Log In

Reset Password

Shark oil memories: hurricane forecasting in old Bermuda

First Prev 1 2 3 4 Next Last
The Colonial Opera House on Victoria Street, which was nearly destroyed in the devastating hurricane of 1926

I was barely 9 in the summer of 1951 when my parents took us on a trip to Jamaica. Little did we know that Hurricane Charlie, the deadliest tropical cyclone of the Atlantic hurricane season, would visit the island during our vacation.

On what appeared to be a perfectly sunny day, we were visiting my aunt. Suddenly her helper rushed into the room to say that she had heard a radio report advising that a hurricane was heading directly for Jamaica. We left hastily to return to where we were staying. Many of the houses were constructed of wood with corrugated iron roofs but the house where we were vacationing was built of stone with a shingle roof. Unlike Bermuda, there were no window shutters.

I was told to sit on the verandah, play with my doll and keep out of the way of whatever frantic preparations were going on inside. I immediately noticed that the garden was perfectly still. There were no ground lizards scurrying about, there were no bees or industrious humming birds. Nothing moved. There was only silence. The date was August 17, 1951.

My father always wrote a diary and on that date he wrote: “Between 9.30 and 10.30pm the winds hit us with terrific force. The house began to leak and things became startling. We could not sleep. The dining room was under water and the bedrooms were wet. The servants were brought from their quarters into the house for safety.”

But, as a child I remembered other details. The frightening claps of thunder and the vicious forks of lightning, the howling wind and the falling of large trees. For the first time in my life I experienced extreme fear. Although my parents comforted me I could feel their concern. I could hear the servants praying loudly in a language I could not quite understand and the dog, not to be outdone, joined the chorus.

When the winds subsided and daylight finally arrived, it was to a landscape I could never have imagined. From that day on, I learned never to underestimate the power of nature and its destructive force. It is only in recent years, as I read my father’s diary of August 1951, that I am reminded of how fortunate we were to survive, when 250 others did not.

On August 18 my father wrote that everything was in total confusion but he needed to send a cable home to let our grandparents know that we were safe. Our host took us by car and had to make many diversions. Kingston was in a state of total chaos. Almost every house was hit and it was heartrending to see. There were workmen so overwhelmed, they seemed to not know where to begin. There was no water, no lights and for some, not enough food. A disaster of enormous proportion.

In 1980, I suddenly remembered that summer, and became curious as to how Bermudians knew a hurricane was approaching when there were no radios or televisions to report the event. And, as I usually do, I asked Bermudians older than myself.

Sinclair Simmons recalled the Royal Navy had a wireless station at Daniel’s Head in Somerset. In the early 1920s they erected tall steel wireless poles from which a black ball and cone indicated the weather. He recalled sadly that a Bermudian working on the project lost his life during the installation. At night the poles were illuminated. There were similar warnings at Gibb’s Hill and St David’s Lighthouse. There were no radios in private homes, the police and army would warn people of an impending hurricane. The army, located in St George’s, Prospect and Boaz Island had wireless communication. In the 1940s, during the Second World War, the steel poles were replaced with wood and recycled back to England.

Mr Simmons’ wife said that September to October were hurricane months in Bermuda. She never worries about storms early in the alphabet. “It’s the Es you have to worry about,” she said and then went on to recall Edna in 1953 and Emily in 1987.

In 1926 Carl Smith, lived at Smith Hill near the Cottage Hospital. He recalled that Bermuda was much quieter in those days and you could identify a hurricane’s approach because the South Shore breakers would roar under the shoreline and under the caves. There was a “break water" from Elbow Beach, Paget, to St George’s. It was hollow all along under the big cliffs and you could hear it all along Happy Valley. Many described it as the sound of the Boilers.

September was hurricane month. The sea would beat upon the rocks; the sky was cloudy, it rained frequently and you could feel the pressure and oppressive heat.

Here it comes: Ronnie Chameau’s shark oil before Hurricane Fabian in 2003. The cone persists until the hurricane passes.

Mr Smith’s grandparents lived in St David’s and collected shark oil. He said that a healthy shark was caught at a certain time of the year. A cub shark was too big to be used. His grandparents said there were two types of sharks.

The eating shark about three feet long is best with a liver the colour of egg shell white. A brownish cast liver was not good.

The sick shark would run away from the storm (they got sea sick!). The oil from these sharks was considered better.

