This is the story of Andy, a 16 year old shark fisherman in the little known archipelago of the Louisiades, south east off the coast of mainland Papua New Guinea. The youngest son of seven children it is time for this boy to earn his rights to be called a man and catch his first shark like his beetlenut stained father did with his father before him.
The remaining three passengers serve as ballast, deftly manoeuvring from one side of the raft to the other in order to keep it upright as they pound across the hour long journey into demanding twenty knot wind and white-capped swollen seas.
Their campsite is rudimentary; a couple of A-frame sleeping huts with sago palm thatched roofs and sandy floor, a cooking area with a path to a fresh water well that passes in front of a couple of large logs for drying the shark fins. Their toilet is the high tide line up the beach 100m. Andy unloads the bananas, coconuts, rice, sweet potato and cooking utensils from the sailing canoe, hanging them in the large shady tree that shelters their encampment.
His father goes about setting a fire under a low bamboo structure that protects it from the wind, afterwards throwing a couple of slabs of freshly caught kingfish on top between layers of banana leaves that will cook slowly and succulently while they head back out into the stormy straight to set their lines for the night. They feed well upon their return, and Andy laughs with his elders as they recount fishing tales around the fire before settling in for the night.
Through western eyes the scene is idyllic; the rising sun casting pink and orange hues over the tips of the coconut palms like sugary icing, at their feet the brilliant white of the sandy beach fades into deeper shades of turquoise of the coral spotted bay around the thin whisper of an island no more than three acres large and less than four metres above sea level.
But for Andy the scene is different, unaware of the beauty his mind is concentrated on the task at hand. With a grimace of determination he ignores the rising twist of anxiety he feels in his gut as they push off once again into the currents and waves to the middle of the channel to where the lines are waiting to be hauled in. Half an hour later, they arrive at the small buoy marking their floating line.
The sail is dropped, rolled and carefully stashed as the men strike up a song, bellowing into the wind uniting the strength of their powerful, sinewy arms and backs to pull in the thick nylon line at the same time making sure the canoe stays upright and balanced. With countless waves slapping the sides Andy’s father is furiously bailing while calling to Andy on the bow to keep his eyes on the rising line. Heart pumping, Andy’s spear is raised high in anticipation, the shaking in his arm masked by the violent rocking of the boat.
Suddenly the surface breaks to reveal a threshing hammerhead fighting for what is left of her life after swallowing the baited hook a few hours earlier that has been slowly digging its way into her pregnant belly. With a roaring in his ears and a deep guttural yell Andy takes aim and thrusts his spear into the soft part of the two metre shark just below her gills, a perfect strike. Feeling the pointed tip penetrate and stick fast the shark is still for a minute, as if in disbelief of her circumstance until the shock and pain kick in which throws her into fits of uncontrolled spasms, her last fight for freedom – but it is too late. Andy has retrieved his spear, pulling the tiring beast closer to the boat where the men manage to hook a loop of strong rope to her tail, while another makes ready the sail for the triumphant return to the island dragging her close behind as they go, her life and blood slowly seeping away to the rhythm of their songs. Andy’s father quietly catches his eye to give him the hint of a smile and Andy’s heart swells with pride.
Back at the beach Andy is tasked with cutting off the dorsal fin, pectoral fins and tail fins of the slain shark in careful precise strokes of the sharp blade and then hangs them from a nylon line stretched between two trees to dangle for the night before being laid out in the sun on the logs the following day.
The huge, flaccid, pregnant carcass of the hammerhead is left to roll fin-less in the shallows like a forgotten piece of driftwood, waiting to be dragged and dumped back out in the deep channel when the men – including Andy – will head out later that evening to reset the lines.