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Posts tagged ‘Science’

November update

I’m deep in the middle of two books, so not here all that often, but just a few quick updates.

The first is the wonderful news that my essay, ‘The End of the Oceans’, which was published in The Monthly in August, has been nominated for the Walkley Award for Feature Writing (Long). I’m thrilled for all the obvious reasons, but I’m also delighted because it’s a subject of the utmost importance that I care about very deeply. If you enjoy it please share it.

I’ve also had several other pieces of non-fiction published over the past few months. The most significant was ‘An Ocean and an Instant’, a long essay about Adelaide, extinction and the death of my father for Sydney Review of Books’ New Nature series. It’s a very personal piece and was extremely difficult to write, but I hope people find something in it.

Also in Sydney Review of Books I have ‘A Family of Disguises’, a long review of Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight, in The Australian (and staying with the oceanic theme), a review of Joy McCann’s terrific new history of the Southern Ocean, Wild Sea (possible $$$). And finally, I’ve recently uploaded a long review of the imaginary history of Australia Rodney Hall mapped out in the Yandilli Trilogy, The Island in the Mind and The Day We Had Hitler Home. It’s a few years old now, but they’re marvellous books, and it would be wonderful if they found new readers.


Fish have feelings too


Steve Dunleavy, ‘Big Eyed Scad, Kona Hawaii’, cc by 2.0 2010

I’m delighted to be able to say my article, ‘Fish have feelings too’, has been shortlisted for the 2017 Bragg/UNSW Bragg Prize for Science Writing, alongside pieces by Jo Chandler, Alice Gorman, Elmo Keep, James Mitchell Crow and Laura Parker. Originally published in the March 2017 issue of The Monthly, the piece is about recent research into fish cognition and intelligence. It will also be published later this year in The Best Australian Science Writing 2017, edited by Michael Slezak. I’m incredibly grateful to everybody at The Monthly and to Jodi Pini-Fitzsimmons and Culum Brown from Macquarie University for being so generous with their time and research. The winner will be announced in November.



Dreaming in the Dark and a Best of Trifecta

Best ofs.jpgA little after the fact, but I’ve got a story in Dreaming in the Dark, the first book from PS Publishing’s new imprint, PS Australia. Edited by Jack Dann, the collection features stories by a roll call of brilliant writers, ranging from Garth Nix and Sean Williams to Angela Slatter, Lisa L. Hannett, Rjurik Davidson and many more (you can check out a full list of contributors and order a copy on PS’ website). Like all PS’ books it’s also a stunning-looking object, with a gorgeous cover designed by Greg Bridges, and if you hurry you can get an illustrated slipcased limited edition. It’s a fantastic book and I’m delighted to be in such fantastic company.

I’m very proud of the story that appears in the collection. Entitled ‘Martian Triptych’, it moves from the dying moments of Percival Lowell to billions of years in the future, and explores the way human time and geological time intersect in our imaginations and in reality. So I’m absolutely delighted Charlotte Wood has selected it for Best Australian Stories 2016, where it appears alongside stories by people such as Elizabeth Harrower, Tegan Bennett Daylight, Fiona McFarlane, Gregory Day and Georgia Blain. It’s a real honour to be included and I’m very grateful.

It’s also a real honour to be able to say my essay about the late David Bowie, ‘Loving the Alien’, which began life as a post on this site, has been included in Best Australian Essays 2016, edited by Geordie Williamson. It’s a piece I’m very proud of and one I’m thrilled is now going to find a new audience.

I’m also thrilled to say ‘Slippery Migrants’, a piece I wrote for The Monthly about the amazing lifecycle of the long-finned eel, has been included in Best Australian Science Writing 2016, which was edited by Jo Chandler. I’m not sure I’ve ever thought of myself as a science writer – certainly when I look at people who write about science for a living like Chandler and Bianca Nogrady I’m keenly aware of the skill and knowledge they bring to bear on their work – so it’s wonderful to find myself in their company, and even more wonderful to be able to say the piece was shortlisted for the 2016 Bragg Prize for Science Writing.

And finally I’d like to thank both the editors who helped shape and refine the original pieces – ‘Slippery Migrants’ in particular benefited from careful and thoughtful editing by the team at The Monthly – and Black Inc Books and New South Publishing for their continued support of these Best of series, which play an incredibly important role in celebrating and supporting Australian writing and Australian writers.


