My Tropic Isle, by E. J. Banfield

Chapter XXII

Sharks and Rays

Among the commonest of fish in the shallow waters of the coast are the rays, of which there are many species — eighteen, according to the list prepared by Mr. J. Douglas Ogilby. Some attain enormous size, some display remarkable variations from the accepted type, and at least two are edible though not generally appreciated, for the hunger of the littoral Australian is not as a rule sufficiently speculative to prompt to gastronomic experiment, else food that other nations cherish would not be deemed unclean. Between sharks and rays relationship exists, for a certain ray has been sneered at as only a flattened-out shark. There are five species of shark-like rays, which have all the outward form and appearance and vagrant mode of life of their prototype, and four species of sharks that might pass as rays. One of them, with a big head, tadpole-like tail and generally frayed and sea-tattered appearance, is, in fact, accepted in some quarters as a ray, while the shovel-like skate is commonly regarded as a shark.

The most delicately flavoured of the rays is known as the “blue-spotted” (DASYBATUS KUHLI). It does not appear to attain a large size, but it is fairly common, and is one of the most comely of the creatures of the coral reefs, the bright blue decorative blotches on a ground of old gold being most effective. It is often found in a few inches of water perfectly motionless, and on being disturbed flutters and glides away swiftly and with little apparent effort. Roasted on an open fire, when a large proportion of the pungent oil escapes, the flesh is pleasant, though possessing the distinctive flavour of the order, which is, however, acceptable at all times to the palate of the black.

One of the formidable sting rays — dark brown in colour (probably DASYBATUS THETIDES, Ogilby), which revels on oysters — has the habit of burying itself in the mud, leaving an angular depression, corresponding to the size of the body, from which the pedestal eyes alone obtrude. In such position it is difficult for the inexperienced to detect the fish until by misadventure it is trodden on, in which circumstance one of two manoeuvres is adopted. Either it flaps and flounders in the slush so that the intruder is startled and jumps clear, or else it lashes out with its whip-like tail in the endeavour to bring into play its serrated weapon, charged with pain, and fearsome on account of the blood-poisoning effect of the mucus with which it is coated.

Ox-rays (UROGYMNUS ASPERRIMUS) grow to a great size, their backs being so armoured with thick-set stellate bucklers on a horn-like skin, that to secure them a heavy-hefted weapon and a strong right arm are necessary. But among the largest of the family is that known as the devil fish (MOBULA sp.), which, upon being harpooned, sinks placidly to the bottom, and adhering thereto by suction, defies all ordinary attempts to raise it. This often basks in calm water or swims slowly close to the surface, when the pliant tips of its “wings,” appearing at regular intervals above the surface, create the illusion of a couple of large sharks moving along in rhythmic regularity as to speed and muscular movement. Rarely, and apparently only by mischance, does a ray take bait; but when hooked it affords good sport, for its impassive resistance is incomprehensibly great in comparison with its size, and comparable to the pull of a green turtle which in its wanderings has become foul-hooked.

An exciting coursing match entertained me not long since, not only as an exhibition of wonderful speed and agility, but because of the wit with which the weaker creature eluded pursuit. Three hundred yards from the beach the dorsal fin of a huge hammer-head shark obtruded about two feet as it leisurely quartered a favourite hunting-ground. A sudden swirl and splash indicated that game had been sighted, and the next instant an eagle or flying ray (STOASODON NARINARI) leaped out of the sea with prodigious eagerness to reach the beach. In a series of abrupt curves the shark endeavoured to head off the ray, which, as its pursuer gained on it, shot out of the water over the shoulders of the shark, each leap being at least ten feet high. In rising it seemed to switch the shark with its thong-like tail, although apparently in almost despairing fright. After at least a dozen agile and desperate efforts, each timed to just elude the rush of the shark, both came into shallow water in which the quick and regular contours of the shark stirred the mud in a wavy pattern; it became baffled, and in a few seconds the ray slowly, and with infinite caution, “flew” (and that is the correct term to apply to a fish the movements of which in the water are analogous to the flight of a bird) into such meagre depths that the shark would have been stranded had it followed. No ripple indicated its discreet course within a few feet of the water line and it maintained its way for about two hundred yards parallel with the beach, while the shark furiously quartered the sea off shore.

On the occasion of a similar hunt a ray blundered fatally because of the steeper incline of the beach. When about ten feet off the shore instead of a lateral it took a directly forward “flight,” landing six feet up on the dry sand, where it fell an easy victim to a black boy, perhaps not as hungry or as ferocious as the shark, but equally partial to rays as food and incapable of any self-denying act.

Though the relationship is well defined, the shark makes no distinction in favour of the ray when in pursuit of food. Indeed, certain members of the predatory family seem to delight chiefly in a diet of rays, and perhaps as a result of this persistent pursuit has the shape of the latter been evolved, since it enables them to take refuge in water so shallow that even a small shark would inevitably be stranded. Timorous by nature, the smaller rays parade the beach-line, while the larger are better able to hold their own in deep water. Although as a rule solitary of habit, there seem to be occasions on which rays become gregarious, when a considerable extent of sandy shallow has been observed to be actually paved with motionless but vigilant individuals, the edge of the “wing” of one overlapping that of the next with almost perfect regularity.

