Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks - Juliet Eilperin (2011)


Sun come up, my shark come up.

—a shark caller’s chant in Dennis O’Rourke’s 1982 film, The Sharkcallers of Kontu

For a brief moment, I despair that we’ll ever get to Tembin.

Three of us—myself, my friend Laura Berger, and our driver, Paul Vatlom—had successfully made the trek from Kavieng, the biggest city in the Papua New Guinean province of New Ireland, to the outskirts of Tembin, one of the three most renowned shark-calling towns in the world. The problem: a storm had washed away the bridge to Tembin several years ago, and no one had ever bothered to fix it.

Some of the villagers had heard we were coming, so they decided to pile onto the back of our white Toyota 4×4, further complicating our task. Now we are facing crossing a river and navigating a swamp, all without tossing several uninvited hitchhikers over the side.

Luckily, Vatlom happens to be one of those people who manages to be fearless, deft, and cheerful at the same time. “We will do it,” he says, nodding, speaking as much to himself as to Laura and me. And then by shifting gears, gunning the engine a bit, and weaving back and forth, he manages to coax the truck through first water and then mud. The truck rocks slightly, but no one falls off, and within minutes we have arrived in a settlement that looks like a throwback in time, the sort of village in which a Peace Corps volunteer would have arrived in the 1960s.

As the hitchhikers leap off the truck, our welcoming committee comes out to meet us. It is led by Selam Karasimbe, a lean, wiry man sporting a broad smile, a single piece of cloth wrapped around his hips, and a black sweatshirt emblazoned with the words “New York.” Trailed by a few women, several small children, and an assortment of pigs, Karasimbe looks like the kind of man who has answers. He is the strongest living connection to the way humans used to see sharks hundreds of years ago. And despite an array of modern-day pressures, he has kept this worldview intact, in a place that seems much closer to our past than our present. It is one of the best ways to understand how the worlds of sharks and humans intersect, and what happens when this relationship is thrown off balance.

Karasimbe is, in his own words, “the world-famous shark caller” of Kontu. “World-famous” may be a bit of an overstatement: most people have never heard of either shark calling or the remote island province, New Ireland, where it is practiced. But the Australian filmmaker Dennis O’Rourke did feature Karasimbe in his 1982 documentary, The Sharkcallers of Kontu, an anthropology cult classic. And when it comes to Papua New Guinea, that qualifies for global exposure.

In a world where most humans view sharks with a mix of fear and loathing, Papua New Guinea is one of the few places where people embrace them. For the villagers in Tembin, Mesi, and Kontu—the three towns that still practice shark calling—sharks are an integral part of their creation story, a religious faith that has endured for centuries.

In many ways, New Ireland—the province that is home to shark calling—is a microcosm of Papua New Guinea itself. At least seventeen distinct languages are still spoken there, and while humans have lived on the islands for at least thirty-two thousand years, it was only colonized by the West when Germany claimed it as a colonial protectorate in 1885. Charted in 1767 by the British navigator Philip Carteret, who named it on the basis of its relationship to another, larger nearby island (New Britain), New Ireland served as a port for American whaling ships in search of water and provisions during their voyages.

Missionaries have worked relentlessly to make Papua New Guinea into a Christian country: according to the 2000 census, 96 percent of the populace identifies itself as Christian. While missionaries are a rare sight in much of the South Pacific at this point, they are still ubiquitous in even the most isolated of Papua New Guinean villages. They often provide basic services, including schooling. And in exchange, they demand fealty to a Christian god.

Many Papua New Guineans have reconciled this Western religion with their traditional ancestor worship. In this traditional faith, the spirits of their ancestors inhabit the current natural world, offering them a way to connect to those who preceded them in their everyday surroundings. These spirits communicate to them, watch over them, and guide their choices: it’s a much more immediate connection than the one that typically defines Christian faiths.

But faced with this contrast to Christianity, Papua New Guineans like Karasimbe have deftly fudged the difference. Going to church while also maintaining ties to his ancestors through shark hunting, Karasimbe reasons, is not contradictory. He and others can do this in part because the traditional Papua New Guinean faith has a creator, Moroa, who is from their perspective essentially synonymous with the Judeo-Christian God. While the myth of Moroa predates Papua New Guineans’ contact with missionaries, it bears a strong similarity to Christianity. Moroa created the world in a series of steps just like the Judeo-Christian God did, for example, but his instructions are a bit more detailed than some of the early guidance contained in the Old Testament.