The mouse that roared

My apologies for my silence over the past couple of months: despite good intentions about getting back to regular posting after two months trapped in the time vortex of school holidays I’ve ended up swamped with work, which has rather slowed me down.

I suspect that situation isn’t going to change any time soon, not least because I’m now working on a new book and at least two sets of short stories on top of my usual reviewing commitments (which is exciting but more than a little consuming) but with luck I’ll still be able to keep things at least ticking over here.

I’ll link to some of those stories as they appear (in case you missed it I had one in Get Reading’s 10 Short Stories You Must Read in 2011, I’ve got one in the next Overland, another in a forthcoming anthology designed to raise funds for The Sydney Story Factory, and two which are being published as part of digital initiatives: a story in the second volume of The Review of Australian Fiction and a novelette which will appear next month as part of something I’m not really allowed to talk about yet).

In the meantime you might want to check out a few of my recent reviews (though many are now hidden behind The Australian’s paywall), in particular my pieces on Colson Whitehead’s terrific zombie novel, Zone One, Dana Spiotta’s electric Stone Arabia and Margaret Atwood’s deeply flawed In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination.

And finally, if you haven’t seen this outstanding video of the savage grasshopper mouse, I recommend you watch it now. Apparently they’re carnivorous mice that let out their piercing shrieks before moving in for the kill, and you can read all about them over on Wired’s Laelaps blog, but basically they’re just made of awesome.

The Book of the Ocean

As I mentioned a while back, one of the projects I’ve been working on for a while now is an anthology of writing about the ocean for Penguin. It’s been a fascinating process, both because it’s given me a chance to revisit a number of books that have meant a great deal to me over the years and because it’s forced me to acquaint myself with many more I didn’t know, or only knew by reputation.

As the imbroglio over the Macquarie/PEN Anthology demonstrates, assembling anthologies is a perilous business. The bigger the subject, the more people have invested in it, the more likely you are to come in for a bucketing for mistaken emphases and omissions. And since the literature of the ocean is one of those subjects which is both vast and weighed down by its history it’s one that offers plenty of pitfalls.

As a result I decided early on that I had no desire to be either definitive or exhaustive. Instead my intention has been to assemble a relatively personal collection, which draws together a selection of writing I love. As someone whose life has been spent on the shores of the Southern and Pacific Oceans I also decided I wanted to put together a collection that spoke to and about that experience, rather than concentrating on the exploration of the northern seas that has traditionally preoccupied collections of this sort. In practice that’s meant letting go of a number of things I wanted to use, but it’s also helped give the collection a shape and cohesiveness it might not otherwise have had.

All of which brings me to the point of this post. The book’s now largely done, but I’ve still got space for a few more pieces, so I thought I might call upon all of you out there for suggestions. Is there anything you can think of that absolutely, definitely should be in a book of this sort? Or do you have ideas for things I might have overlooked? Because if you do I’d love to hear them.

A few caveats. I’m not looking for unpublished work or submissions. And while it doesn’t have to be Australian I’m very keen for a couple more pieces by Australians. Likewise, given the fact most of the pieces I’ve got so far are by men, I’m very interested in suggestions about work by women which might be suitable. And in the interests of preserving my sanity I’ve also limited the collection to writing in English, so no Jules Verne or Bachelard.

And please don’t assume I’m only after prose. Although the collection is predominantly prose it contains poetry, so suggestions for poems (especially Australian poems!) about the ocean are very welcome. Likewise I’m relaxed about whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, though since this is a book aimed at the general reader I’m not after academic writing, or monographs (which has, much to my regret, precluded a couple of idols of mine like Greg Dening I was hoping to include). What matters is that it feels urgent, and necessary, and – though obviously this isn’t something any of you are able to gauge – that it fit with what’s already in place.

I’ll look forward to your ideas.

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Reporters snare huge shark in Sydney Harbour

The front page of this morning’s Daily Telegraph is given over to a photo of a huge bull shark struggling on a hook in Sydney Harbour. The face of the shark, which is somewhere between 2.7 and 3.0 metres long (about 9-10 foot to those of you on the old system) is a ghastly sight, its pale, corpse-like eye swivelling downwards, its mouth twisted back by the line.

