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DAINTY FISHES. 213
their little friends the pure gold-fish; and as these glide in between the rock-ledges, up swims a joyous little shoal of delicate pale-green fish, with perhaps a tiny silvery eel or two; and some there are pure scarlet, others bright blue streaked with scarlet. These and a thousand more, varying in form as in colour, but all alike minute, are among the tempting beauties which make me always wish you were with me, that I might hear your raptures of delight.
There are some most attractive gold-fish with broad bands of black, which terminate in wing-like fins; and others, still more fascinating, are silvery, with a delicate rosy flush. Some are yellow, striped with violet; others are pure scarlet, spotted with cobalt. I think my favourites are bright turquoise blue with a gold collar. Then there are some very large fish of the glossiest green, and others of a dazzling crimson. But the most distingue-looking fishes are those which temper their gay colours with bands or zigzags of black velvet. Their forms are as varied as their colours, long or short, round, flat, or triangular.
While these flash and dart in and out of their forest sanctuary, you may see large shells travelling over the coral-ledges, a good deal faster than you would suppose possible, till you see that they are tenanted by large hermit-crabs. Other crabs are in their own lawful shells, as are also the wary lobsters; and here and there are scattered some rare shells, such as we see in collections at home, and suppose to be quite common in the tropics, where, however, as a rule, they are only obtained by professional divers. Of course such as are washed up on the shore are dead shells, utterly worthless.
Quite apart from the mere delight to the eyes of gazing at these varied beauties, the reef has its useful aspect in regard to the commissariat. At every low tide a crowd of eager fishers repair thither, to see what manner of supper awaits them.
Here, as in all these isles where wild animals do not exist, the sea furnishes the happy hunting-grounds of rich and poor. Swift canoes or boats take the place of hounds and horses; and the coralreef affords as much delight to high and low, as a Scotch deer-forest or heathery moor does to the wealthy few in Britain.
Can you not fancy the thrilling excitement of standing on the brink of the reef watching the huge green billows rolling in with thunder roar, and curling their grand white crests ere dashing on the Tock in cataracts of foam, carrying with them many a strange creature of the deep? For these the fisherman keeps keen watch, standing with spear all ready poised to strike whatever may coim; within his reach. But more exciting still is the fishing by torchlight on the dark moonless nights, when a torch made of dried reeds is carried in one hand, and the spear in the other, ready to strike the unwary fish, attracted by the glare. Small fish are caught with a different sort of spear, consisting of six or eight metal rods lashed to a long stick; when this is dexterously plunged into a -shoal, some fish are pretty sure to be pinched and held firm.
Very often large parties go together to the reef, each bearing a flaming torch, and sometimes they fish for eels in the rivers in the same way. In either case the effect is most picturesque. I have seen the shallow lagoon just inside the reef all illuminated by these flashing lights, which tell where the canoes are gliding, and just reveal the statuesque figures at the prow, with uplifted torch and spear all ready poised: grand studies in bronze, as perfect models as sculptor could desire, and rich bits of colour for the artist who can render the warm ruddy glow, reflected by a well-oiled brown skin, with a background of dark sea and sky.
At other times the sport lies in some form of netting. A whol(, company of women assemble, laughing and chattering as only South Sea Islanders can. Perhaps a dozen are told off to carry a great net, which they sink when up to their necks in water; then forming a wide semicircle, they gradually approach the shore, lifting their net so as not to tear it on the rough coral-bed, and driving as many fish as they can enclose towards the shallow water, whence they can scoop them up in their little baskets, which they empty into larger ones slung from the waist. In this way myriads of tiny silvery fish are caught.
Sometimes the men adopt this method of driving larger fish into shallow water, and then spear them in the way I have just described. The best marksmen stand a little apart, watching keenly BAIT FOB CUTTLE-FISH. 215
for any fish that may escape the net, and throwing their spears at such fugitives with almost unerring aim. It is a scene of immense excitement; and the fun of the sport is enhanced by the prospect of an abundant supper. For this sort of fishing seine-nets are made, 100 feet in length; or else several large nets, about 40 feet long by 12 deep, are joined together so as to enclose a very wide space.
Women carry small fine casting-nets in the hand, and throw them so dexterously as often to enclose a whole shoal of little fishes; some kinds are no bigger than whitebait. For larger fish, akin to herrings and salmon, various nets are made of different fibres, such as the hybiscus, banyan, or pandanus bark or flax, the two latter being the strongest and most durable. Sometimes two nets are thrown at the same time—an inner net with fine mesh, and an outer one much coarser—to resist any larger fish which might break through the inner one. They were weighted by stones wrapped in cocoa-nut fibre, and the floats are made of hybiscuswood, which is found to be very buoyant . When the nets are brought ashore, they are hung up to dry on the trees and shrubs.
