While my father rents a skiff, I run over to men loading gear into their speedboat. “We’re fishin’ for Baskin’ sharks, laddie,” the eldest of them answers with a brogue, as the other two stretch into rubbery black diving suits. “The biggest, the meanest, the most ornery sharks yer’ll ever see! In fact, ‘Sea-to-Your-Highness Maximus,’ they’re called. So mind yee keep oot of our way, yee ken! Or do yee think I’m fibbin’ now?” and he gives a big wink.
“Sure! They destroy the nets, see. So we go down and noose `em while they sleep. Drag `em backwards. Drown `em.”
“But fish can’t drown?”
“Och aye! But if yer drag `em backwards the water gits in their gills an’ they cannee breath, yee ken. Drown them, we does!”
“How do yee... do you noose them?”
The man holds up a thick pleated rope. “When they’re asleep, lad. We drop down behind `em, throw this over their tail, and bingo! We drag `em with the boat.”
“But why do you have to...?”
“Oi! Adam!” my father yells from the rental kiosk. “Hurry! Let’s go!”
The skiff’s twin pontoons have a seat wide enough for two. The sea stretches smoothly asleep whilst we paddle past the sun-lit overhang of the cliffs to our left of Babbacombe Bay, England. We go around a big pancake-shaped boulder, draped like an old lady’s doily in white barnacles. I want to clamber atop it, but Dad counters, “We’d better keep going if we’re gonna make the cave before the tide’s in!” The swish, ka-ploosh! of our paddles echoes, as does the clunk-unk! of oars against the gunwales. And eventually we get to the open mouth of the sunlit cave, and begin to slide inside.
In the distance I spy the divers’ boat, now stilled just beyond the colorful buoys that are strung out between several brightly painted dories. Whilst one man stays at the motor the others long-leggedly clamber over the boat’s side, like two thin black frogs, and slip into the deep, dragging the rope down behind them.
I can imagine their underwater bravery. One hand drags down the ominous loop of the large noose while the other, cupped and swimming and aided by expert thrusts of their flippered feet propels them ever downwards, quiet as lead-sinkers. They motion each other as they approach the sleeping bulk of a shark, big as a submarine. Seventeen or more feet long, deeply asleep in the warmth of the midday sun baking at the ocean surface, the great Baskin does not even feel the noose of the rope slip around its tail. Then gently, yet with malevolent intent, the twinned divers tug up at the free end of the tether. Suddenly they slap and punch and goad it into darting away. Awakened by strangely attacking sea creatures with their multi-sized bubbles warbling upwards from behind huge glassy eyes, the pounds and pounds of rubberized bulk twists in surprise, and then effortlessly glides away. But the rope tugs. The shark stops. Then, with a powerful thrust, it torpedoes away so tightly against the length of its snare that the man in the speedboat above is lurched off his feet.
“Whoops!” he yells with surprise.
“Hear that, Dad? They must’ve got one.”
“Over on the horizon! I can hear them hollering. A poor old shark is going to be someone else’s supper tonight, by the sounds of it.”
“You hearing things again? Concentrate! We don’t want to be in the drink just because we washed up against those damn rocks! That’s it. Pull over to that rock-shelf over there! Let’s have a look see.”
The darker recesses of the cave’s throat swallows up blackness, but as we enter and get accustomed to the light I see that the water disappears down a narrowing tunnel, already half submerged and gurgling. The short inner tongue at the back of the cave forms a natural wading pool in which lie some wondrously glowing seashells, surrounded by rocks like wet black teeth.
“Here. Let’s pull the skiff up and have a look-see. Put the paddles across the seat, keep them safe. Good. Nice! Look. Plenty! Who else would ever come here to pick over these, hey?”
As we kneel and gingerly reach into the cold water I peer about. Pirates? Aside, our skiff wobbles lightly on a sudden slight swell. I glance back at the cave-mouth. With the sun streaming in it’s like looking down into a giant’s fish tank.
Then I notice it!
Directly below our retreat, the menacing bulk of a great long shark lurks ominously. It hovers, dark as a tanker-sized torpedo on the sun-dappled depth of the ocean bed. As yellow and green fronds of tattered kelp, like adulating minions to either side of it wave and bow, the beast lazily moves a thick fin. Sunlight shafts down in golden mists off the steel-colored hide.
But I have no time to say anything, before the whole ocean moves.
Perhaps it is the swelling wake from the heavily tugging speed boat that is now laboring past us toward the beach, or perhaps it is the sudden movement of the great fish, almost directly below me, that causes the sea so suddenly to swell, but no sooner do I notice the shark than the water lifts wet and cold over my feet, nudges hesitantly at the vacant skiff, then casually plucks it away. And smoothly, as though tugged by an invisible cord the craft quickly courses over the waiting monster and past the bare rocks that grin darkly, like silhouetted teeth against the cave’s wide-open shout at the sunlit sky.
