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Crusoes of Sunday Island

CHAPTER ELEVEN — Birds, Whales and Sharks

Birds, Whales and Sharks

"I saw some tropic birds settling on the cliffs round the beach," said Hettie, returning from the Fishing Rocks one bright summer morning. "What say we go and have a look? We might be able to get some feathers."

"All right. Dad's gone over to Denham Bay, so we can have a day off. Do you want us for anything, mother?" asked Bess.

"No. I've got Mary. Off you go!"

The girls set off happily. Hunting for birds' nests was always more fun than hunting goats. It was also a welcome change from digging kumaras. The tropic bird, known to the Maoris as the amokura, was the most beautiful of all Sunday Island's visiting birds. It arrived in the Kermadecs towards the end of October and nested in the same casual way as other breeding birds. Any crevice in a cliff face, or ledge of rock on steep mountain side, served as repository for the single egg. The young birds hatched in January, and were fully grown by the time they took off on their long northern flight during April and May.

The adult birds were of delicate rose-pink colour, the feathers bearing a satiny sheen that gave them a singularly beautiful appearance. A coral red beak, a few dark blue-black patches around the eyes, and black feet, provided the only other touches of colour.

It was the amokura's two long, central tail feathers of brilliant red, black-shafted, thin as a rush, that the girls were seeking. So tame were the birds when sitting that they were able to walk up to the nests and with expert tweak, pull out the coveted feathers.

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"Seems a bit mean, doesn't it?" said Bess with a twinge of compunction. "Think it hurts them?"

"No, of course not. They'll grow others just like a rooster does," was the reassuring reply as Hettie tugged out another feather.

She had not the slightest grounds for her assurance; she simply wanted the feathers, a pair of which made a showy and charming present for the chance visitor-and presents of any kind were hard to come by on Sunday Island.

The feathers were very highly prized by the Maoris. In days gone by they had formed part of the ceremonial head-dress of high-born tribal chiefs. Sometimes they found their way to the South Island in exchange for the flint-hard greenstone from which tribal treasures, ornaments, and other heirlooms were fashioned.

It was only the North Island tribes who ever acquired the coveted bird. Sometimes one or two would be blown down the six hundred miles of ocean from the Kermadecs to the north Auckland beaches. Dead, or completely exhausted, they would be picked up by Maoris who patrolled the cliffs and beaches after every heavy northerly storm.

The tropic birds were confirmed show-offs, and in the mating season their antics were comic as they danced in mid-air, bowed to their lady loves, flapping their rosy wings and trying to stand on their elegant tails. But their beauty was but feather-deep! They had the most distressingly raucous voices of all the Sunday Island birds, and their strident cry, uttered several times in harsh repetition, often brought the Bells to the cliffs to watch, as the birds danced and pranced, seeming to take an almost human pride in showing off their fine feathers to the more soberly clad birds of the island.

Another beautiful visitor was the silky white tern, with plumage of exquisite softness, pure white, relieved only by a tinge of blue on the beak and around the eyes. With page 129 wide, slender wing-spread, the birds hovered incessantly over their nesting places, usually a hole in the flat branch of a tree, with monotonous cries that sounded like "Trossit, trossit!" so that for the Bells they were always the "trossit birds."

One of the most fascinating glimpses of bird life Sunday Island ever gave the family was that of a white tern perched on a pohutukawa branch with five live sprats held firmly in her beak for her baby bird's breakfast. How she managed to catch them, and then push them one by one into the gaping bill of the hungry chick without dropping the others, the watchers could not fathom. But she managed it by some subtle bird trickery, and then flew off for a repeat order.

As volcanic activity in the crater slowly worked itself out, earthquakes shook the Sunday Island mountain sides and cliffs frequently. The Bells took them warily, but gradually became used to them, as people do when living in an earthquake area. One of the most severe took place soon after the family had moved over to North Beach. They spent an alarming day in dread of a fresh eruption in the crater as the earth shuddered and heaved beneath their feet and trees tossed in the air at fantastic angles. But beyond unusually high and low tides, and heavy clouds of steam issuing from the crater vents and Steamburge Rock, there was no spectacular aftermath as in the great eruption of 1872, when a mass of rock was suddenly heaved up from the bed of the ocean in Denham Bay. Large enough at first to give shelter to ships, it was named Wolverine Rock, after the warship Wolverine, which visited the island shortly afterwards. Exploring parties from whalers landed on the island later, and found it to consist of lava, scoria, and cinders. By the time the Bells reached the island, it was little more than a projecting rock over which the waves broke heavily at high tide.

