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Sharks are sinister survivors of scaleless primeval fish

Posted in Adventure, Animals, Fish, Nature, Sea on Thursday, 7 November 2013

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This edited article about ocean life originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 450 published on 29 August 1970.

Hammerhead shark, picture, image, illustration

Hammerhead shark and pilot fish

Why are sharks so feared by man? Although only certain species will attack, so little is known about their reasons for doing so, that all are treated with great respect. Sharks are a very primitive form of life, differing from most other fishes in having cartilage instead of bone, and, in place of scales, they have bony nodules embedded in the skin referred to as shagreen.

The Hammerhead Shark, a relative of the Blue Shark, is unique because of its weirdly-shaped head. The head extends sideways to form the shape of the head of a hammer, with eyes at each end, and it can measure as much as 36 inches between the eyes. It is a hideous and repulsive creature as well as being highly dangerous. An amazing story is connected with the Hammerhead Shark, and one man’s courageous battle to prove that he had told the truth.

John Fairfax, the first man to row the Atlantic alone, reported that during his voyage he had fought and killed a shark with a knife. A Florida newspaper carried a story saying that this feat was virtually impossible. Fairfax was stung by the doubt cast on what he had said, and offered to repeat his feat – this time before witnesses with movie cameras.

Accompanied by two diver-photographers, he set off and, before long the huge dorsal fin of a hammerhead shark was sighted some 300 yards away. Grabbing a fish to use as bait, he shouted to the others and dived overboard, knife in hand, prepared to do battle to the death.

Suddenly the shark lunged and tore at the bait, which was attached by string to Fairfax’s wrist. As it passed, he plunged his knife into its gills.

The shark which was at least eight feet in length, lashed out furiously and swam away, only to return seconds later – this time with Fairfax as his target.

While all this excitement was going on beneath the waves, the boat, which had developed engine trouble, had drifted quite some distance away. The fault in the boat was soon put right and the photographers were able to enter the water to film the remainder of this fantastic conflict – man versus shark.

As the shark returned again and again to the attack, Fairfax continued to plunge his puny blade, only seven inches long, into the wildly threshing body of the shark, until a final blow settled the argument.

This was not the only shark that he had killed within 24 hours. The first one was a mere six feet in length and he had decided that it was too small to prove his point effectively.

With their prize aboard, the three men headed for port, and dumped the shark’s carcass outside the offices of the newspaper that had ridiculed his story, thus silencing forever the doubts cast on his honesty and courage.

But not all the creatures of the ocean are menacing and dangerous, there are some beautiful inhabitants of the deep, who are quite harmless, and others who are fascinating because of their weirdness.

There is for example the extraordinary Sponge Crab. He has a habit of carrying around with him a piece of sponge that he uses as a covering, and which grows there. It is initially held in place by the last pair, or last two pairs of the Crab’s legs which are modified to bend upwards.

Octopus, who fancy Crab as a tasty dish, will not eat them if they have a good growth of sponge on their back.

It is difficult to think of a worm as beautiful when one has seen them wriggling around in a jam jar, but the Peacock Worm is an exception to the rule. It is most beautiful. The crown of the Peacock Worm can contract into the tube very quickly at the approach of danger, but when spread out, it is formed in delicate and widely-spreading bands of pink and purple.

The Globe Fish or Puffer swallows air or water, until its body is blown up like a balloon. When they are stretched out like this, the little spines covering the skin stand upright and give the fish a most alarming appearance. This is nature’s protection against the enemies of this fish.

Although mainly silver in colouring, the Globe Fish has green or blue-black markings. Others are spotted, striped or marbled to blend in with the landscape of rocks and corals surrounding it. They live in the warmer seas of the world.

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