Take sharks, for instance. According to legend, Moroa made Lembe the shark before he made man but after he had made the sun and the moon and put fish and dolphins in the sea. Moroa made Lembe “in the time of tulait, the time between the end of the night and the beginning of the new day,” and in doing so, he divided the shark’s belly into two parts.1 The left side of the belly could sense danger, but the right side would let the shark approach a canoe without fear.

After creating this divided creature, Moroa held Lembe by his tail (Papua New Guineans say you can still see the mark of Moroa’s thumb and forefinger on every shark in the sea) and explained to the shark the conditions on which he could approach man. He said he would tell man to catch the shark, and that if man broke any of the tambus (taboos) set out for him, Lembe must listen to the left side of his belly and stay away.

As one might imagine, at this point Lembe was getting tired of Moroa’s lecture. So he jumped in the sea, just as Moroa was going to tell him about the bait fish man would use to try to lure him. In retaliation, Moroa threw white sand at Lembe, which has given him rough skin until the end of time. “Moroa threw his hands in the air and yelled after the disappearing shark he was truly stupid,” Glenys Köhnke recounts. “For now that his skin was rough man would be able to snare him in a specially prepared noose which Moroa would show him how to make.”2

When Moroa created humans, he went through the elaborate rules for catching sharks and the mechanics of making special equipment for the task, such as the coconut rattle Karasimbe uses today. And when he was done, Moroa had given the shark callers of Papua New Guinea something no one else on earth possesses: the ability to communicate with the scariest creatures in the sea. On a certain level, shark calling is a form of resistance against Western colonizers, since these authorities told Papua New Guineans they could not worship Moroa any longer. The missionaries tried to discredit locals’ traditional beliefs altogether, telling them they needed to renounce their old faith and accept Christ instead. But many Papua New Guineans see no reason to abandon ancestor worship. Karasimbe wears a rosary with white disks and black beads and considers himself a Christian, but he points out that when the missionaries argued ancestor worship was essentially godless, they failed to grasp the fact that villagers viewed Moroa as an overarching deity the same way Christians view their own God. Missionaries, he recalls, suggested that the faith traditions they had practiced for centuries were contrary to Christianity and were “fucking up people” because “they don’t know about God.” But they overlooked an obvious point, he says: “Moroa is God.”

At this point many Papua New Guineans see shark calling as a divine right, one of the few skills they boast that no other civilization can offer. They argue that their ability to lure sharks from the deep—and catch them by hand using snares—represents a unique culture that should not be snuffed out by either colonization or modernization. Just because outsiders might not understand the practice, they say, doesn’t mean it lacks value. Henry Bilak, a retired soldier living in Mesi, says outsiders don’t fully appreciate what his people can do when it comes to connecting with sharks. “This is the oldest form of human communication with sharks,” he says, sitting in a village garden blooming with yellow, white, red, and pink hibiscus. “The bottom line is this is what human beings can do. This is what God has given us.”

Spending time with Karasimbe, I realize that he and other shark callers hold on so tightly to this part of their faith because it differentiates them from their colonial conquerors. The Germans and the Australians may have brought currency, modern goods, and other advances to Papua New Guinea, but shark calling is something that cannot be replicated by the West. It delineates roles within Papua New Guinean society and anchors these people’s conception of the universe.

Not everyone in New Ireland has the divine power to catch sharks. It’s an elite club. Only men can practice the tradition—legend has it that the scent of a woman prompts sharks to flee. And these select shark callers pass their secrets on to their sons and nephews. Like most things in Papua New Guinea, a person’s wontok, or clan, allegiances are paramount: clans zealously guard their particular shark-calling practices, and sometimes men end up as shark callers by virtue of whom they married. While men hold the upper hand in Papua New Guinea, it remains a matrilineal society, so land and other privileges are passed through women rather than men. While this sometimes appears contradictory, given how much influence men wield in Papua New Guinean society, it is the one form of power reserved to women.

Aeluda Toxok, a veteran shark caller in Mesi, took on the calling when he married a woman belonging to the Nako clan. Now in his late sixties, Toxok still goes out regularly in search of sharks. In a given season, he may go out to sea thirty times. Toxok was thirty when he first learned shark calling. By practicing the same rituals as those before him, he sees himself as a sort of shark tamer who calls upon his ancestors for aid in order to corral such a fierce predator. Even with his frizzy white hair and well-lined visage, Toxok is an impressive figure, lean and ready for battle.

