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A short story by Louis Becke

The "Palu" Of The Equatorial Pacific

Title:     The "Palu" Of The Equatorial Pacific
Author: Louis Becke [More Titles by Becke]

During a residence of half a lifetime among the various island-groups of the North-western and South Pacific, I devoted much of my spare time--and I had plenty of it occasionally--to deep-sea fishing, my tutors being the natives of the Caroline, Marshall, Gilbert, and Ellice Groups.

The inhabitants of the last-named cluster of islands are, as I have said, the most skilled fishermen of all the Malayo-Polynesian peoples with whom it has been my fortune to have come in contact. The very poverty of their island homes--mere sandbanks covered with coconut and pandanus palms only--drives them to the sea for their food; for the Ellice Islanders, unlike their more fortunate prototypes who dwell in the forest-clad, mountainous, and fertile islands of Samoa, Tahiti, Raratonga, &c.;, live almost exclusively upon coconuts, the drupes of the pandanus palm, and fish. From their very infancy they look to the sea as the main source of their food-supply, either in the clear waters of the lagoon, among the breaking surf on the reef, or out in the blue depths of the ocean beyond. From morn till night the frail canoes of these semi-nude, brown-skinned, and fearless toilers of the sea may be seen by the voyager paddling swiftly over the rolling swell of the wide Pacific in chase of the _bonito_, or lying motionless upon the water, miles and miles away from the land, ground-fishing with lines a hundred fathoms long. Then, as the sun dips, the flare of torches will be seen along the sandy beaches as the night-seekers of flying-fish launch their canoes and urge them through the rolling surf beyond the reef, where, for perhaps three or four hours, they will paddle slowly to and fro, just outside the white line of roaring breakers, and return to the shore with their tiny craft half-filled with the most beautiful and wonderful fish in the world. The Ellice Island method of catching flying-fish would take too long to explain here, much as I should like to do so; my purpose is to describe a very remarkable fish called the _palu_, in the capture of which these people are the most skilful. The catching of flying-fish, however, bears somewhat on the subject of this article, as the _palu_ will not take any other bait but a flying-fish, and therefore a supply of the former is a necessary preliminary to _palu_ fishing.

Let us imagine, then, that the bait has been secured, and that a party of _palu_-fishers are ready to set out from the little island of Nanomaga, the smallest but most thickly populated of the Ellice Group. The night must be windless and moonless, the latter condition being absolutely indispensable, although, curiously enough, the fish will take the hook on an ordinary starlight night. Time after time have I tried my luck with either a growing or a waning moon, much to the amusement of the natives, and never once did I get a _palu_, although other nocturnal-feeding fish bit freely enough.

The tackle used by the natives is made of coconut cinnet, four or eight-stranded, of great strength, and capable of holding a fifteen-foot shark should one of these prowlers seize the bait. The hook is made of wood--in fact, the same as is used for shark-fishing--about one inch and a half in diameter, fourteen inches in the shank, with a natural curve; the barb, or rather that which answers the purpose of a barb, being supplied by a small piece lashed horizontally across the top of the end of the curve. These peculiar wooden hooks are _grown_; the roots of a tree called _ngiia_, whose wood is of great toughness, are watched when they protrude from a bank, and trained into the desired shape; specimens of these hooks may be seen in almost any ethnographical museum. To sink the line, coral stones of three or four pounds weight are used, attached by a very thin piece of cinnet or bark, which, when the fish is struck, is always broken by its struggles, and falls off, thus releasing the line from an unnecessary weight. It is no light task hauling in a thick, heavy line, hanging straight up and down for a length of from seventy-five to a hundred fathoms or more!

Each canoe is manned by four men, only two of whom usually fish, the other two, one at the bow and the other at the stern, being employed in keeping the little craft in a stationary position with their paddles. If, however, there is not much current all four lower their lines, one man working his paddle with one hand so as to keep from drifting. My usual companions were the resident native teacher and two stalwart young natives of the island--Tulu'ao and Muli'ao; and I may here indulge in a little vanity when I say that my success as a _palu_-fisher was regarded as something phenomenal, only one other white man in the group, a trader on the atoll of Funafuti, having ever caught a _palu_, or, in fact, tried to catch one. But then I had such beautiful tackle that even the most skilled native fisherman had no chance when competing with me. My lines were of twenty-seven-strand white American cotton, as thick as a small goose-quill, and easily handled, never tangling or twisting like the native cinnet; and my hooks were the admiration and envy of all who saw them. They were of the "flatted" Kirby type, eyed, but with a curve in the shank, which was five inches in length, and as thick as a lead-pencil. I had bought these in Sydney, and during the voyage down had rigged them with snoodings of the very best seizing wire, intending to use them for shark-fishing. I had smaller ones down to three inches, but always preferred using the largest size, as the _palu_ has a large mouth, and it is a difficult matter in a small canoe on a dark night to free a hook embedded in the gullet of a fish which is awkward to handle even when exhausted, and weighing as much as sixty or seventy pounds; while I also knew that any unusual noise or commotion would be almost sure to attract some of those most dangerous of all night-prowlers of the Pacific, the deep-water blue shark.

