LESSON 58 The pacific ocean(II)
In these regions may be seen islands in every stage of their formation: "some presenting little more than a point or summit of a branching coralline pyramid, at a depth scarcely discernible through the transparent waters; others spreading, like submarine gardens or shrubberies, beneath the surface, or presenting here and there a little bank of broken coral and sand, over which the rolling wave occasionally breaks." Others, again, exist in the more advanced state that I have just described, the main bank sufficiently elevated to be permanently protected from the waves, and already clothed with verdure, and the lagoon enclosed by the narrow bulwark of the coral reef.
Though the rampart thus reared is sufficient to preserve the inner waters in a peaceful and mirror-like calmness, it must not be supposed that all access to them from the sea is excluded.It almost invariably happens that in the line of reef one or more openings occur, which, though sometimes narrow and intricate, so as scarcely to allow the passage of a native canoe, are not unfrequently of sufficient width and depth to permit the free ingress of large ships.
The advantage to man of these openings is very great. Without them, the islands might smile invitingly, but in vain,— no access could be obtained to them by shipping, through the tremendous surf by which their shores are lashed; but by these entrances the lovely lagoons are converted into the most quiet, safe, and commodious havens imaginable, where ships may lie and water and refresh their crews in security, though the tempest howl without.
It is scarcely less beneficent provision, that the position of the openings is in most cases indicated so as to be visible at a great distance. Had there been merely an opening in the coral rock, it could not have been detected from the sea, except by the diminution of the foaming surf just at that spot,—a circumstance that could scarcely be visible unless the observer were opposite the aperture. In general, however, there is on each side of the passage a little islet, raised on the points of the reef, which, being commonly tufted with cocoa-nut trees, is perceptible as far off as the island itself, and forms a most convenient landmark.
Notwithstanding that the highest point of these narrow islets is rarely more than a yard above the tide, it is a remarkable fact that fresh water is frequently found in them. It is probable that the coral rock acts as a filter, allowing the sea water to percolate(1) through its porous substance, but excluding all the saline particles held in solution.
A stranger is forcibly struck with the remarkable fearlessness which the natives of these islands have of the sea. They appear almost as amphibious(3) as seals, sporting about in the deep sea for many hours, sometimes for nearly a whole day together! No sooner does a ship approach a large island than the inhabitants swim off to welcome her; and long before she begins to take in sail she is surrounded by human beings of both sexes, apparently as much at home in the ocean as the fishes themselves. The children are taken to the water when but a day or two old; and many are able to swim as soon as they are able to walk. In coasting along the shore it is a rare thing to pass a group of cottages, at any hour of the day, without seeing one or more bands of children joyously playing in the sea.
The natives have several games which are played in the water, and which are followed with exceeding avidity, not only by children, but by the adult population.
One of these is the fastening of a long board on a sort of stage, where the rocks are abrupt, in such a manner that it shall project far over the water; then they chase one another along the board, each in turn leaping from the end into the sea. They are also fond of diving from the yardarm or bowsprit of a ship.
But the most favourite pastime of all, and one in which all classes and ages, and both sexes, engage with peculiar delight, is swimming in the surf. Mr. Ellis has seen some of the greatest chiefs, between fifty and sixty years of age, large and corpulent men, engage in this game with as much interest as children.
A board, six feet long and one foot wide, slightly thinner at the edges than at the middle, is prepared for this amusement, stained and polished, and preserved with great care by being constantly oiled and hung up in their dwellings. With this in his hand, which he calls the wave-sliding board, each native repairs to the reef, particularly when the sea is running high and the surf is dashing in with more than ordinary violence, as on such occasions the pleasure is the greater.
They choose a place where the rocks are twenty or thirty feet under water, and shelve for a quarter of a mile or more out to sea. The waves break at this distance, and the whole space between it and the shore is one mass of boiling foam. Each person now swims out to sea, pushing his board before him, diving under the waves as they curl and break, until he has arrived outside the rocks.
He now lays himself flat on his breast along his board, and waits the approach of a huge billow. When it comes, he adroitly balances himself on its summit, and, paddling with his hands, is borne on the crest of the advancing wave, amidst the foam and spray, until within a yard or two of the shore or rocks. Then, when a stranger expects to see him the next moment dashed to death, he slides off his board, and, catching it by the middle, dives seaward under the wave, and comes up behind, laughing and whooping, again to swim out as before.
The utmost skill is required, in coming in, to keep the position on the top of the wave; for if the board get too far forward the swimmer will be overturned and thrown upon the beach, and if it fall behind he will be buried beneath the succeeding wave: yet some of the natives are so expert as to sit, and even to stand upright, upon their board, while it is thus riding in the foam!
—P. H. Gosse
—P. H. Gosse
In what different stages of formation may coral islands be seen in the Pacific? What means of access is there generally to the lagoons? How is the opening in most cases indicated? What peculiarity of the natives most strikes a stranger? What is their favourite pastime? What apparatus do they use for it? Describe the game. What danger attends it?