One of the most striking aspects of shark callers is their supreme sense of confidence. When I happen on Toxok on the beach, he is preparing his canoe because he has an instinct that he is poised to catch a shark for the first time this season. “Because I have prepared myself, I can go out there and do it. I’ve got a feeling when the shark is coming. I’m going to catch it,” he says. “It’s like a game, because I have prepared all the rituals. I have caught sharks, and I know every time I will go out, I will catch a shark.”

Toxok’s surety is particularly impressive given that once he lures a shark to his outrigger canoe, he must subdue the fish by hand. Shark calling is practiced in three sets of islands along the Bismarck Archipelago—New Ireland, the Duke of York, and the Tabar islands—and in each case they use a contraption to catch sharks that is used nowhere else. To trap a shark, the caller submerges a noose made of plaited cane, which is attached to a wooden propeller float. When the shark is through the noose up to its pectoral fins, the fisherman jerks up on the propeller’s handle, which in turn tightens the noose around the shark. At this point, the shark struggles to break free, and the shark caller must resist the animal’s force to keep it from escaping. Once the shark is exhausted, the fisherman can relax for a few moments and let the float bring it to the surface. At this point the caller stabs the shark in the eyes, to debilitate it further, clubs it into submission, and brings it aboard his canoe.

Each aspect of a shark caller’s equipment is meticulously designed to maximize his ability to subdue a predatory animal. The canoe, for example, must be light enough to paddle for long distances but strong enough to withstand the tussle between man and shark that takes place during each outing. The canoe’s seats consist of narrow slats that are uncomfortable to sit on, but that makes the overall vessel lighter, and the trip easier. While this is an efficient design, it’s not perfect: the Tembin shark caller Robert Muskup acknowledges during one of our chats, “When I sit there for a long time, I feel that it hurts.”

Conserving energy on the trip out to sea is crucial because if the trip proves too exhausting, the caller won’t be able to physically battle the shark once he catches it. Toxok admits that he’s often tired by the time a shark lodges itself in his noose, “because of the paddling.” But he also believes he is better off fighting hand to hand when he’s offshore, because he thinks he possesses powers on the water that don’t extend to land: “That particular job, I can do it on one hand. I can do it out there, on the sea.”

For an activity that comes down to such a basic contest between man and shark, it carries an elaborate nomenclature. Consider the names Papua New Guineans have for the different sections of a shark caller’s canoe paddle, a piece of equipment that stretches between two and three feet. There is the leganbanane, the top of the canoe paddle that resembles the bud of a baby coconut; the lebinos, the leg, or handle, of the paddle; the lebelik, the small, V-shaped carving at the paddle’s base; the legiptas, the broadest part of the paddle; and finally the lembiros, the tip of the paddle that, according to Karasimbe, calls out underwater to wake up the spirit of the sharks in the sea, the sixilikbe.

To assess their chances of success, shark callers—like fishermen everywhere—divvy up species by their level of ferocity. Karasimbe and his clan have four names to describe the sharks they catch: lumnummus is very fierce, latixon is fierce, lasinabi is friendly, and lutino is very friendly. While some of these names correlate to specific species—lumnummus often refers to tiger sharks, among the most combative sharks that troll the shores of Papua New Guinea—these categories are aimed at characterizing the animal’s spirit rather than what it looks like, or even the class of sharks to which it belongs. In the folk religion of shark calling, spirit matters more than science.


A few days before they go out to sea, shark callers observe strict dietary and social restrictions. According to tradition, men cannot eat pig, prawn, crab, lizard, or kapul, a small marsupial that lives in Papua New Guinea. Shark callers cannot have sex with their wives, on the grounds that the sharks will be able to detect a woman’s scent and will stay away. They cannot step on animal feces for the same reason.

Not surprisingly, some of these prohibitions can prove irritating. Philp Taput, a shark caller from Tembin in his forties, says he’s no longer afraid of confronting the sharks, but “the hardest part of it is to keep away from some of the tambus [taboos] like staying away from lying with the ladies, sleeping in the houseboy [a small building where shark callers gather], and not stepping on excrement.” But Taput would never think of violating these admonitions: it helps give him the steeliness he needs to confront sharks, single-handed, in the water. He does look for signs in the natural world that plenty of sharks are in the water, such as seagulls flying above the ocean, but he places more faith in the elaborate, time-honored practices he performs before heading for sea. Paying homage to tradition will deliver the sharks. “When we are preparing our rituals to go out, then we have to ask the power of the creator, the spirit, to go with us. It applies to both our ancestors and being a Christian.”

