Swordfish: A Biography of the Ocean Gladiator by Richard Ellis - review by David Profumo

David Profumo

Dances with Swords

Swordfish: A Biography of the Ocean Gladiator


University of Chicago Press 277pp £17

Possessing no teeth or scales, but armed with a sharp rostrum up to four feet long, Xiphias gladius is arguably the most aggressive fish in the sea. The huge ones are always female, can weigh more than a thousand pounds and produce some thirty million eggs. A solitary pelagic speedster, the queen of the ocean – pez espada – is the Lamborghini of the deeps. Old-time harpooners warned against looking into her vast, mesmerising eye (it is fed with its own supply of warm blood to combat the chill of the abyss). When Keith Douglas wrote his lovely poem in 1941 about a sailor using a gouged swordfish eye to burn his floozy’s name onto the timbers of a ship, he entitled it simply ‘The Marvel’.

Notable American marine artist Richard Ellis certainly knows his fish. He once sailed out of Montauk with Peter ‘Jaws’ Benchley and shark-shooter Frank Mundus, the model for Captain Quint. The ‘swordie’ is, he explains, a sport fisher’s ultimate trophy. It is hard to find, tough to hook and fights by dancing on its tail. One angler lost his battle after more than 32 hours in the chair. Zane Grey – dentist turned bestseller – developed

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