This is an excerpt from "Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks," by Juliet Eilperin. As national environment reporter for The Washington Post, Eilperin's assignments have taken her across the Arctic tundra and into Tennessee caves in search of rare insects, but she's happiest underwater. In "Demon Fish," she provides a global look at the often surprising and inexplicable ways people and cultures relate to, and engage with, the ocean's top predator. Get more information on her book and reporting here.
Karasimbe is, in his own words, "the world-famous shark caller" of Kontu. "World-famous" may be a bit of an overstatement: most people have never heard of either shark calling or the remote island province,New Ireland, where it is practiced. But the Australian filmmaker Dennis O'Rourke did feature Karasimbe in his 1982 documentary,The Sharkcallers of Kontu, an anthropology cult classic. And when it comes to Papua New Guinea, that qualifies for global exposure.
In a world where most humans view sharks with a mix of fear and loathing, Papua New Guinea is one of the few places where people embrace them. For the villagers in Tembin, Mesi, and Kontu -- the three towns that still practice shark calling -- sharks are an integral part of their creation story, a religious faith that has endured for centuries.
In many ways, New Ireland -- the province that is home to shark calling -- is a microcosm of Papua New Guinea itself. At least seventeen distinct languages are still spoken there, and while humans have lived on the islands for at least thirty-two thousand years, it was only colonized by the West when Germany claimed it as a colonial protectorate in 1885. Charted in 1767 by the British navigator Philip Carteret, who named it on the basis of its relationship to another, larger nearby island (New Britain), New Ireland served as a port for American whaling ships in search of water and provisions during their voyages.
Missionaries have worked relentlessly to make Papua New Guinea into a Christian country: according to the 2000 census, 96 percent of the populace identifies itself as Christian. While missionaries are a rare sight in much of the South Pacific at this point, they are still ubiquitous in even the most isolated of Papua New Guinean villages. They often provide basic services, including schooling. And in exchange,they demand fealty to a Christian god.
Many Papua New Guineans have reconciled this Western religion with their traditional ancestor worship. In this traditional faith, the spirits of their ancestors inhabit the current natural world, offering them a way to connect to those who preceded them in their everyday surroundings. These spirits communicate to them, watch over them, and guide their choices: it's a much more immediate connection than the one that typically defines Christian faiths.
But faced with this contrast to Christianity, Papua New Guineans like Karasimbe have deftly fudged the difference. Going to church while also maintaining ties to his ancestors through shark hunting, Karasimbe reasons, is not contradictory. He and others can do this in part because the traditional Papua New Guinean faith has a creator, Moroa, who is from their perspective essentially synonymous with the Judeo-Christian God. While the myth of Moroa predates Papua New Guineans' contact with missionaries, it bears a strong similarity to Christianity. Moroa created the world in a series of steps just like the Judeo-Christian God did, for example, but his instructions are a bit more detailed than some of the early guidance contained in the Old Testament.
Take sharks, for instance. According to legend, Moroa made Lembe the shark before he made man but after he had made the sun and the moon and put fish and dolphins in the sea. Moroa made Lembe "in the time of tulait, the time between the end of the night and the beginning of the new day," and in doing so, he divided the shark's belly into two parts.1 The left side of the belly could sense danger, but the right side would let the shark approach a canoe without fear.
After creating this divided creature, Moroa held Lembe by his tail (Papua New Guineans say you can still see the mark of Moroa's thumb and forefinger on every shark in the sea) and explained to the shark the conditions on which he could approach man. He said he would tell man to catch the shark, and that if man broke any of the tambus (taboos) set out for him, Lembe must listen to the left side of his belly and stay away.
As one might imagine, at this point Lembe was getting tired of Moroa's lecture. So he jumped in the sea, just as Moroa was about to tell him about the bait fish man would use to try to lure him. In retaliation, Moroa threw white sand at Lembe, which has given him rough skin until the end of time. "Moroa threw his hands in the air and yelled after the disappearing shark he was truly stupid," Glenys Köhnke recounts. "For now that his skin was rough man would be able to snare him in a specially prepared noose which Moroa would show him how to make."
When Moroa created humans, he went through the elaborate rules for catching sharks and the mechanics of making special equipment for the task, such Karasimbe uses today. And when he was done, Moroa had given the shark callers of Papua New Guinea something earth possesses: the ability to communicate with the scariest creatures in the sea.
From the book DEMON FISH by Juliet Eilpern
©2011 Juliet Eilpern
Reprinted with the permission of Pantheon Books, an imprint of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.