cracks and crevices of coral blocks, and congregate beneath detached masses and loose stones. In these fervid and fecund waters life is real, life is earnest. Here, are elaborately armoured crayfish (PALINURUS ORNATUS), upon which the most gaudy colours are lavished; grotesque crabs, fish brilliant in hue as humming-birds. Life, darting and dashing, active and alert, crawling and slithering, slow and stationary, swarms in these marine groves.
A coral reef is gorged with a population of varied elements viciously disposed towards each other. It is one of Nature’s most cruel battlefields, for it is the brood of the sea that “plots mutual slaughter, hungering to live.” Molluscs are murderers and the most shameless of cannibals. No creature at all conspicuous is safe, unless it is agile and alert, or of horrific aspect, or endowed with giant’s strength, or is encased in armour. A perfectly inoffensive crab, incapable of inflicting injury to anything save creatures of almost microscopic dimensions, assumes the style and demeanour of a ferocious monster, ready at a moment’s notice to cry havoc, and let loose the dogs of war. Another hides itself as a rugged nodule of moss-covered stone; its limbs so artfully stowed away that detection would be impossible did it not occasionally betray itself by a stealthy movement. The pretty cowrie, lemon-coloured and grey and brown, throws over its shining shoulders a shawl of the hue of the rock on which it crawls about, grey or brown or tawny, with white specks and dots which make for invisibility — a thin filmy shawl of exquisite sensitiveness. Touch it ever so lightly, and the helpless creature, discerning that its disguise has been penetrated, withdraws it, folding it into its shell, and closes its door against expected attack. It may feebly fall off the rock, and simulating a dead and empty shell, lie motionless until danger is past. Then again it will drape itself in its garment of invisibility and slide cautiously along in search of its prey. Under the loose rocks and detached lumps of coral for one live there will be scores of dead shells. The whole field is strewn with the relics of perpetual conflict, resolving and being resolved into original elements. We talk of the strenuous life of men in cities. Go to a coral reef and see what the struggle for existence really means. The very bulwarks of limestone are honeycombed by tunnelling shells. A glossy black, torpedo-shaped creature cuts a tomb for itself in the hard lime. Though it may burrow inches deep with no readily visible inlet, cutting and grinding its cavity as it develops in size and strength, yet it is not safe. Fate follows in insignificant guise, drills a tiny hole through its shell, and the toilsomely excavated refuge becomes a sepulchre. Even in the fastness of the coral “that grim sergeant death is strict in his arrest.” All is strife — war to the death. If eternal vigilance is the price of liberty among men, what quality shall avert destruction where insatiable cannibalism is the rule. There is but one creature that seems to make use of the debris of the battlefield — the hermit crab (CAENOBITA), which but half armoured must to avert extermination fit itself into an empty shell, discarding as it grows each narrow habitation for a size larger. Disconsolate is the condition of the hermit crab who has outgrown his quarters, or has been enticed from them or “drawn” by a cousin stronger than he, or who has had the fortune to be ejected without dismemberment. The full face of the red blue-spotted variety (PAGURUS PUNCTULATUS) is an effective menace to any ordinary foe, and that honourable part is presented at the front door when the tenant is at home. For safety’s sake the flabby gelatinous, inert rear end must be tucked and hooked into the convolutions of the shell, deprived of which he is at the mercy of foes very much his inferior in fighting weight and truculent appearance. The disinterested spectator may smile at the vain, yet frantically serious efforts of the hermit to coax his flabby rear into a shell obviously a flattering misfit. But it is not a smiling matter to him. Not until he has exhausted a programme of ingenious attitudes and comic contortions is the attempt to stow away a No. 8 tail into a No. 5 shell abandoned. When a shell of respectable dimensions is presented, and the grateful hermit backs in, settles comfortably, arrays all his weapons against intruders, and peers out with an expression of ferocious content, smiles may come, and will be out of place only when the aches of still increasing bulk force him to hustle again for still more commodious lodgings.
A frilled clam (TRIDACNA COMPRESSA) in its infancy seals or anchors itself in a tiny crack or crevice, and apparently by a continuous but imperceptible movement analogous to elbow-rooming, deepens and enlarges its cavity as it develops. Should it survive in defiance of all its foes, just taking from the sea the sustenance for which it craves with gaping valves, it may increase in bulk, but its apartment in the limestone never seems too large — just a neat fit In its abiding-place it presents an irregular strip of silk, green as polished malachite, or dark green and grey, or blue and slaty green, mottled and marbled, with crimped edges and graceful folds — an attractive ornament in the drab rock. Touch any part — there is a slow suspensory withdrawal, and then a snap and spurt of water as the last remnant of the living mantle disappears between the interlocking valves of porcelain white.
Apart from the bulk and the fantastic shapes of coral structures, there is the beauty of the living polyps. That which when dry may have the superficial appearance of stone plentifully pitted — a heavy dull mass — blossoms with wondrous gaiety as the revivifying water covers it. The time to admire these frail marine flowers is on an absolutely calm day. All the sediment of the sea has been precipitated. The water is as transparent as rock crystal, but like that mineral slightly distorts the object unless the view is absolutely vertical. It is a lens perfect in its limpidity. Here is a buff-coloured block roughly in the shape of a mushroom with a flat top, irregular edges, and a bulbous stalk. Rich brown alga hangs from its edges in frills and flounces. Little cones stud its surface, each of which is the home of a living, star-like flower, a flower which has the power of displaying and withdrawing itself, and of waving its fringed rays. Each flower is self-coloured, and may represent a group of animals. There are blues of various depths and shades from cobalt to lavender, reds, orange and pinks, greens, browns and greys, each springing from a separate receptacle. All are alike in shape — viewed vertically, many-rayed stars; horizontally, fir-trees faultlessly symmetrical in form and proportion. These flowers all blossom, or trees, or stars, are shy and timorous. A splash and they shrink away. The hope of such wilderness — as barren-looking as desert sandstone — ever blossoming again seems forbidden. Quietude for a few moments, and one after another the flowers emerge, at first furtively but gathering courage in full vanity, until the buff rock becomes as radiant as a garden bed.
Upon coral blocks, which represent the skeletons of polyps in orderly and systematic profusion, other creatures more highly organised appear, having in one feature a family likeness to the polyps, upon whose hospitality they impose, that is, if the setting up of an establishment on the remains of innumerable ancestors of its host may be said to be merely an imposition. One is a species of mollusc which resembles, in some respects, that to which has been given the name of SURPULA. In its babyhood it attaches itself to the coral, and forthwith begins to build a home, which is nothing more than a calcareous tube, superficially resembling a corpulent worm, instantaneously petrified while in the act of a more or less elaborate wriggle or fantastic contortion. In this complicated tunnel the creature resides, presenting a lovely circular disc of glowing pink as its front door. A few inches beneath the water this operculum or lid is not unlike a pearl, but as you gaze upon it, it slips on one side, and five animated red rays appear, waving like automatic flag signals. Though well housed, it is almost as timorous as the coral polyps. Upon the least alarm the rays disappear in a twinkle, and the pink pearl trap-door glows again. Break off the end of the shelly tunnel in an attempt to secure the pearl, and it is as elusive as a sunbeam. It recedes as piece by piece is broken away, until the edge of the cylinder is flush with the surface of the coral in which the shell is embedded. There the pearly operculum glows in safety.
The living rays or flower-like face are the features in which this encased worm resembles the coral polyps on the one hand and the houseless beche-de-mer on the other. Some of the numerous inhabitants of the reef, struggling to keep in the fashion, make the very best of five simple points. Others flaunt with no apparent vanity or pride quite a plume, of complex rays more or less beautifully coloured. A worm which occasionally swims like a water snake, and again reposes inertly on the sand, as does the beche-de-mer, sets off its brown naked body with a red nimbus — a flexible living nimbus, ruby red.
The visible part of the organism of the coral polyps is composed of rays, from the sides of which spring secondary rays, the combination producing complex stars of great beauty and which call to mind the frost flowers, and the flowers into which some inorganic substances bloom as they crystallise.