While shark hunting is usually a practical exercise—it supplies the village with food for funeral rites and other special occasions—callers also use their rituals to find answers to the questions that arise from life’s tragedies. In this way, they are seen as wise men who can get answers from the sharks even when they’re not seeking to catch them. Karasimbe’s older brother Mangis Hari, who is in his late seventies, will often perform this sort of divining ceremony for bereaved villagers. As he describes it, speaking in Tok Pisin, it is an extraordinarily precise set of procedures.

“When one of my villagers dies, I collect hair from the dead body. I take that [and put it near a particular tree], and there it remains for three days. After those three days I collect that and I wash it with some magic, some leaves, and then I go down to the beach one afternoon and sit down. I go to a clear place and put it down. With the conch shell, I start doing some magic. I prepare it for the next day. I go out to the beach, I get two different branches and perform magic, I sing some magic songs. When I finish one song, I take one branch and throw it out to sea. I do the same with the second branch, but I strike the conch shell before throwing the branch out to sea. I tie a branch and the hair together. Then I bring it to the cemetery where the deceased was buried. The spirit of the ancestors comes.”

Hari then needs to return to the reef just off the beach, to communicate with sharks and other fish in the sea. “I will put my foot on the reef. Three types of fish will appear—two out of the three are dangerous. Then I will ask, ‘How did he die, because of a land dispute, or something else?’ Then the fish will appear and make signs. The fish will be where I put my foot.”

Hari performed this very ritual when his own father died, and says it revealed to him that someone had killed his father with magic. He and his family did not seek retribution for what they perceived as their father’s murder, but it settled a question that had plagued them for days. Karasimbe describes this as the other purpose of shark calling: “It is important also if you want to know about your beginning, or your mother or father when they’re dead, and you want to find out, ‘Why did my father die?’ ” Shark calling is not just hunting: it is a way of making sense of the world.

As Hari explains his traditional practice, it becomes clear he and his brother have turned the common conception of sharks on its head. While sharks represent the terrifying unknown to most of us, Hari and Karasimbe believe they can sense the sharks at all times. And that form of “seeing,” even if it’s not literal, erases the fear that dominates our view of them. But not everyone can lay claim to this sort of vision.

While shark callers are a small group within Papua New Guinean society, there are distinctions within this elite. Karasimbe is known as a skilled hunter, and since he has connections to two villages—he grew up in Tembin but settled on his wife’s property in Kontu, a five-minute drive from his hometown—he commands respect from a wide swath of New Ireland society. Among living shark killers, Karasimbe may rank as the most prominent in his entire region. But from a historical perspective, few people sit as high in the shark-calling pantheon as Alois Kiput, the legendary Mesi villager who died at the age of ninety-six (give or take a year) in 2003.

Kiput’s story matters for several reasons. It shows how a shark caller can anchor a community during his lifetime, giving everyone in the village a sense of possibility and place. But it also shows the fleeting nature of this kind of tradition, especially when faced with strong Western influences. If a religious practice is limited to a select number of individuals—who don’t lead a congregation, but merely perform rituals on behalf of an entire community—it is especially vulnerable to erosion. Few experiences exemplify this historic arc better than Kiput and his tribal members.

What made Kiput special was his ability to help other shark callers by performing magic on their behalf. The shark callers of Mesi would approach Kiput and tell him of their plans to go to sea. He would perform the rituals in private, and the callers would go on their way, taking heart from the fact that a master had bestowed some of his magic upon them.

Kiput’s houseboy—an enclosure where callers seclude themselves before heading to sea—still stands, an unassuming structure made largely of cane. At the back sits the panoply of shark-calling tools, including the larung that a caller shakes underwater and the taur, or conch horn, that he sounds to announce a successful catch. “He did all the magic here,” says Mary Kalasim, Kiput’s eldest daughter, peering around her property. “The power and magic, it stays back here.” At her instruction her children bring out the seven stone sharks that Kiput used as he performed his prayers: these gray stone carvings of varying sizes remain valuable property.

Stone sharks are one of the most complicated aspects of shark calling. According to callers like Karasimbe and Toxok, these rough-hewn sculptures, complete with carved mouths that glare menacingly, contain spirits that communicate with both a villager’s ancestors and the sharks that roam the ocean. By appealing to the stone sharks on an altar—usually at the base of a revered tree—a caller can lure sharks closer in and enlist his ancestors’ aid in bringing one back to a village. In Kiput’s case, his daughter says, he would use the spirit sharks to give other villagers “the power to do the shark calling.”

