Shark calling, is a traditional ritual practiced by the people of New Ireland made famous by Australian filmmaker, Dennis O’Rouke in his 1972 documentary, The Shark Callers of Kontu. This documentary is one of the few (most probably the only) fully documented records available of this ritual – even the year of the documentary is subject to much speculation. In my older post, I said it was in 1982 but I have been able to confirm that is was 1972 and not 1982.
Very little is known about Shark Calling outside of the people who practice it that my visit to the festial helped me understand so much more about these people and their tradition. Whats even more frightening is that, this once widely practiced ritual is quickly disappearing. Christainity and lack of interest by younger people of today are almost always the reason behind this as well as other cultural practices in PNG.
So what exactly is Shark calling?
Shark calling is a ritual where men in dug-out canoes go out to sea armed with a rattle, made from coconut shells, a noose attached to a float, a club and a counch shell to hunt sharks. Legends of how this practice came about is a different topic and will be covered later.
Once out at sea, the rattle is put into the water and shaken, it is believed the sound it makes under water is similar to that of a school of fish in distress. This will attract sharks. When a shark approaches, it is lured to the bait on the other side of the noose. As its head passes through, the noose tightens around its head, the float on the noose keeps the shark afloat. The animal is then pulled up to the side of the canoe and clubbered to death. The counch shell is used to signal success but can also be used to sound an emergency or send other signals – each with a distinct sound.
It is important to note that unlike many other rituals in other parts of PNG as well as other societies in different cultures around the world, shark calling is not an initiation. It does not mark the transit to different stages in life nor does it give any prestiage among anyone in the community. It is accepted that some people are just not meant for the trait and can spend all of their lives going to sea but will not catch a shark, while for others, this comes almost naturally, althoug there are rituals that must be observed before one goes to sea to call sharks.
Shark Calling Festival, 2013
The thrill of watching men armed with primitive tools has attracted people from all over the world and continues to attract many more to the New Ireland, so much so that the New Ireland Provincial Tourist Authority has listed it as a tourism attraction for the province. The success of this, I can not say much.
This years event was scheduled for late June but was defered to late July because of financial constraints. I attended together with a colleague and two other tourists; an Australiana and an English, loking forward to three days of shark calling and the rare occassion to actually witness a shark being caught.
Much to our dismay, our hopes were quickly washed away by torrential tropical storms – after three days and attempts by as many as 60 individuals, no sharks were caught. We left feeling very disappointed.
So why would attempts by 60 men over three days yield zero sharks? Interesting question that puts to doubt the belief of this ritual being ruled by some supernatural beings (as per traditional beliefs).
Lets look at some other facts, the dates marked on the calender as festival (shark calling) dates are not actually the dates men go out to hunt sharks but are in fact dates marking the end of one hunting season. A typical hunting season lasts from January through to the end of June, after this, conditions are not right and chances fo catching a shark are slim. Maybe this was why no sharks were caught when we were there.
Anyways, from this information, I have decided to try something else. I will be starting up a working relationship with the village people here such that each time a shark is caught, they try to identify the shark and take some other measurements. At the next shark calling festival marking the end of one hunting season, I go back and collect data.
It is hoped that the information I gather from this data can help understand shark behaviour in the are and can even contribute to conservation of these animals.