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More alarming than earthquakes were the fierce gales, sometimes strengthening to hurricane force, that from time to time swept down from the mountain heights. Although not actually in the cyclone or hurricane belt, Sunday Island did not escape an occasional visit from these scourges of the tropics.

Most severe of all was a hurricane that almost wrecked their home on Low Flat. Tom Bell had gone to New Zealand on business leaving his wife and children alone, save for a Niue Islander, Lali, who had stayed on after the other kanakas had left.

For several days before the hurricane struck, unusually high surf had been thundering down on North Beach, with clouds of spray and spindrift that swept over the Terrace cliffs, over one hundred feet high.

Mrs. Bell was very uneasy. "I've never seen such huge seas," she told Hettie one morning. "There was driftwood on a ledge a good sixty feet up the cliff when I went out to look just now. There hasn't been anything like enough wind to raise such tides. And the sky's gone that queer hurricane yellow. I do wish your father were here!"

Her uneasiness increased during the day, as the last puffs of wind died down, and the towering waves still rose and fell. When the sky darkened at an unusually early hour, Mrs. Bell knew they were in for something serious.

"We'd all better sleep together in the big shed," she told the children after tea. "Bring all your bedding over from the huts."

There was now a cluster of huts built close together on Low Flat, one for the girls, another for the boys, Mrs. Bell's own cottage, a detached kitchen and large adjoining shed used as a dining and living room.

"I think we'd better not undress, mother," suggested Hettie, coming in after a last look into the black depths of the uncannily still night. The younger children went to bed quickly and were soon asleep.

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Mrs. Bell and the girls lay awake and listened. Soon came a rustling and stirring of wind in the leaves of the trees outside. They knew the warning had been given. It was followed by fitful gusts that rattled the windows and slapped at the nikau palms in the bush. But it was not the wind they dreaded. It was the uncanny moments of complete stillness between the gusts that were so unnerving. Then came the hurricane signal, the distant moaning, rising to an eerie wail, that Bess had imitated the night the boys camped out.

A moment later the storm broke, and the wind came thundering down from the heights. It struck the shed with a force that shook it from roof to foundations, its timbers shuddering and creaking as though they were being torn apart. Again and again the hurricane struck, and the roaring thunder of the wind filled earth and sky. A bolt of lightning suddenly split the darkness, showing up in ghostly blue light the frightened faces of the family huddled together in the swaying shed. With the following thunderclap, the building was partly lifted from its foundations and tilted forward at an acute angle.

"Come quickly! It will go next time!" cried Mrs. Bell in terror. "We'll have to try and get down to Lali's hut."

The Nieuan had built himself a hut some distance below the house, in a sheltered nook protected by a grove of pohutukawas and a belt of thick, tough ngaio trees. Guided by a tiny spark of light, mother and children clung together and forced their way through storm and darkness to the hut. As they struggled towards the door, there came another thunder-clap explosion of wind, followed by a crash as a pohutukawa tree was torn out by the roots and hurled across the track within a few yards of the door.

Scrambling over the splintered branches and upthrust roots, mother and children forced their way to the door and pushed it open. At the far end of the hut, Lali crouched in front of a small fire, with his arms clutched page 132 round a roof support, as though holding it up. He turned a terrified face to the Bells, babbling in Niue gibberish the usual "What you call him? What you call him?" reminding Hettie and Bess vividly of their earthquake experience with the kanakas in Denham Bay.

The hut, however, was standing up to the storm. The family crouched beside the fire in safety for the rest of the night.

When the hurricane had blown itself out next morning, they made their way back to Low Flat, expecting to find their home in ruins. Greatly to their surprise and relief, however, the house still stood unharmed, although surrounded by wreckage and devastation. The shed was pitched forward crazily, the kitchen hut had been flattened to the ground, and the fowlhouse had been smashed to pieces. Some of the birds had been killed, and the rest were half dead from fright. One old fighting turkey-gobbler was a sorry sight, his feathers bedraggled, his head hanging down dejectedly.

"Did ever you see such a wreck!" laughed Hettie. "He's had all the fight knocked out of him for life!" The bird lifted a bleary eye and uttered the ghost of a gobble by way of protest, but it died halfway down his neck, and the stricken bird subsided. It was many days before his fighting spirit returned.

