John Cameron's Odyssey

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John Cameron's Odyssey


Collected stories of Captain John Cameron from his sailing trip aboard the Ebon, through the Pacific in the 1890's. This excerpt describes he and his crew's brief stay on Palmyra, including the turtle races they held on the backs of the giant sea turtles living in Palmyra at the time, and the catching of a 22 foot long shark.


Captain John Cameron



Macmillan Company




Public Domain







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Palmyra we found to be a ring of coconut-crowned islets inclosing a lagoon of fair size. Sea birds abounded, especially boatswains, they of pure white bodies and scarlet marlinspike tails, and boobies, the sleepiest and most stupid of sea fowl. Turtles were few but of gigantic size. They served, for the first time, I suppose, in all history, as steeds. With the Ughter men of the crew acting as jockeys.

We held turtle races, which were lacking in bursts of speed, though not of laughter. Who would not have roared at the clumsy creatures hoisting and humping themselves along? Two great catches we made at Palmyra. One was a diamond, or ray, fish that took a small baited line I had left hanging over the Ebon's rail. At first, not knowing what I had, I tried in vain to start the dead weight. Now and then I might gain a few inches; then a load, seemingly of a ton, would settle upon the line; yet all the time there was no struggle, nothing more than a dull, incredible sagging. For two and one-half hours I played the giant most carefully, for it could easily have snapped my line had it made a rush.

Finally I had a glimpse of a ray's dark form. In went a harpoon; the fish, struck in a vital spot, hung limp ; and with the whole crew mustered we pulled it aboard. Its mouth was fourteen inches long by four wide; the tail was six and one-half feet long; from tip to tip of the wings the fish measured sixteen feet. Its weight I had no means of determining; but the muscle required to hoist it indicated that a ton was a conservative estimate.

Our other capture was a huge shark, the largest we caught on the entire cruise, twenty-two feet and eight inches in length by eight and one-half feet in girth amidships. When dried the fins and tail weighed twenty-five pounds, the liver yielded fourteen gallons of excellent oil, enough to fill the last of our containers. In its stomach was the body of a shark we had killed the day before, itself no less than eight feet long.

Shall I tell, too, of the coconut crabs of Palmyra. They existed by the hundreds, those mammoths, those titan clawed crustaceans. As their name indicates,they live on coconuts: they climb the palms, nip off a nut, scramble down to retrieve it, strip away its dense husk, insert a claw into the soft eye of the shell, snap it open, and devour the meat. We found the animals' flesh delicious, yet it might be dearly bought, for one crab cut a man's thumb to the bone, and we freed our unhappy shipmate only by smashing the crab's claw between two stones (Note 61).

At Palmyra we had good luck shark-fishing, but we worked under handicaps. Among them was the shallow water near the island, which prevented us from landing and burying the carcasses of sharks as we had done elsewhere. When we dumped the bodies overboard we were, of course, militating against our own fishing, for the remaining sharks would be less disposed to take our bait so long as they could feast on their erstwhile playmates. Horrible cannibals, those fellows! More than once a hooked shark was bitten in two before we could land him. When broken weather set in at Palmyra we sailed for Kingman's Reef, forty-five miles to the north, a scattered and jagged menace to shipping, a sinister place of coral rocks, twelve miles by six. Breakers were bursting everywhere when we sighted it. About the middle of the reef, seen through spume and spindrift, was a stranded bark. How she got there remains a puzzle to me: in that part of the Pacific there were oceans of room for the navigator. Afterward I heard that we had seen the Lady Lampson or the Lady Head, I forget which (Note 62).

Note 61. What Captain Cameron says of the coconut crab is true, but the reader probably will not believe it, for the crab is almost invariably the objea of loud and scornful incredulity. Even the catholic Darwin would not concede that it climbed coconut palms to clip off the nuts. In "The Voyage of the Beagle" the great naturalist tells of the crustacean stripping away the husk of a nut and opening the shell, but as for scaling atree,—no. “I very much doubt the possibility of this,” says he. Nevertheless the fact is established and is now, I believe, admitted even by un-Darwinlike, self-styled "scientists" who pass judgment on what they have never seen. Astonishing power resides in the two great anterior claws, one or the other of which is always noticeably larger. Cameron's sailor was fortunate, indeed, that his thumb was not amputated. The taste of the crab's meat is suggestive of coconut. Some of the animals attain a weight of twenty pounds or so.

Note 62. She was the Lady Lampson. The wreck occurred on January 16, 1893, while she was bound from Sydney to Honolulu with coal. One boat, in which were the captain, his wife, and five other persons, arrived at Honolulu on February 13; a second boat was picked up at sea.

Original Format



Captain John Cameron, “John Cameron's Odyssey,” Palmyra Archive, accessed October 28, 2020,


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