A Fish Story (pt. 2)

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A Fish Story (pt. 2)


This is part 2 of 4, from an article series written by Lorrin Thurston, on his recent trip to Palmyra. It describes, in colorful detail, several methods for dealing with sharks while wading on reefs like those at Palmyra.

Thurston owned the Honolulu Advertiser at the time, and had a vested interest in the commercial success of Palmyra, so a number of articles like this were run to promote interest in the atoll.


Lorrin A Thurston




Honolulu Advertiser




Public Domain



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How sharks forage in water too shallow to cover them - the “inquisitive ways” of “baby sharks” at Palmyra - recipes for escape from a “wild shark” when “absent treatment” cannot be administered

By Lorrin A. Thurston

In the last two “fish stories” of this series I dealt with the multitude of sharks found in the waters about Kingman’s Reef and the methods of defensive warfare against them adopted by the sampan fishermen.

A shark is usually thought of as a deep sea menace, and little, if any, consideration, is given to what it may do in shallow water - much less in water of wading depth.

Manners and Customs of Sharks

This does not apply, however, to the shark population of Kingman’s and Palmyra. All water “looks good” to them, so long as there is enough to wet their gills!

This “fish story” will give some details concerning the manners and customs of sharks at those atolls.

When we landed at Kingman’s on the edge of the reef which intervenes between the lagoon and the island, we noted that the water was approximately knee deep, with occasional deeper spots.

When approximately a third of the way across this 250-foot strip of reef I was startled to see three tell-tale shark fins moving through the water between me and the island. Although I had heard tales of sharks frequenting shallow water, it had not come home to me that I would meet them actually cruising about in water that did not come above my knees.


It was not a case of being “between the devil and the deep sea,” but between “the sharks and deep sea.” For the 15-fathom deep lagoon was just behind, and the sharks about three jumps ahead of me. As the shoal water extended indefinitely right and left, the odds seemed decidedly in favor of the sharks!

Recipes for Handling Wild Sharks

There are two recipes for handling a wild shark, if you cannot give him absent treatment. One is to stay stock still, in hopes the shark will not see you. The other is to go straight for him, making the greatest splash and hull-a-baloo possible, in the hopes of scaring him off. I once had an experience in which I utilized the latter method; but that’s another story. In this case something seemed to tell me that the first recipe was the one to follow and I accordingly “stood to attention” as effectively as though I had been a guide post planted in the coral.

The ruse succeeded, or the sharks had a more toothsome morsel in their mind; or, being uneducated, did not appreciate the flavor of “Sandwich Island” delicacies, for after a few moments they moved off! I did not attempt to argue with them but promptly scrambled ashore on the island which the Washington naval officials intimate does not exist. Just at that moment Washington opinion did not interest me; there was island enough for my purposes.

The following shoal water shark incidents at Palmyra show that the shark breed and habits at the two atolls are the same.

“Batting” Sharks on the Nose

Before I left Honolulu I was warned by Edward Benner Jr., of the Palmyra Company, not to go wading at Palmyra at high tide or in water over knee-deep, without carrying some weapon along with which to “bat the sharks on the nose,” as otherwise they were liable to rub against my shins; and, as their hides are as rough as coarse sandpaper, this might be uncomfortable.

A Shark’s Vulnerable Spot

Incidentally, for the information of the uninitiated, I would say that a shark’s nose is his most vulnerable spot. You can stab him from head to tail, rip him to ribbons, or shoot him as full of holes as a salt shaker without stopping him. You can even disembowel him and he will swim briskly off as though in the search of a new outfit; but a smart crack on the nose will instantly bring him to the right about, while a single shot down through the head, four or five inches behind the tip of the nose, will put him completely out of commission!

But to return to Palmyra -

“Inquisitive Baby Shark”

As a contribution to my education upon Palmyra subjects, I had been presented with a pamphlet written by Joseph F. Rock up the botany of Palmyra, in which Mr. Rock mentioned, incidentally, that the “baby sharks” at Palmyra were very “inquisitive” and frequently approached waders to an uncomfortably close proximity; but that there was no danger, as they could be frightened away by slapping on the water with the flat of a coconut leaf.

This is certainly a comforting though to a nervous wader who may be approached by a school of sharks from several directions at once! But Mr. Rock’s “baby sharks” were either more timid, milder mannered, or more “babyish” than those which our party met at Palmyra.

Striking Sharks in the Nose with an Ice Pack

For instance, on three separate occasions “inquisitive baby sharks” approached members of our party, and, declining to be frightened away with splashes kept coming head-on, until they were stopped by being spiked in the nose with an ice pick. Whether the intention of these “babies” was to caress our shins with their hides or whether they were in search of meat I do not know. Certain it is they were some “inquisitive babies!”

A Cloud on the “Inquisitive Baby Shark” Theory

We had other experiences of which the foregoing is a fair sample; but one other incident which greatly impressed me at the time throws a somewhat of a cloud over Mr. Rock’s theory of the timidity and harmlessness of the Palmyra “baby sharks.”

We were exploring along the shore of Samarang Island - the easternmost of the chain of 53 sub-islands which constitute Palmyra, when I came to an inlet. It was about a quarter of a mile around but only 200 feet or so across the mouth. The water appeared to be only knee-deep and I started to wade across when one of our party who was just ahead, called out: “I wouldn’t advise you to wade across there this morning!”

“Why not?” I inquired.

Twelve Sharks Whose Curiosity Was Unsatisfied

“Because,” he replied. “I started across there just now and I hadn’t gotten 30 feet before 12 sharks started for me, six coming from each side! I jumped up and down and splashed and made all the racket that I could but they kept right on coming straight for me. I ran out of the water onto the bank here to escape them, and the beggars followed right after me to the very edge of the beach!”

I walked around the inlet.

In the next “fish story” I will describe how young Ted Dranga, in my presence, bare handed, gathered to his naked breast and hugged to death a 30 pound ulua, the gamest fighting fish that swims!



Lorrin A Thurston, “A Fish Story (pt. 2),” Palmyra Archive, accessed August 12, 2020, http://www.palmyraarchive.org/items/show/204.