The story opens with a conversation between two men—Whitney and Rainsford. They are traveling on a boat and discussing an infamous island that should be somewhere nearby, Ship-Trap Island. Whitney explains to Rainsford that the island is known as a place of dread. Rainsford tries to find the island through the thick, leafy jungle but is unable to spot it. Whitney remarks on the depth of darkness in the region of the Caribbean that they are sailing through. Whitney reveals that the ship is headed to Rio de Janiero in Brazil, and should arrive in a few days.
The two men then launch into a discussion of jaguar hunting in the Amazon. Rainsford remarks that hunting is the best sport in the world. Whitney modifies Rainsford’s statement by pointing out that the sport is only fun for the hunter. Rainsford pushes aside his commentary as foolishness for he feels that animals have no understanding of the hunt. Whitney points out that even if they can’t understand complex things, they still understand and experience fear. Rainsford, once again, casts aside his statement as nonsense. Rainsford tells Whitney that the heat has made him emotionally soft. The reality of the world, as Rainsford sees it, is that there are two groups—the hunted and the hunters.
Rainsford and Whitney then return to the subject of the island. Rainsford inquires more about the rumors surrounding the mysterious island. Whitney explains that the island simply radiates evil—even the captain and the crew of the boat were on edge as the boat approached the island.
The captain had told Whitney that he felt a profound sense of dread on passing through the waters that surrounded the island. Rainsford thinks that the captain is simply being overdramatic. Whitney surmises that perhaps this is the case of one sailor’s scary tale rubbing off on the whole crew. He explains to Rainsford that even though that might be the case, there is still something to be said for the ability of evil to be perceived, especially by those who face danger constantly. At the end of the conversation, Whitney decides to retire to his quarters.
Rainsford decides to stay above deck to smoke a pipe. He sits in the silent, dark night and looks out over the water. Suddenly, a sound startles him—the sound of a gun being fired. He quickly walks to the edge of the railing to try to get a better look at his surroundings. He is unable to see anything through the murky darkness. Rainsford accidentally knocks his pipe out of his mouth during his attempts to get a better view. In his attempt to catch it, he loses his balance and falls into the water.
The current makes it impossible for Rainsford to swim back to the yacht. As salt water entered Rainsford's mouth, he begins to panic. He watches helplessly as the yacht sails away, leaving him alone in the dark water. Remembering the sound of the shots, he begins swimming in the direction of their origin. While trying to swim in that direction, he hears an animal cry out in anguish. Rainsford can’t identify the animal that made the sound.
As he continues to swim toward the sound, more gunfire fills the air. After ten minutes of struggling through the water, Rainsford eventually reaches the shore. He painfully drags himself out of the water with the little energy he has left. Once he reaches the safety of solid ground, he collapses into a deep sleep.
The opening of the story introduces the reader to some important themes. First, Rainsford and Whitney’s conversations about the pleasure of hunting highlights the plight of the animal. Rainsford is a skeptic and thinks that animals do not experience many feelings or thoughts. He clearly establishes a hierarchy between man and beast. It is this relationship, between the hunter and the hunted, that is revisited numerous times throughout the work.
A second theme that is introduced during this part of the story is the nature of evil. Again, Rainsford and Whitney converse briefly about this when discussing the notorious Ship-Trap Island. Both of these themes foreshadow the experiences that Rainsford later has on the island. Their discussion early in the text helps prepare the reader for the transformative incidents to follow.
The imagery presented in this segment sets a dark, somber, mysterious mood to the story. The physical darkness mirrors the lack of knowledge that the two men have about the nearby island. The sounds presented also add to the mystique of the storyline. The gunshots that Rainsford hears while smoking his pipe on the deck are indicative of danger.
Rainsford’s fall from the boat is symbolic of a crossing into a no-man’s land. He falls into inky black water, unable to reconnect with the small bit of civilization that floats away down the river. The change in setting—from boat to island—is depicted behind a dark curtain for both the reader and Rainsford.
Hunting is the central theme of the story, and it also sets the story in motion. Rainsford falls into the water as a result of the sound of gunfire. He ends up on the island because he follows those sounds. His love of hunting, which he is forced to reconsider as the story progresses, is what leads him into this precarious situation.