The congested state of a coral reef, and the inevitable result thereof — perpetual war of species and shocking cannibalism — have been referred to. Another result of the overcrowding has yet to be mentioned. Possibly there may be those who are disinclined to credit the statement that some of the denizens take in lodgers. But the fact remains. Having ample room and to spare within their own walls, they offer hospitality to homeless and unprotected strangers, whom graceless Nature has not equipped to take part in the rough-and-tumble struggle for existence outside. A tender-hearted mollusc (PINNA) accepts the company of a beautiful form of mantis-shrimp — tender, delicate and affectionate — which dies quickly when removed from its asylum, as well as a singular creature which has no charm of character, and must be the dullest sort of lodger possible to imagine. It is a miniature eel, which looks as if it had been drawn out of rock crystal or perfectly clear glass. There is no apparent difference between the head and the tail, save that one end tapers more gradually than the other. Very limited power of motion has been bestowed upon it. It cannot wriggle. It merely squirms in the extremity of laziness or lassitude. These two keep the PINNA company — the lively shrimp, pinkish brown and green with pin-point black eyes, and the little eel as bright and as transparent yet as dull and insipid as glass. One of the oysters attracts the patronage of a rotund crab, which in some respects resembles a tick, and a great anemone a brilliant fish — scarlet and silver defined with purple hair lines — which on alarm retires within the ample folds of its host.
The flowers of a coral reef live. A bouquet of lavender-coloured, tender, orderly spikes has a gentle rhythmical, swaying movement. A touch, and by magic the colour is gone — naught remains but a dingy brown lump on the rock, whence water oozes. Another form of plant-like life takes the colour of rich green — the green of parsley, and faints at the touch, as does the sensitive plant of the land. Another strange creature, roughly saucer-shaped, but deep grey mottled with white and brown, continuously waves its serrated edges and pulsates at the centre. It starts and stops, contracts and withdraws steadily into the sand upon interference.
One of the shrimps (GONODACTYLUS CHIRAGRA) in my experience found only far out on the reef at dead low-water winter spring-tides, might be taken as a display collection in miniature of those gems of purest ray serene which the dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear. The emerald-green tail is fringed with transparent golden lace; the malachite body has the sheen of gold; the chief legs are of emerald with ruby joints, and silvery claws; the minor as of amber, while over all is a general sheen of ornamentation of points and blotches of sapphire blue. Long white antennae, delicate and opaque, spring from the head. The decorative hues are not laid on flat, but are coarsely powdered and sprinkled as in the case of one of the rarest of Brazilian butterflies, and they live. Picture a moss-rose with the “moss” all the colours of the rainbow, on which the light plays and sparkles, and you have an idea of the effect of the jewellery of this lustrous crustacean. Yet it is not for human admiration. Its glints speedily dim in the air. To be gobbled up by some hungry fish is the ordinary fate of the species. Possibly splendour is bestowed upon the shrimp as a means by which certain fish distinguish a particularly choice dainty, and the fish show the very acme of admiration by “wolfing” it. Thus are the examples of high art in Nature remorselessly lavished.
Quite distinct is the unconscious genius which now demands brief reference to its perfections. Though a brilliant example of the employment of unattractive deceptive features, it has no individual comeliness — not an atom of grace, no style of its own. Every feature, attitude and movement is subordinate to the part it plays. Death being the penalty, it may not blunder. Behold, among acres of similar growth, a trivial collection of rough, short weeds of the sea — grey, green and mud-coloured. This microcosm glides and stops. The movement is barely perceptible; the intervals of rest long and frequent. An untimely slide as the chance gaze of the observer is directed to the spot, betrays that here is the centre of independent life and motive. The dwarf, unkempt weeds cloak a meek, weak, shrinking crab, whose frail claws and tufted legs are breeched with muddy moss, and whose oddly-shaped body is obscured by parasitic vegetation and realistic counterfeits thereof. Inspection, however critical, makes no satisfactory definition between the real and the artificial algae, so perfectly do the details of the moving marine garden blend with the fringes and fur of the animal’s rugged and misshapen figure and deformed limbs. As an artistic finish to a marvellous piece of mummery, in one of the crude green claws is carried a fragment of coral, green with the mould of the sea. It and the claw are indistinguishable until, in the faintest spasm of fright, the crab abandons the coral, and shrinking within itself becomes inanimate — as steadfast a patch of weeds as any other of the reef. Recovering slowly from its fright, and conscious of the necessity for each detail of its equipment and insignia, the lowly crustacean timidly re-grips the coral, and holding it aloft, glides discreetly on its way, invisible when stationary, most difficult to detect when it moves.
To see the coral garden to advantage you must pass over it — not through it. Drifting idly in a boat in a calm clear day, when the tips of the tallest shrubs are submerged but a foot or so, and all the delicate filaments, which are invisible or lie flat and flaccid when the tide is out, are waving, twisting and twining, then the spectacle is at its best. Tiny fish, glowing like jewels, flash and dart among the intricate, interlacing branches, or quiveringly poise about some slender point — humming-birds of the sea, sipping their nectar. A pink translucent fish no greater than a lead-pencil wriggles in and out of the lemon-coloured coral. Another of the John Dory shape, but scarcely an inch long, blue as a sapphire with gold fins and gold-tipped tail, hovers over a miniature blue-black cave. A shoal darts out, some all old-gold, some green with yellow damascene tracery and long yellow filaments floating from the lower lip. A slender form, half coral pink, half grey, that might swim in a walnut shell, displays its transparent charms. Conspicuous, daring colours here are as common as on the lawn of a race course. Occasionally on the edge of a reef there comes the fish of frosted silver, with hair like purple streamers floating from the dorsal fin a foot and more behind. Some call it the “lady” fish, because of its beauty and grace, and others the diamond trevally (ALECTIS CILIARIS). More frequently is seen “the sleepy fish,” salmon-shaped, of resplendent copper, with bright blue blotches and markings, which remains motionless in the water, and so often awakens not until the spear of the hungry black is fast in its shoulders.
Another handsome creature of olive green with blue wavy stripes and spots (FISTULARIS SERRATUS) has the shape of a gar-fish, and to counterbalance a long tubular snout, a slender filament resembling the bare feather shaft of some bird of paradise extending from the tail.
With all its fantastic beauty a coral reef is cruel. Nearer the shore the stony blocks are overspread by masses of that singular skeleton-less coral, known as alcyonaria — partaking of the nature of rubber and of leather — an ugly, repulsive, tyrannous growth, over-running and killing other and more delicate corals, as undesirable pests crowd out useful and becoming vegetation. It occurs in varying colours and forms — sickly green and grey, bronze and yellow, brown and pink. Loathsome, resembling offal in some aspects as the receding tide lays it bare, it becomes pretty and interesting when covered with calm, limpid water, and its dull life flourishes with star-like, living flowers.
Before our coral garden was as familiar as it is, it was said that on one of the reefs of Dunk Island there reposed a colossal clam — one of the giants of the variety known to science as TRIDACNA GIGAS. So prodigious was the alleged specimen, that no one had been able to remove it, and it was dimly suggested that the occupant of the island would easily become possessed of a very marvel among molluscs. So far, its resting-place has not been discovered, though all the reefs have been explored many times, nor do any of the natives know of its existence. Very few reefs, if all reports are to be credited, are without monstrous clams, but they seem to acquire the habit of suddenly disappearing — quite foreign to their bulk and stay-at-home character — when the time of anticipated capture approaches. One up a little north was stated to be over 10 feet long, and to weigh at least a ton, and 14 feet was alleged to be the size of another. But all disappear like will-o’-the-wisps when the search-party arrives on the scene, and none but ordinary specimens, that have no reputation to maintain, are there to flout the ardour of the collector.
Circumscribed as it is, the garden of coral in Brammo Bay, now slowly recovering its lost loveliness, supplies an excellent field for the observation of some of the most wonderful of the processes of Nature. In many respects it is a miniature, as most fringing reefs seem to be, of the Great Barrier.
It would be an exhibition of hopeless vanity to attempt to describe the many varieties of coral and fish and crabs and strange grotesque creatures low in the scale of life which are unceasingly at work within “coo-ee.” The complexity of the subject from a scientific aspect is sufficient justification for reluctance to set down anything beyond casual experiences and personal observation, and the record of ever-recurring pleasure obtained from the delights of the marine garden. Special attainments and varied lore must be at the command of the student who would attempt to classify the marvels of a coral reef of even limited scope. When it is remembered that the Great Barrier Reef of Queensland —“one of the most valuable possessions of the state”— has a length of 1,250 miles; that some of its outlying reefs extend as far from the coast as 150 miles; that some approach as close as 10 or 12 miles; that the average distance of the outer edge from the coast-line is 30 miles; that it embraces an area of 80,000 geographical square miles, and that its corals, continuous and detached and isolated, teem with life, it is impossible to repress feelings of astonishment, wonder, and admiration.