It’s a horrible image, but not, I suspect, for the reasons it graces the paper’s front page. Instead it’s horrible because the shark is so obviously frightened and in pain, and because there’s something grotesque about presenting an animal’s panic and fear as a sort of theatre (there’s video of the capture in case the photo doesn’t satisfy your blood lust).

There’s a lot of agitation about sharks in Sydney at the moment, following two attacks in the last fortnight. In the first, which took place in Woolloomooloo Bay, Navy diver Paul de Gelder lost his right hand and right leg, reportedly to a bull shark like the one in the photo, in the second, which took place at Bondi Beach, surfer Glenn Orgias had his hand torn off by what seems to have been a Great White. The hand was subsequently reattached and while there was some initial doubt the operation seems to have been a success, with a report in this morning’s Sydney Morning Herald that he’s already moving his fingers.

I’m sure I’ll be almightily rubbished by many people for feeling sympathy with the shark in the photo. Sharks are unlovely creatures in many ways, not least because they are Nature at her most utilitarian and functional. I’ve written elsewhere about my first encounter with a Great White, and the way the brutish reality of the creature stripped away my romantic preconceptions.

But for all their brutishness they are also creatures perfectly designed to do what they do, and it’s hard not to feel that in them we glimpse something of a world in which we are simply another creature among many, and reminded of what it is to exist in a world where we are prey as well as predator. This is a chastening realization, but it’s also, as the excitement of the reporter in the video and his rapturous text suggests, exhilarating.

Of course there’s an irony in using images of an animal we regard as monstrous being tormented as theatre. In the incessantly moralizing but curiously Old Testament world of the tabloid, the shark is a monster, and so whatever we do to it is justified. But I think there’s a more disturbing set of assumptions in play as well. There’s something profoundly alien about sharks, some sense in which they are unsettlingly blank and unknowable, and to some extent this justifies the use of the image. Certainly an image of a dog being tormented on the front page would provoke an appalling outcry, and I’m reasonably confident the same response would be provoked even if the image were of predatory animals such as tigers or orcas.

Some might argue there’s a qualitative difference between tormenting a shark and tormenting a dog or a tiger or an orca because of the disparate levels of intelligence. Perhaps. Certainly dogs, tigers and particularly orcas are more intelligent than sharks. But intelligence is less quantifiable than we usually assume, and what exactly it means in animals is particularly problematic. The shark is what it is because of its ecological niche, and its intelligence is a function of that niche. As with most animals, once closely observed, sharks begin to reveal complexities and subtleties of behaviour which suggest they exist in a more complex world than we would have assumed.

In fact it’s the alienness, the Otherness of the shark that makes it possible for its pain and suffering to be presented as moral theatre. We do it because sharks are unlike us, and outside the circle of human sympathy.

History has taught us the danger of this kind of thinking, but the problem is more that our thinking around animals and their treatment is hopelessly incoherent. I feel sympathy for the shark but I’ll settle down to a meal of salmon for dinner tonight, and there’s no reason to think the experience of being hooked and killed was any more pleasant for the salmon than it was for the shark (for the record the shark in the photo actually escaped alive). Likewise we recoil from fox-hunting and battery hens, while comforting ourselves that farm-fed meat is acceptable because it’s humanely slaughtered (which is a weasel word on a par with friendly fire and inhumane torture).

I’m no better than anyone on this question. I eat meat, though not a lot of it, as well as fish and other creatures. I could go vegetarian but I haven’t, mostly because I’m too lazy and I like meat and fish. I also have a series of completely incoherent ideas about food that has been hunted and caught using relatively traditional methods being somehow okay, while factory fishing and slaughterhouses aren’t. And although I give it less thought than I should, I have my moments when I feel like Elizabeth Costello in J.M. Coetzee’s profoundly disquieting The Lives of Animals, when she cries out:

“It’s that I no longer know where I am. I seem to move around perfectly easily among people, to have perfectly normal relationships with them. Is it possible, I ask myself, that all of them are participants in a crime of stupefying proportions? Am I fanatasizing it all? I must be mad! Yet every day I see the evidences. The very people I suspect produce the evidence, exhibit it, offer it to me. Corpses. Fragments of corpses that they have bought for money.”

