Beyond the Reefs

by William Travis. Calusa Bay Publications, 1997. 384 pages.

This edition of Beyond the Reefs contains two books: the original Beyond the Reefs, first published in 1959, and Shark for Sale, published in 1961. Together, they make up an absorbing volume of tropical adventure.

William Travis, a pilot for the RAF and afterwards for commercial airlines, escaped to the Seychelles in the 1950s, seeking a "radical and immediate" change from his clockbound routine. For several years he had spent his spare time pursuing scuba diving and underwater photography, and he planned to join a friend who was a schooner captain to search for specimens of the coelacanth -- the "fossil fish," long believed extinct, that had recently been rediscovered in the Indian Ocean.

The coelacanth plan fell through, but before long another opportunity presented itself: hunting for the Green Snail, whose shell with its mother-of-pearl lining was in demand. Travis knew little about the Green Snail, but it appeared that no one else did either. Undaunted, he quit his airline job, bought diving gear, and headed for the Seychelles to recruit a team of Creole divers.

Beyond the Reefs recounts the author's quest for the Green Snail among the outer islands of the Seychelles archipelago. Though snail-hunting soon turned out to be a much more difficult way to make a living than flying planes, Travis never hints that he was tempted to go back to his previous life. Every step of this quixotic quest is recounted with straight-faced detail, as if it all made perfect sense. The local fishermen knew where some Green Snail colonies could be found, but Travis quickly discovered that their knowledge was mostly limited to the shallow waters where they ordinarily fished. When he began to hire skindivers he found that many of the supposedly expert young Creole divers could barely swim. Travis set up a demanding course of diving and scuba lessons, eliminating most of the candidates and subjecting the rest to extreme tests. To train them to recognize the signs of oxygen deprivation or carbon dioxide poisoning, he sent them down to fifteen feet and left them there until their tanks were exhausted. "Then they were rapidly hauled up, the salt-water they had swallowed pumped out of their lungs, and left to vomit in peace.... It was cruel and dangerous, but it had to be done."

With a team of eight trained divers, Travis set out on a vessel christened the Louis Alfred but known as the L. Fred after part of its nameplate was lost in an accident. Most of Beyond the Reefs recounts the journeys of the L. Fred among the outer islands of the Seychelles, brought alive by the author's leisurely, detailed descriptions of deserted islands, coral reefs, dramatic rescues, and underwater wrecks. On the island of Aldabra, Travis rides a giant tortoise and carries a smaller one into the water to see if it will float (it does). He and his men are threatened by violent storms and menaced by barracuda and a variety of sharks, including hammerheads and tiger sharks. They return to port only after several months -- not only because Travis recognizes that they are worn out from hard work, continual danger, and short rations, but because, at least for now, the pleasure has gone out of the work. "I found myself looking out across the sea at Astove and suddenly I realized that I had not really seen the island at all until that moment."

Shark for Sale tells of Travis's next money-making scheme: a plan to profit from the demand for high-quality dried and salted shark. Once again, this plan was more complicated than it seemed at first. Travis developed new fishing techniques to enable him to bring in bigger sharks, and he obtained the use of a small island where the shark meat could be dried and processed in the open without the risk of theft. Darker and more dramatic than Beyond the Reefs, Shark for Sale is packed with lore about this fast, powerful, deadly fish, which compensates for low intelligence with lightning reflexes and an almost unbelievable life force. "Ton Milot showed me how sharks, hauled on board alive, gutted completely and then thrown into the sea devoid of all entrails, liver and heart, would swim steadily off again as though nothing had happened." Suffering injuries and risking death, sleeping at night on the bodies of dead sharks, and telling stories about sinister spirits and the skull abandoned on an isolated sandbar, Travis and his crew struggle to make a living from the awesome beast that he likens to Job's Leviathan.

From Beyond the Reefs:

It was my habit each morning to get up before daylight and watch the sunrise. There was a reason for this. I knew that during the night many large sharks came close to the beaches in search of turtles and I wanted to ascertain the exact hour of their return across the reef out to the depths. Every day as soon as there was sufficient light I would spend an hour or more watching the sea-bed from a vantage point on the bowsprit. Eight fathoms down, the beginning of each day came far later than it did on the surface, and not until the sun was well above the horizon would any fishy activity begin in the coral jungle that lay below our keel. But the night prowlers returned to the safety and darkness of the abyss before this. As soon as the pale lead light of the pre-dawn lay upon the sea you might see their shadowy silhouettes pass, slinking like giant alley-cats, furtively and silent, back over the reef, to curve down in a last smooth arc and disappear from sight.