Paddling out due westward from the lee side of the island, where the one village is situated, we would bring-to in about seventy or eighty fathoms. As I always used leaden sinkers, my companions invariably let me lower first to test the depth, as with a two or three-pound lead my comparatively thin line took but little time in running out and touching bottom. A whole flying-fish was used for one bait by the natives, it being tied on to the inner curve of the great wooden hook, whilst I cut one in half, fore-and-aft, and ran my hook through it lengthwise.

The utmost silence was always observed; and even when lighting our pipes we were always careful not to let the reflection of the flame of the match fall upon the water, on account of the sharks, which would at once be attracted to the canoe, and hover about until they were rewarded for their vigilance by seizing the first _palu_ brought to the surface. Sometimes a hungry shark will seize the outrigger in his jaws, or get foul of it, and upset the canoe, and a capsize under such circumstances is a serious matter indeed. For this reason the canoes are never far apart from each other; if one should be attacked or disabled by a shark the others at once render assistance, and the shark is usually thrust through with a lance if he is too big to be captured and killed. All haste is then made to get away from the spot, leaving the disturber of the proceedings to be devoured by his companions, whom the scent of blood soon brings upon the scene.

With ordinary luck we would get our first _palu_ within an hour of lowering our lines. At such a great depth as eighty or ninety fathoms a bite would scarcely be felt by one of my companions on his thick, heavy, and clumsy line; but on mine it was very different, and there was hardly an occasion on which I did not secure the first fish. Like most bottom-haunting fish in very deep water the _palu_ makes but a brief fight. If he can succeed in "getting his head," he will at once rush into the coral forest amid which he lives, and endeavour to save himself by jamming his body into a cleft or chasm of rock, and let the hook be torn from his jaws, which are soft, boneless, and glutinous. Once, however, he is dragged clear of the coral he seems to lose all heart; and, although he makes an occasional spurt, he grows weaker and weaker as he is dragged toward the surface, and when lifted into the canoe is apparently lifeless, his large eyes literally standing out of his head, and his stomach distended like a balloon. So enormous is the distention of the bladder that sometimes it will protrude from the mouth, and then burst with a noise like a pistol-shot! Perhaps some of my readers will smile at this, but they could see the same thing occur with other deep-sea fish besides the _palu_. In the Caroline and Marshall Islands there is a species of grey groper which is caught in a depth ranging from one hundred to one hundred and fifty fathoms; these fish, which range up to two hundred pounds, actually burst their stomachs when brought to the surface; for the air in the cavities of the body expands on the removal of the great pressure which at such depths keeps it compressed.

Now as to the appearance of the _palu_. When first caught, and seen by the light of a lantern or torch, it is a dark, silvery grey in colour, with prickly, inverted scales--like the feathers of a French fowl of a certain breed. The head is somewhat cod-shaped, with eyes quite as large as a crown-piece; the teeth are many, small, and soft, and bend to a firm pressure; and the bones in the fin and tail are so soft and flexible that they may be bent into any shape, but when dried are of the appearance and consistency of gelatine. The length of the largest _palu_ I have seen was five feet six inches, with a girth of about forty inches. This one was caught in about ninety fathoms of water; and when I opened the stomach I found it to contain five or six undigested fish, about seven inches in length, of the groper species, and for which the natives of the island had no name or knowledge of beyond the appellation _ika kehe_--"unknown fish"--that is, fish which are only seen when taken from the stomach of a deep-sea fish, or are brought to the surface or washed ashore after some submarine disturbance.