“Go for it, Adam!” my father yells, one-handedly patting his top pocket with its cigarette package, pens, and note pad, then at his dress-short pockets. In his other hand, like some hopeful wand in the direction of the departing skiff, he waves his hat and sunglasses.
“But look, Dad! A shark!”
“What? Where? Oh Christ! No. Look. We’ve got to get out of here! This cave’ll fill in an hour. The boat’s leaving too quickly! Go for it son, or we’ll never make it!” He starts emptying his pockets.
Unsure, I plunge into the icy water in a racing dive, long and shallow. I churn arm-over-arm in seven or eight strokes that flash past my eyes, my whole being filled with mounting fear for the sharp-toothed menace from below as I strive to reach the errant skiff that now floats out into the mirrored surface of the bay.
Is it going to grab me?
My right hand, coming down hard and swift as a karate chop, suddenly strikes something solid, and at the same time yielding. I gulp in salty water, and nearly gag. I hear my father screaming, “The paddle!” Treading the dread water, I swirl about, see it, and stab out for the bobbing wood, but it bucks and sweeps further away.
“The boat! Get the boat first!” yells Dad, as if from the megaphone of the cave.
I churn around, then, despite my every fear that at any moment I am about to be yanked from beneath and dragged down to a sure death, swim desperately toward the lonely craft.
At last I make it to the skiff, and like a wet frog attempting to surmount a tipsy leaf, with glistening limbs spread and clutching here and there, haul myself aboard. With the single oar that I free from its wedge I paddle, at first in circles, but then toward the other oar floating at a distance. And it takes real courage at last to grab at it, for I am sure that the shark is waiting for me, as though luring me to the bait, ready to pluck me by the outstretched hand right off the flimsy craft. But now, zigzagging from side to side as I row back to the cave, I yell, “Can you still see him?”
“Not a thing!” Dad shouts, his voice echoing. “You probably scared him off with all your splashing. Good job, old chap. That’s it. Steady. Hold her nice and steady. That’s it. Wow! Brave little chip off the old block, aren’t you?”
But we are subdued as we row back across the bay.
While Dad negotiates for the deposit I go over to stand with others who are having a look at the divers’ catch.
Only about thirteen or so feet long, a grey shark lies inert, drying, and sandy on the warm beach. Its mouth is frozen in a gasp, propped open with a stick.
I think of how they kill crocodiles in Africa. Asleep, yet mouth agape for the little birds that clean its teeth, the crocodile finds its jaws suddenly invaded by a stake. As the surprised creature clamps down the sharp ends pierce ever deeper. Unable to reach its mouth, the enraged beast rolls and twists and then makes for the safety of the river, where, unable to close its throat, it eventually drowns. If land bound, the croc soon starves.
I look around. Some people appear to smirk at the harmless thing, as though they were the brave ones to capture it.
I bend down to peer into the grimness of the throat. “Hau! It has no teeth!” I exclaim.
“`Course not, me boyo,” declares a friendly Welsh accent behind me. The elderly man, his white beard, blue dungarees, and black gumboots stained with time, goes on, “That there’ll be one of your Baskin’ sharks, me lad. See those long gills that’ll almost be wrapping roun’ his chin? See his short snout, a bit like a squashed gray ice cream cone, no? There’s nought but gristle in them jaw bones o’ his. Harmless to man he is. Be eating only plankton, this kind. Mind yee, ha, this one’ll nought be eating nothin’ agin’! True? Hee hee!”
“Then why catch him if he doesn’t eat your fish?” I ask, my voice a little thin with indignation, despite my growing awareness that I’d been in no real danger back in the cave.
“The great blunderin’ rascals break up the nets, me boyo! But this here one’s just a wee baby. I’ve seen `em as long as thirty or more feet yet. Some say they can grow to fifty feet o’ blisterin’ nuisance. Ruinin’ our nets. Better to be rid of them, so as a man can earn a decent wage, wouldn’t you be saying?”
I shake my head. “No! No, I would not be saying,” I respond, feeling self-consciously rude, but persist, “In fact, I think you should be leaving all the fish in the sea where they belong. We don’t have to eat them! This shark, and others like him, didn’t deserve to die!”
“Blessed Saints! You’ll be persuading us all with your fancy ideas next, boyo! How old are you anyrood? Fifteen? Sixteen?”
I draw myself up to my full height, fix my eyes on the fisherman, and say, testily, “Next year, I shall be in my thirteenth year.”
“Gracious now! Let’s see, why, yer clever kid; that makes you only eleven! Well, me cocky young pup, you’ll be better to wait until you’re a man before you go insulting people’s livelihoods with your ill founded ideas, ye hear? At least then ye’ll be old enough for a man to be knockin’ some sense into yer!”
Well, here I am, a man now, and the killing of sharks still doesn’t make sense to me. That Great Baskin shark, Cetorhinus maximus, is still out there somewhere, still helpless, indeed!