Swimming with sharks, eating turtles

Don’t know about you, but I feel that the films Doctor No and Jaws may not have sold sharks to us in their best possible light. Didn’t, perhaps, bring out the softer, touchier side of these toothy critters. Maybe, after all this scaremongering, they are deeply misunderstood and simply need a cuddle? Like it or not, if you’re snorkelling around Pacific Ocean reefs, sooner or later you’re going to encounter them; and encounter them we have in spades whilst spearfishing around Marovo Lagoon this week.

Some of the reefs here and in Vanuatu are truly spectacular, the one here in places resembles an over-ambitious aquarium where the proprietor has run out of space and shoved every conceivable fish into one small patch of water. We’d heard that the Sarasumu anchorage had good spearfishing on the outer reef, and we’d taken turns cruising along the drop-off, amazed at the fishlife. In the space of 20 minutes we saw turtles, giant trevally, schools of aggressive-looking barracuda (nasty buggers, they have a mean over-hanging lower jaw and sharp little teeth, they patrol the reefs looking like a gang of school bullies), small tuna, groper, a manta ray, a ball of baitfish hanging in the water, and hundreds of tiny colourful reef fish. Makes you wonder how they all live in such a small space? Quite amazing.
And of course there is the ubiquitous shark. The one thing that you immediately notice about the sharks is that they’re not worried about you. Most fish tend to keep an eye on you, with a view to a rapid departure if you look threatening. Not the shark (or, for that matter, they’re under-study the barracuda). They know who’s boss, and it ain’t you. Having said that, the white and black-tipped reef sharks, by far the most common here, are not usually aggressive and seem to have a generally short rap sheet. But there are also tiger sharks here, and no doubt many others. Most stories you hear from the villagers involving an attack, seem to have dead or struggling fish near a diver as their theme; but not all, so we have to be careful. And during this particular hour-long dive there would have been only a few minutes when there wasn’t a shark in sight, so we’d had to work out a method for keeping things safe. Our approach has been to drift dive with the current, hanging off the dinghy, and any sighting of a shark then prompts an undignified but fast climb back into the boat. As time has gone on, though, we’ve become abit less terrified, as it becomes clear that most sharks are either just as nervous of us, or simply aren’t interested in us at all. We’ve had one or two sharks take a more active interest, in which case our heroic retreat seems to work well.
One day back at Losalava, Gabriel and I were out spearfishing with a couple of villagers and spotted a large shark resting on the bottom. They started shouting shoot it! shoot it! at me. In a true demonstration of Kiwi fearlessness, I offered them the opportunity to shoot it and promptly hopped into the dinghy to watch. Gabriel muttered these guys are crazy as one of my friends then dived down and took a shot, the spear lodging briefly in the sharks tail before it took off, leaving spear behind. It was at this point, having shown my true colours, that my Ni-Van friends announced that this particular shark has no teeth. One more blow to the Nolan family credibility.

We have seen turtles both in Vanuatu and Solomons, and they’re always a real pleasure to watch. I was a little horrified, whilst spearfishing in Vanuatu some while ago, when a Ni-Van in a canoe came up to me for a chat, and I mentioned that I’d just seen a large turtle. Shoot it! was his reply. Now, I know that eating turtle goes against the grain for most of us whiteys, but I’m not entirely sure why. Are they endangered? (oh for occasional Internet access to check this sort of stuff out). I thought I’d enquire further into this turtle-eating business with my friend Ronald the Pastor at Losalava, and asked him if he ate them. Oh yes was his reply, but you’ll need to give us 12 hours notice if you want us to catch you one. Ooookaaay. Tempting though that was, I declined. I declined because of this vague but unsubstantiated endangered species thought, and of course because they’re just so darn cute. But I do recall seeing a show on TV where they explained that for decades during the 19th century the British Museum or some such revered institution had commissioned ships to capture giant turtles alive in the Pacific and bring them back to the UK. Many had been captured, but because they were so damned good to eat, not a single one made it back alive. You can just imagine all those well-intended scientists, anthropologists and zooligists sitting on these ships, looking at their collection of turtles after weeks at sea eating only hardened weavil-infested ship biscuits, thinking oh bugger it, maybe just one more wafer-thin turtle…?

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Nikki Rhind
    Nov 01, 2011 @ 10:53:48

    Thank you for your wonderful blog… I think my first comment but I have been living your journey from my computer! Sigh… I wish I was there! Nikki x


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