My interest in shark calling started some years ago when I first met a Catholic priest who has spent four decades on the remote island of New Ireland – a long, thin strip of land off the coast of Papua New Guinea. Among many incredible stories, Father Glynn told me about communities who prided themselves on their ability to lure 10ft sharks into their canoes.
I didn’t altogether believe him. But recently I read the journals of Abel Tasman, the Dutch explorer who discovered Tasmania. In the middle of descriptions of cannibals and headhunters, he mentioned of a band of New Guineans catching a very large shark, armed with just a club and a leaky canoe. And this was in 1642.
I was hooked. And so, eager to find out more, I set off for New Ireland, via Manila and Port Moresby. After two days on planes and eight hours of bumping along dusty plantation roads, I arrived in the middle of the night in Kontu, home of the shark callers of New Ireland.
And what a welcome. All the children of the community (about 300 of them) crowded around me. Out of nowhere, came a dinner of rice and taro. I was serenaded with a selection of local songs as I sat under a tropical sky so filled with stars that I felt I was inside a huge colander with a torch shining through.
I spent the night inside the village “hausboy” – the communal sleeping place for all single males – and there I lay, metres from the rolling sea, my sleep disturbed only by a recurring dream in which I was savagely ripped apart underwater.
The next day, I was introduced to Selam Kirisibe, reputedly the greatest shark caller of our time. He was a soft-spoken, wiry man of 55 with a permanent bright red smile, his teeth stained by years of chewing betel nut. He had caught more than 150 sharks, and all this battling had given him the physique of a 20-year-old.
He agreed to take me out and teach me the “ways of the shark”, for a fee. This was not a tourist rip off – all the shark-callers of Kontu had, at one point, paid an elder for “the knowledge”. No fee, no magic. My initiation began straight away.
I was first taught about what I must not do. Shark callers have to be male. They cannot eat wild pig or crayfish, nor accept any food from the hand of a fertile woman for 24 hours before the excursion. They must take care not to step on any excrement lying on the beach. And they cannot have sex. The shark is a wily animal, I was told, and will smell you have been up to no good.
The seas were full of silvertips, great reef, black tips, hammerheads and tiger sharks. But it was the mako shark that the caller wanted, because the community believed that the spirits of the ancestors resided in its body. And it was calling their ancestors that caused the shark to come.
To awaken the spirits, the caller anoints himself and his canoe with secret herbs. Then he paddles out to the reef and symbolically spears the coral to arouse the spirit of Moro – the shark god. This done, he takes out a larung, a rattle fashioned out of bamboo and coconut shells, and begins shaking it in the sea. Finally, he chants the age-old songs of the shark. If the shark answers the call, the hunter entices it to the side of his canoe and, softly stroking it, slips a loop of vine over its head.Then he clubs it to death.
After two days of learning the ritual, I was eager to set off, but Selam told me that the sharks would not come until the sea had calmed.
Then, one morning, he woke me before dawn to say that the waves had settled and the two of us walked down to the beach . After wiping everything with the special herbs, we dragged our sleek brown canoes into the ocean and set off.
We pushed outwards in silence: the only sound was the slapping of the waves on the hull. About 2km offshore, Selam placed his oar to one side, and began rattling his coconut husks. I joined in, and for the next 10 minutes we sat, gently rocking, with the dawn lighting up the coastline.
Selam began to sing a soft, melancholy tune that drifted over the waves. He paused and nodded to me to follow suit. I complied, self-consciously, and we sang in unison for half an hour, the coconuts dipping into the clear water, our voices filling the morning air.
Suddenly, I saw Selam tense. And there it was – an 8ft grey-backed mako shark, rising from the deep and gliding in a long, slow circling motion up to our canoes. Its whole body exuded a graceful menace.
I was filled with a sudden panic. After all, a canoe is not the most stable of vessels, and I wasn’t the most confident of oarsmen. But the shark did not seem agitated by our calling – just curious.
That week, we tried four more times to call up a shark, but each time the rain pushed us back to shore as the sea grew restless. But how I called my first shark remains etched in my memory.
British Airways (0345 222111) flies to Port Moresby, via Manila, for £1,530 return. Air Nuigini (020-7707 4146) flies Port Moresby-Kavieng, New Ireland daily for £203. For details of tours and accommodation, see www.discovernewireland.org.pg/. The best time to go is in the dry season, from May to October.
Original link from the Guardian: Click here