Subdued before such a vast phenomenon, the commonplace man calms his aspirations for knowledge by the reflection that industrious and skilled observers have years of study before them ere they come to know all the secrets of the Great Barrier.
“A strange fish! Were I in England now (as once I was), and had but this fish painted, not a holiday fool but would give a piece of silver.”
Of curious and pretty shells there are so many varieties in these warm waters, that one must be well versed in conchology before daring to attempt an enumeration even of the commonest. I frankly admit “a little learning is a dangerous thing” in this interesting branch of natural science, and therefore cannot pledge myself to give details, while eager to set forth a few of the objects of interest, which present themselves to the open-minded though uninformed observer of sea-beaten rocks, mud flats, coral reefs, and the open sea.
Well may the dabbler despair when nine titles are necessary to catalogue the oysters alone — oysters which vary from the size and independence — and the toughness (be it said) of the clam, to delicate morsels, so crowded and cemented in communities together, that they form bridges between severed rocks and shelves and cornices broad and massive; oysters flatter than plates, oysters tubular as service gas-pipes; the gold-lipped mother of pearl, the black-lipped mother of pearl, the cockscomb, the coral rock oyster, the small but sweet rock oyster, two varieties of the common rock oyster, besides the trap-door, the hammer, and another of somewhat similar shape whose official and courtesy title are both alike unknown, but which furnished knives and sharp-edged tools of various shapes to the original inhabitants of the island. The gold-lipped mother of pearl is rarely found, favourable conditions for it — deep water and strong currents — not being general. An occasional stray shell is picked up, and so far none has betrayed the presence of a valuable pearl. The black-lip occurs on the reefs, but not in any great quantity, and the most plentiful variety of the edible oyster is bulky in size and somewhat coarse in flavour.
Apart from the rarity and beauty of some of the denizens of the reefs, there are others that are singular and interesting, and some whose intimate acquaintance is quite undesirable, save from a scientific and safe standpoint. A miniature marine porcupine decorates its slender spines of white with lilac tips, sharp as needles, brittle as spun glass, and charged with an irritant which sets all the nerves tingling. On the reefs uncouth fish pass solitary, isolated lives, in hollows and crevices of the coral, sealed up as are the malodorous hermits in rocky cells at Lhassa, and dependent for doles upon the profuse and kindly sea. Their bodies seem to mould themselves roughly to the shape of the hollows to which each has grown accustomed as crude but almost inanimate castings. To obtain perfect specimens the mould must be shattered. If the body does not yet fill the hollow, the inhabitant clings desperately to it, wedging itself with wonderful plasticity into odd corners and against niches, resisting to the last efforts at eviction. Torn from its home the fish is a feeble, helpless creature, incapable of taking care of itself, quite unfit to be at large, though apparently belonging to the self-reliant shark family.
More than one species of fish, it is said, inhabit these coral grottoes. A compact creature with prominent rodent teeth ejects a spurt of water when its retreat is approached at low tide, while about its front and only door are strewn (after the manner of the “bones, blood and ashes” of the two giants in the valley through which Christian of THE PILGRIM’S PROGRESS passed) the shells of the crustaceans and molluscs it has devoured.
Stones hide creatures of forbidding but varying shape and colour — diminutive bodies ovate and round — brown, grey, glossy black with brown edgings, pink with grey quarterings and grey fringe, whence radiate five sprawling slender “legs,” a foot or so long. Though doubtful in appearance, more in consonance with the creepy imagery of a nightmare than a reality of the better day, these are merely the shy and innocent brittle stars. They are endowed with such exquisitive sensitiveness that to evade capture they sacrifice, apparently without a pang, their wriggling legs piece by piece, and each piece, large or small, squirms and wriggles. The poet says that when the legs of one of the heroes of “The Chevy Chase” were smitten off, “he fought upon their stumps!” The voluntary dismemberment of the brittle star may be even more pitiful — in fact almost complete, yet it still strives to pack away its forlorn body in some crevice or hollow of the coral rock. It has been asserted that no one has ever captured by hand a brittle star perfect in all its members. “One baffled collector,” said a highly entertaining London journal recently, “who thought that he had succeeded in coaxing a specimen into a pail, had the mortification of seeing it dismember itself at the last moment, and asserts that the eye which is placed at the end of a limb gave a perceptible wink as he picked up the fragment!”
Here too, most of the “brittle stars” are self-conscious to the point of self-obliteration. But some, though still quite worthy the specific title FRAGILISSMA, which science has bestowed upon the tribe, may, if taken up tenderly, be handled without the loss of a single limb, and a limb more or less can hardly be of consequence to a creature which, no greater than half a walnut shell, possesses five, each 12 or 14 inches long, and supplied with innumerable feet. Further, so far, none of the vestiges of those that have committed the form of hari-kari, fashionable among the species, has been observed to behave in any way unbecoming the shyest, most retiring and most sensitive of creatures. The brittle star discards its limbs, or the best part of them, in the meekest manner possible.
To enumerate the smaller and lowlier of the many creatures that live on the coral reef would be a task utterly beyond ordinary capability. The reader must be content with reference to a few of the more conspicuous of the denizens.
Beware of the stone fish (SYNANCEIA HORRIDA), the death adder of the sea, called also the sea-devil, because of its malice; the warty ghoul because, perhaps, of its repulsiveness; the lion fish, because of its habit of lurking in secret places; the sea scorpion for its venom; and by the blacks “Mee-hee.” Loathsome, secretive, inert, rough and jagged in outline, wearing tufts and sprays of seaweed on its back, scarcely to be distinguished from the rocks among which it lurks, it is armed with spines steeped in the cruelest venom. Many fish are capable of inflicting painful and even dangerous wounds, but none is to be more dreaded than the ugly and repulsive “stone fish.” Haply, it is comparatively rare. Conceal itself as it may among the swaying seaweed as it lies in ambush ready to seize its prey, or partially bury itself in the mud, it seldom eludes the shrewd observation of the blacks. With a grunt of satisfaction it is impaled with a fish-spear and placed squirming on a rock to be battered to pulp with its prototype — a stone. Utter destruction is the invariable fate of any stone fish detected in these waters, the belief of the blacks being that in default fatal effects follow a wound. But a black who suffers the rare chance of contact fortifies his theoretical cure of pulverising the offending fish by immersing the injured foot or hand in running water for a whole day, the popular treatment for all venomous wounds. As to the effect of the wound they say, “Suppose that fella nail go along your foot, you sing out all a same bullocky all night. Leg belonga you swell up and jump about? Bingie (belly) belonga you, sore fella. Might you die.” One boy described the detested creature —“That fella like stone. Head belonga him no good — all hole.” A graphic way of detailing a rugged depression in the head, which conveys the idea that the bones have been staved in by a blow with a hammer.
The stone fish resembles in character and habits the death adder. Its disposition is pacific, it has no forwardness of temper; is never willing to obtrude itself on notice, trusting to immobility and to its similitude to the grey rocks and mud and brown alga to escape detection. Unless it is actually handled or inadvertently trodden upon, it is as innocent and as harmless as a canary. Why then should it be furnished with such dreadful weapons of offence? A full dozen of the keenest of spines, all in a row, extend from the depression at the back of the head towards the tail, each spine hidden in a jagged and uneven fringe, which, when the fish is in its natural element, can scarcely be distinguished from seaweed. Not until the warty ghoul acquires the sagacity which accompanies ripe age and experience, does it encourage deceptive plumes of innocent algae to anchor themselves to its back. Then it is that detection is beyond ordinary skill, and its presence fraught with danger. In a specimen 8 inches long, the first spine, counting from the head, can be exposed half an inch, the second and chief fully three-quarters, and the remainder graduate from half to a quarter of an inch. Each spine — clear opal blue — is surrounded by a sac of colourless liquid (presumed to contain the poisonous element), which squirts out as the spine is unsheathed. On the sides, and in lesser numbers on the belly, are irregular rows of miniature craters which on being depressed eject, to a distance of a foot or more, a liquid resembling in colour milk with a tinge of lavender. Fast on the points of a spear the fish gives an occasional and violent spasmodic jerk, when the prettily tinted liquid is ejected from all the little cones. After a pause, during which it seems to concentrate its energies, there is another and another twitch, each the means of sprinkling broadcast what is said to be a corrosive liquid, almost as virulent as vitriol. From almost any part of the body this liquid exudes or can be expelled.
