Book Extract

Editor's note: During 1973-75 Wade Doak accompanied me on my research vessel El Torito during voyages to Lord Howe Island, New Caledonia, the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu), the Solomon Islands and New Zealand.  Out of this experience he produced two books, Sharks and other Ancestors and Islands of Survival, recounting our explorations. The following story is an excerpt from the second of these books.  On this voyage Wade's wife Jan and children Brady amd Karls accompanied us.
      Both these books and a range Wade's other books on the Poor Knights Islands are available online in .pdf format and on disk at Wade's website.  The .pdf version of the El Torito books also contain some 433 pictures in .jpg format.  The images in the accompanying slideshow are from this source.
      The .pdf introduction to both these books is included with this excerpt and may be viewed by clicking here.

Chapter 16
Defence Mechanisms and Survival

El Torito at Sandfly Passage in the Solomon Islands

"With a full moon, a cloudless sky and a calm sea we left Honiara last night for Marau Sound," wrote Jan. "We sat up on the wheelhouse roof rapt in the moonlight on the water bouncing across ripple after ripple. Wade was on watch. I typed until midnight. The kids were in bed reading until they fell asleep with Puggy the dog curled up between.

"Suddenly I was awoken with the emergency bell ringing. This alarm told Walt to shut off the engines immediately as something had gone wrong. Wade had noticed the ship, on autopilot, was swinging in a wide circle. One of the engines had a clogged filter - sludge from the fuel tank which had just been drained and refilled. Very gradually the port engine had died, triggering the auto alarm while Wade was wrestling with the wheel to keep on course.

"We spent a silent hour bobbing around the ocean while Walt cleaned the filter. I had rushed up on deck to see that the skiff towrope stayed clear of the propellers and fend it off the hull. I happened to glance up at the moon. There was a huge bite out of it. Walt looked up his nautical almanac: we were about to see a total eclipse.

"We rushed down and woke the kids from their deep sleep and together we all watched the shadow of the earth creep further and further over the surface of the moon. Just before it was completely covered it looked like a golden cowrie with its orange-red dome and shining white base."

Karla wrote: "Mum woke me up and told me to come upstairs and see the eclipse. I ran upstairs behind her still half asleep and wondering what on earth an eclipse was. I looked up and saw the moon disappearing. Soon all you could see was a red glow. Dad explained it to us and Mum said she wondered what the Laulasi people would be thinking if they were playing moongames. The sky over the sea was so full of stars it was like daytime. Dad saw seven falling stars and I told them something about falling stars I had just been reading. There was a princess and she was a star. When she got married her star would fall and that's what a falling star is."

Jan: "Underway again we were together on the bow when a comet came streaking through the water and hovered on the bow wave, zigzagging there like lightning. Others joined it - a school of dolphins gleaming with the phosphorescence in the water. It looked as if all the stars had fallen into the sea and were rushing about darting here and there. "When I awoke we were anchored in Marau Sound (Map): white sand fringing all the tiny islands, vivid greens of the bush, tall palms and the sparkling blue of the sunlit ocean. "Everyone was still below except Janice, Karla and me. Brady was reading in the cabin with Puggy curled beneath the blankets. Up in the wheelhouse I made a bikini and a skirt for Karla on the sewing machine while Janice sat crocheting a top for me. We chatted quietly until the rest of the ship awoke."

Islet alongside our anchorage at Marau Sound.

When I passed through the saloon Cliff was unconscious on the settee. He'd been on watch until seven that morning. Downstairs there came a visitor to the ship; an Englishman who wanted to meet Walt. Seeing a figure stretched on the settee, not noticing it was asleep, he seized the sprawled hand and shook it enthusiastically. "Very pleased to have met you, Dr Starck." Cliff grunted, rolled his eyes like an epileptic and recollapsed into his coma.

Anchored at Marau, Walt set about making a special wildlife film about the defence mechanisms evolved by marine animals. By day and by night we were diving on the reefs around the ship, filming and collecting material for the ship's aquarium where more intimate studies could be made. Diary extracts show the children joining in the diving and gaining a firsthand and very tactile experience of marine life.

