Off the western tip of Efate Island, in the Western Pacific nation of Vanuatu, lies sprawling 6,000-acre Tuku Tuku Ranch. It is owned by the Trammel Crow family of Dallas and by a young American cowboy the family hired to resurrect the ranch after it had fallen into a state of neglect and disrepair. Marcus Thompson landed on Efate with only a grin and a saddle, but he put his body and soul into returning Tuku Tuku to the prize cattle operation it once had been. Realizing its good fortune at finding a dedicated, able manager who would endure the isolation of life on a jungle ranch in remote Vanuatu, the Crow family made him a partner.
Lean, rugged Marcus lives for the outdoors. He is a gifted athlete whose experience has led him to believe that he can surmount any physical obstacle confronting him. At least he thought he could until he met the tiger sharks.
The tiger, in the Western Pacific, is easily the most feared species of shark. While the great white is rarely seen in the waters of New Guinea, the Solomons, and Vanuatu, the tiger shark often lurks close to shore. It grows to an enormous size, it is fearless, and it will attack almost anything without provocation—including man. The tiger shark has one other proclivity that affects the life of Marcus Thompson: Adult tiger sharks may take up residence in the coastal waters adjacent to a particular land form, and the waters off Tuku Tuku are one place they had decided to reside.
There is a hesitant knock, a gentle but persistent tattoo on his door. It is just 5:15 and light is beginning to spread, as resolutely, it seems, as the tapping, which has not abated.
“What?” he says, still mostly asleep.
In pidgin the response comes, barely above a whisper, but loud enough to propel him to his feet. “Yumi hukum wan sak. Hem wan bigfala.”*
Catapulting into his clothes, Marcus grabs the 12-gauge double barrel, glancing at its two bleak, sightless eyes. Then he stuffs a handful of shotgun shells into his pockets. Frederick and Thomas already have the skiff in the water; the big Mariner 75 hums quietly. Out past the reef one of the oil drums that serves as a float for the shark line is doing a surreal dance. It disappears into the water only to splash back to the surface, then skims toward the open sea before slowly rotating again back toward the reef. Anchored by a truck’s crankshaft embedded in the coral, the shark can manage only a 200-foot circle with the empty oil drum skidding along the water behind it.
The boat heads out over the reef, then immediately idles down so as not to startle the shark. The dark shadow swims in a slow circle some twenty feet beneath the surface. It is a tiger and it is very large. The fish appears to be almost as long as their eighteen-foot boat. That means more than half a ton of one of the most dangerous creatures in the world.
Among the native peoples of the Pacific the tiger shark arouses more fear than any other creature. Not only will it attack people without hesitation, it is also commonly known to attack the boats in which they are riding. Fishermen like Marcus have suddenly found themselves the prey instead of the hunter when a furious tiger, with enormous jaws agape, rams and sinks their boat. The tiger is an indiscriminate feeder, consuming anything, digestible or not, that will fit into its massive gullet. Its forty-six serrated, triangular teeth are large, hard enough to cut through a chain or a stainless steel cable, and designed to simultaneously hold and tear its prey. One of the world’s most primitive large animals, the tiger shark is a fearless killing machine with the power and speed of a locomotive.
Marcus feels himself mesmerized by the gray behemoth slowly swimming beneath him. Just behind that great blunt snout an unblinking eye focuses on his pursuer. Marcus shivers, cannot stop himself. Gently he pulls the line to ease the shark closer to the surface. At all cost he wants to avoid antagonizing this huge fish any further. Frederick and Thomas stare silently, open-mouthed. Their black knuckles turn white from clutching the rail. The shark still has far too much strength to be brought closer to the boat. The slightest shock could send him on a rampage that might easily break the inch-thick chain leader or straighten out the ten-inch hook as if it were a paper clip. So they wait in the hot morning sun. They feel divorced from everything on land, from the entire world. All that seems to exist is themselves in their frail aluminum boat and the massive shark curving through the water beneath them.
