The words, "Captain, please go to the forecastle," had come down over my bridge circuit from the Officer of the Deck, and then there had been something about the ship slowing almost two knots for some unknown reason. We were steaming westward through the Gulf of Mexico as part of a circular screen for the carrier U. S. S. Wright, at the time, and after having been up late the night before searching for a man reported lost overboard from the carrier, I was having trouble waking up. I remembered thinking that for a ship underway it was an odd variation of that familiar refrain "Captain, please come to the bridge!" Acting more on conditioned reflex than clear reason, I found myself padding barefooted up the starboard side of the forecastle, fumbling with a hastily donned pair of uniform pants, my pajama top billowing in the wind. Had someone said something about a shark on the bow? I could make out the figure of one man standing in the eyes of the ship looking down over the port side. He was the Boatswain's Mate of the Watch-it was he who had reported a big shark on the stem. He didn't speak as I came up. He just turned, pointed toward the starboard side and said, "You'll see him, Captain, when she lifts on the next swell."
Totally unprepared for what I was about to see, I looked over the starboard side, but the rhythm of the ship's pitching was slow and irregular and she hadn't lifted her stem. I saw nothing but a dark shadow much too big to be a shark. Waiting there in the bright early morning, now fully awake, my bare feet tender on the cold wet deck, I felt a little ridiculous, for I could see the bridge watch staring down at the garish figure of their commanding officer. Then the ship lifted to a long easy swell, the sea fell away, and there, impaled on the sharp reinforced stem was a huge shark, a monster of such gigantic size that I was stunned.
Those of you who are skeptical of the big ones which always get away need read no further, for I don't expect you to believe what I am about to relate, unless, perhaps, even as I did, you check the musty files of some public library. Yes, this one did get away in a sense, though it was I who fled from him.
On the starboard side hung twelve feet of his body, with the head, and dragging down the port side the other forty some feet of him! Not counting the bend in his body, where the destroyer's sharp ramming stem had sliced into him for a distance of about four feet, here was a shark over fifty feet long! Looking back now, more composed, and fully dressed, I cannot help but think regretfully of the pictures and the trophies which we might have taken. Instead, I cupped my hands, shouted orders to the Officer of the Deck to put the rudder amidships and commence backing two-thirds. And then I added "Tell the OTC we're backing clear of a fifty-foot shark which is impaled on our bow!" I was fearful that the shark would twist off and carry away my underwater projections or lodge in my screws.
While waiting for the ship to gather sternway, I studied this great shark. And with the assistance of the boatswain's mate of the watch I made measurements and mental notes. The tip of his tail flapped helplessly against our port side at a point even with the chock for number two line, aft of the bitts (frame twenty-four on the ship's plans). We had hit him fair across the middle of his back just forward of the dorsal fin-he must have been swimming across our bow from port to starboard, seen us at the last minute and tried to bank to get clear of us. How often would a monster like this have to maneuver to get clear of anything? In fact, if he had given me a chance, I would have gladly steered clear of him! His body was for all the world shark-shaped, except that the mouth instead of being underneath the head, was fair on his snout. And, sitting Japanese style, I could have sat inside this fellow's mouth-it was a good four feet wide, and lined with banks of small white teeth. Close behind the mouth one sad eye stared, looking more like the eye of a cow; and behind the eye lay five or six large gill slits. His back, dorsal fin and tail were a dark bluish grey bearing white spots of from three to six inches in diameter, while his belly was white.
As the ship shuddered and began to answer astern bells, we came dead in the water, and the great length of him floated out from our side. Faint though it must have been, the reflexes of life made him begin to lash that great tail, slashing it clear of the water in powerful efforts. From one tip of that tail to the other was a good fourteen feet! Seamen appeared with grapnels, for as we gathered sternway he still hung there, and they tried to dislodge him. Finally a grapnel caught, the seaman tugged, and the great body lay in front of our stem twitching feebly. Then, as the head sank slowly, that great tail flashed magnificently into the air one last time before it rode the body down.
All of us stood there watching the bloody patch of water where the shark had sunk as though we were searching for the proper words. In a way I felt sorry that we had destroyed him, for he was such a great and majestic shark. And I could still see that eye, not an evil eye--more a tired old one. Our last contact with the huge king of sharks was when the underwater detection gear picked him up, tracked him for a while, and then lost him.
The first person to whom I told this story was the harbor pilot who guided us into Corpus Christi. I was very serious when I described the incident to him, yet he looked at me as though I shouldn't be telling such stories to an old hand such as he. But since then, I have read the book Kon Tiki, and it was such a shark which came up under their raft.
My own personal research at the public library in Philadelphia disclosed the following, mostly from the Smithsonian's Miscellaneous Collection, volume forty-eight. This huge creature, though bearing most of the physical characteristics of a true shark, is not a shark-it is a fish! Its body structure is composed of true bone material, and the teeth are also bone, unlike the shark, whose body is composed of cartilage, and whose teeth are modified scales. Except in the legends of fishermen who talk about the "big one which got away," the first concrete evidence of the existence of such a monster was brought to the western world in 1828 by a British Army Surgeon named Andrew Smith who was serving with the forces in Table Bay, South Africa. This specimen of about fifty feet had become entangled in the nets of a fish trap, so completely demolishing the trap and tearing the nets, no doubt, that the fishermen set upon him with harpoons and clubs and towed him ashore by hooking him in the mouth and eyes. Doctor Smith purchased the skin from these fishermen, cured it, and resold it to the Natural Museum in Paris, France, for six pounds. In 1912 a specimen of thirty-eight feet was either found stranded or caught and exhibited along the east coast of Florida.
Since then I have talked with many naval officers, fishermen, and seafaring men concerning their knowledge of whale sharks, but no one of those with whom I have talked had ever seen one. The Smithsonian Miscellaneous collection notes that there been at least one report of such a whale shark or "Mhor," as it is called in India, being rammed and cut in half by a ship. Now it can be said there are at least two! Apparently, contact with these remarkable and awe-inspiring creatures has been rare. Though I have fished the waters of the Gulf Stream and the Gulf of Mexico, off and on, most of my life, and though I shipped as mate in a commercial fishing boat out of Key West, Florida, for eleven months at one time, I had never seen such a fish. Apparently they frequent the warm waters of the Indian Ocean, the Atlantic, the Gulf of Mexico and the whole Pacific Ocean. Vicious though they might appear, they feed only on small sea life, straining these minute plankton and crustacea somewhat as whales do, and at no time has there been a report of one of them attacking a man unless goaded into it. As a source of export from Bombay to China, they have in the past been popular export in the form of "Shark's Fin." My first impression of the old boy we impaled on our bow was that this was a creature from another world, certainly from another time one of the last of a small group of survivors. Knowing now that he was quite harmless, and still impressed by the size and beauty of him, I regret that the U. S. S. Hale (DD-642) under my command had to eliminate him.
In case you are passing through, we struck him at about Latitude 28 degrees 10.0 minutes North; longitude 93 degrees-12.5 minutes West, about ten miles north of a shoal area where the fishing should be good, judging from the looks of the bottom. We were steaming in about forty-five fathoms of water, the temperature of which was eighty degrees Fahrenheit. The ship was steaming on course 275° True at 12 knots when the immovable fish met the irresistible destroyer with the inevitable result.