Coetzee is, of course, drilling down into something deeper than the simple question of whether the industrialized slaughter of animals and aquaculture is morally comparable to genocide (a connection he makes explicit, without ever committing himself to it). Instead he is drawing forth the forces of violence and subjection that lie not far beneath the surface of every human society, and offering us a glimpse of the hidden engine of human culture, just as Benjamin did when he observed, “there is no document of civilization which is not also a document of barbarism”.

I have little doubt what Coetzee would make of the image of the shark. But what would he make of the shark itself, and of our relationship to it? Nature is amoral, but our relationship with it, and in many ways our understanding of it, is deeply moral, and not just because we so routinely use the natural world to illustrate our moral arguments. In a crude sense our relationship with the natural world is moral because we are now custodians of it, by default if nothing else, simply because our actions will determine so much of what happens over the next century or so. The wrong decisions will have appalling consequences, not the least of which will be runaway climate change.

It’s usual to try and found arguments for our custodianship in notions of nurture and balance. There’s little doubt these have intuitive and sentimental appeal, but I think we should be wary of them as well. We are custodians by default, but if we make the wrong decision, we will suffer as well as the planet, and it’s always dangerous to overestimate our importance in the scheme of things. Certainly it’s safe to assume that just as rabbit and lemming plagues spike and then collapse, if we push the planet’s systems too far they will regulate themselves, a process that might take millions of years to play out, but which is unlikely to be pleasant for humanity as we know it.

I don’t want to push this point too hard, but I do wonder whether there is soemthign we could learn by looking at both way we treat the shark and the shark itself. The first reveals something uncomfortable about the nature of humanity, and society. But the latter reveals something about the dangers of romanticizing the natural world, or of overestimating our importance in the scheme of things. For as we watch the shark move through the water, scavenging and hunting in its casual, opportunistic way, we see the amorality of the natural world made manifest, and its ultimate disinterest in us and our fate.

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The Hunt


Photo by Paul Nicklen

This is an amazing and beautiful thing. Photos and video of sailfish cooperating to herd schools of sardine.

“The hunt seems almost mammalian. Sailfish—which often travel in loose groups—clearly join forces. Males and females alike circle the prey, pushing the school into tighter formation, and taking a few bites in turn. Each forward rush is punctuated by a startling flare of the dorsal fin, which more than doubles the hunter’s profile . . . The sardines, too, work in concert. Detecting each other’s proximity and movement, they shift in synchrony, each fish both leader and follower. The fish mass slides like a drop of mercury, mesmerizing, with a shimmer that may help to confuse predators . . .”

Read more at National Geographic.

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In 2005, along with my brother, Patrick, I spent several days cage-diving trip with Great White Sharks off the south coast of South Australia. It was one of the more remarkable experiences I’ve ever had, and I subsequently wrote about it for the now-defunct Bulletin. Since the piece is no longer available online, and sharks are all over the media at the moment, it seems a nice moment to resurrect the piece, together with some photos from the trip.

“Aside from those more obvious considerations touching Moby Dick, which could not but occasionally awaken in any man’s soul some alarm, there was another thought, or rather vague, nameless horror concerning him, which at times by its intensity completely overpowered all the rest; and yet so mystical and well nigh ineffable was it, that I almost despair of putting it in a comprehensible form. It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me.”
Herman Melville, Moby Dick

As we leave Port Lincoln a shearwater moves beside us, appearing and then disappearing behind the swell’s smooth motion as it skates across the waves. Behind us dolphins shoot through the water, slipping out and around the bow, their pale bellies flashing as they veer and turn. The weather is high, and still; the early morning water like silk.

Only as we round the cape does the wind hit, the swell thunking heavily into the hull so we pitch and roll, spray rising. To the west the low outline of the coast moves slowly past, the treeless hills and barren beaches strangely, powerfully familiar like so much I have seen in the last 24 hours. Although I’ve not lived in South Australia for the better part of 15 years it’s still there, inside of me: I realise thisas I stand watching it pass, those hills and the open sea evoking the same sense of loneliness and loss one can hear in the names the early explorers gave them: Dangerous Reef, Memory Cove, Cape Catastrophe. Coffin Bay.

