The Strife of the Sea
Library of Alexandria
He was an old man when he first made his appearance on the reef at the Sand Key Light. This was years ago, but one could tell it even then by the way he drew in his chin, or rather pouch, in a dignified manner as he soared in short circles over the outlying coral ledges which shone vari-colored in the sunshine beneath the blue waters of the Gulf Stream. He had fished alone for many seasons without joining the smaller and more social birds, and the keepers had grown to know him. He was a dignified and silent bird, and his stately flight and ponderous waddle over the dry reef had made it quite evident that he was a bird with a past. Sandy Shackford, the head keeper, knew him well and relied implicitly upon his judgment as to the location of certain denizens of the warm Stream. He had come back again after a month’s absence, and was circling majestically over the coral banks not a hundred fathoms from the light. The day was beautiful and the sunshine was hot. The warm current of the Gulf flowed silently now with the gentle southwest wind, and the white sails of the spongers from Havana and Key West began to dot the horizon. Here and there a large barracouta or albicore would dart like a streak of shimmering silver through the liquid, and the old man would cast his glance in the direction of the vanishing point with a ready pinion to sweep headlong at the mullet or sailor’s-choice which were being pursued. His gray head was streaked with penciled feathers which grew longer as they reached his neck, and his breast was colored a dull, mottled lead. His back and wings gave a general impression of gray and black, the long pinions of the latter being furnished with stiff quills which tapered with a lighter shade to the tips. His beak and pouch were of more than ordinary proportions, for the former was heavy and hooked at the end and the latter was large and elastic, capable of holding a three-pound mullet. He soared slowly over the reef for some time, and the keeper watched him, sitting upon the rail of the lantern smoking his pipe, while his assistant filled the body of the huge lamp and trimmed its several wicks. To the westward a slight ripple showed upon the surface of the quiet sea. The pelican sighted it and stood away toward it, for it looked like a mackerel that had come to the surface to take in the sunshine and general beauty of the day. In a moment the old man had swung over the spot at a height of about a hundred feet; then suddenly folding his wings, he straightened out his body, opened his beak, and shot straight downwards upon the doomed fish. It was literally a bolt from heaven from out of a clear sky. The lower beak expanded as it hit the water and opened the pouch into a dipper which scooped up the mackerel, while the weight of the heavy body falling from the great height carried everything below the surface with a resounding splash that could be heard distinctly upon the light. Then up he came from the dive with the fish struggling frantically in his tough leathern sack. He rested a moment to get his breath and then stretched forth his pinions again and rose in a great circle into the clear blue air.