National Geographic


Expedition Journal

Pollywogs and Shellbacks

A few hours after we crossed the equator, a hoary old King Neptune rose out of the sea and paid a short visit to the Mermaid Sapphire. If you were a “trusty shellback” you welcomed his arrival; if you were a “slimy pollywog” you went to your cabin and locked the door.

There are 60 souls aboard the Sapphire and 34 of them—slimy pollywogs—were crossing the equator in a ship for the first time. Previously indoctrinated crew members—trusty shellbacks—had organized a court of Neptune to initiate the pollywogs into the mysteries of crossing the equator and the honor of joining their company. The ceremony is centuries old; its primary purpose is to create merriment and take sailor’s minds off the rigors of a long sea voyage.

White-suited “police” rounded up the pollywogs and herded them up to the bow of the ship. The slimy ones were made to kneel in front of King and Queen Neptune and accused of fictitious crimes: moving to Perth before realizing which country it was in, impersonating the ship’s captain, dreaming of becoming a pole dancer, wearing odd socks. Despite their pleas of innocence, they were pronounced “guilty’ by a costumed, white-bearded Neptune who was obviously unbalanced by his sudden, unearned ascent to power. It soon became clear that Queen Neptune was also unbalanced, not by the searing sky or constant roll of the ship, but by the twin hard hats firmly strapped to her chest. And let us not forget Baby Neptune. He reclined beside the king, wearing white diapers, grinning with glee as he smeared Vegemite on his face and torso.

One after one the sweating pollywogs were beaten by police with cotton-filled truncheons, forced to eat Vegemite (the brown road tar adored by every Australian), doused with slops (a nostril-choking combination of onions, eggshells, yeast, blue food coloring and god-knows-what-else), dunked in a bin of water the color of hundred-year-old grapes, and forced to drink a stomach-churning shot of fish oil, Tabasco, soy, and sweet chili sauce.

It is little wonder that the pollywogs staged a revolt. It came with a lot more focus, fire, and fun than the Occupy Wall Street movement. They threw water-filled balloons at King, Queen and Baby Neptune. They shot salvos from the ship’s water hose. Finally, they stormed the throne room, grabbed the bucket of slops and poured it over the cowering king and his grief-stricken wife. “This is a regal ceremony,” she croaked in her West End actor’s voice, “How dare you! How dare you!”

Captain Stuart Buckle and his partner in crime, Chief Officer Stuart Bowman, retreated into the shadows on the port side of the ship. The good captain has been going to sea since he was seventeen and has a special Scottish version of seagoing humor. He knows that humor is not just entertainment. It’s a sophisticated form of intelligence that brings confidence and cohesion to the group. Libations were poured. The laughter and levity continued long into the night.

Written by Dr. Joe MacInnis

Photograph by Gavin Cole

Science Partners

  • Additional major support provided by The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation
  • NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
  • Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego
  • University of Hawaii at Manoa
  • University of Guam