The liver must be fried until dry. It should not burn. Strain the liver dry, cool and strain off the oil through a cheese cloth. The oil should be as clear as water. Pour into a bottle and cork “real tight”. Put in a clear bottle outside the kitchen door, on a barn, shed, horse stable or carriage house, just somewhere where you could just open the kitchen door to see it.

When the South Shore breakers started to roar, the oil would stir up as thick as flour water. As the storm approached, it would come to a peak. This was an indication that it was time to get ready. Many nailed up their doors and windows. As soon as the hurricane passed, the oil would settle down level again. As long as it was in a peak you knew the storm was coming. As soon as it was thick at the bottom and clear at the top the breakers would stop roaring.

Twelve ways to tell a hurricane is coming

Here is a list of how bad weather was predicted by old-time Bermudians:

1. Sand crabs begin to cross the roads in abundance. Unfortunately a bird, imported into the island, has severely reduced their numbers

2. Cats begin to play and jump around and dogs begin to sniff the air

3. Silk spiders begin to spin their webs close to the ground

4. The sea is as clear as glass with sand floating on the surface

5. The unusual fluttering of leaves in a breeze that could not be felt

6. Bottled shark oil becomes cloudy, giving 24-36 hours notice of bad weather. It has been described as Bermuda’s natural barometer

7. Streaky fast moving clouds described as mare’s tails indicate high winds

8. Schools of small greyish birds with very spiny legs identified by their chirping sounds precede a storm

9. You are unable to differentiate the sea from the sky on the horizon

10. Red skies in the morning

11. A fishy smell from the sea spray coming off the South Shore

12. A strong smell of cedar when Bermuda was heavily forested

Today, we are fortunate to have prompt and current weather reports which prepare and inform us of weather changes. Despite this, many Bermudians still refer to the trusty shark oil. Unfortunately mine broke during Hurricane Humberto and I have been unable to replace it.

Shark oil is best kept outside in an easy to find place. Folklore has it that it does not work in air conditioning.

I am no authority on shark oil but once again Sinclair Simmons of Somerset filled me in. His instructions were to never use the liver of the shark when the moon is getting full. Evidently the liver at this time will be dark. Sharks, he said, cleanse themselves after a full moon. In addition, he added that there were two ways to extract the oils from the liver:

The photograph of shark oil included in this article was taken by Ronnie Chameau when Hurricane Fabian was approaching in 2003. At that point her mother could tell her that it was 100 miles from us and moving towards the south east. Strangely enough, there were no shark oil predictions for Hurricane Emily in 1987. Many believed it was too fast moving for Bermuda’s natural barometer to record. Mrs Chameau added that shark oil should always be placed facing east to catch the morning sun.

Bill Anderson believes the oil that drips directly from the liver into a bottle is more accurate. He remembered that about 80 years ago he would go to the seashore after a hurricane had passed. Hurricanes suck sand from the shoreline out to sea leaving the rocks exposed on the beaches. He said it was surprising the amount of coins and other valuables that could be found wedged between the rocks.

On a more amusing note he recalled leaving Bermuda on a cruise ship. He knew Pilot Kennedy who was taking the ship out and was invited to meet the captain. The first question the captain asked was why his shark oil never worked. When he showed Mr Anderson where he kept it, he immediately had the answer - shark oil does not work in air conditioning!

Safety precaution: Silk spiders move their webs closer to the ground when they sense a hurricane coming.

It’s December now and technically hurricane season is over. But, on second thought, we’ll keep everything in place a few months longer, just in case a hurricane suddenly remembers it has missed us and returns!

Mr and Mrs Sinclair Simmons and Mr Carl Smith passed on many years ago but hopefully their families will read and remember them as I did, while writing their recollections.

You must be Registered or to post comment or to vote.

Published December 03, 2022 at 8:09 am (Updated December 03, 2022 at 8:09 am)

Shark oil memories: hurricane forecasting in old Bermuda

What you
Need to
1. For a smooth experience with our commenting system we recommend that you use Internet Explorer 10 or higher, Firefox or Chrome Browsers. Additionally please clear both your browser's cache and cookies - How do I clear my cache and cookies?
2. Please respect the use of this community forum and its users.
3. Any poster that insults, threatens or verbally abuses another member, uses defamatory language, or deliberately disrupts discussions will be banned.
4. Users who violate the Terms of Service or any commenting rules will be banned.
5. Please stay on topic. "Trolling" to incite emotional responses and disrupt conversations will be deleted.
6. To understand further what is and isn't allowed and the actions we may take, please read our Terms of Service
7. To report breaches of the Terms of Service use the flag icon