With its upturned cavernous mouth (interiorly a forbidding sickly green), its spines, its cones, its eruptions, its ejecta, its great fan-shaped pectoral fins, and its deformities generally, the stone fish well deserves the specific title of HORRIDA. Moreover, has it not a gift which would have brought it to the stake a few score years ago, as a sinful, presumptuous and sacrilegious witch — that of living for an hour or two out of its natural element. It deserves the bad eminence to which it has been raised by the blacks on accounts of looks alone, and if the poisonous qualities are in line with its hideousness, one can but pause and ponder why and wherefore such a creature has existence in “this best of all possible worlds.” But it is known that to the Chinese it is dainty. They pay for it with good grace as much as 2s. 6d. per lb., and the flavour is said to resemble crab.
Another inhabitant of the coral garden to be avoided is the balloon fish (TETRAODON OCELLATUS), which distends itself to the utmost capacity of its oval body when lifted from the water. The flesh is generally believed to be poisonous, though of tempting appearance. Authorities assert that the pernicious principle is confined to the liver and ovaries, and that if these are removed as soon as the fish is captured the flesh may be eaten with impunity. Let others careless of pain and tired of life, experiment. Middle-aged blacks tell that when a monstrous “Burra-ree” was speared here, notwithstanding its evil repute, some of the hungry ones cooked and ate of it. All who did so died or were sick unto death. Some years ago two Malays in the vicinity of Cairns partook of the flesh and died in consequence. No black will handle the fish, and a dog which may hunt one in shallow water and mouth it, partakes of a prompt and violent emetic. Blacks are very careful to avoid touching it with anything shorter than a fish-spear, being of opinion that the poison resides in or on the skin, and that the flesh becomes impregnated when the skin is broken.
The balloon fish is toothless, the jaws resembling the beak of a turtle, and in some species both the upper and the lower jaws have medial sutures like those of a snake. Was there not a Roman statesman or warrior whose jaws were fitted with a consolidated and continuous structure of ivory instead of the ordinary separate teeth?
The balloon fish depends upon its inconspicuousness and harmony with its environment in the struggle for existence, for, no doubt, there are in the sea fish so strong of stomach as to accept it without a spasm. It will allow a boat to be paddled over it as it floats — a brown balloon — almost motionless in the water without evincing alarm, but it makes a commotion enough for a dozen when a spear is fast in its back.
Among the more remarkable fish that people these waters is a species that does not come within the limits of my limited reading on the curious things of Nature. No doubt, it is well known to the initiated, but I take the opportunity of saying that these notes are not penned with the presumptuous notion of enlightening the learned and the wise, but for the edification, mayhap, of those who do not know, who have no means of acquiring information first hand, to whom text-books are unavailable, and who are not above sharing the pleasures of one whose observations are superficial, and to whom hosts of common things in Nature are rare and entertaining.
In the clear water of Brammo Bay, a greenish black object, a yard across by about a yard and a half long, moved slowly along, swaying this way and that, but maintaining a fairly accurate course consistent with the shore. As the boat drifted, it seemed as if an unsophisticated sting-ray had lapsed into the blissfulness of ease, careless alike of mankind and of its enemies in the water. When within reach the boat-hook was used as a spear more to startle the indolent fish than in the vain hope of effecting its capture. The boat-hook passed through what appeared to be the middle of the creature with a splash, and four or five fish, about 8 inches long, and of narrow girth, floated away, stunned, killed by the shock. Then it was realised that the apparently solid fish was really a compact mass of little fish, moving along with common impulse and volition, each fish having a sinuous, wriggling motion. So closely were they packed that it was impossible without careful scrutiny to discern individual members of the group, and so intimate their association and so remarkable their mutual sympathy, that they seemed to possess minds with but a single thought, hearts that beat as one. Here were not forty, not four hundred, but more likely four thousand living, moving, and having their being as a single individual. Dispersed for an instant as the boat-hook or paddle was driven through it, the mass coalesced automatically and instantly as if controlled by mechanical force, or composed of some resilient substance, and swayed again on its course, while the dead and stunned drifted away.
Examining the specimens procured, it was found that they resembled lampreys in shape, olive green in colour, with pale lemon-coloured streaks and marks. Each of the gill cases terminated in a two-edged spur, transparent as glass, and keen as only Nature knows how to make her weapons of defence.
Presently in obedience to some instinct the shoal left the shallow water inshore, and we watched it glide among the brown waving seaweed to the line of dull red, which indicated the outer edge of the coral reef and saw it no more. This, my piscatorial pastor and master says, was no doubt a community of striped cat-fish, (PLOTOSUS ANGUILLARIS).
Adhering to a rock by a short stumpy stalk, sometimes sealed firmly to a loose stone, you may find an object in form and structure resembling an elongated, coreless pineapple, composed of a leathery semi-gelatinous, semi-transparent substance, dirty yellow in colour. It is the spawn case or the receptacle of the ova (if that term be allowable), and the cradle of what is commonly known as the bailer shell (CYMBIUM AETHIOPICUM) the “Ping-ah” of the blacks, one of the most singular and interesting features that these reefs have for the sight-seer. In its composition there may be fifty, more or less cohering, conic sections, each containing an unborn shell in a distinct and separate stage of development. At the base, the shells are, perhaps, just emerging each from its special compartment, as a young bee emerges from its cell — each a thin frail shell, about half an inch long, white with pale yellow and light brown markings. In time, should it survive all the accidents and assaults to which on entering the world it is beset, the tiny shell will develop into an expansively-mouthed vessel. The next succeeding row will be in a less matured state, and so the development diminishes towards the apex. Some of the compartments are occupied by shells transparent, colourless and fragile in the extreme, some by shells having merely the rudiment of form, until at the apex the cells contain but a drop or so of sparkling, quivering jelly.
The bailer shell alive is like an egg, in the fact that it is full of meat. Many marine shells have surprisingly diminutive fleshy occupants, however great their tenacity and strength. The animal inhabiting a large-sized bailer weighs several pounds, the flesh being tough, leathery and of unwholesome appearance. When it has decayed, the shell being thin, the cavity is phenomenally capacious. Large specimens contain a couple of gallons of water, and as the shape is most convenient, and there is neither rust nor moth to corrupt, their aptitude as effective and durable bailers for boats is apparent. Some name them the boxer shell, tracing resemblance to a boxing-glove, others the “boat,” and again the melon shell. Blacks use them for a variety of purposes — bailers, buckets, saucepans, drinking vessels, baskets, and even wardrobes. They represent, perhaps, the only utensil in which a black can boil food, and it is an astonishing though not edifying spectacle when the fat-layered intestine of a turtle, sodden in salt water just brought to a boil in a bailer shell, is eagerly devoured by hungry blacks.
Down the caverns of the submerged rocks and blocks of coral are two or three species of ECHINUS (sea-urchins), with long and slender spines radiating from their spheroid bodies. One (DIADERNA SETOSA) is distinguished by what appears to be precious jewels of sparkling blue — believed to be visual organs — which lose their brilliancy immediately on removal from the water. Another has a centre of coral pink. The black spines, 10 inches or so long, are exquisitely sharp, and brittle in the extreme. Some believe that the animals are endowed with the power of thrusting these weapons forward to meet the intrusive hand, for unless approached with caution they prick the fingers while yet seemingly out of reach. Admitting that I have never yet attempted rudely to grasp this creature (which certainly is capable of presenting its array of spines whither it wills) while submerged, for the mere purpose of testing its ability to defend itself — my enthusiasm being tempered by the caution of the mere amateur — it may be said that some of the spines appear to be blunt. All could hardly be “sharper than needles,” for being used as a means of locomotion among and over and in the crevices of the coral and rocks, some are necessarily worn at the points. With care they may be handled without injury, though at first glance it would seem impossible to avoid the numerous weapons. Imagine a brittle tennis ball stuck full of long slender needles, many tapering to microscopic keenness at the points, climbing stiffly along the edges of rocks by a few of the stilt-like needles, and a very fair figure of the ECHINUS is presented. As a curious and beautiful creature he is full of interest, and as an adjunct to one’s diet he is, in due season, full of excellent meat. We take the ugly and forbidding oyster with words of gratitude and flattery on our lips, and why pass with disrespect the creature that is beautiful and wonderful as well as savoury? To enjoy it to perfection, extricate the creature from his lurking place far down in the blue crevice of the coral, with a fish-spear. Don’t experiment with your fingers. On the gunwale of your boat divest it of its slender black spines, and with a knife fairly divide the spheroid body, and a somewhat nauseous-looking meat is disclosed; but no more objectionable in appearance than the substance of a fully ripe passion fruit. The flavour! Ah, the flavour! It surpasseth the delectable oyster. It hath more of the savour and piquancy of the ocean. It clingeth to the palate and purgeth it of grosser tastes. It recalleth the clean and marvellous creature, whose life has been spent in cool coral grottoes, among limestone and the salty essences of the pure and sparkling sea, and if you be wise and devout and grateful, you forthwith give praise for the enjoyment of a new and rare sensation.
