PNGAA Library

Calling sharks: Chips Mackellar

When I was Assistant District Commissioner Trobriand Islands, I received a letter from the National Geographic magazine. The letter was addressed to ‘His Excellency, the Governor of the Trobriand Islands.’ I suppose I should have sent the letter on to the Administrator, who in those days was the PNG equivalent of Governor. However, as the Administrator was 300 miles away in Port Moresby, and I was already in the Trobriand Islands, I decided to open the letter myself.

It was a request for information about Trobriand Island shark calling. National Geographic was in the process of studying peaceful interaction between sharks and people and they wanted to study this kind of peaceful interaction in the Trobriands.

Elsewhere in the Pacific there were various forms of peaceful interaction between people and sharks, and they wanted to know if it was true that Trobriand people could call sharks. I had never heard of this before so I asked the Paramount Chief.

‘Yes’, he said, ‘we call sharks when we have a surplus fish catch and we feed the surplus to the sharks.’

I could hardly believe it, so I asked how it was done.

The Chief called over one of the village men who produced for my inspection what looked like an oversized baby rattle. It was about two metres long and consisted of a length of rattan cane doubled over, with the ends fastened together. There were other fastenings for most of the length, so as to produce a long handle. The elasticity of the cane and the manner in which it had been fastened produced a bulbous bend in the middle of its length, and into this bend a collection of coconut shells were loosely threaded.

‘How does it work?’ I asked the Chief. ‘Shake it,’ he said. So I shook it. The coconut shells all rattled together, just like a baby’s rattle, only a lot louder.

The Chief explained that when fishermen have a surplus catch, they insert the rattle into the sea over the side of a canoe. With the coconut shells under the water, they shake the rattle. Sharks arrive and they are fed the surplus fish.

‘How do the sharks hear the rattle when it is under the water,’ I asked, ‘I doubt if I could hear it.’

‘You can’t hear it’ said the Paramount Chief, ’but a shark can, and when a shark does hear it, he knows it is feeding time, and he will surface beside the canoe and the fishermen will feed him.‘

And he went on to explain that the system only works when the sea is dead flat calm and there are no other extraneous noises to deflect the sound of the rattle.

‘What is the purpose of all this,’ I asked. ‘So the sharks will think of us as feeders and not as food,’ the Paramount Chief explained, ‘that is why they never attack us.’

Whether or not the shark rattle worked as a shark attack deterrent, I will never know. But in all the years I lived in and around the Trobriands, I never heard of anyone having been taken or attacked by a shark. I can’t say the same about crocodiles. When I lived in the Fly River area of Papua, crocodile attacks were frequent and I never heard of anyone who survived one. The crocs killed and ate people frequently.

In my reply to the letter from National Geographic, I included a sketch of the shark rattle and in due course a team of photographers and wild life scientists arrived hoping to film a shark rattle in action.

However, it never happened. When the team arrived we were in the midst of the South-East storm season. High winds and rough seas lashed the Trobriands and the islanders said the shark rattle would not work under these conditions. The team hung around for a week waiting for the winds and the seas to abate but they never did, and bound by a tight filming schedule the team had to move on.

And would you believe it, as soon as the team had gone there was a lull in the weather and for a few days the seas were flat calm again, ideal for their purpose. But by then the team had moved on to Indonesia on some other wild life expedition, and their opportunity to film the shark rattle in action was lost and gone forever.

While the team was waiting in the Trobriands, they told me several other stories of friendly interaction between sharks and people. For example, they said they had recently been filming in the Tuamotu Archipelago, that scattering of tiny islands east of Tahiti. There, they said, the island people live in daily close contact with the sea, much the same as in the small islands of Eastern Papua. There in the Tuamotus they said, they saw kids with pet sharks.

And they explained that if and when fishermen caught a baby shark, they did not kill it or eat it. They took it home to the village and gave it to a little boy to rear. The baby shark would be kept in a small rock pool, and the boy would feed it there every day, getting into the pool with the baby shark to play with it. When the shark grew too big for the pool, they would transfer it into a bigger pool, and so on until the shark got too big for them to hand feed every day, when they would release it back into the sea again. But by then the shark and the boy had grown up together. The shark had bonded with the boy, and by extension, the other people in the village, and thereafter, when the boy went swimming or snorkelling in the sea and the shark was nearby, it would come close for a friendly meeting.

Other sharks in the sea had been reared in the same way, and, so the people said, sharks who had not been reared by people nevertheless copied the behaviour of those that had, and the sum total of all this interaction meant that people and sharks lived together in the same sea in a friendly manner and no one was ever attacked by a shark.

Whether this is true or not I don’t know but I can’t imagine that the National Geographic team came all the way to the Trobriand Islands just to tell me fibs. This, together with my own experience in the Trobriands, suggests that there are ways in which people and sharks can live in the sea together in a friendly manner.

The reason I am telling you all this is because this summer in Australia we can expect, as usual, thousands of swimmers and surfers thronging our beaches, and we can also expect the usual incidence of shark attacks. So far this year there have been eight fatalities from shark attacks, and many more injuries. But sharks are unlike crocodiles which attack us to eat us. According to marine ecologist Jann Gilbert* ‘Sharks don’t eat humans. They spit us out.’

If this is true, then sharks have already come half way towards making friendly encounters with surfers. It therefore cannot be beyond the realms of human understanding for us to go the other half and make our beaches safe.

If the Trobrianders and the Tuamotuans can live in peace with their sharks, how come we are too dumb to do the same here in Australia with our sharks?

* Lollback, Rebecca, The Northern Star, 27 July 2015