The girls had a spring clean of the ship. Jan notes: "It did seem strange to be able to put aside your housework and leap over the side for a dive and then come back and carry on again - a housewife's dream. On this trip Janice has taught me to process and print film in the darkroom and now I'm taking my own shots on the Nikonos - a roll of Walt using the Electrolung - and processing them on the spot. They turned out well ....

"Rebbekah arrived out of the blue, by plane. After she had not arrived by boat as expected, this was all too much for Cliff. He sat in a shocked state for a while, or so he said. Now he is very happy and they had a wonderful day swimming and playing on the island. Cliff took Rebbekah for a lung dive to 80 feet beneath the ship - her first in the sea and she loved it."

"Here at Marau Dad has made a neat little aqualung for me and I just love it," wrote Karla. "It only fits Brady and me. Dad made it out of one of Waltís spare Electrolung tanks. I went for a dive with Mum and Dad using my little tank. I saw some gorgonian fans and I touched some feather stars and sea squirts. When I touched the feather stars they felt all sticky. The yellow sea squirts had two holes and they closed when; I touched them."

Brady: "Today I went for a dive with Dad. We went down the anchor rope because of the current. At 50 feet Dad showed me the remains of an old sailing ship. There were sheets of copper off the hull and a big anchor. Not far from it I saw a basket sponge so big I could get inside it. Dad picked up a handful of sand and dropped it in to show me that the sponge fed by drawing the water through its sides and then squirting the water out the top."

Karla: "Walt dissected the deadly Conus geographicus and filmed it, which was exciting for Brady and me because we had been writing everything down about it in our Earthsea books and there we were, seeing it. We also watched a trunkfish kill all the other fish in the aquarium with its poisonous toxin secreted from the glands at the base of the fins and mouth. On the reef I had a look at some fishes feeding on the other fishes' eggs and there was a great battle going on."

Brady: "On Wednesday Matilda (the pet white rat) died - must have eaten a cockroach pellet. Karla cried. Next day Walt went diving with the Electrolung. I watched him get it all going." And again: "Today Rebbekah came by plane and Cliff and her went for a walk on the island. When they got back I swam ashore to them with some beer and we all played in the water with Puggy."

Karla recorded that "Cliff has had a happy sparkle in his eyes ever since she arrived." And for his part Brady wrote: "Karla and I have been going sailing with Rebbekah in a catamaran. Once it starts to pick up speed it goes faster and faster. The faster you go the higher your spirits rise. Out past the point Karla and I had a go at steering. We ended up paddling back because the wind dropped." The last impression comes from Karla: "Today we went sailing again with Rebbekah and this time Cliff came with us.He just sat there and drank his beer and laughed at us."

Today Brady and I went exploring under the ship. There was a stiff current running and I was curious as to whether he would be able to handle it, until we reached the white sand 50 feet below. Then we moved upstream over the bottom, from one coralhead to the next, holding on to avoid being swept away. We dug in the sand and looked beneath
lumps of coral rubble for animals to study and film in the shipís aquarium. Then we came upon the wreck of a wooden ship that caught fire and sank here 60 years ago: sheets of green copper from her sheathing bristled with copper nails where the wood had rotted away; the keel, an anchor, deadeyes and long copper bolts.

Itís not all defence and attack in the sea. An equally fascinating study could be made of all the forms of cooperation that have evolved: all the symbiotic and commensal relationships. I have just taken two dozen shots of a pair of shrimps waving their long white feelers to attract a cluster of tiny golden anthiid fishes. Manipulating delicate claws like surgeons forceps the shrimps were daintily removing parasites from the gills of each compliant fish. They were not disturbed when I approached within 12 inches of them.

A loaded revolver and a seashell may not seem to have much in common. But some shellfish can kill you just as certainly as a bullet. Last night at the base of a coralhead, where a gap occurs between its lip and the sand, my torch lit upon a large shell with a broad foot and long, slender siphon tube. I thought it was another volute like the one Jan had found the previous night beneath El Torito.