The ECHINUS is said to be essentially herbivorous, but my cursory observation leads me to the opinion (very humbly proffered) that it fulfils a definite purpose in the order of Nature, too, and depends for sustenance, or for the building up of its structure, upon certain constituents of the coral. Does it not break and grind down to powder the ramparts of coral? Clumsy and ill-shaped as it appears to be in other respects, it has jaws of wonderful design, and known to the ancients as “Aristotle’s lantern.” They are composed of five strips of bony substance, with enamel-like tips overlying each other in the centre of the disc-shaped mouth. With this splendid instrument the creature grips and breaks off or gnaws off, or bores out crumbs of coral which you find, apparently in process of digestion, as you render him an acceptable morsel. Scientific observers affirm that by means of an acid which the ECHINUS secretes, it disintegrates the rock, and that the jaws are used merely to clear away the softened rubbish. How is it then that the globular cavity is often well-ballasted with tiny crisp chunks of coral rock? Possibly to the assimilation of the lime is due, in some measure, the singularly sweet and expressive savour. So we see the coral-reef-building polyps toiling with but little rest, almost incessantly labouring to raise architectural devices of infinite design, and other creatures as industriously tearing them down to form the solid foundation of continents.
Another species of ECHINUS eludes its enemies by the adoption of a cumbersome and forbidding mask. Ineffectively armed, the spines though numerous being short and frail, it holds empty bivalve shells on its uppermost part, The unstudied accumulation of debris — a fair sample of the surrounding ocean floor — would fail to fix notice, but that it moves bodily and without apparent cause. Inspection penetrates the disguise. Wheresoever the ECHINUS goes — its progress is infinitely slow — it carries a self-imposed burden — the refuse of dead and inanimate things — that it may, by imposition upon its foes, continue in the way of life.
Local blacks have no fear of sharks. They take every care to avoid crocodiles, exercising great caution and circumspection when crossing inlets and tidal creeks. So shrewd are their observations that they will describe distinctive marks of particular crocodiles and indicate their favourite resorts. Their indifference to sharks is founded on the belief that those which inhabit shallow water among the islands never attack a living man. Blacks remain for hours together in the water on the reefs when beche-de-mer fishing, and the record of an attack is rare indeed. They are far more fearful of the monstrous groper (PROMICROPS ITAIARA), which lying inert among the coral blocks and boulders of the Barrier Reef, bolts anything and everything which comes its way, and which will follow a man in the water with dogged determination, foreign to the nervous, suspicious shark. Recently a vigorous young black boy was attacked by a groper while diving for beche-de-mer. The fish took the boy’s head into its capacious mouth, mauling him severely about the head and shoulders, and but for his valiant and determined struggles would doubtless have succeeded in killing him.
Such an incident as the following does not convince blacks that the sharks of the Barrier Reef are dangerous. The captain of a beche-de-mer cutter was paddling in a dinghy along the edge of a detached reef not many miles from Dunk Island, while several of his boys were swimming and diving. Suddenly one of them was seized and so terribly mutilated that he died in a few minutes. Although the captain was within 8 or 10 feet of the boy, and three of his mates not more than a few yards off, though all were wearing swimming goggles which enable them when diving to distinguish objects at a considerable range, though the sea was calm and clear and the water barely 10 feet deep, no one saw a shark or any other fish capable of inflicting such injuries as had caused the death of “Jimmy,” nor was there any disturbance of the surface of the water. Years before a countryman of the unfortunate “Jimmy” was mauled by a small shark, but got away, though crippled for life. By some quaint process of reasoning the companions of the boy who was killed connected his death with the attack upon the other, the scene of which was 200 miles distant, and became convinced that he had been the victim of another kind altogether “— a sort of mysterious marine debil-debil,” not known to entire satisfaction by the best-informed black boy, and quite beyond the comprehension of the dull-witted white man. Having thus conclusively to their minds set at naught the theory that a shark was responsible, it was absolutely unreasonable to fear sharks generally. Why should they blame a shark when it was established beyond doubt that nothing but a “debil-debil” could have killed “Jimmy”? Their opinion was founded on this invincible array of logic: If a shark had killed “Jimmy,” it must have been seen. Nothing was seen, therefore it must have been a “debil-debil.” And the incident was accepted as a further and most emphatic proof of the contention that sharks do not “fight” live black boys. The single instance at Princess Charlotte Bay was an exception.
Our tame sharks seem to have no fear of animals larger even than man. A shallow stretch of water half a mile broad separates the islets of Mung-un-gnackum and Kumboola from Dunk Island. At low-water spring-tides two connecting bands are exposed — a sand-bank and a broad, flat coral reef, between which is a lagoon, in which the water may be 6 or 7 feet deep. The horses of the estate are in the habit of making excursions to Kumboola, the desire for change being manifested so strongly that occasionally they will swim across when the tide is full. One of the horses was returning from an outing when there was a depth of about 3 feet on the sand-bank. As it approached the beach a shark, apparently making out from the lagoon, was seen suddenly to change its course, and follow the horse at a discreet distance. When only 50 yards from the beach the shark made an impetuous rush, and snapped at one of the horse’s forefeet. The horse swerved, plunged and lashed out vigorously and with such excellent precision that the shark was kicked like a football out of the water. It appeared to be 5 or 6 feet long, and to be quite satisfied that the horse, like a black, was not to be molested until it was past resistance. The horse bore the marks of the affray on the pastern for weeks.
Again when a favourite dog jumped overboard from the boat in an eager but ridiculous venture after a “skipper,” a shark detected the dog and shadowed it. As we went about to pick up the dog the dorsal fin of the shark indicated the wily, leisurely way in which it was keeping pace, reconnoitring and waiting until its prey was exhausted, while the dog did not appear to realise that a “frightful fiend” did close behind him swim. As the boat approached, the shark swerved off flippantly, but hovered in the vicinity, unsatisfied as to the identity of the new and strange animal that had so unaccountably appeared in its natural element and as suddenly disappeared. A rifle bullet, a little to the rear of the base of the dorsal fin, however, made it wobble and bustle away on a most eccentric route.
The term “skipper,” purely local, is intended to distinguish that singular fish, of the “long tom” (ZYLOSURUS, sp.) or alligator-pike, which shoots from the water and skips along by striking and flipping the surface with its tail, while keeping the rest of its pike-like body rigid and almost perpendicular. Each stroke is accomplished by a ludicrous wriggling movement. It would seem that by the impact of the tail upon the water the fish maintains its abnormal position and also sustains for a time its initial velocity. For a hundred yards or so its speed is considerable, equal to the flight of a bird, but the length of each successive skip rapidly diminishes, as the original impulse is exhausted, and then the fish disappears as suddenly as it shot into view. The “skipper” is an exceptionally supple fish. It is excellent eating, probably the sweetest fish of these waters, and it is much appreciated by blacks, who call it by the pretty name of “Curram-ill,” and spear it whensoever chance affords.
