Thursday, 4 May 2017

No.43 - Great White Stories

I thought it wasn’t going to happen. They phoned to say the weather was too bad.  It was: an icy wind was blustering in off the South Atlantic, whipping the sea into opaque soapy breakers, offshore a blistering of whitecaps. I settled for a peek at a huddle of miserable-looking African penguins on the old slipway of the Betty’s Bay whaling station. Plinths carried blurry sepia photos of the historic slaughter. This little group of penguins is also the remnant of a far larger population, drastically reduced because the over-fishing of their food sources. There are few oceanic species that have escaped the depredations of humans – not even the great predators.

The following day another call: the weather looks to improve, perhaps we are on after all; would I like to make myself available? For a mere 1600 clams, why not? I drive down to the coast again; the day is overcast and a little ruffled, not ideal but calm enough for the boats. Sightings are possible though not guaranteed. After a briefing delivered with rough humour, seventeen of us board the rather diminutive boat: an international coterie of hopeful and slightly nervous gawkers: an English accountant, a Spanish couple (she gung-ho, he reticent), a pair of American women, a family group of over-exuberant Mancunians. We churn and bounce out across the green swells, cold spray slashing back across the sides.  Then slow and drift to a stop.  There are several boats out here already, slopping fish oil into the sea and attracting flocks of gulls and skuas.  And, hopefully, great white sharks.

We have been divvied into small groups, the none-too-substantial looking cage winched around to the side and roped tight, and we have wrestled ourselves into the clammy rubber of wetsuits.  Mine has a rent in the shoulder I hope wasn’t the result of a bite.  We wait.  The chum slicks the surface of the sea to the west; a sailor is dunking the head of a tuna on a rope and dragging it back and forth hopefully. (Tuna is also pretty endangered, incidentally.)  The time seems ripe: we don masks and clamber over the side. This is not so much a shark-dive as a human-dunk. I am caged in with the raucous group from Manchester. Perhaps big fish don’t worry about squeaking yells and appalling jokes, but I do wish they’d shut up; it seems disrespectful.

At any event, more or less on cue, a couple of great whites make passes at the tuna head in front of us, two-metre whipping shapes. People yell “Down!” but there’s not too much to be seen under water, visibility poor after the storms of the day before. Still, one shark bangs up against the cage a foot from my nose, a slick of violent grey, the raked gills, the famously indifferent eye, gone in two seconds. I know they must be tough animals, but it can’t be good thrashing into corners of metal.

Indeed, emerging from this mildly exciting encounter, I feel deeply ambivalent about the whole enterprise. There are too many tourist boats out here, greasing the sea with fish-oil and guts and noise. The sharks attracted in expend a good deal of energy for no reward, and with unpredictable effects on their hunting and communal lives, and thus on the ecosystem more generally. I understood we would have a marine biologist on board, underlining putative links between the tourist outings and research; but we have only a professional diver effectively on vac from repairing North Sea oil rigs. I ask him about the allegation that chumming has exacerbated shark attacks on humans; he predictably denies it, claiming that tagged sharks show they only stay in the bay for 4 to 7 weeks, too short to learn any dependency on chumming. The chum is pure fish, no mammal material permitted.  In any event, attacks on humans are minimal to almost vanishing-point: according to posters back at the office, 419 people die annually from faulty toasters, maybe 4 in shark attacks – and up to a hundred million sharks are killed by humans.  Not even our great oceans can sustain that level of slaughter.

The arguments for and against cage-diving are fierce and various (see here). The usual argument ‘for’ is that the experience is uniquely educational – but in fact one learns little from watching a three-metre shark thrash at the tuna head for a few violent seconds. Not that I’m not glad to have seen it, but the situation is shot through with a certain artificial contrivance, a edge of intrusiveness. There’s a certain kind of education best accessed through film and literature, and through just leaving the animals alone.

Of course, being that kind of guy, I started fossicking about for shark literature. There are numerous web sites advertising “shark poems”, most of them for kids and a large number of them very bad. I did find one poem, by Australian Rachel Mead, which captured my own feelings about the shark dive beautifully – we are “human bait”, she says, “exhibiting ourselves to the wild”, ultimately unable to remember much about the vibrant glimpse one is accorded:

It’s difficult to know what to tell you, what I saved
from that oddly geometric world, the hard blue planes
speared with light, the hollow toll of cage on boat,
those plates of cold sliding between wetsuit and skin.

South African writing on sharks seems as sparse as the sharks themselves. Such references as exist are usually more symbols of something else, something in ourselves, not about the sharks themselves. Sydney Clouts’s poem “The Shark”, for example, is about lovers in a forest, the circling shark an image of some unspoken inner fears.  In Henrietta Rose-Innes’ novella Shark’s Egg, we are a little closer, though inevitably land-bound.  On the opening page, the protagonist Joanna recalls beach-combing near Cape Town and finding

a curious black pod, with a spine the length of her little finger at each corner.  When she picks it up it leaves a neat impression in the damp sand.
            Look, look here, what’s this?
            Her mother turns it over carefully with her pale fingers. It’s a shark egg, she says, her voice regretful, handing it back to the child. Some people call them mermaid’s purses.
            ... At home, sceptical, she cuts the object open with a pair of nail-scissors. Inside, the embryo is still alive, a perfect little shark no bigger than a new tadpole. It gapes and thrashes its tail, at last expires. ... Joanna is shaken, and for days feels deeply guilty.
            But also powerful: she has killed a shark.


Later in the novel, Joanna works in an aquarium, and sees real sharks – but always in their entrapment, separated from them by translucent glass.

South African-born writer Basil du Toit has a poem about a shark.  It, too, is dead: the poem is entitled “Unravelling a Shark”, depicting a post-mortem in which the shark is reduced to the mechanical:

Slabs of plumbing run the length of its body
like the dust bag in a vacuum cleaner;
its works are as plain and practical
as the rubber windpipes in a car’s engine.

And then the shark becomes symbolic of humans once again:

...sometimes we use the mauling ethics
of the shark: betraying, and moving on,
leaving behind us the shocked and shattered meat
of marriages, girlfriends, daughters.  (Older Women, Snailpress, 1996)

Not much justice accorded the deceased shark.  In 1987, Etienne de la Harpe wrote “Shark”, in which the speaker descends in a dive through a rainbow of watery lights towards a vision of death itself,

And meeting the true host of this
dark ocean sky:

all long-lethal lethargy, of tapered steel-grey,
and blunt with a deadness of eye. (25/25, 1989)

I haven’t searched much further – but isn’t there a work out there that honours the shark, for the shark’s sake?

*****