In pur­suit of deep mys­ter­ies

Philip Hoare en­joys two books that chart our strange re­la­tions with the crea­tures of our fears

The Guardian Weekly - - Books -

Shark Drunk by Morten Strøk­snes trans­lated by Ti­ina Nun­nally Jonathan Cape, 304pp

A Sea Mon­ster’s Tale by Colin Speedie Wild Na­ture, 296pp

It is the an­cient­ness of sharks that helps to en­thrall and ap­pal us. The sly, side­ways sway of their whiplash bod­ies; the nerve-sharp sig­ni­fier of their an­gu­lar fins; the sense of some­thing im­pos­si­bly old, and pos­si­bly ma­lig­nant. Sharks have been around for 400m years, and col­lec­tively these car­ti­lagi­nous crea­tures sum up all that is fright­en­ing about the deep, dark sea. On his mid-19th-cen­tury walks along Cape Cod, Henry David Thoreau recorded that sharks would be “tossed up and quiver for a mo­ment on the sand”, and saw one “sin­gu­larly film-like and in­dis­tinct in the wa­ter, as if all na­ture abet­ted this child of ocean”. On that same shore re­cently, a fish­er­man showed me a photo he had taken on the beach where I’d just been swim­ming. It showed a great white lurch­ing out of the surf within a few feet of the shore, a big fat seal in its mouth. As an­other fish­er­man chipped in: “You don’t wanna go like that.”

We could blame Pe­ter Bench­ley and Steven Spiel­berg for the shark’s bad press. But look back to ear­lier rep­re­sen­ta­tions: the cruel beasts de­vour­ing stolen peo­ple in JMW Turner’s Slave Ship (1840); the pale naked man in John Sin­gle­ton Co­p­ley’s sen­sa­tional Wat­son and the Shark (1778); or Her­man Melville’s shark in Moby-Dick, in whose “glid­ing ghost­li­ness of re­pose” Ish­mael sees “the white still­ness of death”. Mean­while we read of mod­ern surfers at­tacked and even boats boarded by sharks off the Aus­tralian coast. It is as if the an­i­mal’s im­plicit vi­o­lence – made graphic in its wedge-shaped head, its in­escapable jaws, its dead­ened eyes – is for­ever des­tined to pro­voke con­flict and pur­suit. And yet we kill 100 mil­lion sharks each year, and slice off their fins for soup.

The way we see and use these an­i­mals seems to em­body our greater dys­func­tional re­la­tion­ship with the sea. Two new books point up this hu­man-fish para­dox. Both go in pur­suit of sharks, but with very dif­fer­ent aims in mind.

In Shark Drunk, the ac­claimed Nor­we­gian writer Morten Strøk­snes sets off with his artist friend Hugo on a quixotic hunt for the Green­land shark – a mys­te­ri­ous and lit­tle-stud­ied fish, able to live for 400 years or more, and whose meat, when eaten, is sup­posed to in­duce a drunken state. Strøk­snes is caught up in this fever, and his book moves through a world of light and dark in which the shark be­comes a sym­bolic quarry, sum­mon­ing other sto­ries. In in­trigu­ing di­gres­sions into sci­ence and folk­lore, he speaks of his love and fear of the ocean. Es­pe­cially fas­ci­nat­ing is a sec­tion on the 16th-cen­tury Swedish chron­i­cler Olaus Mag­nus, who dis­cerned all man­ner of bizarre mon­sters, fill­ing Nordic seas with night­mar­ish crea­tures as chimeric com­pounds of real an­i­mals.

All the while, Strøk­snes nav­i­gates be­tween scenes of drunken com­pa­tri­ots and per­ilous storms. He talks of the strange, in­de­ci­pher­able noise the deep ocean makes, and sees or­cas “spurt up from the sea like plas­tic toys”.

Some­times it seems we’re in the mid­dle of a teenage ram­page: his ad­ven­ture with Hugo is “to­tally in­sane”, and they dis­miss one his­tor­i­cal fig­ure as “full of shit”. In other pas­sages Strøk­snes evokes a frag­ile en­vi­ron­ment where the fugi­tive light closes up “like a sack”, and “the dark night of the sea is a su­pe­rior power” yet in­creas­ingly empty of fish. And some­times he achieves a nu­mi­nous tran­scen­dence, de­scrib­ing as­tronomers “search­ing for fos­sils of light”, as if he him­self were con­nect­ing the stars of heaven with the dark life be­low his boat.