When a shark caller dies, however, the status he once conveyed upon his family dissipates. While people remember Kiput with affection and respect, his daughter is bitter at how things have deteriorated since his death. Her own daughter, Jacinta, had to drop out of school to support the family. Shark calling may be prestigious, but it doesn’t produce a trust fund. Kiput did pass on several rituals to his eldest daughter, such as the lamaxalum, which gathers the sharks from the outer reefs closer to shore so a caller can catch them. “When I sing the song, I am sure that the sharks are coming,” Kalasim says, displaying the same sort of confidence as Toxok. But as a woman Kalasim could never perform the song in public, so she stays in her dark hut, largely secluded from the village. The sharks’ power has little resonance for Kiput’s family now that he’s gone, and Kalasim has receded from public view.

The one time it reemerges is when one of Kiput’s three sons, with whom he shared his secrets, returns to Mesi. When the village needs a shark, this son comes back to help. “When there is a feast, they call him,” Kalasim recounts. But it’s not how it was when her father was alive, she rushes to add, when the youth of the village used to surround Kiput and his shark paraphernalia. “Now that he has passed away, they have left it, because there’s nobody like him … Nowadays, no, nobody uses the stone sharks.”

Papua New Guinea has changed since Kiput first came of age, and that helps explain why shark calling has lost some of its cachet. Long insulated from the Western world, Papua New Guinea operated for centuries on a barter system and used kina shells—small, circular shells found on the seashore—as a form of currency. (Even now, the official currency is called kina.) People in rural areas tend to talk about aspects of daily life, including meals, in fairly utilitarian ways. Rather than referring to meat, chicken, or fish, they refer to all of these substances as “protein,” as in “We will have protein for dinner tonight” or “I am going out shark calling to get protein.” These are the ways the vestiges of missionary teaching still surface here: the missionaries have lectured villagers so much about the importance of basic food groups that abstract nutritional categories have earned their place in everyday conversation.

But after enduring colonial rule since 1884 under the Germans, British, and Australians, and having achieved their independence in 1975, Papua New Guineans are struggling to find services and goods that can generate sufficient cash for them. It remains one of the most rural societies in the world, with only 18 percent of its citizens living in cities. As everyday goods have become more expensive, and drinking and drug use among Papua New Guineans have increased in recent years, it’s understandable why some village elders might long for a previous era, and why Karasimbe feels so protective about his profession. “The culture, it’s about to die,” Karasimbe says. “Young males of today, they’re focusing on getting drunk and modern culture.”

Father John Glynn, an Irish priest, has spent years ministering in Papua New Guinea, witnessing both its gloried past and its less than idyllic present. “New Ireland, like much of Papua New Guinea, has lost an enormous amount of its culture, its traditions, over the past century,” Glynn says. “The current generation doesn’t even know how much it’s lost.”

Yet shark calling still carries some prestige in New Ireland: Taput, one of Tembin’s shark callers, says the practice transformed him from “an ordinary person” to one with authority once he caught his first shark at the age of nineteen. “Since then, the community has seen me as a shark caller. They treat me as a shark caller. They see me as a big man in the community.”

The divvying up of a shark once it’s brought to shore also serves as a way of marking the social status of different villagers. A shark caller like Taput expects the liver, the dorsal fin, and the belly once he brings a shark to his village, both because these choice parts pay homage to his skills and because they will ensure him good luck when he ventures out to sea again. In the old days shark callers hung up their fins to dry in their houseboys: the gray triangles served as proof of the men’s hunting prowess. But now they bring them to Kavieng to sell them to fin traders. Money matters more than status at this point, and fins bring cash.

In June 2007, Alois Solen’s brother died. Solen—Karasimbe’s nephew—had watched his brother struggle with illness for a long time, and as soon as his brother was buried, he started preparing his canoe and watching for auspicious signs like seagulls circling in the air.

“I saw the sea, and my brother was there,” Solen recounts as we sit in front of the Tembin houseboy one night. “It took me two days to go out shark calling. The first day I went out, I tried to catch two, but there was some problem with the loop [that serves as the noose to trap the shark]. The second day it took me ten minutes to find the shark. There was a lot of rubbish in the ocean, so I paddled all the way through it and shook the rattle. Three sharks came up: I caught one, brought it into the canoe, and I killed it with the club.”