From far off, somewhere on the ranch a cow bellows. Marcus remembers, sees in his mind’s eye, the bullock calf. Though only six months old, it was large, at least five or six hundred pounds. That afternoon Marcus was sitting astride his mare, Doolittle, on the bluff, idly watching the calf below him wade out into the bay, apparently trying to get around the end of the barbed-wire fence anchored a hundred feet offshore to prevent the animals from going around it. He wondered if the calf would be able to swim around the fence. Small waves slowly swept by the calf, just wetting its belly. Suddenly it let out a horrible bellow, more like a honk. The sea around the calf suddenly was in turmoil; the water bubbled and frothed with blood. The calf struggled, desperately attempting to retain its footing, but it failed. Its knees collapsed. Kicking, but strangely no longer bellowing, it went over on its side. Marcus and Doolittle charged down the bluff to see a large tiger shark in water so shallow that its dorsal fin was completely exposed. Now, with the calf immobilized, the shark surfed in with each wave, taking another bite from the still-thrashing calf, and sliding back out again with the receding wave. Marcus galloped across the beach, lassoed the calf, and dragged the quivering body from the water. But it was too late. The heart still pumped but rivers of blood simply poured out on the sand. Gaping holes lined the hindquarters, and when Marcus rolled the animal over, the stomach was gone. The tiger shark had disappeared.
Only a few months before the calf was attacked, he was wading in the same bay one evening, spin fishing for trevally, a large reef fish. The sun was going down. There was a glare on the water. He had his lure almost like a fly on the surface. It splashed. He remembered the little splashes, little circles of water where the lure hit. One moment his world was totally at peace; the next moment it exploded.
Marcus could only guess that because of its size (over ten feet, he thinks), its aggressiveness, and the shallow water he was in, his encounter was with a tiger shark. Recounting that story, he says, “I can’t see the shark but I can see the water flowin’ over the top of its head. There is a lotta something and lots of big teeth. I jerked the lure out away from him and it landed right next to me, maybe five or six feet away. The shark turned—you could see the swirl—and it’s coming right at me. Here I am in waist-deep water and a hundred and fifty yards from shore. I’m holding my rod and reel out of water. I’m on my tippy-toes and I’m sayin’ my prayers. I keep tellin’ myself what I’ll do—how good I’ll be if it doesn’t kill me. I look down and, whoosh, it blasts by me, maybe a foot from my right side, and hits the lure again. Then it disappears. I don’t move for maybe a half-hour after it’s gone. Finally, I very slowly walk to shore.”
Are Marcus’s experiences with shallow-water shark attacks unusual? It depends on whom you listen to. Everywhere tourists go in shark territory, they hear the same reassuring slogan from resort owners and dive-shop operators: “More people are killed by lightning every year than by shark attacks.” No doubt that is true in Kansas and Switzerland. It is certainly not true in the South Pacific, although statistics are hard to come by because many of the countries do not keep records, probably because they are afraid publicity would affect their tourist industries. But the opinion of old-time residents is that in Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, and New Guinea, three or four shark-caused fatalities occur per country per year—and perhaps there are double this number of attacks. The numbers are slightly higher in Australia and somewhat lower in the Polynesian island groups. Many attacks are provoked, however, by spear fishermen dangling bleeding fish from their belts or diving at night when tigers and great whites are most likely to be feeding inshore.
Still, many victims have been taken in the most innocent of circumstances. One day, on a scorching afternoon near the island of Malekula, an expatriate mother was dunking her baby in shallow water from the side of a small boat when a large tiger shark came out of the water and tore the lower half of the baby from her arms. A daylight attack like that might seem `unprovoked,’ but many people don’t understand a shark’s physiology and behavior. The rhythmic dunking of the baby produced vibrations and sound waves probably resembling those made by a wounded fish. These could attract sharks from over a quarter-mile, since water conducts sound almost five times as fast as air (5,003 feet per second compared with 1,159 feet per second). Sharks are equipped with more acute senses than almost any other predator. Their “inner ear” and their lateral line, a liquid-filled canal running from head to tail, allows them not only to detect sound and motion in the water, but to pinpoint its exact location. The shark’s olfactory sense is also acute. Even a small amount of blood in the water can be identified more than a mile away, as can the distinctive odor given off by a frightened fish—and, perhaps, a human. Their vision, while not as developed as their other senses, is also excellent. Clearly, sharks are supremely well adapted to their environment and to their role as carnivores.
Many victims of shark attacks in the Western Pacific have not been scuba divers, but rather swimmers, snorkelers, and bathers frolicking in shallow water. For this reason, many experienced scuba divers maintain that sharks, regardless of species, are not a problem and shouldn’t be considered dangerous. This misleading statement has cost the lives of many non-divers. Yet marine zoologists say that these enormous predators are vanishing from the waters of the Earth. Many are becoming endangered species, and without a change of attitude by the sharks’ only predator, they may soon be extinct.