Our destination is to the south-east, a lonely series of rocky islets called Neptune Islands that sits scattered across the mouth of the Spencer Gulf. Save for the seals and the seabirdscongregating on their low shores they would harbour little of interest — a ruined lighthouse, the condemned remains of a scientific station — were it not for the fact that they are also one of the few places in the world where Great White Sharks are known to congregate. Having spent the last few weeks reading and thinking about these shadowy creatures I am now travelling to this place I last visited as a child, to see them for myself.

Four hours later we arrive. Choosing a mooring in the lee of South Neptune baits are set and berley cast out into the water. Tommy ruffs rise to peck at the red cloud of messy fishmeat, glittering and quick, darting and turning while others nibble at the hunks of tuna carcass that trail behind the boat on baitropes. We stand watching as the crew lower a battered cage from the back of the boat into the water, the passengers laughing excitedly at the dents in the metal — evidence of previous encounters with the creatures we are here to see. ‘How long do you think we will have to wait?’ someone asks, but as they say this one of the baitropes goes taut with a crack and all 17 metres of the boat jerks sideways. With the others I run to the side, but the bait — the back third of a tuna that would have been a metre and a half long when it was alive — is already gone, the rope floating free.

I struggle into my wetsuit, digesting instructions on how to enter and exit the cage without being tipped over the side by the swell or overbalanced by my weightbelt. And then I’m off the back, and into the water.

Beneath the surface I grasp for my regulator. Although broken cloud moves overhead and the cage rises and falls in a metre or more of wave, the visibility is good, the water an impossible blue, deep and smoky. Immediately in front of the cage a tuna’s ruined neck and gills float, a billow of filmy guts beneath it. The water is cool, enclosing.

For a long time nothing happens. And then, just when it seems that the creature must have gone, slipped away into the ocean, a shape appears out of the blue, swimming steadily towards us. In the perspectiveless colour of the water it is hard at first to tell how large it is; it moves casually, almost effortlessly, its body weightless, its eyes trained on us. Only as it gets closer does the size of it become apparent, the power. I had thought it would be more beautiful, I realise, sinuous, and sleek, like a tiger. But despite the sinister ease with which it slides through the water there is nothing beautiful about it. Rather it is brutish, possessed of the overdeveloped look of the tomcat — that massiveness, though applied to a frame more than five metres in length.

As it approaches we move closer to the bars of our cage, eager to see more. Its mouth — surprisingly small in its head — hangs open, the uneven teeth protruding raggedly, the nostrils visible above them as blunt depressions. Behind its pectoral fins swim a school of silvery baitfish, following its motion with quick, shimmery turns like a clutch of young. The effect is oddly tender.

In a moment it will turn, striking at the cage with sudden ferocity, the force of the blow sending all three of us staggering to the floor and leaving teeth embedded in the metal of the tanks. But for now it simply turns, passing so close beside us that we could touch it. One gill is torn, scars crisscrossing the nose and face, the black eyes cold and depthless as it gazes through the cage at us.

What will be most surprising to me, as I look back, is that I am not afraid, even as it circles and strikes. Perhaps it is simply the reassuring fact of the cage, but faced with their lazy power of their motion, their careless brutality, I am filled instead with a sense of wonder that such things might still exist. It is as if the fact of their movement through these waters, the ghostly way they have appeared and will later disappear into the ocean’s immensity, like some half-remembered dream suggesting not terror, but something buried deeper, something primal, and deeper than words. Yet this is a creature with which I have shared an uneasy proximity all of my life. Always, everywhere: when we are in the water the idea of the shark is there with us, a shadowy presence lurking just out of sight, like the monsters that once lurked just beyond our campfires, unseen, unstoppable, implacable. And of all the sharks it is this one – the Great White, Carcharodon carcharias – that we fear the most.

Seeing sharks up close, such fears seem natural enough. Sharks are sometimes caricatured as primitive, their basic design dating back some 400 million years, but in reality they are highly adapted and sophisticated creatures, their longevity testament to their perfection. Watching as they glide past or strike at the baits it is obvious that in some deep sense this is what they are for, that in their speed and savagery they are entirely and utterly themselves.