A day or two later Tom Bell stood on the deck of the vessel that was bringing him home, and looked across to Sunday Island.

"Holy smoke! They've had a cyclone!" he exclaimed. "The place is a wreck!"

Exploring the Terraces, he found the banana plantation in ruins. Many of the palms had been blown bodily out of the ground, others were snapped off close to the roots. The fronds of those still standing had been ripped to ribbons and torn from the trunk.

Broken branches of fruit trees littered the ground in every direction. Even the vegetable gardens had taken a page 133 thrashing. They looked as though a giant had rampaged through them with hob-nailed boots and trampled every growing thing underfoot.

It was a sorry homecoming.

With his usual courage, Tom Bell once again set about rebuilding his shattered kingdom. Once again he wrested success from defeat, extended his cultivations, and eventually made three blades of grass grow where none had grown before.

The Bells stood outside their home one morning, faces to the breeze, and sniffed.

"Phaugh! It's something dead." Mrs. Bell threw a handkerchief over the baby's face and turned away in disgust.

"It's dead all right," agreed her husband, "and has been for a long time. What's more, it's somewhere far too close. You youngsters run and have a look along the beach around the cliffs, and see if you can spot anything."

"Mind you don't go too near," cautioned their mother as they ran off.

It was not long before they came running back, holding their noses. "It's a whale!" called Tom. "Washed up on the beach just around the Bluff."

"A great 'normous whale, bigger'n the one that swallered Joners," shrilled Jack. "Bigger'n the house! It stinked so bad we couldn't go anywhere near it."

"Stone the crows!" groaned Tom Bell. "That means we'll get this awful stench every time the wind's this way. I'll go round and have a look at it."

He hadn't to look far. The vast, decaying mass lay partly on the sand, partly in the water. Bell carefully stepped out its length. Sixty feet on the beach, another twenty feet in the sea! Eighty feet of decomposing whale, and summer coming on. Heaps of shattered whalebone lay washed up around the carcase. Bell retired to a page 134 position well to windward, and looked at the mammoth creature thoughtfully. It was the biggest of its kind he had ever seen-a blue whale, a species which sometimes attains a length of ninety feet. With sperm and humpbacks he was familiar, but this was something right out of his ken.

The creature had very obviously been dead a long while, whether from injuries suffered in a whaling fight, or from natural causes, it was impossible to tell. Bell pondered gloomily on the odd fact that with thousands of miles of shark-infested ocean washing all around, the noisome mass had by some evil chance been cast up by the waves on the very spot where it was least wanted. For months, the pure sea air was fouled by its presence.

Finally Nature's post-mortuary design was accomplished. The heavy seas, hot suns and keen winds completed the process of decomposition and the beach was cleansed of its pollution.

Season after season, the annual migration of whales from the ice-cold seas of the Antarctic to breed in the waters of the tropics brought the great creatures round the Kermadecs. Schools of humpbacks showed up off Denham Bay and the northern shores of Sunday Island every season. With uncouth bellowings, rumblings, whistlings and snortings, they cavorted and gambolled day and night, flinging their unwieldy bodies about like a school of delirious dolphins. Many a night they kept the Bells awake with their nerve-wracking din, startling them from sleep with their thunderous tail-whackings as they broached and sounded and flung themselves about in the waves.

The Bell children stood on the cliffs and watched them, fascinated by their antics and by the white fountains spurting up from the tops of their heads. Sometimes in a spasm of exuberance, a whale would leap up out of the water, its huge body vertical between sea and sky and visible for one enthralling second from snout to tail flukes.

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Then it would suddenly crash back into the sea with a thunderous slap, sending waves surging in all directions, tossing clouds of spray sky-high as it disappeared into the depths.

For a few weeks the whales remained in Kermadec waters, sometimes venturing close inshore in pursuit of the vast masses of shrimps and plankton, the minute floating marine particles that formed their principal food. Then they would disappear.

Some time in autumn, they would set out with their calves on the long return journey from the warm waters of the north to their home in the Antarctic, usually pausing awhile off the shores of the Kermadecs on the way.

During one of these visits, the Bell girls saw a most unusual sight while climbing around the cliffs of Meyer Island.

"Come and look, girls," cried Hettie, who was ahead. "There's a cow whale down here feeding her baby."