"Now at least I can get some underwater shots of it," I thought. just in front of it, in the foreground of my picture, lay a tiny flounder. While my flashgun was recharging from the first shot, I shifted the shellfish out from beneath the coral to face my lens. Unlike most shellfish it didn't retract - it seemed very bold and aggressive. I manoeuvred it around for a variety of angles as the strong current in which I was diving made it impossible for me to work from any point other than facing upstream.

Topside I showed the shell to Walt when he surfaced from his dive. Beneath the glare of our deck lights I had already begun to suspect that this might be some very large species of cone shell. But the aperture was so wide and the lip so thin it seemed unlike the cones I had seen before. We looked it up in the ship's library. Halstead's Poisonous and Venomous Marine Animals, Volume One had a beautiful colour plate of the shellfish I had been poking around. It was certainly Conus geographicus: "Probably the most dangerous species of coneshell, it has been involved in more fatal and serious human stings than any other member of this group. The venomous apparatus is well developed and capable of delivering a relatively large quantity of venom. It attains a length of 13cm or more."

Conus geographicus

With a growing sense of wonder at my own stupid luck, I went on to read of the fatalities this cone had caused. Two tourists died at Hayman Island on the Great Barrier reef, after being stung by the cone. "A young man collected one which he held aperture downwards in his hand while he began to scrape the back of the shell with his knife." (I recalled with a shudder having a similar impulse to scrape off the horny rings which concealed the shell's weird pattern of brown blotches and freckles). "He felt the sting and a slight numbness set in almost at once, but without any special pain. Shortly afterwards, there was a steady onset of paralysis and loss of sight, followed within an hour, by unconsciousness. Coma set in and the victim died while being rushed to hospital."

So I realised that handling a Geographer's cone was about the most dangerous thing I had done during this whole expedition. So much for all the dangers of the deep.

The three coneshells which have really lethal stings, Textile, Striated and Geographer's cones, are all predators on small fishes and other cones. Their venom apparatus consists of a series of up to 60 dartlike "teeth" stored in an internal sheath. These darts are supplied with a nerve toxin similar in effect to curate. A venom duct connects-to each dart which is hollow like a hypodermic needle but with barbs on its tip exactly like a miniature whaling harpoon.

At nightfall the cone emerges from beneath the sand and slides over the bottom on its broad foot, on the hunt. In the blackness it needs no vision, detecting its prey with a keen sense of smell, sampling the water currents with its long siphon tube. It homes in on a small fish at rest in a coral crevice. The proboscis extends from within the shell. The instant it makes contact with the prey, a venomous dart is plunged into its flesh. The coneshell draws its stunned victim into the expandable proboscis sheath where it is digested. Some cones have been reported to sting right through a leather glove. The proboscis is very flexible and can bend right round towards the rear of the shell, where some people wrongly believe it is quite safe to hold the animal.

During millenia, marine animals have evolved an amazing variety of defences to enable them to escape predation. Many of these involve complex mechanisms which man has only managed to duplicate with his most sophisticated technology. Evolution puts a high value on survival.

There is the trunkfish which, under stress, secretes a foamy toxic substance from glands in the gill chamber. This will poison other fishes in the vicinity. The snapping shrimp can create such a loud underwater explosion with its claw that small organisms are stunned by the shock waves. It can easily shatter a thin wine glass.

Brady and Karla watched with interest as Walt filmed under the microscope the symmetrical skeletons which coral polyps secrete to protect their soft bodies and the exquisitely shaped "spicules" with which sponges defend and support their tissues. Diving beneath the ship they have both seen huge basket sponges big enough to climb right inside. There is no sign of anything having nibbled these sponges, because the needle-sharp spicules, shaped like sickles, spears, and instruments of torture, would wreck the digestive systems of most animals.

Janice demonstrated for our kids and the camera the sharp spines of the surgeon fish. I had often seen the white "razor blades" at the tail base of these fishes and knew they could rip your hands to ribbons if you messed about with them. But I didn't realize just how vicious they really are: these spines fold back at right angles to the fish's body. They lock in position like the "flick knives" on Boadicea's chariot and are coated in toxic slime.

