Wanted: one medium-sized Greenland shark, ten to fifteen feet in length and weighing about thirteen hundred pounds. Latin name: Somniosus microcephalus
. Blunt, rounded snout, cigar-shaped body, relatively small fins. Gives birth to live offspring. Lives in the North Atlantic and even swims under the floating ice cap at the North Pole. Prefers temperatures close to freezing but can also tolerate warmer water. Can dive to a depth of four thousand feet or more. The teeth in its lower jaw are as small as a saw blade’s. The teeth in the upper jaw are equally sharp but significantly bigger, and are used to bore into the prey while the lower teeth saw their way through. In addition to saw-blade teeth, it has, like a few other types of shark, suctioning lips that “glue” larger prey to its mouth while chewing. And every mating act is violent. On the bright side, the Greenland shark does not have sex until it’s about 150 years old.
Scientists who have examined the stomach contents of Greenland sharks have encountered many surprises. How is it possible that in Greenland, Fridtjof Nansen (1861– 1930), the famed Norwegian scientist, explorer, and politician, opened the stomach of a shark he’d caught and found a whole seal, eight large cods, a ling four feet long, a big halibut head, and several chunks of whale blubber? Nansen claimed, by the way, that the shark was able to live for several days even after this “huge, ugly animal” had been cut open and placed on ice.
The eye parasite Ommatokoita elongata
, which is about two inches long, slowly devours the cornea of the Greenland shark, until it goes blind. In the folds of its belly the shark also has other parasites in the form of little yellow crabs (Aega arctica
). Old shark fishermen have recounted how the parasites would fall off by the hundreds when the shark was hoisted aboard.
The Greenland shark can be used for more than just making sandpaper and nitroglycerin. Its flesh is poisonous, smells like urine, and can serve as a potent drug. The Inuit used to feed the meat to their dogs, if nothing else was available. But the dogs would get extremely intoxicated and might even end up paralyzed for days. During World War I, there was a shortage of food in many places in the north, and people couldn’t be choosy. There was more than enough meat from Greenland sharks. But if people ate the meat when it was fresh, or neglected to treat it in the proper way, they could get “shark drunk,” because the flesh contains the nerve gas trimethylamine oxide.
The resultant inebriated state is supposedly similar to taking in an extreme amount of alcohol or hallucinogenic drugs. Shark drunk people speak incoherently, see visions, stagger, and act very crazy. When they finally fall asleep, it’s nearly impossible to wake them up. To avoid these side effects, you need to cut the main artery of a Greenland shark immediately, so that the blood drains out. Then the meat can be dried or boiled in water, which has to be changed several times. In Iceland, the shark (called hákarl
) is considered a delicacy, but there everyone is careful to prepare the meat properly. To make the poisons disappear requires repeated boiling, drying, or even burying the meat until it ferments.
It should be no surprise that people living in northern Norway developed a healthy skepticism when it comes to the meat of the Greenland shark. The reason they even bothered to catch it was because the liver is extremely rich in oil. In the 1950s, Norway was the leader in commercial fishing for the Greenlandshark, but by the early 1960s, demand was already fading. Only now is it making a small comeback.
Our boat is gently bobbing in the sunshine in Vestfjorden. Yesterday the sea glittered and crackled with light. Today it has a steady, calm glow. The ocean has found its lowest resting pulse, as it does only after many days of good weather in the summertime. It’s also a neap tide, which means the difference between high and low tide is unusually small. The gravitational force of the moon and the sun pull the sea in opposite directions, canceling each other out to a certain extent, like when two people arm-wrestle and neither has an advantage.
Our only task is to wait and keep an eye on the floats. Maybe it’s because we’re drifting in Vestfjorden—where the currents function just fine on their own even when there’s no wind—that Hugo happens to think of a story about one time when he and his brother were out in their fishing smack. The boat, called the Plingen
, was a small carvel-built vessel made in Namdalen in the 1950s. The fishing smack was waterlogged and sat low in the sea. In bad weather they had to pump out the water frantically by hand. One ice-cold day during the Lofoten fishing season in 1984, the two brothers went out during a squall. The motor wouldn’t start, but another boat in the fishing grounds saw they were in trouble and towed them back to Svolvær.
That reminds Hugo of a similar situation. They were on board the Helnessund
heading out of Svolvær after picking upa cargo of fresh shrimp that had been caught farther north in Finnmark. When a storm blew in, the boat quickly ran into trouble. The refrigeration unit failed and the cargo shifted. The freighter ended up drifting in the middle of Vestfjorden. By using countless buckets of seawater, they were finally able to cool down the engine enough to make it over to Skrova.
Hugo often makes these sorts of associative leaps. When one story starts getting a bit worn out, it taps the next one on the back and sends it off, in a relay race that can go on and on. The stories usually move further and further away from the starting point. Sometimes I get confused and wonder what Hugo’s stories have to do with anything at all.
But something about what he has already told me makes Hugo think of Måløya, one of the small islands on the seawardside of Steigen. That’s the location of a tiny, abandoned community that Hugo was curious about. Together with his brother, he dropped anchor and left the fishing smack to row a skiff, or reksa
, as Hugo always calls these small wooden rowboats, toward a gently sloping sandy beach. But they misjudged the waves, and the little reksa
got tossed around. Both brothers ended up in the icy water. They went ashore but didn’t stay long because it was late winter, and the air and water were freezing. On their way back to the fishing smack, the reksa
again filled up with water because a small crack in the bottom was now much bigger after the rowboat had been tossed by the waves. Just before the reksa
sank, the brothers managed to grab hold of the fishing smack, not by the gunwale, but farther down. They clung to the small gap along the side of the deck where the water runs out. It was impossible for them to haul themselves on board, exhausted as they were, and with their soaked clothing heavy with seawater. After hanging there for a while, side by side like in some cartoon, they both realized how absurd the situation was and burst out laughing. But their strength was about to give out, and they needed to focus all their efforts on one last-ditch attempt to save themselves. So Hugo became a human ladder for his brother to climb up and clamber on board.
If Hugo had lost his grip before his brother made it on deck, it’s unlikely either of them would be here to tell the story. But Hugo seems to think the main point of the whole tale is that a person doesn’t actually get all that cold by floating in Vestfjordenfor nearly half an hour in March.
“We stayed out for the rest of the day, and without changing our clothes. Although, I have to admit that behind our ears ,and at the back of our necks—that’s where the cold settled.”
Sometimes I wonder whether my friend is actually part seamammal.Translated by Tiina Nunnally.
Copyright © 2017 by Tiina Nunnally. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.