REMINISCENCES | Captain Hook and four dangerous sharks

FISHING/AQUACULTURE WEEK
US Representative for Alaska Howard W. Pollock (Photo: University of Alaska Archives)

Who is Captain Hook? He plays an important part in this episode and is a very remarkable man. He is Howard W. Pollock, who died in 2011 at age 90, and has had a career most people cannot even imagine.

Howard has been a US Navy pilot, a lawyer, a homesteader in Alaska who built his own home with only one arm, a member of the US House of Representatives from the State of Alaska, and the US Department of Commerce Deputy Administrator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). His job with NOAA carried the equivalent rank of a four-star admiral. He was a hunter of big game and a crack shot with rifle, shotgun, and pistol with more trophies than I have ever seen, and a one-armed scuba diver.  He held numerous world records and trophies.

I call Howard “Captain Hook” because he has a stainless-steel hook instead of his right hand and lower right arm. It all happened in World War II when he was a navy pilot ferrying some Marines in his PBY Catalina flying boat in the South Pacific. At a refuelling stop at Funafuti Island, the Marines decided to give Howard instructions on how to throw a hand grenade – just in case the need should arise in an encounter with a Japanese soldier. While this may have seemed to be a good idea, the results were disastrous.

The hand grenade exploded prematurely just after it left his right hand. The result was that he was severely wounded in the arm and chest with shrapnel in both lungs. This resulted in him losing his right arm just below the elbow.

He sneaked a look at his hospital charts which listed him as “death imminent”. He told me that when he saw that, he simply decided not to die. Later, an artificial arm ending in a steel hook was fitted. His new steel hand opened and closed by two pieces operating in a pincer-like movement controlled by a steel bar inserted though his bicep muscle above his elbow. This is why I call him Captain Hook.

Howard even had a special neoprene covered diving arm that allowed him to become an excellent scuba diver. An admirable gentleman was Howard W. Pollock.

“In the jargon of bureaucracy, I was Howard’s ‘minder,’ which meant I had to keep him from getting into trouble.”

In 1973 I was working as a fishery administrator at the National Marine Fisheries Service (part of NOAA) in Honolulu. One of my responsibilities was to keep track of fishery development in the Central and Western Pacific – in such places as the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia (including Yap Island) and Belau (Palau). This required me to travel to these islands.

Because of my familiarity with these island groups, I was picked to accompany Howard, as NOAA Deputy Administrator, to several places on an inspection trip, specifically to Belau and Yap, where fishery development held some promise. In the jargon of bureaucracy, I was his “minder,” which meant I had to keep him from getting into trouble.

Our first stop was Belau where we drifted through the Olang Channel in company with a large manta ray.  I was even able to catch a spiny lobster by hand as we drifted through the channel. We had it for dinner. Our next stop was Yap, where Howard was also interested in their political development.

After his political appointments were completed, we were asked if we would like to accompany some Yapese skin divers who were about to leave for turtle fishing. Our answer was a big yes. I asked where the fishing would take place and was told not far outside the edge of the reef.  We climbed into the small boat provided and headed for the turtle grounds. Our only diving gear was our fins, masks, snorkels and my Nikonos underwater camera. Not even a diving knife. Since we were not going to do any deep diving (so we thought), we did not take any scuba gear with us.

There were two things about these Yapese divers that were very remarkable. They were able to dive down without any fins or weights to 30 or 40 feet and they used a spear about six to eight feet long that was tipped with a barbed hook normally used for tuna fishing. The hook was designed to ensnare the leathery folds in the neck of the turtle. I thought this would never work, as a swimming turtle’s neck with its leathery skin is hard to hit, much less to snare with the barbed hook.

“I was getting very nervous about these sharks, since we did not have anything to defend ourselves.”

Soon there was a commotion in the water where a diver was chasing a turtle. We slipped into the water and swam over to watch the diver swim deep down chasing the turtle. The diver went to a depth of about 30 feet, and I was hovering above him at about 20 feet, 10 feet above the diver. We watched the diver launch his spear at the turtle and to our amazement, the hook snared the turtle exactly in the leathery skin on its neck. I snapped a couple of photographs of the action.

The hook and its line then broke loose from the head of the spear to release the line. Somehow the line had been carefully wrapped around a piece of wood, which acted as a floating buoy that prevented the turtle from escaping.

In not more than five seconds after the turtle was hooked and struggling, four very aggressive medium-sized sharks started circling the turtle. The sharks undoubtedly heard or detected the vibrations created by the turtle as it tried to escape. They were not far from the Yapese diver. Howard and I were perhaps 15 feet away.

I could tell from its behavior the diver wanted that turtle, but I was getting very nervous about these sharks, since we did not have anything to defend ourselves. I knew from studying shark behavior that sharks in a feeding mood can be very dangerous. However, in a few moments the sharks disappeared, and I decided to take one more photograph of the turtle. That was a mistake!

The Nikonos underwater camera made a distinctive “click” sound and within seconds, the sharks returned and started swimming close to us again. Now I was really getting nervous and told Howard, “Let’s get the hell out of here!” We very carefully back-pedalled to our boat, which was about 100 feet away, and hastily climbed in.

I did not know what to say to Howard, so I half-jokingly told him that I thought we did the right thing in leaving the Yapese turtle divers and retreating to our boat as I did not want to have to report to Washington that I had lost NOAA’s Deputy Administrator – someone with the rank of a four-star Admiral.

I don’t remember him smiling at my remarks.

The above article is an excerpt from Swimming with Fishes, Dr Bob Iversen’s memoir detailing his experiences as a fishery biologist. It is reposted here on Baird Maritime with the author’s permission.

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Bob Iversen

Bob Iversen is a retired Hawaii fishery biologist who spent 40 years studying tuna and other fish in the tropical Pacific Ocean. He is a former officer in the US Navy, and initiated the “mental health of seafarers” movement that has now taken off worldwide.