The most gorgeous denizen of these waters is likewise one of the most curious — a fish resembling the surf parrot fish (PSEUDOSCARUS RIVULATUS), but seeming to surpass even that brilliant creature in colouring. It subsists on limpets and may be seen, a lustrous blue, at half tide feeding in favourite localities. The shape of the head and shoulders reveals something of the character of the fish, though the purpose of its resplendent appearance may not be obvious. Both head and jaws typify strength and leverage power. The mouth resembles the beak of a turtle or rather that of a balloon fish (TETRAODON). The under jaw protrudes slightly, and is fitted (in the case of the male) with two prominent canine teeth; the upper jaw has also a pair of projecting teeth of similar character. Each of the jaws consists of two loosely sutured segments, the articulation of the lower being much the freer. The gullet is horny and rasp-like, and in its exterior opening is an auxiliary set of teeth of most remarkable formation. The upper part of this interior set in some respect resembles the under jaws of a land animal, but there are marked distinctions. It consists of two bony structures, slightly curved outwards, lying parallel to each other and bound together by tough ligaments which not only permit a certain amount of independent lateral movement, but also independent action forwards and backwards. Each of the structures is fitted with a dozen to sixteen closely packed teeth, and at the rear of each is a magazine charged with five or six more, ready to move up and forward into position for active service as those ahead are worn away. The principle of modern magazine rifles is surprisingly exemplified by these reserve teeth. The lower jaw or rather dental plate resembles a flattened palate; the whole surface being studded with teeth, the edges of which overlap. It may be described as a piece of mosaic work in white and ivory. There are between sixty and seventy teeth resembling incisors on the dental plate. The whole seem to be in a state of perennial renewal to compensate for wear and tear. As those of the front row are broken or worn down, the next succeeding row occupies the frontal position. The teeth are deeply set in the bony base of the inverted palate, or rather obtrude but slightly above the surface, their office being to break down and grind to powder flinty food.
The outward and visible teeth of the male are apparently given as weapons of defence, since they do not occur in the female, which has four back teeth. From their prominent position the teeth of the male must also be used for grasping and levering or pulling steadfast limpets from rocks. They needs must be hard and have strength as well as science at the back of them, for a limpet can resist a pulling force of nearly 2000 times its own weight. The sutures of the jaws of the fish enable it to accommodate its grip to the various sizes of limpets, and to take a fair and square hold, while the lower jaw seems to act as a fulcrum when the leverage is applied. But the exterior jaws and teeth are devoid of interest, compared with the interior set, which form an ideal pulverising apparatus. To those who are versed in ichthyology, these are known as pharyngeal teeth, because they are connected with the pharynx. Such teeth are present in some form or other in all true fish, but usually in a degraded form. In the rainbow and parrot fish they are highly specialised, otherwise the pulverisation of the hard shell of molluscs would be impossible. The interior of the mouth of certain species of the shark family, given specially to a diet of oysters, is thickly set with a series of uniformly diffused minute teeth, and another fish of these seas has a gizzard composed of an intensely tough material, lined with membrane resembling shark’s skin. This fish swallows cockles and such like molluscs whole, and grinds them in its gizzard.
And the colouring of this wonderful creature! The semi-transparent dorsal fin, which extends without a break from the back of the head to the tail, is broad and slightly scalloped. It displays an upper edging of radiant blue, a broad band of iridescent pink with greenish opal-like lights, and a narrow streak of the richest emerald green, close along the back. The body is covered with large scales, the colouring of which conveys a general appearance of an elaborate system of slightly elongated hexagons, generally blue outlined with pink, sometimes golden-yellow combined with green; and the colours flash and change with indescribable radiance. The head is decorated with bands of pink, orange and green; the pectoral fins are pale green with a bold medial stripe of puce, and the tail is a study of blue-green and puce. When the fish is drawn from the water the colours live, the play of lights being marvellously lovely. The colours differ, and they also vary in intensity in individuals. Though the prevailing tint may be radiant blue, it will be shot with gold in one and with pink in another.
The flesh is edible, though (as is common with parrot fish) not particularly admirable with regard to flavour. It is wonderful and beautiful. Are not these qualities all-sufficient? Must everything be good to eat? To the natives of the island this jewel of the sea is known as “Oo-ril-ee,” and to scientists as belonging to the scaroid family.
Three species of turtle frequent these waters — the loggerhead (THALASSOCHELYS CARETTA), the hawksbill (CHELONE IMBRICATA), and the green (CHELONE MYDAS). Both of the latter are herbivorous and edible; but the flesh of the first-named, a fish and mollusc eater, is rank and strong, and it is therefore not hunted, the shell being of little if any value. Loggerhead, however, is not disregarded by the blacks, though to the unaccustomed nose the flesh has a most repulsive smell. It is powerful and fierce when molested. One which was harpooned, on being hauled up to the boat seized the gunwale and left the marks of its beak deep in the wood. The creature seems also to be endowed with greater vitality than the other species, and this fact may excite the wonder of those who have seen the heart of a green turtle pulsate long after removal from the body, and the limbs an hour after separation shrink from the knife and quiver.
The hawks-bill furnishes the tortoiseshell of commerce, and is much sought after. The flesh is highly tainted with the specific flavour of turtle, and therefore objectionable, though blacks relish it. Further north, in some localities, it is generally believed that the flesh of the hawks-bill may be imbued with a deadly poison. Great care is exercised in the killing and butchering, lest a certain gland, said to be located in the neck or shoulder, be opened, as flesh cut with a knife which has touched the critical part becomes impregnated. Here, though the blacks take precautions in the butchering a hawks-bill (being aware of its bad repute elsewhere), they have had no actual experience of the unwholesomeness of the flesh. One old seafarer acknowledges that he nearly “pegged out” as the result of a hearty meal of the liver of a hawks-bill. As is well known, fish edible in one region may be poisonous in another (Saville-Kent); the same principle may apply to the turtle.
The flesh of the luth or leathery turtle (DERMOCHELYS CORIACEA) which diets on fish, crustacea, molluscs, radiates, and other animals, causes symptoms of poisoning; but the luth does not appear to be common in this part of the Pacific, though it occurs in Torres Straits.
In a standard work on natural history it is asserted that the natives remove the overlapping plates of tortoiseshell from the hawks-bill by lighting a fire on the back of the creature, causing them to peel off easily. “After the plates have been removed, the turtle is permitted to go free, and after a time it is furnished with a second set of plates.” Surely this might be classed among the fabulous stories of Munchausen. As the lungs of the turtle lie close to the anterior surface of the carapace, the degree of heat sufficient to cause the plates to come off would assuredly be fatal. Possibly there is explanation at hand. The turtle being killed, the carapace is removed and placed over a gentle fire, and then the plates are eased off with a knife. But that method is not generally approved. Professional tortoiseshell-getters either trust to the heat of the sun or bury the shell in clean sand, and when decomposition sets in, the valuable plates are detached freely. Exposure to fire deteriorates the quality of the product unless great care is exercised.
The green turtle, with thin dovetailing plates, is the most plentiful and valued principally for food. But all green turtle are not acceptable. An old bull is so rank, that “there is no living near it — it would infect the North Star!” There are many Europeans who cannot relish even good green turtle, however tender, delicate, and sweet it may be. The worthy chaplain of Anson’s fleet who “wrote up” the famous voyages, has some shrewd observations on the subject of green turtle, which he refers to as the most delicious of all flesh, “so very palatable and salubrious,” though proscribed by the Spaniards as unwholesome and little less than poisonous. He suggests that the strange appearance of the animal may have been the foundation of “this ridiculous and superstitious aversion.” Perhaps the poor Spaniards of those days happened in the first instance upon an ancient bull, or a hawks-bill, and tapped the poison gland, or a loggerhead or a luth, and came ever after to entertain, with right good cause, a holy terror of turtle, irrespective of species.
An interesting phase in the life-history of the green turtle is the deception the female employs when about to lay eggs. Her “nests” are shallow pits in the sand. She may make several during a hasty visit to a favourite beach, while postponing the laying until the following day. Whether this is a conscious stratagem by which the turtle hopes to mislead and bewilder other animals partial to the eggs, or merely a caprice — one of those idle fancies which the feminine part of animated Nature frequently indulge in at a time when their faculties are at unusual tension — does not appear to be quite understood. When serious business is intended, the turtle scoops new pits, leaving some of them partially and others quite unfilled. These also appear to be intended to delude. That in which the eggs are deposited is filled in and the surface smoothed and flattened, and in cases where the nest is any distance beyond the limits of high-water, it is frequently carelessly covered with grass and dead leaves. The heat of the sun hatches the eggs. But the guile of the turtle is limited. However artfully the real nest may be concealed, the tracks to and fro as well as the tracks to and from the many counterfeits are as unmistakable, until the wind obliterates them, as the tracks of a treble-furrow plough. The chances against an unintellectual lover of turtle eggs discovering a fresh nest off-hand are in exact ratio to the number of deceptive appearances. In a few days all the tracks are blotted out, and then none but those skilled or possessed of keen perception may detect the nest. Blacks probe all the likely spots with spears, and soon fix on the right one.