Nowadays the ordinary hooks of commerce have almost superseded the clumsy but efficacious hooks of pearl-shell or bone. Those used in fishing for dolphin or bonitos were formerly attached to a mother-of-pearl shank, about six inches long, carved to resemble a fish. Excellent wooden hooks were also made by twisting the young roots of the casuarina or iron-wood tree, and leaving them till they had grown to a suitable size. In old days, when sharks were considered a delicacy, they were beguiled by large wooden hooks from twelve to fifteen inches in length. Cuttle-fish are attracted by a bait very much resembling that used in Fiji, where an imitation of a rat is made of cowrie-shells. I do not know whether the Tahitians have a similar legend of the enmity between the rat and the cuttle-fish. Here the cowrie-shells are cut into pieces, and fastened one over another like the scales of an armadillo, and so made into an oval ball the size of a rat. This being attached to a strong line, is lowered from a canoe, and gently jerked so as to move like a living creature. The cuttle-fish, which lies safely ensconced in some hole in the rocks, throws out a long arm and lassoes its prey, the plated armour giving it a iirmer grip. Failing to draw in this unknown variety of rat, it throws out another arm, and yet another, till at length it slips out of its stronghold, and is drawn to the surface, holding its prize firmly enlaced.
It is not "all fish that comes to the net" in these seas. Many which are wholesome at one season are downright poison during the months when the coral is said to he in "hlossoin;" during which time these fish crunch it with their strong teeth. Others become poisonous by feeding on sea-centipedes—curious creatures which twine themselves round the coral, and resemble yards of black string with myriad tiny legs. There are certain fish which may be eaten with impunity on one isle, and are positively deadly if caught on other reefs. The natives themselves have sometimes died by rashly trusting to their experience of their own fishinggrounds, and so venturing to eat the identical fish caught elsewhere. There are also certain sea-crabs which it is very unsafe to eat Curiously enough, all varieties of land-crab are said to be good for food; but there is a white-shelled sea-crab which generally proves fatal, and is sometimes eaten as a means of committing suicide.
Even shell-collectors have to be wary how they handle the treasures they discover, as there are certain shell-fish which are armed with minute barbs, through which they inject virulent poison into the hand that touches them. The most dangerous of these is a beautiful cone,1 which has been known to cause death within a few hours. No sooner is it touched than a thrill of sharp pain flies up to the shoulder, and soon the body swells to an enormous size, and the hapless sufferer dies in agony.
Do you remember a somewhat similar case—though happily it did not prove fatal—which occurred on our own shores, when Mr
Hope G incautiously picked up a large jelly-fish, which so
poisoned his blood that weeks of torture ensued? These beautiful sea-thistles (sea-nettles rather) are not to be touched with impunity.
l Conies texlilis
DANGERS IN FISHING. 217
The men engaged in the Mche-de-mer fisheries find that those Iiideous gelatinous slugs which appear so very helpless, are also capable of inflicting severe pain. They resemble great sausages of dark-coloured india-rubber, black, grey, red, or greenish, inflated with sea-water. When touched, they eject this water with some violence, and if it falls on any wound or scratch it produces dangerous and agonising inflammation. The smallest drop squirted into the eye causes intolerable burning pain; and many of the tripang-fishere have their sight seriously injured from this cause.
But more noxious by far is the olive-green variety, which is commonly called the leopard, from being marked with orangecoloured spots. "When this creature is touched it throws up glutinous filaments like darning-cotton, which not only adhere tenaciously to whatever they touch, but if they come in contact 'with the human skin, they instantly raise a painful burning blister and cause serious inflammation. Such being the case, it would appear discreet to leave these ugly creatures unmolested; but as they are accounted a great delicacy in China, and fetch from j£80 to £100 per ton, the risk is considered worth incurring.
Another serious danger of the reef arises from the various voracious sea-eels, which coil themselves up in the interstices of the coral and dart out to seize any prey which comes within reach. I was severely bitten myself one day while incautiously feeling for small fish; but many natives have thus been maimed for life, the loss of a few fingers being a comparative trifle. I heard of one man in the Paumotu Isles who had the whole calf of his leg bitten off by a vaaroa, or long-mouthed eel, a reptile which attains a length of eight feet or more, and roams about the reef seeking what it may devour. It was formerly an object of worship, in common with the conger-eel; and bloody vengeance has on more than one occasion been taken by the heathen on such of their Christian neighbours as have presumed to eat this incarnate god.
About fifteen years ago, a party of about eighty persons reached Samoa, after drifting over the wide seas for several weeks. They had been driven away from the isle of Fakaofa, where several of their number had been killed in consequence of having eaten conger