Over the hours and days that follow, as I watch them gather around the boat, I find myself wondering at this quality in them. It’s easy to romanticise wild creatures, particularly ones as singular as sharks. Indeed in the case of a creature so feared, so maligned, romanticisation might almost be seen as a response to the horror they provoke in many. Watching them as they circle the cage, looking into their strangely empty eyes I find my own desire to see something ancient and unknowable reflected back at me, rendered somehow ridiculous by their obdurate alienness.

And yet are the fears we project onto them any less ridiculous? As we drove through Port Lincoln, we had passed the Sorrento Motor Inn. Seeing it my brother reminded me that we stayed there once as children, 25 years ago, on a holiday with our parents. Looking out the window I realised he was right; I remembered not just the hotel but our parents’ warnings about the beach that runs behind it, curving away towards what is now the marina. People got eaten here, they told us over and over again, disappearing after diving off the back of fishing boats or dragged under while snorkelling off the rocks. My parents were not nervous people, but the threat posed by the sharks seemed real enough to them then, and real enough I suppose to us.


On my second dive I take off my glove, peeling the nylon from my pale and wrinkled skin. Though they live alone in the ocean, gathering only to feed or breed, there are four or five sharks now attracted by the smell of the bait and moving in long arcs around the boat, sometimes vanishing into the failing light for minutes at a time. Seen together they are surprisingly individual, their bodies and markings, even their faces, easy to tell apart. Some look tired, their mouths hanging open with apparent exhaustion; others are sinisterly clownish, their wide, bland faces cartoonish; others are sleek and savage, their bodies still slender.

One by one they pass, watching the drifting baits. And for creatures with such a fearsome reputation they are surprisingly cautious, refusing to take a bait more often than not. Biologists have argued this caution reflects the risk that their prey — adult Great Whites prey almost exclusively on large mammalian creatures such as seals — pose to them, rather than the other way round. Their characteristic mode of attack is designed not to maximise their chances of a successful kill but to minimise the chances of damage to their eyes from the teeth and claws of struggling seals, and so their lips peel back to push their jaws forward, and their eyes roll back into their head.

Outside the cage I can see three of them circling, some way off. Flexing my hand I wait, watching them, and then, almost on cue, one — a five-metre male recognisable by the claspers behind his pelvic fins — turns inwards, heading towards me like a steadily moving torpedo. Despite the effortlessness of his motion he moves improbably quickly, his speed a reminder of the power of his body. Out on the perimeter of my vision I can still see the others, waiting, no doubt watching.

As he draws closer he does not turn aside, and for an instant or two I have a very clear sense of being watched, considered. At first I think he means to ram the cage, maybe try and force his snout through the gap designed to allow easy filming. But then, at the last moment he turns aside, his body pressing against the metal so it creaks and grinds. Reaching out I grasp his pectoral fin, feeling for a moment the power in him before he pushes on. The mottled line where his darker back meets his paler belly passes close, and reaching out again I press my hand against it, not sure what to expect. Great Whites, like makos and some large turtles, have warm blood: a heat exchange system in their bodies heats it to 24-27º, making their physiology closer in many ways to that of mammals and birds than that of other fish. That they can exchange energy more efficiently means their muscles can contract faster and more powerfully.

As he moves by his skin slides under my hand, surprisingly smooth — the skin of sharks is made up of thousands of tiny dermal denticles, or skin teeth; rubbed against the grain these are abrasive, like sandpaper, but traced with it they can seem almost frictionless — and pressing harder I seek the warmth I know should be there. But whether or not it is my own skin gone numb in the cool water or the layers of insulating flesh between us, I feel nothing, only the skin itself, its resistance beneath my hand. And then he is gone, peeling away from the cage and away.

I watch him go, swimming away as if my clumsy attempt to touch him has driven him to retreat: it’s strange how little is really known about these creatures, particularly given the space they occupy in our cultural imagination. Studying marine animals of any sort poses considerable practical difficulties, and in the case of large, dangerous and migratory predators these problems are only exacerbated. It’s not even clear how many of them there are: some South Australians believe their numbers have increased since they were protected in 1997, but most other data points to an ongoing decline in their numbers, the recent spate of attacks along Australia’s coasts notwithstanding.