The bask­ing shark is a won­drous beast on which is be­stowed a kind of eerie benev­o­lence by virtue of its plank­tonic diet. It swirls just be­low the sur­face of north­ern wa­ters with its mouth wide open, mind­ful of noth­ing but food. At least that’s how I thought of it, un­til Colin Speedie’s book A Sea Mon­ster’s Tale re­vealed its strange rit­u­als: the huge an­i­mals swim­ming nose-to-tail in a cir­cle as if in mytho­log­i­cal re­flec­tion of their other com­mon name, the sun­fish.

Speedie’s en­thu­si­asm for his sub­ject is in­fec­tious, as he lov­ingly de­tails its nat­u­ral his­tory. Af­ter the whale shark, the bask­ing shark is the largest fish, reach­ing up to 11 me­tres in length, and un­der­takes epic win­ter mi­gra­tions over thou­sands of kilo­me­tres. It is seen off Celtic coasts – Corn­wall, Wales, Ire­land, Scot­land and the Western Isles – a ter­ri­tory that seems to align it with a twi­light world, hov­er­ing be­tween realms. Yet as Speedie’s book demon­strates, this shark’s ap­par­ent harm­less­ness was re­warded by hu­mans deter­mined to re­lieve it of its oil-rich liver, con­vert­ing the sun fish’s dark­ness into our ar­ti­fi­cial light as it was burned in lamps.

Here was hu­man do­min­ion. Early chron­i­clers called the sharks “stupid and tor­pid” as they al­lowed hun­ters to feed them by hand be­fore they were bru­tally dis­patched. Most no­to­ri­ous of all their pur­suers was Gavin Maxwell, whose Ahabian hunts were re­told in his book, Har­poon at a Ven­ture (1952) – mem­o­rably de­scribed by Robert Mac­far­lane as “a mil­i­tarised Moby-Dick, an epic of ab­jec­tion”. In 1944 Maxwell, a “bi­sex­u­al­ist buc­ca­neer” as a con­tem­po­rary de­scribed him, bought the He­bridean is­land of Soay, and at­tempted to res­ur­rect the hunt­ing in­dus­try, with dis­as­trous re­sults.

The an­i­mals were al­most im­pos­si­ble to kill. Not only would their bod­ies writhe long af­ter their brains had been blown out with ma­chine-guns, but their ner­vous sys­tems were so tena­cious that, even af­ter they’d been chopped up and sent to Billings­gate mar­ket, the chunks con­tin­ued to twitch. They also launched them­selves out of their own en­vi­ron­ment: a liv­ing bask­ing shark could breach with­out

care for where it landed, strad­dling an at­tacker’s boat “like a mon­strous fly­ing fish”.

One sailor told me of his friend who, work­ing for the navy in the se­cond world war, de­cided to see what would hap­pen if he planted a mine on a pass­ing shark. It swam back un­der the boat, det­o­nat­ing the de­vice and blow­ing off one of the man’s legs.

In a 50-year pe­riod, 20th-cen­tury hun­ters took 100,000 an­i­mals from the north-east At­lantic, their oil des­tined for haem­or­rhoid cream, among other end prod­ucts. In his later chap­ters, Speedie’s own hunts, in the form of am­bi­tious coast-to-coast sur­veys, sup­ply vi­tal sci­en­tific data rather than der­ringdo. Leg­is­la­tion ended the cull in some ter­ri­to­rial wa­ters in the 1990s, but bask­ing sharks re­main un­der threat: from wind and tidal tur­bines, ocean acid­i­fi­ca­tion, marine traf­fic and hu­man con­sump­tion – a sin­gle fin can fetch up to $50,000 in east Asia.

Faced with such pres­sures, these philopa­trous (site-loyal) an­i­mals ur­gently need pro­tec­tion in the form of marine con­ser­va­tion zones. On one sum­mer boat trip from Pen­zance, I saw two dozen baskers, slowly work­ing their way through a field of plank­ton like enor­mous lawn­mow­ers. It was a salu­tary, edenic glimpse of wa­ters that once teemed with such an­i­mals. An­cient and huge it may be, but the bask­ing shark’s fu­ture de­pends on a new kind of shark fever – our re­dis­cov­ered love for these sand­pa­per-skinned be­he­moths.

Alan James/NPL/Rex/Shutterstock

Eerie benev­o­lence ... the harm­less bask­ing shark

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