In the spines of sea urchins tiny fishes hover, safe amidst a barrage of poisonous spear tips. By night parrotfishes surround themselves in a cocoon of mucus, shielded from attack by moray eels.

The triggerfish would be very nearly impossible to devour; its skin is too tough to bite through and if swallowed whole its dorsal spine, which it locks erect by an ingenious triggering mechanism, would perforate the stomach of its assailant.

The box jellyfish in our tank looked insubstantial but it is dangerous to touch and one species, the sea wasp, can kill a man in minutes with its stinging apparatus. The pufferfish achieves a similar immunity by inflating itself with water, forcing all its spines erect until it resembles a huge pin cushion. Electric rays have specially adapted muscles which can discharge a powerful electric shock. Sea cucumbers when molested can expel their internal organs, as a decoy. In some species these are also imbued with a powerful poison and the sea cucumber can easily regenerate another set of entrails.

Box jellyfish and sea cucumber everting sticky toxic entrails.

Colouration is an important means of defence: some animals are protectively camouflaged, some are mimics and others have bold warning patterns to remind predators that they are foul-tasting, like the brilliant coloured seaslugs, or that they have lethal venom apparatus, like the zebra-striped seasnake.

Cabin talk : We were discussing the evolution of defence mechanisms. The filming had been going extremely well. Walt said that the banded pattern of his suit was enabling him to get much closer to marine life without triggering escape reactions - it broke up his body outline. Using the Electrolung for the more demanding subjects, the bubble problem was eliminated too.

I showed Walt a green turban Turbo marmoratus. The patterns on its varnished surface intrigued me. They reminded me of techniques used for advertising "copy": flashy headings in Ď Playboy'.

"Perhaps," said Walt. "that shell is adapting to the visual responses of vertebrate eyes - those of mollusc-eating fishes. If it is foul-tasting it would need to be distinctive in appearance. Otherwise a fish would have to crush its shell before it would know. What an exquisite pattern though."

We considered the similarities between the processes of evolution and the workings of the human mind. So many things we have invented are paralleled by nature: man learnt camouflage techniques from animals; he has tried to adapt the laminar flow effect dolphins use for faster ships' hulls but has not yet found suitable materials.

"What about the bioluminescence of the devilfishes?'

"Yes, they've figured that out. You can buy the same chemicals and mix them. The trouble is that it provides only a low intensity light, but our image intensifier makes up for that."

Flashlight fish or devilfishes as they are known
 in the Solomons. Note light organs beneath eye.

Compared with the marine animals we had been filming, man is a defenceless creature, except for his intelligence - his highly evolved learning ability. His brain is his chief defence mechanism and his safety lies in adaptability. In a world he is making increasingly hostile to life the question is, will man learn sufficient from the natural systems evolved around him to protect himself from disasters?

We went on to discuss intelligence and its place in human evolution - the many bright people, often classed as "misfits," who have broken out of the pattern and tailored a new life for themselves, like Ian Gower here at Marau. Walt said men like that are usually very adaptable, well-balanced people. Somehow they break out of the common behavioural patterns of their society, that is, status maintenance in a fairly rigid hierarchy, to adopt their own programme.

At Marau Sound lives diver shell-collector Ian Gower and his family. For 15 years Ian has been diving in this area and he has now established a thriving business manufacturing delicate shell jewellery from gold lip pearlshell and greensnail. Three years ago Ian found two medium-sized glory of the seas cones and decided to experiment with keeping them alive in a wire-mesh cage on the reef near his home. The larger the shell, the greater its value and his cones have grown over the years. He probably has a thousand dollars worth of mollusc at his back door. Ian lent us his valuable cones so we could film one attacking a fish.

Ian Gower and daughter with Walter Starck
in front of Commonwealth Bank, Marau branch.

Besides his shell jewellery Ian exports the massive valves of giant clams to Japan where they sell for $200. The published world record for a giant clam shell is 400 pounds. Ian has one among those in crates by his boatshed that weighs 600 pounds. Out in the sound there is said to be another that would weigh 1000 pounds. That is an enormous shellfish and the local Solomon Islanders have special regard for this clam, which must never be eaten. They believe that spirit sharks live within its huge interior.

