In the Field

Swordfish Research:
Woods Harbour, Nova Scotia


In July of 2010 I drove up to Woods Harbour, Nova Scotia from my home in Connecticut to get on a harpoon boat for swordfish.  My objective was to see a swordfish in its living colors right out of the water, or preferably in the water and out of the water, so that I could paint it life size for my Ocean Fishes project (see 2012 book with Rizzoli, Ocean Fishes).  There are only a few places in the world where the conditions are such that swordfish come to the surface of the ocean and can be spotted and harpooned.  One of them is George’s Bank, famous fishing grounds due east of Cape Cod (which the Canadian harpooners access by traveling southeast from Nova Scotia.

When I arrived, a boat was unloading 16 swordfish, they were just grey lumps of flesh, their heads and tails cut off, but it was fascinating to watch the fish hoisted up and into a truck with ice.  After some moments of looking around, the elder fisherman on deck started a conversation, as it turns out he was the captain of this boat, The Brittany & James.  “So what brings you out here,” he said.  “I just drove 22 hours from Connecticut to see a swordfish right out of the water so I can paint it life size in its living colors.”  The captain, whose name was Gilbert Devine said, “You’ve never seen a color blue on land like the color of a swordfish.  It’s a strange purple blue that you can only see out there.  If you ever met a girl with eyes the color of a swordfish, you’d leave whoever you were with and go with her.”  Within a minute, Gilbert invited me along on their next cruise.  They were leaving the next day for seven days.  He said he could clear out the bunk where they keep the life preservers so I would have a place to sleep.

When a swordfish is harpooned it is left to drift and die on a buoy until it is dead or nearly dead.  It is too dangerous to try to bring a swordfish on deck alive, after all, it has a spear on its nose.  So most of the time the fish come on board a coppery bronze color, not the silver and blue that they are when they are alive.  But Gilbert told me that about one out of every 20 fish or so will flicker back to their living colors on the deck before they die.  This I was fortunate to see, and this is the specimen I ended up painting.  The last fish of our very last day on the water (and we almost turned back because of bad weather) transformed on deck from the bronze-brown color of death to platinum silver and the purple blues that Gilbert had told me about, which don’t show up very well in photographs.  Not a lot of people, even swordfish fishermen have see a fish on deck with its living colors.

< Back to In the Field

Copper bronze color of a dying swordfish

Gilbert Devine and Jim Crawford

Gilbert on the harpoon stand

Gilbert's modified lobster boat for swordfishing, he has since
cut down the 65 foot mast which was the tallest in the fleet

Man of war jellyfish

Swordfish about to be harpooned

Swordfish dorsal fin over Gilbert's left shoulder

Swordfish in the color of death

The dart right through the fish

The fish that turned to living colors on deck (detail)

The fish that turned to living colors on deck

The fish that turned

The rigging and jim is in the crows nest, 65 feet above the water

The rigging on a stormy day