Culture

Get Shark Drunk and Get Past the Bum Rap of Sharks

Greenland Shark/Photo: NOAA/Flickr

Editor's Note:

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Sharks are everywhere. Not in a literal sense, although if one comes anywhere near humans CNN would have you believe differently. (A little perspective: Worldwide, less than ten people are killed by sharks every year; humans wipe out 100 million sharks annually.) Sharks are everywhere in a pop culture sense, blowing the competition in the “animal species streaming somewhere as we speak” out of the water like the rubbery stars of the “Sharknado” series. Sequel number 5 comes out August 6 promising to, ugh, “Make America Bait Again.”

Sharks have ruled for a long time too. Jaws came out in 1975, but is still playing this summer at a theater or outdoor screening near you forty-two years on. Meanwhile “Shark Week” begins celebrating its thirtieth-anniversary on July 23; this year will feature a race between a Great White and Michael Phelps because apparently Olympic gold medals don’t buy dignity. There are so many shark characters floating about the ether that The Ringer’s entertaining writer Shea Serrano dropped a long roundtable of Hollywood Selachimorpha talking smack to one another.

This is all well and good, if not particularly intelligent, except for the fact that all the silliness loses sight of the most wide-eyed important thing. The shark itself. The most amazing species on Earth, one that predates the freaking dinosaurs, is reduced to a punchline. Sharkitsch if you will. (Yes, there’s an applicable metaphor to use. I’s too easy, so there will be no mention of Arthur Fonzarelli on water-skis here.)

A welcome corrective comes in the new book Shark Drunk: The Art of Catching a Large Shark from a Tiny Rubber Dinghy in a Big Ocean by Morten Stroksnes, in which the author lands among the rocky archipelagos and majestic fjords of northern Norway trying to catch a Greenland shark from an inflatable raft. His partner in the madness is Hugo Aasjord, a painter from the beautiful Vestfjorden region who is restoring an old fishing outpost and cod-liver-oil mill in the small village of Skrova, which serves as HQ for their quest.

While bracingly funny, Shark Drunk isn’t fun-and-games. As Stroksnes notes, “the dim cold deep is the shark’s world.” And in the shark world, the Greenland is the king of them all.

Greenland sharks are elusive, but what is known is equal parts fascinating and frightening. Even from land. The Greenland shark is prehistoric, can live to be 400 years old (making it by far the oldest vertebrae on Earth), swims in cold water at great depths, and can grow to some twenty-five feet and 2,5000 pounds, which is larger than the Great White that terrified Martha’s Vineyard years ago. The Greenland shark scoffs at your bigger boat.

Shark Drunk is an unusual book, simultaneously philosophical, scientific, Zen, funny, and more foreboding than a two-note John Williams score. Stroksnes looks up to the brightest cosmos and down into the darkest sea, pondering how far we’ve come and how little we know. It’s a book that goes into minute detail about the eye parasite that devours the Greenland shark’s cornea until it goes blind, and how the shark’s body smells of urine. Greenland shark meat is also toxic, sending hungry Norwegians who had no other substance during World War I into an incoherent mania, a wild hallucinogenic state similar to what’s brought on by copious amounts of booze or LSD. This is what Shark Drunk specifically refers to – not a lost weekend, although there is also plenty of red wine, whiskey, and aquavit flowing throughout Morten and Hugo’s angling expeditions.

Shark Drunk is divided into the four seasons, each with its own sense of wonder. Nature has its say. The physical descriptions will have you Googling flights to the Lofoten Islands.

“I grew up by the ocean, in the Arctic, so I am no stranger to the culture up there. But for this project, that was just a starting point. During the period it took to write the book, which was three to four years, I did most of the research, and only read ocean-related stuff,” says Stroksnes. “That might sound monotonous, but that wasn’t the case at all. The library of the sea is vast. I trawled it for poetry, novels, marine-biology, geology, mythology, history, and more, for the kind of facts, stories or histories I was after. In life you move on, in writing you dwell.”

The breadth of information within the book expands the scope of the adventure, it isn’t just for digression’s sake. Shark Drunk connects ideas together as a higher literary calling, weaving together disparate topics that would be considered out on the open water like the mental instability of lighthouse keepers, the legend of Ziphius, a Medieval sea monster with an owl’s face, climate change, and how France once executed a pig by hanging for attacking children. The pig was wearing a suit.

As isolated and hardscrabble as life on the edges of civilization can be, the book’s meditative quality gives the fishermen’s somewhat insane quest a profundity that Captain Ahab could appreciate from the deck of the Pequod. Stroksnes is like the coolest laid-back professor you ever had, if class were held on a small inflatable raft in search of a creature that feasts on polar bears.

“My emotional range of the voyages was of course very wide, from joy to a sense of failure, from silent contemplation to a more panicky fear of death,” Stroksnes says. “Throughout the book, there’s clearly a developing relationship between us and the shark. It isn’t really a monster, even from the start, even if we play with those notions. We have not always been on the top of the food chain, and the fear of the master predator is embedded deep within us all. It gains our respect, but I’m not sure this is reciprocal. Maybe the books should have been published with a caution: Don’t try to catch up to an eight-meter long, 1200-kilo-heavy Greenland shark from a rubber boat at home. ”

Sage advice. Thankfully, Morten and Hugo did. You’ll have to get Shark Drunk to learn whether they snagged a massive beauty, but know either way, they have done sharks a service. There are 465 species of sharks in the ocean. From angel to zebra, the magnificent brutes deserve far better than pop culture could ever allow. The contemplative words from Stroksnes beat the shallow television imagery any day of the shark week.

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