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It is an old but still operative superstition among seafaring men, or, shall I say, certain portions of them, that when a shark (or sharks) persistently follows a vessel, it is a sign that someone on board is going to die. The alleged reason is that the shark can "scent" death. The biography of the Rev. Bryan Roe, a West African missionary, contains the following narrative, which, when rid of the humorous exaggerations of the sailor, may be said to contain his point of view:--"Two or three sharks, it may be, are following in the vessel's wake, attracted, it would seem, by the fact that there is a sick man lying on board; for the old, weather-beaten, quarter-master confidentially informs the clerical passenger (Mr Roe) that he will soon have a burial job on hand. The quarter-master is always an authority on the subject of sharks. 'Them there sharks,' he explains, 'have more sense in them than most Christchuns. They knows wot's wot, I can tell yer; doctors ain't in it with sharks. I've heard sharks larf when the doctor has told a sick man he was convalescent--larf, sir, outright, 'cos they knew what a blessed mistake he was making. They are following up the scent of a man on board now that's going to die, and they'll not leave us until such times be as they get him.'"

Procter's Return of the Admiral is a good setting of the shark superstition:--

"How gallantly, how merrily
We ride along the sea.
The morning is all sunshine,
The wind is blowing free,
The billows are all sparkling
And bounding in the light."


"In our wake like any servant
Follows ever the bold shark."

Then the admiral of the fleet who

"Grew paler,
And paler, as we flew,
Spied the creature
That kept following in our lee."

He seemed to be aware of the direful augury, for

"He shook--'twas but an instant
For speedily the pride
Ran crimson to his heart,
Till all chances he defied."

But the admiral's defiance was in vain, for

"That night a hurried whisper
Fell on us where we lay,
And we knew our fine old admiral
Was changing into clay.
And we heard the wash of waters,
Though nothing could we see,
And a whistle and a plunge
Among the billows in our lea;
Till dawn we watched the body
In its dead and ghastly sleep
And next evening, at sunset,
It was lung into the deep.
And never from that moment,
Save one shudder through the sea,
Saw we or heard the shark
That had followed in our lee."

Mr Frank Gibson, to whose very interesting Superstitions about Animals I am indebted for the details of this subject, says that the superstition, so far as he knows, has no foundation in fact. Sharks follow in the wake of vessels for the same reason that all fish do, solely for the scraps of meat and other leavings that are thrown overboard. "On a voyage to South Africa, I noticed," remarks Mr Gibson, "when nearing the Equator, that a very large, sinister looking shark kept up with the vessel for many miles, but the passage concluded under the most favourable and happy circumstances; no one died, and very few were even sea-sick. Curiously enough, however, when I returned to England on a large liner, fitted up as a hospital ship with accommodation for more than a thousand invalids, we never sighted a shark from Capetown to Southampton, though there were many cases of sickness on board, and one of the passengers was buried at sea."

Truly this ought to have been a favoured vessel, but it seems to have escaped sharkly attentions. An isolated instance, however, will not extinguish the belief of a superstitious sailor, and we have still to answer the question as to how the idea arose. Probably it belongs to that group of beliefs which rest on the alleged powers of all kinds of animals, crediting them with a prescience in some respects superhuman. Thus the vulture is said, with some show of evidence, to know when death is likely to overtake the desert traveller; the cattle on the prairie "scent" the storm long before the cowboy knows it is coming; the howling dog presages death, and the attendant shark is credited with knowing more than the M.D. In the days of sailing vessels and slow voyages, the mariner was more superstitious than he is to-day, because he was more at the mercy of wind and weather--and he had funerals at sea often enough to support, if not originate, the superstition of the shark. The modern liner, with more people aboard and more chances of death, harbours no belief in the supernatural knowledge of fish, great or small; so many vessels are passing too and fro that the shark has his pick of them, and need not follow one for days together. But in past centuries he had no such luck; when he found a sailing ship he stuck to it in the hope of finding a meal, not of human flesh, but of anything he could get hold of. And so many sharks followed so many vessels in the course of years, that there was ample room for the evolution of a superstition to the effect that a persistent shark could scent death on board.

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