The flesh of the _palu_ is greatly valued by the natives of the equatorial islands of the Pacific for its medicinal qualities as a laxative, whilst the oil with which it is permeated is much used as a remedy for rheumatism and similar complaints. Within half an hour of its being taken from the water the skin changes to a dead black, and the flesh assumes the appearance of whale blubber. Generally, the fish is cooked in the usual native ground-oven as quickly as possible, care being taken to wrap it closely up in the broad leaves of the _puraka_ plant--a species of gigantic taro--in order that none of the oil may be lost. Thinking that the oil, which is perfectly colourless and with scarcely any odour, might prove of value, I once "tried out" two of the largest fish taken, and obtained a gallon. This I sent to a firm of drug-merchants in Sydney; but unfortunately the vessel was lost on the passage.

The _palu_ does not seem to have a wide habitat. In the Tonga Islands it is, I believe, very rare; and in Fiji, Samoa, and other mountainous groups throughout Polynesia the natives appear to have no knowledge of it, although they have a fish possessing the same peculiar characteristics, but of a somewhat different shape. I have fished for it without success at half a dozen places in Samoa, in New Britain, and New Ireland. But it is generally to be found about the coasts of any of the low-lying coral islands of the Union (or Tokelau) Group, the Ellice, Gilbert, Marshall, and part of the Caroline archipelagoes. The Gilbert Islanders call it _te ika ne peka_--a name that cannot well be translated into bald English, though there is a very lucid Latin equivalent.

In 1882 I took passage from the Island of Nukufetau in the Ellice Group for the Caroline Islands. The vessel was a fine brigantine of 160 tons, and was named the _Orwell_. She was, unfortunately, commanded by an incompetent, obstinate, self-willed man, who, though a good seaman, had no meteorological knowledge and succeeded in losing the ship, when lying at anchor, on Peru Island, in the Gilbert Group, ten days after leaving Nukufetau, simply through disregarding the local trader's advice to put to sea. Disastrous as was the incident to me, for I lost trade goods and personal effects to the value of over a thousand pounds, and came ashore with what I stood in--to wit, a pyjama suit--and a bag of Chili dollars, I had reason to afterwards congratulate myself from a fisherman's point of view.

Living on the island was a Swiss, Frank Voliero, whom I have before mentioned. He was an ardent deep-sea fisherman, and was on that account highly respected by the natives, who otherwise did not care for him, as he was of an exceedingly quarrelsome disposition. He was an expert _palu_ man, and he and I therefore quickly made Island _bruderschaft_. During the three months I remained on Peru we had many fishing trips, and caught not less than fifty _palu_. The largest of these was evidently a patriarch, for although he was in rather poor condition he weighed 136 lbs. and was 6 feet 10 inches in length. Another, hooked at a depth of eighty-five fathoms, was only 5 feet 2 inches, and weighed 129 lbs. Its stomach contained a small octopus with curiously stunted tentacles, almost as thick at the tips as they were at the base, but in all other respects similar to those found in shallow water upon the reefs and in the lagoon.

Both Voliero and myself tried many kinds of bait for _palu,_ believing that the native theory that the fish would only take flying-fish was wrong. We found that on Peru, any elongated fish, such as gars, silvery mullet, or young bonito, were acceptable, and that the tentacle of an octopus, after the outer skin was removed, answered just as well. Yet further southward among the Pacific Isles, flying-fish is the only bait they will take! Evidently, therefore, the _palu_, at the great depths in which it lives, is attracted by a brightly-hued fish whose habitat is on the surface of the ocean. Why this is so must be decided by ichthyologists, for there are no bright, silvery-scaled fish inhabiting the ocean at such depths as eighty or a hundred fathoms. And why is it that the _palu,_ quiescent by day, and feeding only at night, so eagerly seizes a hook baited with a flying-fish--a fish which never descends more than a few fathoms below the surface, and which the _palu_ can never possibly see except when it is lowered by human hands to, or sinks to the bottom?

Of the marvellous efficacy of the _palu_-oil in a case of acute rheumatism I can speak with knowledge. The second mate of an island-trading schooner of which I was the supercargo, was landed at Arorai, in the Line Islands, unable to move, and suffering great agony. After two days' massaging with _palu_-oil he recovered and returned to his duties.

[Since this was written I have learned that Mr. E.R. Waite, of the Sydney Museum, has described the _palu_ as the _Ruvettus pretiosus_, "which hitherto was known only from the North Atlantic, and whose recorded range is now enormously increased. The Escolar--to give it its Atlantic name--has been taken at depths as great as three and four hundred fathoms, but can only be taken at night in September and the early part of October." I should very much like to learn how the _palu_ is taken at a depth of four hundred fathoms--eight hundred yards!]

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Louis Becke's short story: The "Palu" Of The Equatorial Pacific