The Tao of Sharks

On a Boat
Page 3 of 3   |  

My firsthand contact with sharks is limited to one long day aboard a gill-netting boat off the coast of northern Maine. This was in 1986. Once each gill net was located and attached to the boat, the diesel-powered winches were activated, slowly bringing in the net from the deep. Alongside three rather bored and sullen crew members, I watched as all manner of ocean life was lifted up and over the stern onto a large, metal-topped table. Everything was in there—starfish, codfish, halibut, pollack. And there were dogfish. The little sharks. Loads of them. A shark!

I picked one out of the net. Its skin felt rough, almost thorny. Its deep-set eyes were so beautifully strange; the cornea, faceted and emerald-green, glowed like a tiny nebula within a pool of black. "What are you doing?" the captain said. Looking at this shark, I replied. The captain's nickname, the only name anyone used when addressing him—and I am not making this up—was Killer. "You off them things," Killer said, "little bastards eat our catch." Twelve miles off shore in the north Atlantic, a 25-year-old seasick Midwesterner does not argue with a 40-something, leather-skinned captain nicknamed Killer. "Give me that thing," Killer said, "here's how you do it." He grasped the dogfish and rapped its head against the edge of the table, stunning it; then, using the sharp end of a small gaff, he flipped the shark over and punctured its swim bladder. Air from the bladder rushed out and the fish was tossed overboard. For the entire day, as the crew worked, that's how it went. Bang Pop sssss. Bang Pop sssss. There was beer and soda pop and conversation and rock 'n' roll music on the stereo. The Boston Red Sox were doing well that summer.

Of the 390 identified species of sharks and rays in the world, just 20 percent represent a potential threat to people. The largest shark in the world, the whale shark, is a docile giant that swims the seas inhaling masses of plankton and tiny fish, such as anchovies. Though it has some 15,000 small teeth, they are not used for biting or crushing; rather, they simply hold whatever is funneled into its mouth.

The whale shark is so immense that scientists and anglers alike have never been able to weigh one accurately. A specimen caught near Havana Harbor and weighed in pieces totaled nine tons. Its heart alone tipped the scales at 43 pounds. Another individual measuring 38 feet long was estimated to weigh 26,594 pounds.

Science may one day give the world an overpowering, even urgent reason to conserve sharks. If this happens, I suspect the reason will be linked to the number of sharks available for slicing and dicing to serve the interests of humanity; it'll be about utility, in other words, which is OK, though certainly not the highest ideal we have become aware of during our reign as the planet's most powerful species. And even if some overpowering reason does surface, all that other stuff—the uneasiness, the fear, the old rivalry—will remain. There's just no getting away from it. Montana may seem like the most improbable place in the world to contemplate sharks and their world, but even here, at 8,000 feet or more above sea level, the mountains are littered with the fossilized bodies of sea creatures.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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