The shark Solen caught was nine feet long, enough to feed at least twenty people. “At that point there was no protein for the people,” he explains. “I was happy to give the people something to eat.”

But after taking the belly and dorsal fin that were due to him, Solen headed to the offices of Emirau Marine Products in Kavieng, where he got 20 kina, or about $7, for the fin. What started as a traditional funeral rite ended as a business deal in Emirau’s air-conditioned office, a place where an iPod sits precariously perched in its docking station near a set of dingy appliances.

Brian Green, the general manager of Emirau Marine Products, is a compact man of modest height who bustles with energy. He seems wired to explode at any moment—but in a good-humored sort of way, as if his anger at the outside world were a mix of resentment and affection for his fellow man. A self-described “Cockney from the East End of London” who has spent a decent chunk of his life in Australia and New Zealand, Green sees his business as a form of rape and pillage that will wipe out the oceans in a matter of time. It’s simply a question of supply and demand, he explains, sitting before his standard-issue desk.

“The market is voracious. Shark is under threat, shark fin is in very short supply, and the demand is getting bigger,” he says. “I think something drastic has to be done to protect the sharks. But nothing will.”

There are only three fin-trading outposts in Kavieng—in addition to Emirau Marine Products, there’s Tsang Sang and Darima Marine Products—and all of their managers are watching as fin supplies become scarcer. Like shark fin traders in Hong Kong and elsewhere, Green has noticed how the business has changed in recent years: “You don’t get nearly as much on offer, and what you get on offer is small.” As overfishing is depleting shark populations, the animals are getting smaller, and that’s translating into smaller fins. At this point Emirau trades less than a ton of shark fin a year because of the dwindling supply, while it annually sells sixteen tons of sea cucumber, another Chinese delicacy that hasn’t completely collapsed yet.

While men like Solen and Karasimbe might earn respect at home for their shark calling, Green pays little deference to the villagers who come into his Kavieng office to proffer the fins they’ve caught. He pays them anywhere from $28 to $100 for a kilo of dried fins and sends them on their way. He suspects most of them have abandoned their traditional fishing methods, using larger boats rather than the small, individual canoes that are required to comply with their long-held customs. And even if they do adhere to tradition, it doesn’t mean anything to Green. The idea that shark calling has religious significance, and that these men have mystic powers, is ludicrous to him. Instead, he suggests, they’re just in business like any other fishermen across the globe.

“Shark calling is bullshit,” he says, practically sputtering. “I can take you down to the wharf right now and rattle a Coke can, the sharks will come. The sharks come for the noise.” And when it comes to the boats his suppliers use to catch sharks, “it’s traditional to use canoes. It’s not traditional to use banana boats and motorboats. They’re killing them because there’s a demand for a product, and the product’s fin.”

There are moments when Green feels a twinge of conscience, like when Papua New Guinean authorities—in a rare instance of enforcement—confiscated an illegal Chinese shipment of marine life, depriving the smugglers of their profits. Instead, the Papua New Guinean officials put the cache of sea cucumbers, turtle shells, sea horses, and shark fins—“all this stuff that nobody ought to have,” in Green’s words—up for auction, and Green bought it. “I burned the turtle shells as an example to everybody,” Green says, with a modicum of pride. The rest he destroyed privately.

It’s unclear why Green makes this sort of distinction, that turtles and sea cucumbers deserve to be saved and sharks do not. To some extent this is the kind of contradictory reasoning many individuals and governments use when they make environmental decisions. Warm and cuddly animals should be spared; scary ones should die. But it’s also something I observed time and time again with people who make their living from the sea, whether they’re fishing it or trading in the goods that stem from fishing. None of these people can ignore the fact that the sea’s resources are dwindling, but they need to reconcile this knowledge with their own conscience. So they come up with some sort of rationalization: their own activities are making just a modest dent in the ocean; they’re not the ones driving the demand; or some other excuse. In each case, the final conclusion is the same: they’re not to blame for the ocean’s decline.

That’s why after Green burned the turtle shells he had purchased from authorities, he could go back to his office and continue trading other animals plundered from the sea, on the grounds that his company is different. Since Papua New Guinean law dictates only native residents can trade in shark fins, Emirau Marine Products’ principal owner is a Papua New Guinean. This, in Green’s mind, makes the business acceptable. “I work for a national company,” he says. “They do it because if not, someone from China will come in and do it anyway.”

And when it comes down to it, Green adds, the Chinese are to blame for putting the world in this fix: “You’ve got an emerging middle class, and they are demanding the products they think they need. It’s going to totally fuck the world as it is … It’s only getting worse. It’s a voracious demand that the world will never be able to satisfy.”