Quickly joined by her sisters, they all watched a sight very seldom seen by land folk. The huge mother whale lay rolled on her side, ejecting milk direct from her exposed teats into the mouth of her calf, an outsize baby twenty feet long.

"Let's climb farther down and get a better view," suggested Mary. "We mightn't ever see such a thing again." From a ledge in the cliff they looked directly down, and watched the strange sight, until the cow whale ponderously rolled herself right way up, and with her calf beside her, swam out to the open sea.

As they turned to make their way up the cliff, Bessie caught sight of a rift in the cliff-face into which the sun was shining. "Look! See that kind of little door in the rocks-let's go over and find out where it leads to."

They pushed their way through the stunted undergrowth to the hole, and found it opened out into a large cave.

"What a marvellous place for a pirate's lair!" breathed page 136 Hettie, in whom the childhood lure of buried treasure was dying hard. "Nobody would ever find it unless they happened to be standing just where they could see the sun shining in."

Mary was greatly impressed by the possibility. "Perhaps we're the first people who have ever been here," she said in an awed voice. It was a solemn thought.

"I'll tell you what. Let's write our names on something to show we've been here," suggested Bess.

Hettie rummaged in her pocket and found a scrap of pencil. They wrote their names, the date, and the words Sunday island, on the label of a clear glass limejuice bottle in which they had carried drinking water for their lunch, then pushed the paper inside and corked the bottle tightly.

"Now let's find a place where it can't be knocked down and broken," said Mary.

They found a crevice in the wall of the cave, pushed the bottle in firmly and stared up at it thoughtfully for a moment.

"Perhaps in a hundred years, when we are all dead and buried, someone will come into the cave and find it," prophesied Hettie, always ready to supply the dramatic touch.

"It's more likely to get knocked down and broken by an earthquake or a landslide, or something." Bess, as ever, took a realistic view. Mary, not to be denied the thrill of her idea that they might be the first people to stand in the cave, now capped it with the equally solemn thought that they would probably be the last.

"I don't believe even an earthquake would shake it down. That is, unless something awful happened, like Meyer Island getting blown up, or sinking and coming up again like that Wolverine Rock in Denham Bay. If that doesn't happen, the bottle will be there with our names in it to the very end of the world. Just think of that!"page 137They thought of it in silence for a moment. For once, the dramatic honours were with Mary. With a final backward glance, the girls left the cave, and worked their way back up the cliff.

There was a strange, though seemingly unimportant sequel to the bottle-hiding. Over twenty years later, a clear glass bottle containing a sodden scrap of paper with indecipherable writing, was picked up by Roy Bell on the Denham Bay beach, and its finding duly recorded in his diary.

But Bessie, confronted with the entry nearly fifty years later, shook her head emphatically. "It couldn't possibly be the same. We pushed it high up beyond the reach of any tide. And I'm positive nobody but ourselves has been over that side of the island and found the cave. There would be nothing for them to go for."

So there the bottle probably rests securely in its niche to this day, beneath a deepening layer of dust, while the years slowly, inexorably, wheel round to Hettie's century.

Far more sensational than the girls' whale-watching experience was an encounter with a school of whales which might have cost several of the family their lives. It occurred one day some years later, when Tom Bell, Bessie, two of the boys and a lad named Alf Bacon who was camping at North Beach with his parents at the time, were fishing not far from Meyer Island. The sea was calm, and the water so crystal-clear that they could see shoals of fish of all kinds, large and small, darting and swimming deep down below the surface.

Presently several humpbacks appeared from behind the island. Broaching and sounding, leaping high, swimming in wide circles in some unusual excitement, they filled the peaceful scene with turmoil. The rowers watched them for some time, then became absorbed in their fishing again. A resounding "Whack!" as one of the whales stood on its page 138 tail and then crashed back into the water not far away, caused Bell to turn his head. His sudden shout startled the rest of the party.

"They're coming nearer-they're closing in on us. Bess-Alf-row for your lives. Get into shallow water. Quickly!"

They rowed furiously, but not quite quickly enough. Bess, who was pulling stroke, looked over her shoulder. "Dad! Dad! There's one diving under us!" she screamed.

Next instant the bow of the boat was heaved up into the air, then she was rolled over onto her side until the gunwale was almost under water. A huge shape slid out from underneath in a violent swirl, turned with a speed incredible for its size, and flung itself bodily out of the sea only a few yards away. For a second the tail flukes, like a pair of gigantic wings, towered over the heads of the boys. A split-second drop to the bottom of the boat saved their lives. Next moment they were in shallow water. But they hardly realized how real had been their danger until, on his next visit, Parkins Christian was told the story.

