The Shark, the Samoan, and the boy from New York City
by © gene carl feldman

I was living as a Peace Corps volunteer in a little village called Aleipata on the southeastern tip of the island of Upolu, Western Samoa. This is a small village composed mostly of fishermen.

From afar, it looked like the idyllic south seas paradise with palm trees, thatched houses without walls sitting atop platforms of lava rock, and blindingly white coral paths weaving their way through the village. Offshore, were a few small, uninhabited islands with names like Nu'utele, Nu'ulua, Namu'a and Fanuatapu (a former leper colony) that form the basis of another tale.

One of the things I used to do as part of my job was to go out daily to catch fish to feed the baby sea turtles that we were raising in the hatchery (yet another story). We had our own boat but I would often go out with the local fishermen as well. The most common boat in Samoa was a small (15-18') dugout canoe with an outrigger to one side to prevent it from rolling over in the high, pacific swells.

Remember, Samoa is in the middle of the Pacific with the next land to the east being South America, nearly 6,000 miles away and to the south, Antarctica. Consequently, there is little margin for error when you run around those waters in a small boat. The smaller boats were paddled, and generally stayed within the reef, fishing for things like reef fish and octopus in the relative calm of the reef-protected lagoons.

The larger canoes (18-24') often have a small, 25 horsepower outboard strapped to the outrigger support. You haven't lived until you have tried to make it through a narrow opening in the reef, at night, when the wind is knocking the crests off the waves and all you have to navigate by is the sound of the surf crashing on the coral heads on either side of the opening.

Anyway, I digress. One afternoon, I went out with one of the local fishermen to see what we could catch. I think his canoe was about 18 feet and it certainly wasn't one of the newer models. It had seen its share of coral heads over the years and the engine looked like it would have been more at home in a museum rather than on an active fishing boat. Oh, just in case you are wondering, nobody in Samoa has ever heard of life jackets. Besides, it is a pretty safe bet that the sharks would find you long before another boat would. So, we head out east from the village (remember, next stop, South America) and go about 15-20 miles offshore when we spot a school of tuna feeding at the surface.

The way you spot a school of tuna is to look for birds. The tuna chase large schools of small fish up to the surface and just pick the ones they want for lunch. The poor little fish with nowhere to go to escape the voracious teeth of the pursuing tuna, jump out of the water, only to be pounced on by the flocks of diving seabirds, screeching at the top of their lungs. It is really something to be in the middle of since the birds and tuna are both in a feeding frenzy and completely ignore the boat. The sounds of splashing, the large tuna leaping out of the water in pursuit of their prey, and the screeching and crashing of the birds as the hit the water trying to catch the same, poor little fish from above. Not a good place to be if you happen to be a small fish.

So here we come along with our little boat and a few squid-like lures, trolling through the middle of this scene right out of Dante's Inferno, and within seconds, tuna are hitting the lures, mistaking them for the little fish that they have their minds set on.
Within minutes we must have caught 25-30 small skipjack tuna and a few larger yellowfin tuna. Now remember, and you can look at the picture above to see just how little room there is in the bottom of one of these boats. We were now sitting there in the boat with fish, some of them pretty darn big, jumping like crazy. Tuna have a very interesting anatomical feature at the base of their tail fins called scutes. These sharp, hard protrusions can break your hand if you are not careful. Lest we forget, tuna are some of the fastest swimmers in the sea and they have some serious strength in their tails.

Before I go any further, I need to add one more bit of information. When tuna are feeding on small fish, they don't always chew with their mouths closed as we have all be taught to do. As a result, the waters around one of these feeding frenzies are often littered with bits and pieces of partially eaten fish and whatever used to be on the insides of those fish....including blood. And what animal in the ocean is attracted by blood in the water? Come on now, you know the answer to that one..... Right! SHARKS.

Sharks love this stuff and one can generally find plenty of sharks swimming around the fringes of one of these feeding frenzies.

OK, back to the story, but the information provided above will come in handy in a little while. So here we are, back in the boat with tuna dancing at our feet when all of a sudden, a large hole opens up in the bottom of the canoe. Neither one of us was sure as to what caused the hole to open, but it was probably a combination of too many bumps against the coral and a well placed thwack from the scutes of one of a large yellowfin. Anyway, now in addition to all the blood that is filling the bottom of the boat, the Pacific ocean decides to come in too.

So here we are, about 20 miles from shore in the middle of the ocean, in a boat that is filled with blood and guts that is rapidly filling with stuff that should by all rights stay on the outside of the hull, and surrounded by sharks. I sat there for a moment....I swear it was just a moment but a whole stream of thoughts went through my head as if I were watching a feature length film and the message that kept being flashed on the screen over and over again was.....HOW THE HELL DID A BOY FROM NEW YORK CITY COME TO BE IN A SINKING CANOE IN THE MIDDLE OF THE PACIFIC OCEAN?

I wasn't really looking for an answer at that point, but it just seemed like a good question to ask at the time. Now since my Samoan friend, Koli was his name, knew perfectly well how he came to be in the middle of the Pacific Ocean in a sinking canoe, he didn't waste any time thinking about it.

He stood up, ripped off the lavalava that he had wrapped around his waist (Samoans rarely wear pants. Usually, they wear a bit of cloth called a lavalava that wraps around the waist and reaches down to mid-calf) and stuffed it into the gaping hole at the bottom of the canoe. Mind you, he never even let go of his fishing line during this process.