This does not presently enter into Marcus’s consciousness, however. As he watches the shark circle below him, he hears the words of European friends echoing in his ears, “Marcus, someday we’re going to find a black cowboy hat and a pair of boots out there on the side of the beach.” He hopes that never happens, but he has done some dumb things. He remembers the day he and Daddy Larone, his regular shark-catching partner, rowed out to the traps in his dinghy. One of the oil drums had disappeared, but they didn’t know why. So they rowed out and saw that a thirteen- or fourteen-foot tiger was tangled in the anchor line. Daddy, a tiny half-French, half-Melanesian from New Caledonia, was looking down in the water.
“Daddy looks down,” Marcus says, “and I put my glasses in the water and looked down at the shark real good and I couldn’t see any movement at all. Daddy says, `Ah, he’s dead. Sure as hell he’s dead.’ I said, `I don’t know, Daddy, he looks kinda healthy to me.’ And he said, `Nope, nope, look at him.’ We watched, couldn’t see any gill movement, anything at all, and I said, `Okay, go down and git him.’ He said, `No, you go down and git him.’ So anyway I ended up goin’ down. I didn’t have flippers, fins, or mask on or anything. I went down and tried to untangle the line. The first time I couldn’t quite get him, and came back up for air and went back down again. The next time, I had my arm around him, right around his chest, between his head and his dorsal fin, just like you would pick up a small child. With my left hand I’m trying to untangle the anchor chain and I have the feeling that he is looking at me. I am right next to his mouth and nostrils and suddenly I can feel him—he is vigorous and he is alive. And I says, `It’s time for me to book on outta here.’ My adrenaline is pumping and my heart is out to my kneecaps, but I don’t swim. The fastest way to get up was right up the shark line because you can pull faster than you can swim. I came up out of the water and into the boat all in one motion. We looked down and by now the shark is free of the anchor chain and is swimming around. Well, after it was all over, Daddy and me had a pretty good laugh about that one. I’m not sure I would ever do that again—still, it would be a shame to waste all that meat.”
Marcus seems barely able to rationalize shark hunting. Were it not for the danger the sharks present to himself, his men, and his livestock, he thinks he could not kill them. “They are magnificent animals,” he says. “They are so at home in the wild that it makes you feel like you’re way out of place. I was raised hunting and fishing all my life,” he continues, “and I’ve shot and killed a lotta ducks and geese and deer and elk and everything else. I’m gettin’ to the point in my life where I feel that everything has a cycle of life, every animal has a meaning, you know. Just going out and killing for no reason I think is sinful as hell. Yeah, I’m gettin’ more and more leaning in that direction; so if they weren’t a danger to us, I wouldn’t be catchin’ ’em.”
This shark is now towing the empty oil drum in spurts, dragging the drum just under the surface and throwing up a huge plume of water as it tries to dive. Then tiring, the big gray fish comes back up. Frederick slowly pulls in line, hand over hand, each time the fish surfaces, only to lose it again on the next dive. He is very wary of the shark and steps back toward the center of the boat whenever the fish’s elliptical course brings it near. “You’re not scared of him, are you, Frederick?” Marcus asks, laughing. Frederick doesn’t answer but only gives Marcus a rueful look.
“The previous fall Frederick was out in the boat with me,” Marcus says. “It was about Frederick’s second time out. The first time he was out with me it went really easy. Anyway, this [second] time we are watchin’ the line and it doesn’t look like anything is suspicious. All of a sudden—the shark must’ve been just sittin’ there restin’—and all of a sudden, boom, everything goes under the water, and Frederick, he jumps about halfway through the ceiling and he says, `We got one, we got one!’ you know, and so I said, `Awright, awright.’ And everybody’s in the bush [everybody else is back at the ranch], just me and him are out there. And he says, `We must go back and get ’em two or three more boys,’ and I said, `Nope, me and you are gonna get this shark.’ And so we get out there and [the shark’s] pretty rambunctious and looks like a real active big shark. But what it was was a nine- or ten-footer hooked behind the dorsal fin. He had hooked first in the mouth—I keep my hooks real real sharp–and got off the line evidently. Then when he swung around, he slapped his body against the hook and it rehooked him behind the dorsal fin. You can’t turn a fish hardly when he’s hooked in the tail. I’ve accidentally snagged a lot of fish in the river and you can’t do it. This one it took us about an hour and fifteen minutes just to get him tired out enough to where we could get him up to shoot him. We got him up, and I told Frederick to grab ahold of his tail because I had ahold of his dorsal fin and his tail was comin’ out of the water. So Frederick reaches over, grabs ahold of his tail, and the shark gives a big whack! It knocks Frederick pretty nearly out the other side of the boat, and there is a big tail print right across, from his belly button all the way across his back. It’s a perfect shark tail imprinted on his skin, or rather where his skin had been. The shark’s skin is like sandpaper and Frederick all of a sudden is wearin’ a pink shark’s tail.
