In pursuit of deep mysteries
Philip Hoare enjoys two books that chart our strange relations with the creatures of our fears
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.
Eerie benevolence ... the harmless basking shark