In a certain locality where the hawks-bill turtle congregate in untold numbers, a remarkable deviation from the general habit has been observed. Several of the islands are composed of a kind of conglomerate of coral debris, shells and sand. With strange perversity some turtle excavate in the rock cylindrical shafts about 18 inches deep by 6 inches diameter with smooth perpendicular sides. There is no adjunct to the flippers which appears to be of service in the digging, yet the holes are such that a man would find it impossible to make without the use of a chisel. Whether they are dug with the flippers, or bored, or bitten out with the bill, does not appear to be known. Eggs varying in numbers from 120 to 150 are deposited in each shaft, and covered loosely with the spoil from the excavation.
When the young are hatched only those on top are able to clamber out. They represent but a very small percentage of the family. The majority die miserably, being unable to get out of what is their tomb as well as their birthplace. In the vicinity are sandy beaches on which other hawks-bill turtle deposit their eggs in accordance with time-honoured plans, and successfully rear large families. Why some individuals should be at such pains to defeat the universal instinct for the propagation and preservation of their species, is a puzzle. Moreover, hundreds of these anomalous nests are excavated some distance beyond high-water, in country where the growth of grass is so strong and dense as to form an almost impenetrable barrier to those infantile turtle which have the fortune to get out of the death-traps, and in obedience to instinct, endeavour to reach the sea. Is it that Nature, “so careful of the type” imposes Malthusian practices to avoid the danger of overcrowding the “never-surfeited sea?” Notwithstanding the positive check upon increase, the young are produced in myriads.
“Sambo,” a black boy, who had visited this isle, on his return to shores where turtle are less numerous, sought to impress his master with the substantial charms of the faraway North. “When,” he said, “you come close up, you look out. Hello! You think about stone. No stone; altogether turtle!”
There, to within a recent date, might be seen the bones of fourteen great green turtle side by side in a row. At first glance the scene seems a sanctified death-place for the species, until you are informed that a visitor to the isle, astonished at the number of turtle on the beach, and eager to secure an abundance of fresh meat, turned over fourteen, intending to call again for them. Circumstances prevented him from re-visiting the place, and the turtle, being unable to right themselves, perished.
Personal observation and inquiries from many men whose lives may be said to be spent among turtle on the Barrier Reef convince me that blacks never venture to get astride a turtle in the water. One more daring and agile may seize a turtle, and by throwing his weight aft cause the head to tilt out of the water. The turtle then strikes out frantically with its flippers, but the boy so counterbalances it that the head is kept above the surface continuously, until the turtle becoming exhausted is guided into shallow water or alongside a boat, where it is secured with the help of others. Boys who accomplish this feat are few and far between, though it is by no means uncommon for a turtle to be seized while in the water and overturned, in which position it is helpless. A turtle detected in shallow water falls a comparatively easy prey, for on being hustled it soon loses heart and endeavours to hide its head, ostrich-like, when it is easily captured. None unacquainted with the skill with which the creature can spar with its flippers, and the effectiveness of these flippers, when used as weapons of defence, should venture to grip a turtle in its natural element.
Another species, stated to have a circumscribed habitat, has a steep dome-shaped back, resembling at a casual glance a seamless metal casting, with the edges abruptly turned up. The head is large, the eyes deeply embedded in their sockets, and the animal has the power of protruding and withdrawing the head much more extensively developed than usual. The “death’s head” staring from beneath the dome-shaped back gives to the animal a most gruesome aspect. These details are supplied by the master of a beche-de-mer schooner, to whom all the nooks and corners of the Great Barrier Reef and of the other Coral Sea beyond, from New Guinea to New Caledonia, are familiar. He says that the species, as far as his observation goes, is confined to the neighbourhood of one group of islands. To others this is known as the “bastard tortoiseshell.” The back is not actually seamless, but age causes the plates to cohere so closely as to present that appearance.
Dugong (HALICORE AUSTRALIS) still frequent these waters. The rapacity of the blacks is a rapidly diminishing factor in their extermination, and the rushing to and fro of steamers, which it was thought would scare away those which remain, is becoming too familiar to be fearsome. Even in the narrow limits of Hinchinbrook Channel, through which the passing of steamers is of everyday occurrence, they still exist, though not in such numbers as in the early days. It would seem that the waters within the Great Barrier Reef may long continue one of the last resorts of this strange, uncouth, paradoxical mammal.
Half hippopotamus, half seal, yet in no way related to either, something between a pachyderm and cetacean, the dugong is a herbivorous marine mammal, commonly known as “the sea cow,” because of its resemblance in some particulars to that useful domesticated animal. It grazes on marine grass (POSIDONIA AUSTRALIS), parts of the flesh very closely resemble beef, and post-mortem examination reveals internal structure similar in most details to those of its namesake. But, unlike the cow, the dugong has two pectoral mammae instead of an abdominal udder, and like the whale is unable to turn its head, the vertebrae of the neck being, if not fused into one mass, at least compressed into a small space.
In form it resembles a seal, the body tapering from the middle to the fish-like, bi-lobed tail. As with the whale, the flippers or arms do not contribute any considerable means of locomotion, but are used, in the case of the female at least, for grasping the young. When the mother is nursing her child, holding it to her breasts, she is careful as she rises to breathe, that it, too, may obtain a gulp of fresh air, and the two heads emerging together present a strangely human aspect. Traces of elementary hind legs are to be found in some small bones lying loosely in the flesh. The skull is singularly formed, the upper jaw being bent over the lower. The huge pendulous, rubber-like under lip, so studded with coarse, sharp bristles as to be known as the brush, seems a development of the under lip of the horse, and is a perfect implement for the gathering of slimy grass.
To further detail the paradoxes of the dugong, it may be said that some of the teeth resemble those of an elephant; that the males have ivory tusks and of ivory their bones are made; that parts of the flesh may hardly be distinguished from veal and other parts from fine young pork. The freshly flayed hide is fully half an inch thick, and when cured and dried resembles horn in consistency.
Reddish grey, sometimes almost olive green in colour, with white blotches and sparse, coarse bristles, the animal has no comeliness, and yet when a herd frolics in the water, rising in unison with graceful undulatory movements for air, and the sunlight flashes in helioscopic rays from wet backs, the spectacle is rare and fine. Rolling and lurching along, gambolling like good-humoured, contented children, the herd moves leisurely to and from favourite feeding-grounds, occasionally splashing mightily with powerful tails to make fountains of illuminated spray — great, unreflecting, sportful water-babes. Admiration is enhanced as one learns of the affection of the dugong for its young and its love for the companionship of its fellows. When one of a pair is killed, the other haunts the locality for days. Its suspirations seem sighs, and its presence melancholy proof of the reality of its bereavement.
For some time after birth the young is carried under one or other of the flippers, the dam hugging it affectionately to her side.
As the calf grows, it leaves its mother’s embrace, but swims close beside, following with automatic precision every twist and lurch of her body, its own helplessness and its implicit faith in the wisdom and protective influence of its parent being exemplified in every movement.
Blacks harpoon dugong as they do turtle, but the sport demands greater patience and dexterity, for the dugong is a wary animal and shy, to be approached only with the exercise of artful caution. An inadvertent splash of the paddle or a miss with the harpoon, and the game is away with a torpedo-like swirl. To be successful in the sport the black must be familiar with the life-history of the creature to a certain extent — understanding its peregrinations and the reason for them — the strength and trend of currents and the locality of favourite feeding-grounds. Fragments of floating grass sometimes tell where the animal is feeding. An oily appearance on the surface of the sea shows its course, and if the wind sits in the right quarter the keen-scented black detects its presence when the animal has risen to breathe at a point invisible to him. He must know also of the affection of the female for her calf, and be prepared to play upon it implacably. In some localities the blacks were wont to manufacture nets for the capture of dugong, and nets are still employed by them under the direction of white men; for the flesh of the dugong is worthily esteemed, and oil from the blubber — sweet, and limpid as distilled water — is said to possess qualities far superior to that obtained from the decaying livers of cod fish in the restoration of health and vigour to constitutions enfeebled and wasted by disease,
Using a barbless point attached to a long and strong line, and fitted into a socket in the heavy end of the harpoon shaft, the black waits and watches. With the utmost caution and in absolute silence he follows in his canoe the dugong as it feeds, and strikes as it rises to breathe. A mad splash, a wild rush! The canoe bounces over the water as the line tightens. Its occupant sits back and steers with flippers of bark, until as the game weakens he is able to approach and plunge another harpoon into it. Sometimes the end of the line is made fast to a buoy of light wood which the creature tows until exhausted.