In fact, there’s evidence that artisanal fisheries across the continents—from Asia to Africa and North America—are collapsing as foreign, larger vessels come in and swoop up as many sharks and other fish as they can catch. According to the conservation group WildAid, coastal communities in the Indian states of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu have experienced major declines in catches since 2001, which locals describe as ranging between 50 and 70 percent. In the Kenyan shark-fishing village of Ngomeni, industrial long-liners and shrimp trawlers have hampered local fishermen’s ability to feed their own village, let alone sell sharks for profit. In Papua New Guinea, a similar phenomenon is taking place. O’Rourke’s film charted the beginning of this trend in the early 1980s: the final scene captures a Chinese trader haggling with shark callers over the quantity of fins they have brought him. “You must supply at least half a ton or a ton, and then I can give you the world market price,” the trader tells them. As O’Rourke relates, the fins that once served as trophies the men kept in their communal shark-calling quarters have been gathered up and taken to traders in town, as the villagers adjust to a modern, cash-based society: “The fins have come down from the traditional place in the man’s house, because there are taxes and school fees to pay, and new pleasures that only money can buy.”

Cassie Rose, an Australian conservationist now based in Port Moresby, agrees with Green’s assessment. As we sit over drinks at Port Moresby’s Royal Papua Yacht Club (members only, with a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II just to remind guests it is, in fact, a royal yacht club), she looks glumly out at the port that gives Papua New Guinea’s capital its name. “There’s so much illegal fishing in this country it’s outrageous,” Rose says. “Vessels from Asian waters come in, pay a pittance to some locals, rape and pillage, and then they’re out of there. This nation has no chance.”

Men like Karasimbe are less gloomy, because for them shark calling still possesses a sense of magic. Speaking by lamplight one night at his sister’s house, where Laura and I are staying, he tries to explain to me why he goes through so many rites before heading out to sea. “You are paying homage to Moroa, to ask him to give you something,” he says. “You will feel something in your body, and your heart.”

As the sun sets during his traditional offering rite the night before he hunts, Karasimbe prepares a fire into which he throws a piece of taro root or fish. “You will call your ancestor and say, ‘That’s your piece of taro, that’s your piece of fish.’ You tell him, ‘I want one shark tomorrow, you will give me a shark tomorrow.’ And you will be successful. When I make magic, every shark in the sea must come.”

This spiritual connection, Karasimbe suggests, is what sets him apart, both from other villagers and from the few Westerners who come to learn about his practice. “I’m the power maker. I’m the man; I can do something. The power is in me,” he says, pointing to his chest.

There is no question in my mind that Karasimbe believes he’s endowed with special powers and that it is central to his identity. It’s key not just to his self-esteem but to how everyone else views him here. When Karasimbe orders a community viewing of a foreign documentary on shark calling that has a few shots of him in it, everyone in Tembin shows up. They see him as a sort of spiritual medium: it’s not as if he’s a religious authority who tells people how to behave, but he connects them to the departed in a way few others can.

Karasimbe does not use shark calling as an escape from the travails of everyday life. To the contrary: he sees it as something that orders his world and that of others. And he views it as critical to the survival of a culture that is eroding.

As we talk, I stare at his chest: its gray hair is reflecting the light from the coal-fired lamp. Like many Papua New Guineans, Karasimbe does not know his exact age, and estimates he was born around 1945. “Sorry, I don’t know,” he says. He is still physically fit, but his eyes are clouding over with glaucoma, and he spends a lot of time thinking about how he and the handful of remaining shark callers can train younger men to take their places. “It’s our main job,” he says, even more important than catching sharks for the villagers.

But Karasimbe is also trying to make a buck. I am paying him to stay in his sister’s home and for his services as a translator. And he has the improbable dream of running a sort of rustic B&B in Tembin, where tourists would pay to come and witness shark calling for themselves. It’s understandable that he’s trying to cash in on his most marketable skill, given the fact that Papua New Guinea has shifted from bartering to a cash-based economy. In the unlikely event that he succeeds, it will exact a much lighter toll on sharks than the Asian vessels that come and troll the waters off New Ireland.

Karasimbe, like Toxok and others, worries the underwater mineral mining that is likely to commence soon, along with the Taiwanese trawlers that already fish off the coast, will kill many sharks. But as long as there are shark callers, he insists, the sharks will survive. “We will call out all the sharks in the province and bring them together, and we will have many sharks again,” he predicts.

