There isn’t any symbolism. The sea is the sea. The old man is an old man. The boy is a boy and the fish is a fish. The shark are all sharks no better and no worse. All the symbolism that people say is shit. What goes beyond is what you see beyond when you know.
– Ernest Hemingway
I haven’t written in here for a while. I wish I had a decent reason. The point is, this is about sharks.
Even in a small inland town, it always seemed highly likely that I would one day be attacked by a shark. When swimming alone in a pool, I’d be gripped with fear – the drift of my legs, then the imaginary jaws latching on to one of them – and would galumph desperately to the pool’s edge. At the height of these shark fears I was probably about twelve, had read too many large-format Monsters of the Sea-type books, had had too many conversations with my brothers about shark attacks, and perhaps most crucially, had seen Jaws too many times; it would be years until behind-the scenes photographs of the construction and filming of the giant pneumatically powered, neoprene-coated sharks (there were three), which might’ve helped me get some perspective, came to surface. It’s hard to look at those photographs now – such as the one above, with art director Joe Alves standing beside one of his half-finished sharks – without seeing the simultaneous construction and reinforcement of generations of shark fear and loathing.
To me, the image of the man-eating shark – dead eyes, a mouth festooning with razor blades – was always more powerful than reason. It was the image of pure fear. Even Margaret Mahy’s picture book The Great White Man-Eating Shark, whose central character Norwin straps a homemade fin to his back so he can have the whole beach to himself, used to frighten me – simply because the image of a dorsal fin slicing through water was so viscerally terrifying. All this, when the biggest in-water threat when I was a child was being nibbled by an eel or struck by someone with a pool noodle. I’m pretty sure my fear of sharks also led to an even more unreasonable fear of any mysterious thing living in water: seaweed, jellyfish, even swirling schools of minnows, each no bigger than a paperclip.
It’s really only in the last decade that I’ve begun to think more rationally and compassionately about sharks, and in recent months I’ve been excited to come across artwork that depicts sharks very differently from those images I grew up with – depictions that break away from the old equation of sharks with soullessness and horror. (Most of these are by the collaborative artists Kozy and Dan. See their Campbell’s Shark Fin Soup sculpture, too – a grisly, important statement.)
As everyone knows, in late February 2013, a man named Adam Strange was killed by a shark when swimming at Muriwai in West Auckland; it was incredibly awful and sad, and traumatic for everyone involved. It brought up a lot of my old thinking about sharks. It’s easy to forget, amidst all the news coverage of a fatal shark attack, that these are wild animals, and that when you go into the sea you’re going into an often unpredictable place. The first thing to go, though, is perspective. These events are rare. Since 1852, there have been thirteen fatal shark attacks in New Zealand.
Growing up means finding less delight in being terrified (so, along with my slow waning of shark obsession went an obsession with UFOs and aliens, Big Foot, and Dean Koontz’s books), and once you look closely at the fear that fuels so much of our thinking about sharks, you find a lot of myths and strange contradictions. Even knowing the statistics on shark attacks, I think, puts very little dent in our fear. We know that, for example, you are more likely to die by falling off a chair than being eaten by a shark; your odds are actually 1 in 11.5 million, according to Oceana. And there’s the fact that sharks have become the prey of humans, that many of their species have been hunted to the point of critical endangerment.
I wonder if the place that sharks occupy in our language doesn’t help, where they’re always a symbol of vicious, self-centered behaviour – ‘loan shark’, ‘shark eyes’, ‘card shark’ (a hustler or cheat), ‘shark-like’. It’s been argued that, etymologically, it’s all the other way around – that, in the 16th century, the name ‘shark’ was given to the fish because ‘shark’ was at first a descriptor for a dishonest person who preyed on others; a rogue, a scoundrel. And in another odd reversal, in some mythologies sharks are wise, protective figures, such as the shark god Ukupanipo of Hawaiian mythology, who controlled the amount of fish a fisherman could catch (and occasionally adopted a human child, who he’d bestow with the power to change into a shark at any time); and the Fijian shark god Dakuwaqa, who protected fishermen from danger at sea.
Partly, too, my thinking has been turned around through talking to my brother John-Paul, who in an interview on this blog a while ago had some interesting things to say about sharks (including a very good answer to the eternal question: ‘Would you rather be attacked by a crocodile or a shark?’ The answer MAY SURPRISE YOU). His most recent album Anniversary Day was inspired by a shark attack in Wellington Harbour in 1852: John Balmer, a musician in the 65th regiment’s band, was swimming after performing with the band, when a shark fatally attacked him. (To date, Balmer is the only person to have been killed by a shark in Wellington.)
Every year on 21 January, the date of the 1852 attack, JP does a swim out to the floating raft in Oriental Bay and back to commemorate John Balmer. It’s a lovely, strangely triumphant gesture, I think.