So contractible and tough is the skin, that once the point of the harpoon is embedded in it, nothing but a strong and direct tug will release it. Some blacks substitute for the barbless point four pieces of thin fencing wire — each about 4 inches long, bound tightly together at one end, the loose ends being sharpened and slightly diverged. This is fastened to the line and inserted in the socket of the haft, and when it hits it holds to the death, though the animal may weigh three-quarters of a ton.
It is stated that the blacks towards Cape York having secured the animal with a line attached to a dart insufficient in length to penetrate the hide and the true skin, seize it by the nose, and plug the nostrils with their fingers until it drowns. Here, too, the natives have discovered that the nose is the vulnerable part of the dugong, and having first harpooned it in any part of the body, await an opportunity of spearing it there, with almost invariably speedy fatal effects.
The flesh of a young dugong is sweet and tender, and the blubber, dry-cured after the manner of bacon with equal quantities of salt and sugar and finally smoked, quite a delicacy.
Not long since an opportunity was given of examining the effects of a bullet on a dugong. We had harpooned a calf perhaps a year and a half old, and as it rose to the surface in the first struggle for freedom, I shot it, using a Winchester repeating carbine, 25-35, carrying a metal patched bullet. There was no apparent wound, and on the second time of rising another bullet was lodged in the head, causing instantaneous death. When the animal came to be skinned, it was found that the first bullet had completely penetrated the body, the tough, rubber-like hide so contracting over the wounds of entry and exit as to entirely prevent external bleeding. The fatal bullet had almost completely pulverised the skull, the bones of which were ivory-like in texture. The appearance of the skull might have led to the conclusion that an explosive instead of a nickel-plated bullet had been used, while if the first bullet had not penetrated several folds of the intestines, no doubt it would have caused the animal very little inconvenience.
The dugong rises to the surface at frequent intervals for air, and the ancients in the rounded heads of the mother and her offspring fancied a resemblance to human beings, who sought to lure the unwary to their mansions beneath the waves. Hence the scientific title “Sirenia” for the family to which the dugong belongs. Unpoetical people as the coastal blacks of Queensland are, yet they were among the few who had for neighbours the shy creatures upon whose existence was founded the quaint and engaging legends of the mermaid.
But now we make prosaic bacon from the mermaid’s blubbery sides. And those long tresses which she was wont to comb as she gloated over her comeliness in her oval mirror and sang those alluring strains, so soothing, so sweet, yet so deceiving — those wet and tangled locks, where are they? Is the whole realm of Nature becoming bald? The hair of the mermaid of to-day is coarse, short and spiky, with inches between each sprout. For a comb she uses a jagged rock, or cruel coral; for her vanity there is no semblance of pardon; and for her seductive plaint, has it not degenerated into a gulping unmelodious sigh, as she fills her capacious lungs with atmospheric air?
Anticipating the possibility of readers away from the Coral Sea, and to whom no reference to the subject is available, wondering as to the form and character of beche-de-mer, let it be said that the commonest kind in these waters is an enormous slug, varying from 6 inches long by an inch and a half in diameter, to 3 feet 6 inches by 4 inches. Rough and repulsive in appearance, and sluggish in habit, it has great power of contractibility. It may assume a dumpy oval shape, and again drag out its slow length until it resembles an attenuated German sausage, black in colour. Its “face” may be obtruded and withdrawn at pleasure, or rather will, for what creature could have pleasure in a face like a ravelled mop.
Termed also trepang, sea cucumber, sea slug, cotton spinner, and known scientifically as Holothuridae, no less than twenty varieties have been described and are identified by popular and technical titles.
The “fish” are collected by black boys on the coral reefs — dived for, picked up with spears from punts, or by hand in shallow water. Some prefer to fish at high-water, for then the beche-de-mere are less shy, and emerge from nooks in the rocks and coral, and in the limpid water on the Barrier are readily seen at considerable depths. Then the boys dive or dexterously secure the fish with their slender but tough spears, 4 fathoms long.
At the curing station (frequently on board the owner’s schooner or lugger) they are boiled, the fish supplying nearly all the water for their own cooking. Then each is cut open lengthwise, with a sharp knife, and by a thin skewer of wood its interior surface is exposed. Placed on wire-netting trays in series the fish are smoked or desiccated in a furnace heated, preferably, with black or red mangrove wood, and finally exposed to the sun to eliminate dampness which may have been absorbed on removal from the smoke-house. When the fish leave the smoke-house they have shrunk to small dimensions, and resemble pieces of smoked buffalo hide, more or less curled and crumpled. In this condition they are sent away to China and elsewhere to be used in soup. Australian gourmands are beginning to appreciate this delicacy, which is said to be marvellously strengthening, though without elaborate cooking it is almost tasteless, and therefore unlike dugong soup, which surpasses turtle in flavour and delicacy, and would fatten up a skeleton. Beche-de-mer is merely a substantial foundation or stock for a more or less artistic culinary effort.
Beche-de-mer realises as much as 160 pounds per ton. In former days “red prickly fish,” was the most highly-prized on the Chinese markets, but several years ago a fisherman in the neighbourhood of Cooktown used a copper boiler. Several Chinese epicures died after partaking of soup made from a particular parcel, and “red prickly” was forthwith credited with poisonous qualities. The consignment was traced to its origin, and popular opinion at the time was that the boiler had, unknown to the proprietor of the station, induced verdigris. Investigation, however, gave ground for the belief that the fish in the boiling exuded juices of such corrosive qualities that the copper was chemically acted upon. Beche-de-mer, is now invariably cooked in iron vessels, the bottom half of a malt tank being a common boiler, and the “red prickly,” after being absolutely worthless for many years — so quaint are Oriental prejudices — is now regaining favour in that market.
Beche-de-mer, though called fish by tradesmen, neither swims nor floats; neither does it crawl, nor wriggle, nor hop, skip nor jump. It simply “moves” on the ocean floor, when not reposing in apparently absolute and unconscious idleness like its distant relative, the star-fish. Nor does the creature possess any means of self-protection. Some species are rough and prickly, and are said to irritate the hand that grasps them. Others either in nervousness, or a result of shock to the system, or to amaze and affright the beholder, shoot out interminable lengths of filmy, cottony threads, white and glutinous, until one is astonished that a small body should contain such a quantity of yarn ready spun, to eject at a moment’s notice like the mazes of ribbon drawn from a conjurer’s hat.
While it would be idle to particularise the different varieties of beche-de-mer, that lead such lowly lives in the coral reef here, there is one more conspicuous than the others, which may be referred to without presuming to trespass on the preserves of scientific inquirers. Indeed, it is entitled to notice, for it seems to be most prominent among the few which afford examples of unconscious mimicry and sympathetic coloration to insure themselves from molestation. Beche-de-mer does not generally give the idea of capability of even the simplest form of deception. True, the “black fish,” shrinking from observation, puts on a cloak of sand, and a cousin assumes a resemblance to an irregular piece of coral — rugged, sea-stained and rotten. But the variety under notice takes a higher place in the deceptive art, for it seems to pose as an understudy to one of the most nimble and vicious habitants of the sea — the banded snake. It lies coiled and folded among the stones and coral of the reef, or partially hidden by brown seaweed, which heightens its momentary effect upon the nerves of the barefooted Beachcomber. Its length is from 4 to 5 feet, girth about 3 inches, colour reddish brown, with darker bands and blotches. The deception is in appearance only. A touch reveals an innocent but shocking fraud — a poor despicable dummy, lacking the meanest characteristic of its alert original.
Limp and impotent, it is little more than a skin full of water, a yard and a half of intestine with no superficial indication of difference between head and tail. Watch closely, and the “face,”— a much frayed mop — is shyly obtruded from one end, and there is justification for the opinion that the other end is the tail. Possibly, after all, this may not be a true variety of beche-de-mer. In that case an apology to the rest of the tribe is necessary; though the mop-like face betrays a strong family likeness.
If this dolefully helpless creature be lifted by the middle on a stick, its liquid contents are instantly separated, forming distended, high-pressure blobs at each end of the empty, flabby shrunken skin. Though it suffers this experiment placidly, being incapable of the feeblest resistance, it has the primordial gift of care of itself. Twists purposely made to test its degree of intelligence are artfullystraightened out, and the eagerness and hurry with which water is forced throughout empty parts show that life is both sweet and precious. And what is the value of life to an animal of such homely organism and so few wants? And under what charter of rights does it slink among the coral and weed affrighting God-fearing man under the cloak of his first subtle enemy?
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50