"You had a very close shave. They meant mischief when they started swimming round and round like that. They were getting their tempers up. Another few moments and they'd have closed in on you, smashed up the boat and probably sent the lot of you down to Davy Jones' locker-and the sharks. You'd better give whales a wide berth in future."

The dead whale was not the Bells' only unwelcome visitor during their stay at Low Flat. Running along North Beach at low tide one morning, the children found a thirty-foot shark stranded on the wet sands. Their father came and examined it. "It's dead all right," he decided. "I'll cut its head off. It hasn't any teeth, but I'll get its jaws when the flesh has rotted away. They'll look fine up there in front of the house."

He cut off the head, dragged it high up into the sand-page 139hills and left it there. The body was washed away by the next tide.

At that time there was a craze for natural marine horrors among seafaring men. They carried home unsightly lumps of whalebone, which later appeared in front gardens as stools. Widely-extended shark's jaws, lined with rows of sabre-sharp teeth, formed hideous arches, and threatened visitors with decapitation at the drop of a hat. Monstrous clam shells ornamented front verandahs, and spiny sea-urchins, green-pimpled sea eggs, dusty lumps of coral and foul-smelling whale barnacles appeared as family treasures on mantelpieces throughout the South Seas.

In due time Tom Bell went to collect his horrid prize. He was dumbfounded to find it had almost completely disappeared. All that was left was a pile of withered cartilage. He discovered later that it had been a basking shark, one of the largest of its kind, but possessing only rudimentary teeth, and feeding through wide gills on plankton.

"Where is it?" asked Mrs. Bell apprehensively when her husband returned empty-handed and obviously disappointed.

"Not a trace of it left. Must have been one of those silly boneless brutes."

His wife sighed with relief. "Thank Heaven! I'd have had nightmares every night with a ghastly pair of shark jaws just outside the door." She never overcame her horror of the creatures.

Although the Bells were never attacked by sharks when bathing, there were frequent reminders of their presence. Tom was fishing from the North Beach rocks one morning, when a large shark suddenly appeared and made a swift rush with wide-open jaws to seize a fish-head that the boy was using for bait. But Tom was too quick for him. He pulled in his line, baited an extra large hook with the head, and wired it to a log that had been washed up on page 140 the rocks. He threw the log into the sea and a few seconds later there was a flurry, a vicious snap of the jaws, and the shark was hooked.

The great brute fought for its life, thrashing, lashing, tossing the log high in the air, but the wiring, fish-head and hook all held firm, well down the gaping throat. Gradually its struggles weakened, and at last it swam slowly away, dragging the log with it.

Tom rowed back to Low Flat, satisfied that the dead shark would be washed ashore the following day. But although he searched the beach from end to end, there was no sign of the carcase. He dropped his line from the Fishing Rocks many times during the week, in case the creature had managed to tear out the hook, but did not see any further sign of it.

A more alarming experience befell Bess when rowing round the island with Hettie and her brothers not long afterwards. Several sharks were seen swimming beside the boat. Presently one made a sudden dash, turned on its side, and with a savage snap seized Bess's oar in its teeth. The girl tugged hard, the shark tugged harder, almost capsizing the boat as it fought to drag the oar out of her hand. After a few tense moments, Bess won, and the shark swam off, but when she retrieved her oar, she found it almost bitten through and the blade scored from end to end with marks of the razor-sharp, dragging teeth.

Despite their daring when swimming, the Bells knew well enough that sharks were always hovering close at hand. Not only the impudent monsters that cruised not far beneath the surface of the water, cutting the water lazily now and again with a dorsal fin, but hordes of a small, particularly vicious kind known as petties, an easy adaptation of the French petite.

Proof of the continual presence of these "tigers of the sea" was given Bess and Hettie in the course of a goat-hunting trip. Several panic-stricken animals, with a dog at their heels, plunged down the cliff to the rocks below.

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One old billy goat, cornered at last, leaped blindly from its rock into the sea.

There was a scream as a shark's jaws snapped tight on the poor creature's leg, and it was dragged to the bottom in a flurry of deeply-reddening water. In an instant the sea was alive with sharks, drawn by the smell of blood.

The girls turned away horrified.

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