'Shark Callers' Get Wiser With Fishes' Help

The shark callers of Kontu draw on the sharks and other fishes to help them sort through the complications of life, for themselves and for their communities.
Corbis

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.

A few days before they go out to sea, shark callers observe strict dietary and social restrictions. According to tradition, men cannot eat pig, prawn, crab, lizard, or kapul, a small marsupial that lives in Papua New Guinea. Shark callers cannot have sex with their wives, on the grounds that the sharks will be able to detect a woman's scent and will stay away. They cannot step on animal feces for the same reason.

Not surprisingly, some of these prohibitions can prove irritating. Philp Taput, a shark caller from Tembin in his forties, says he's no longer afraid of confronting the sharks, but "the hardest part of it is to keep away from some of the tambus (taboos) like staying away from lying with the ladies, sleeping in the houseboy (a small building where shark callers gather), and not stepping on excrement." But Taput would never think of violating these admonitions: it helps give him the steeliness he needs to confront sharks, single- handed, in the water. He does look for signs in the natural world that plenty of sharks are in the water, such as seagulls flying above the ocean, but he places more faith in the elaborate, time- honored practices he performs before heading for sea. Paying homage to tradition will deliver the sharks. "When we are preparing our rituals to go out, then we have to ask the power of the creator, the spirit, to go with us. It applies to both our ancestors and being a Christian."

NEWS: Shark Paradise Found

While shark hunting is usually a practical exercise -- it supplies the village with food for funeral rites and other special occasions -- callers also use their rituals to find answers to the questions that arise from life's tragedies. In this way, they are seen as wise men who can get answers from the sharks even when they're not seeking to catch them. Karasimbe's older brother Mangis Hari, who is in his late seventies, will often perform this sort of divining ceremony for bereaved villagers. As he describes it, speaking in Tok Pisin, it is an extraordinarily precise set of procedures.

"When one of my villagers dies, I collect hair from the dead body. I take that (and put it near a particular tree), and there it remains for three days. After those three days I collect that and I wash it with some magic, some leaves, and then I go down to the beach one after- noon and sit down. I go to a clear place and put it down. With the conch shell, I start doing some magic. I prepare it for the next day. I go out to the beach, I get two different branches and perform magic, I sing some magic songs. When I finish one song, I take one branch and throw it out to sea. I do the same with the second branch, but I strike the conch shell before throwing the branch out to sea. I tie a branch and the hair together. Then I bring it to the cemetery where the deceased was buried. The spirit of the ancestors comes."

SHARK WEEK: Don't Miss the 25th Anniversary of Shark Week

Hari then needs to return to the reef just off the beach, to communicate with sharks and other fish in the sea. "I will put my foot on the reef. Three types of fish will appear -- two out of the three are dangerous. Then I will ask, 'How did he die, because of a land dispute, or something else?' Then the fish will appear and make signs. The fish will be where I put my foot."

Hari performed this very ritual when his own father died, and says it revealed to him that someone had killed his father with magic. He and his family did not seek retribution for what they perceived as their father's murder, but it settled a question that had plagued them for days. Karasimbe describes this as the other purpose of shark calling: "It is important also if you want to know about your beginning, or your mother or father when they're dead, and you want to find out, 'Why did my father die?'" Shark calling is not just hunting: it is a way of making sense of the world.

As Hari explains his traditional practice, it becomes clear he and his brother have turned the common conception of sharks on its head. While sharks represent the terrifying unknown to most of us, Hari and Karasimbe believe they can sense the sharks at all times. And that form of "seeing," even if it's not literal, erases the fear that dominates our view of them. But not everyone can lay claim to this sort of vision.

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.

Buy "Demon Fish" at Indiebound

DISCOVERYnewsletter
 
Invalid Email