There’s something peculiarly tragic in this. Of course the extinction of any species is a tragedy, but it’s difficult not to feel that we ourselves will be somehow diminished on the day the last Bengal tiger falls to a poacher’s bullet or the last polar bear is reduced to scavenging in rubbish dumps as the polar ice melts.

In a similar vein the biologist David Quammen has recently argued for a reappraisal of the way we understand those few species which have regularly preyed upon human beings, seeking to tease out a more complex way of seeing them and, by extension, our place in the world. Drawing together narrative threads as diverse as Gligamesh, Beowulf and Alien, he suggests that our deep-seated fears of creatures such as the shark are not just predictable but actually necessary, even desired, serving to remind us of our limitations, our mortality.

What’s interesting about Quammen’s argument is that it points out that those communities who live closest to these creatures — be they lions or bears or crocodiles — do not fear these creatures so much as respect them, even venerate them. Predator and prey are, if not quite two sides of the same coin, at least bound together by the nature of their relationship, the one made somehow more real by the other.

By contrast societies such as ours, mercifully free of predators, feel the need to invent them, projecting our subliminal terrors and cultural anxieties onto cinema screens, and, presumably, beneath the waves. Like Alexander with the armies of the world vanquished, we find ourselves not ennobled by our success but diminished, and so we create monsters to make ourselves feel alive, as if knowing life depended on understanding how easily it might be snatched away.


Near dusk on our third day, great clouds of shearwaters wheel overhead, dark against the paling sky as they gather for the night. At the back of the boat my brother and one of our fellow passengers are fishing, when one of them hooks something big. There is much laughter, speculation that the shark from earlier — a massive five-metre male with a nose scored clean and pale by some unknown collision — might be on the end. Earlier today he’d struck at one of the baits, rolling up between the boat and the cage, sending the berley bucket tumbling into the water and smashing the occupants of the cage back in a great kicking surge before biting clean through the massive rope which secures the cage to the boat. And though we all of us know it is not that shark’s weight against the rod — that the line would have snapped — we gather, curious to see what has been caught.

Almost on cue, as they strain to bring whatever it is that has been caught on board, he appears, gliding beneath the boat, the white spot on his snout clearly visible in the dark water. We all shout, excited, and as we do a huge grouper, almost a metre and a half in length, comes looming into view, fighting on the line.

A few metres from the boat the shark turns, swinging back as we haul the grouper higher, trying to save it. As it thrashes on the line the captain leans over, only inches from the water, trying to draw the hook from its mouth. The shark passes underneath again, and as it does the grouper floats free, flapping half-submerged, its swim bladder swollen from the too-quick ascent to the surface. It flounders away from the boat, struggling to dive, and we laugh and shout, urging it to swim while in one long, almost lazy roll the shark surfaces, its huge head rising from the water to engulf the fish in its maw. It rolls once and then again, its body flashing dark and dazzling white as it turns. Though this afternoon I stood so close to it I could touch it without fear the effect now is terrifying, the sheer size of the shark, its power suddenly brought home to me — to all of us — as much by the casual economy of its attack as by anything. For a few seconds the shark turns near the surface, flicking its tail and slicing around, still caught up in the attack. On the boat all of us are whooping and shouting, horrified by the spectacle and excited by it, demanding of each other, did we see it? And then a few seconds later the shark erupts from the water again, caught in a craypot’s ropes, struggling in the buoys, turning and fighting, before pulling the buoys down with it and vanishing.

For a long time we stand staring after it, wanting it to return. I’m sure I should feel sorry for the grouper but I don’t or not very. Indeed I almost wish one of the seals I can hear crying on the rocks a few hundred metres away might swim close so I could see it get taken too. I know — all of us know — that we have seen something here modern humans rarely get the chance to see, some vision of the primal, horrible and magnificent. And in its wake I feel enlivened somehow, as if my awe has reminded me of some part of me I had forgotten, the feeling lasting until long after the shark has gone, so long that later that night, in the silence of our cabin my brother and I find ourselves laughing at it, elated, still buoyed by the violence of the shark’s attack, the memory wild in us.

First published in The Bulletin
© James Bradley, 2005

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Clever Critters: 8 Best Non-Human Tool Users

I want to post something about animal intelligence and birds in the next few days. In the meantime I have two words for you.

Burrowing. Owls.

Clever Critters: 8 Best Non-Human Tool Users | Wired Science from