“And when that happened, Frederick’s eyes got about [Marcus spreads his hands] that big around. He didn’t say anything, `Let’s get outta here’ or anything, but you could see he was ready to walk on water. And when we finally got the shark, then it tickled hell outta him.”
But this shark, Marcus has to keep his mind on this shark, the one that is beside him now. He cannot afford the luxury of daydreaming. One stupid move, it could be their lives. The tiger seems to be tiring. Marcus bends over the side near the bow to look closer. Frederick and Thomas do likewise. Their sudden appearance instantly throws the shark into a frenzy. Before they can do anything, make the slightest move, the shark is around the other side of the bow and dives. The steel line attaching it to the empty oil drum sizzles as if it were on fire. The bow of the boat is now under the line—between the shark and the oil drum—and as the shark dives, the bow of the aluminum skiff is pulled down with it. Marcus, Frederick, and Thomas are in the air. They land in a pile in the bow, driving the boat down further. Water begins flooding in as though someone had opened a fire hydrant. Thomas and Frederick scramble toward the stern to equalize the weight in the boat and also to get as far away as possible from the shark. Marcus tries to pry the line off the bow, but with the thousand-pound shark still diving it is like a steel band attached to the boat. He can’t budge it. Water keeps pouring in, and now the boat begins to settle in the sea. Frederick and Thomas are hollering, screaming in pidgin, something about shooting the shark, which is crazy because it is twenty feet underwater. Marcus cannot think. “Shut up!” he screams at them, “We gotta pry this line loose!” Even with Thomas and Frederick holding onto the stern, the boat is still forty-five degrees to the sea and continues to fill. Another minute and they will be in the water with the tiger. The thought of again being in the water with a furious tiger shark drives Marcus to desperation. With all his strength and weight he pushes against the line to free it. But the only result is the shredding of his fingers on the line’s broken steel filaments. Marcus’s blood mixes with the water in the bow, swirling in intricate little eddies around his legs. He can only think about the need to free the line. Again he pushes against it with all his might, but the float attached to the anchor on the bottom is at the end of its tether. The adrenaline pumping through his brain makes Marcus dizzy. He feels as if he’s been hit by some superdrug. Everything is totally clear and he seems to have extraordinary strength—but it is not enough to do more than further tear his fingers. What can he do? He feels so helpless and there is no time left to do anything. The boat is sinking.
Suddenly the shark changes course and the boat bounces out from under the line. Marcus and the others are flung down with a thump. Unable to move, the three men just sit and look at each other. Then they see that the shark line is slack. The shark must have gotten off, probably straightened out the hook. Marcus reaches over and gives a gentle tug. Amazingly, there is still resistance, but not the same fighting resistance as before. Hand over hand he pulls in the exhausted shark until its head is next to the middle of the boat. In his right hand Marcus holds the loaded 12-gauge. For a long few seconds he is drawn to look into that great eye that is consciously focused on him, thinking what? Sadly, Marcus realizes the shark just wants to get away—to live. With the movement of a single finger he can put a couple of loads of double-ought buckshot right behind the eyes, blowing two plate-sized holes in the shark’s central nervous system, ending its life in an instant. Time stands still as Marcus ponders the great cosmos that looks uncomplainingly back at him. Finally two roars echo off the surrounding hills.
NOTE- When I interviewed Marcus Thompson in 1984 neither tiger sharks nor great whites were considered to be in jeopardy. Now we know that both species are threatened.
* Bislama, or Pidgen English, is the national language of Vanuatu.