The monstrous grey-striped tiger shark (GALEOCERDO TIGRINUS) in my experience generally keeps to deep water and hunts singly; but a recent event sets at naught other local observations and at the same time provides graphic proof of the rapacity and hardihood of the species. About a hundred yards out from the beach, as we started on a strictly sordid beachcombing expedition to the scene of the squashed wreck of a Chinese sampan, a shark betrayed itself by the dorsal fin quartering the glassy surface of the sea. Equipment for sport consisted of an axe, a crowbar, a trivial fish spear, and a high-velocity rifle. Pulling out noiselessly, a trail of oily blood was intersected and the next moment a huge shark appeared, carrying in its jaws a black ray, which it mouthed unceasingly.

Intent upon its meal, the shark ranged parallel to the boat so that its length could be accurately gauged. It was nearly sixteen feet long, while the ray was almost as large in proportion. The relative sizes may be estimated by the standard of a man bearing between his teeth a tea-tray, Not the least anxiety or apprehension was manifested by the shark at the presence of the boat. It rose frequently to the surface, and all its movements being discernible as it swam close to the bottom in a preoccupied manner, the boat was easily manoeuvred to be within almost touching distance whensoever the head emerged. In quick succession three out of the four bullets the magazine contained penetrated its body just abaft the pectoral fins. A brief flurry followed each shot, and then the shark, with passive fixity of purpose, resumed the mangling of the ray, which with extended, backward strained eyes, seemed to implore rescue from its fate. Were any other means of response to so tragic an appeal available? The crowbar! Hastily made fast to the stern line, it was hurled harpoon-like with energy sufficient to batter in the forehead of a bullock. But the listless implement bounced off the head of the shark as a stick from a drum, provoking merely a contemptuous wave of the tail which seemed to signify a sneer. The axe was also employed with negative results, for the difficulty of delivering an effective blow from the boat could not be overcome.

All the sea about became ruddy, and the lust for still more of the shark’s blood being imperative, we returned to the beach, obtained a fresh supply of ammunition, and a whale harpoon. In the meantime the blood previously shed had spread far and wide, and instead of a solitary gormandising shark a full half-dozen rollicked and revelled in the stained area, all alike in size and alike, too, in absolute indifference to the boat. Owing to the featherweight heft the harpoon failed in penetrative force, and with the first tug invariably withdrew.

Frequently the sharks came within arm’s length of the boat, and though neither ammunition nor the bumps of the homely crowbar nor the pin-pricks of the harpoon were spared, nor shouts of exultation when an individual lashed out under the sting of a bullet, not a shark was in the least perturbed. They romped about the boat, if not defiant at least heedless of all the clamour and puny assaults, appearing to challenge to combat in their natural element. The temper of the school was such that, no doubt, all the occupants of the boat would have been accounted for had they by some foolish miracle squandered themselves in the blood-stained sea. By this time the shark which had first attracted attention had disappeared with its prey, distressed and unseaworthy on account of several leaks; and the others followed one by one, and not altogether in the best condition imaginable, judging by the oily bubbles and tinges beyond the limits of the bay.

On a quieter day I swam off to the anchored boat for some forgotten purpose, which accomplished I prepared to slip off the stern when a dark-coloured shark intervened, moving steadily along parallel to the beach. Giving it precedence, I swam ashore without resting and watched the big fish slide like a shadow up into the corner of the bay, where it rested. Tom, the sport-loving black boy, being on the scene, his flattie was soon afloat, and with a disdainful thrust of the harpoon he impaled the creature, which did not exhibit the least sign of life. Hauled to the surface, Tom declared it to be dead — that it had died from natural causes ere the harpoon had touched it. Had ever shark taken quieter exit from this hustling world! It was about six feet long and fairly robust, and while being towed ashore wallowed helplessly, floating belly up and submitting without a spasm of protest to nudges and slaps of the oars and prods with the heft of the harpoon, but no sooner did it touch the sand and its snout shoot into the foreign element than a furious fight for life began. Did ever shark display such agility! Wriggling and lashing with its tail, almost had it swept me off my feet and dragged me into the sea; but Tom came to my aid, with a sudden and judiciously timed tug as it swerved, the game was landed, to continue extraordinary antics on the sand, though Tom was armed with a tomahawk.

When the struggles had ceased post-mortem examination was made. The stomach was empty, but the liver promised so much oil that Tom extirpated it and all other internal organs, and not until mutilation was complete was any peculiarity about the jaws and teeth noticed. These subsequently, proved that we had captured, not a shark but a ray — Forskal’s shovel-nosed ray (RHYNCHOBATUS DJIDDENSIS), which Tom, for all his knowledge of sea things, had never before seen. Curiously examining the jaws, he laid a rude forefinger on the tesselated plate which stands in the species for teeth, and the disorganised remains, true to the ruling passion, crunched, and Tom ruefully consoled the finger for a fortnight. Hitherto his opinion, founded on contemporary experience and the traditions of his race, had been that a shark would never fight a live man. Was it not the refinement of irony that he should well nigh be deprived of the best part of a finger by a dead ray masquerading as a shark!

Many blacks refuse to eat shark because of totemic restrictions; but where no tribal contrary law prevails, several of the species are cooked and eaten without ceremony, but with most objectionable after effects to those who are not partial to such fare. The specific odour of the shark seems to be intensified and to be made almost as clinging as that of musk, being far more expressive than the exhalation of a camp gorged with green turtle. Discreet persons encounter such a scene as the do the jade Care — by passing on the windy side.

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