As this was happening, I had collected myself enough to realize that I had better do something to help the situation so I grabbed the rusty, tin can that is a required piece of survival gear on any Samoan canoe, and started to bail like mad. Since most Samoans don't have can openers, they generally use their machetes to open everything from coconuts to cows to cans. So in addition to all the fish blood and water that I was busily bailing out of the boat, I added a little of my own blood to the mix.

Alright, back to the sharks...remember them? So here I am doing the very thing that one should NEVER do if you happen to be in the middle of the ocean and are at all concerned about finding yourself in the water anytime soon. Before you could say "JAWS", we were surrounded by what must have been at least 8 large, black-tipped reeef sharks. At least I think that was the kind they were. I was not really in any condition to remember my vertebrate zoology 101 at that point. However, what is one person's concern is another person's opportunity. My boatmate said that this was a wonderful chance to catch a shark and bring it back along with all the tuna we had already filling the bottom of the boat.

Now, the Samoans have a rather unique way of catching sharks. Very traditional....very innovative.... very, well, I'll let you be the judge of the appropriate term. Koli grabbed one of the skipjack and with his ever-present machete, cut off the fish's head. He gave me one of those "all the better to catch sharks with" expressions. He handed me the somewhat shortened fish and told me to hold it over the side, IN THE WATER.

I looked at him, a puzzled look in my eyes, and with the best that my Samoan language training and months of cultural sensitivity had deeply instilled in my very soul, I said (translated here of course).. "ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR %$#@$#% MIND!" he said that I just had to remember to either let go of the fish when the shark bit it, or to pull my hand out of the water (and hopefully not the shark's mouth) just before he bit.

With those sage words of advice, I leaned over the side and proceeded to swish the fish back and forth in the water. Although I tried to keep my hands well clear of the water, everytime a wave would come our way, or when the canoe would rock, I found myself submerged up to my elbow. Koli reached under his seat and pulled out a coconut fiber rope that he kept handy for just such an occasion. He tied a loop at one end of the rope and knelt beside me. remember, he donated his lavavlava to keep us from sinking. What a sight we must have made. Anyway, I'm swishing fish and he's looking for sharks....not that I wasn't looking for sharks, but I think we each had a very different reason for looking for them.

I guess it must have been five minutes when we both spotted a large shape circling the boat. I have got to be completely honest and say that even though I love the ocean and all the creatures that live within it, there is nothing quite as ominous as seeing that vertical fin slowly swimming your way, particularly when you are no more than one foot above the water yourself. Also, being in a blood filled, lavalava-patched dugout canoe adds to the drama.

So here comes the shark, making ever smaller circles around the boat when finally, he comes right alongside, heading straight for the swishing fish, with my arm attached. Just before that encounter that I had been dreading took place, Koli plunged both arms into the water until his head was submerged, passed the noose around the shark's head and back behind the shark's gills, just in front of the pectoral fins. He emerged from the water, hanging on to the end of the now tightly closed noose, propped his back against one side of the canoe, his feet on the other and we were both staring into the jaws of one seriously pissed off shark.

My Samoan may have been a bit new at the time, but my friend started shouting something that when translated, sounded like the title of a Michael Jackson song. Now I know that he wasn't really thinking about music at the time and I finally figured out that "beat it" meant something that he wanted me to DO and not SING! I looked under his seat (I mean he had everything under that seat) and saw what looked like a sawed off baseball bat. Picking it up, I remembered what Roger Marris looked like the day he broke Babe Ruth's home run record and tried to hit one out of the park. After what seemed like an eternity, the shark seemed to have finally quieted down enough for us to move on to the next stage in this lesson in cross-cultural technology transfer.

With my shipmate still holding onto the shark's head with the noose, he told me to grab the tail and flip the shark into the boat. Again, mustering all my language skills I said (translated again) "ARE YOU REALLY OUT OF YOUR %$#@$#%# MIND!" he said that if we left the shark in the water, all his shark buddies would come around and start thinking it was a free lunch counter and in their excitement to get a piece of the action, might crash into the side of our already very marginal canoe. So, realizing that he actually did have a valid point, I grabbed the shark by the tail, and with one mighty heave, flipped it up into the boat.

Although it had been years, there was something that I had learned in a class that I took about the fact that sharks have all sorts of body parts that are fairly having their entire bodies covered with what are essentially millions of tiny little shark teeth.

Well, at that very moment, I was given a "hands-on" lesson in shark anatomy. As the shark came across the gunwale, some part of the shark, it might have been the tail, tore across my arm like a warm knife through butter. Again, the thought that kept flashing through my mind was... "HOW THE HELL DID A BOY FROM NEW YORK CITY COME TO BE IN A SINKING, BLOOD AND SHARK-FILLED CANOE IN THE MIDDLE OF THE PACIFIC OCEAN". Again, no answer was provided.

I guess the jolt was enough the awaken the last bit of energy left in the shark. So picture this. Two men, actually, one boy and one half naked Samoan, perched at either end of an 18 foot sinking canoe, the bottom of which is filled with the bodies of tuna of various sizes, on top of which is the writhing, snapping body of what I believe was a twelve foot shark who was very, very pissed off at us.

I won't go into detail as to what Koli did at this point, but let me just say that from the time he could walk, Koli has had a machete by his side, so he is very good at using one. Anyway, within minutes the shark was no longer a threat. However, the added weight of the shark, the fish and a good chunk on the Pacific Ocean had seriously exceeded the safe load limit posted on the side of the canoe.....right next to where the life jackets should have been stowed.

We spent the next few hours chugging along very slowly back towards shore, all the while, I was bailing as if my life depended on it....actually, come to think of did!

gene carl feldman (