Out in the sound Walt and Janice were film-making. They told us they discovered one of these huge clams lying wide open, its iridescent lips flared out. Walt touched it so that it slammed shut. He carefully noted that in one place the serrated edges met unevenly, leaving a hole into the interior of the shell just big enough for his arm. Next day he returned to the same spot. Janice positioned herself beside the clam.

"I dived straight down towards her lens," Walt told us "and thrust my arm to the elbow into the shell. It snapped shut. I grimaced and pretended to be stuck. Then I withdrew my arm as easy as pie - but it was important that I'd checked it out first."

A light plane circled overhead while we were yarning with Ian Gower by his windmill. It did a lazy barrel roll over the lagoon. Ian glanced up: "He can't have any passengers today. Last time one flew down here like that an American landed and offered me $80,000 for the plantation. I accepted on the spot - I can easily shift the family over to Tavanipupu Island - but he didn't return. The local land laws must have put him off."

Now middle-aged, Ian Gower, an Australian, arrived at Marau in 1959. He is married to a very pretty Solomons girl and has five young children. His three daughters will some day be beautiful women. At first Ian lived from the copra production of the 200-acre plantation he has on longterm lease, but being a keen skindiver, it wasn't long before he built up a huge collection of rare seashells. For some years he earned very good money as a shell dealer, sending his catalogues to wealthy collectors all over the world. The Solomon Islands are one of the richest places on earth for seashells and Ian did a brisk trade.

Ian showed me his shell room. "A few thousand dollars worth in here," he said quietly. "An American couple came down recently and walked out with $1500 worth of purchases."

But nowadays Ian's shell room is covered in cobwebs. A few years ago he started making jewellery from seashells. He set up grinding, cutting and polishing machinery behind his house and produced exquisite necklaces, earrings, bangles and pendants, hairclasps and dress rings, all to his own designs, often drawing on traditional Melanesian patterns. It was not long before he was exporting everything he could turn out. He makes a five-figure income and now has a team of Solomon Islanders helping him, on very good wages and terms. They turn out 85 different types of shell jewellery from trochus shell, gold lip pearl shell, green snail and turtle shell.

The gold lip pearl oyster is the rarest and most valuable commercial shell in the world. It fetches up to $4000 a ton. Periodically Ian has to set out in his launch on a shell-hunting expedition to keep up his supplies. The shells live in depths of 150 feet in areas with swift currents. He is now experimenting with growing them on the reef by his home.

Twice weekly Ian sends his launch to Honiara to ship out his jewellery production and bring in supplies and passengers. He has a small trading store which is also a branch of the Commonwealth Bank, the post office and booking agency for the plane that flies small groups of tourists into Marau twice weekly.

Out in the sound Ian Gower has a part share in Tavanipupu Island resort. This is a 40-acre island, densely wooded with tropical trees and shrubs, set like a green jewel on a turquoise blue setting, surrounded by mountains and decked around with myriads of other islands and coral reefs.

On Tavanipupu Ian Gower and Charles Humphries, a retired Englishman, have constructed three luxury cottages. At $80 a week each accommodates four adults and is fully equipped for comfortable residence. They have sited each cottage in complete seclusion with its own beach and outboard boat.

The Solomon Islands must be one of the last places on the globe which is both a paradise to live in and very underpopulated. Beyond the quiet little town of Honiara you can see hundreds of miles of coastline that hasn't t changed in thousands of years of habitation. The Solomon Islanders possess a rare secret - how to live in equilibrium with their environment.

Tavanipupu is not the kind of holiday resort which will attract great numbers of tourists who seek entertainment, dancing, cuisine, golf courses and souvenirs. The Solomons Government actively discourages such developments. But for those who would like Robinson Crusoe treatment - the simple pleasures of just being in a tropical paradise - Tavanipupu is a rare delight in the Pacific these days. And for those who wish to explore
under the sea as well, Ian Gower has two air compressors.

At last El Torito had to return to Honiara. It was time to prepare for our most exciting voyage of all: up to the Polynesian atoll of Ontong Java. (For the facinating Ontong Java chapters and much more see the authors book page on the authors website.