The next day we are headed out to sea.

It is just after 7:00 a.m. when Selam Karasimbe pushes off from shore in the narrow, bleached-wood canoe he had borrowed from a neighbor. Karasimbe has his own boat, complete with the outrigger that gives him crucial balance when he is fighting a shark hand to hand. But a recent storm damaged his lesim, so he is paddling in a newish one, pointed paddle in hand.

Having performed his rituals onshore, Karasimbe moves rapidly through the water, going farther and farther because the water is rougher than he’d like on this summer morning. Sitting in separate canoes with different shark callers, Laura and I keep a respectful distance. Since women are considered bad luck when it comes to shark calling, we’re hoping to avoid tainting the process by staying as far away as possible from Karasimbe’s canoe. As we make our way out to sea, we can hear the beating of drums and young voices in the distance: a group of local children are practicing a musical performance, unaware of our expedition.

After several minutes of paddling, Karasimbe finds a place to stop. He takes out his larung, a rattle composed of two hoops of cane strung with coconut half shells in alternating concave and convex positions. The rattle is surprisingly loud as Karasimbe begins the ritual he has performed hundreds of times before, twisting the rattle from side to side as he bangs it against the boat. The coconut shells dance together, swaying back and forth hypnotically. Then Karasimbe plunges the larung into the water in short bursts, its sound reverberating throughout the ocean. This is the noise that is meant to lure the sharks: Papua New Guineans believe it resembles the sound of a school of fish in trouble.

No sharks appear. Karasimbe repeats the rattle ritual more than half a dozen times in different spots, each time going farther and farther away from land. At one point he plunges his hand into the water, pulls up something, and calls me over. Once I catch up with him, he holds out his palm, and I peer into it. There’s a tiny hermit crab lying on his calloused hand, and this creature, Karasimbe tells me, has come to convey a message.

“This is the little hermit crab that lives on the skin of the shark,” he explains. “She came up to tell us the shark is below but will not come up because there is a problem with someone in the party.”

“Is it because there are women in the party?” I ask, bracing for a lecture.

“Maybe a woman jumped over the canoe,” he replies, citing one of the more common explanations for why shark-calling expeditions fail.

It’s a polite excuse. For whatever reason, the world-famous shark caller has come up empty.

But a few hours later, I get my hopes up when I hear the strangled bellowing of a conch coming from the beach. Maybe someone’s caught a shark after all, I think to myself, and I rush down to the beach to see whether a canoe’s coming onshore. But I find only Solen’s ten-year-old son, who’s named Alois Talin, breathing into the pinkish shell. It’s just a game for him, his small cheeks swelling with air as he imitates his elders.

Together, the boy and I walk across the road, back to the hut of Karasimbe’s sister. I ask him if he wants to be a shark caller when he grows up. Solen’s son hesitates for a moment, and in that instant Karasimbe places his hand on his arm. The boy’s father has already been instructing him on how to carve a canoe, how to paddle, and how to spear fish in the river. Karasimbe is confident the tradition will survive him.

“I will learn him, and he will be a shark caller,” the shark caller says, smiling.

From my perspective, it’s hard to believe that Karasimbe actually exercises magic over the sea. Despite my inherent skepticism, before setting out, I was rooting for him to prove me wrong and summon a shark. But our fishing trip did not produce one, underscoring the real-world factors that determine what happens at sea. It could have been anything from current weather conditions to the increasing number of foreign fishing vessels that now cruise Papua New Guinea’s waters. It is the sort of moment when scientific realties clash with magical beliefs, and over time these differences could prove irreconcilable. If the sharks here become so scarce that shark callers come up empty time after time, a faith tradition that has sustained these communities for centuries will begin to unravel.

That would represent a loss of enormous proportions. Karasimbe may be overhyping his abilities at times, but he remains gifted nonetheless, and he’s worked for years to maintain a practice that came under assault from colonizers that saw dismantling local culture as a path to economic and political domination. It seems incredible to think that the simple act of overfishing may be able to succeed where colonial powers have failed, robbing Papua New Guineans of the spiritual legacy they’ve held on to for generations. It is one of the most ancient human traditions connected with one of the world’s oldest creatures, and it now teeters on the precipice. If it disappears, it will not only cut off a handful of isolated tribes’ connections to the past. It will destroy one of the last bastions of a unique culture and advance in human understanding, where we figured out how to coexist with sharks.