The Shark That Came For Poi

Long before she got this close and before I even saw her, I could feel her.  Although she is beautiful and graceful almost beyond belief, it was her presence that I was most in awe of.  I have never been in the proximity of such absolute power.  Her strength practically pulsed through the water and stirred something deep within me.

It wasn't fear, although I knew that I was a helpless visitor in her world, completely at her mercy.  What I felt is difficult to explain, exactly.  I do know that it was one of the most powerfully emotional experiences that I've ever had.  If I had to put a name to it, I'd say that in that moment, I felt more respect for her than I ever had for anyone or anything previously or since.  

Not for even a moment, though, did I feel like she wanted to harm me.  She circle the area causally.  Eventually, she slowly rose from beneath me and approached. She swam directly toward me and turned away just before bumping my camera.  When she turned, she made eye contact with me, or at least that's how it seemed.  There was no malice in her eyes, no threat in her movement.  

It's no wonder that sharks held a revered place in ancient Polynesian culture:


"See that shark?"

"He's a big one!  What do you suppose he wants?"

As the men paddled toward the coast, they watched the great shark following their canoe.  "What do you want, old shark?" one asked at last.  "Do you know that we carry pa'i'ai to our relatives?  Do you eat poi, O shark?  Here then!" and the man threw a small bundle toward the shark.

The great fish did not catch and swallow the food but pushed it with his nose.  The mean saw him swimming toward shore, pushing the little bundle through the waves.  They watched him as long as he was in sight.  "That is a strange thing," one of the men said.  "He seemed to know we had a load of pa'i'ai."

"But he did not eat it," the other man answered.  "Whoever saw a shark pushing food through the waves as that one did?"

"And why did he want it?" the first man asked again.  "Where is he taking it?"

The next week these men again paddled along the coast with pa'i'ai, the dry pounded kalo form which poi is made.  Again the shark followed and again swam toward the shore pushing before him the small bundle thrown to him.  This happened many times.

The one day the first man said, "I mean to find out about that shark."  He told the other man, "You paddle toward the coast with the food and throw a bundle to the shark as you always do.  I shall follow in a small canoe and see if I can learn what the shark does with the bundle."

The smaller canoe was some distant behind the larger one.  He saw the other man through the bundle of food and watched the shark swim with it to a small beach.  Then a strange thing happened.  He saw an old man come down the beach, leaning on a stick.  He watched as the old man picked up the bundle and hobbled to his house. 

Very curious, the man beached his canoe beyond a point of land and walked along the shore.  He came to the house the old man had entered.  "O friend," he called, "here is a thirsty one.  Can you give me a drink?"

The old man hobbled to the door.  "Come in, drink and eat.  Our water is a bit brackish, but it will cure your thirst."  He brought a gourd of water.  Then brought fish and poi.  "Eat," he repeated.

The man took the food.  He had looked quickly about the little place and noticed that only the old man and his wife lived there.  Still he wondered.  "This food tastes good to a hungry traveller," he said.  "I thank you, old man.  But I wonder at the poi.  Can one so old as you work in the kalo patch?"  

"Alas, no," the old man answered.  "And we have no relative in this village to bring food.  But in the bay we have a friend.  A good shark brings us fish.  Of late, he brings poi, too.  Every few days he comes with a bundle of pa'i'ai for us.  I pound it with fresh water and make the good poi which you taste."

"Where does the shark get the pa'i'ai?" the man asked, wondering whether the old man knew.

The old man answered simply, "The gods provide."

The man paddled back to his village and told what he had seen and heard.  The people were full of wonder and sympathy.  "The poor old folks," they said. "With no child to care for them!"  And, "What a wise shark!  After this he shall have a big bundle of food each week."

And so he did.  For many months, the shark was given a big bundle of pa'i'ai whenever they paddled out to sea and the bundle was dropped for him close to the beach where the old couple lived.  

Then one day, the shark did not come.  The next week, still he was not seen. "I shall take the food," the man said and paddled straight to the old man's village.  He found the little home empty.  Not even mats or bowls were there.  The man went to a neighbor.  "I have come to see the old man who used to live in that house," he told them, pointing.

"He is dead," the neighbor answered, "and his wife has gone to relative in another village."

The man paddled back to his village and told his friend, "The shark's work is done."

The shark was never seen again.


For 400 million years, sharks have roamed every ocean on Earth.  Sharks have survived five mass extinctions, including the one that killed the dinosaurs.  Few species have thrived on our plant for as long - and few have been so misunderstood.  The truth is that these mysterious, magnificent hunters are essential to the balance of marine ecosystems, help boost local economies, and are actually worth more alive than dead.

Nevertheless, an estimate 100 million sharks are killed every year, largely due to continued demand for shark products and the high value of large shark fins.  In 2014, Hong Kong imported more that 5700 metric tons of shark fin and other shark products, according to date from its census and statistics department.  Over fifty per cent of the annual global shark fin trade passes through Hong Kong.

Like other large animals, sharks are vulnerable to overfishing because they grow slowly and don't have many offspring.  About five years ago, marine biologists Mike Heithaus and Demian Chapman of Florida International University began a large collaboration called Global FinPrint.

The project's aim was to survey, in a standardized way, the world's reef shark species, such as tiger sharks and hammerheads.  The group focused on reef sharks because they are easier to spot than species that roam the high seas.  

Six researches coordinated surveys of coral reefs in various parts of the world by more than 120 scientists.  At dozens of places on each reef, researchers lowered video cameras attached to 1.5 meter long poles with shark bait at the far end.  

After three years, the team, along with 700 volunteers, reviewed about 18,000 hours of video from 371 tropical reefs. They found that at 69 reefs around the world, no sharks were caught on video.  While there may have been a few sharks that didn't take the bait, the overall low numbers suggest sharks no longer perform an ecological role on these reefs.  This is according to Aaron MacNeil, a reef ecologist at Dalhousie University who led the design of the sampling.  

What that means is that sharks are missing from 19% of the world's coral reefs, the greatest decline in sharks ever recorded.  Among creatures that, again, survived five mass extinctions.

In the waters of eight countries the ocean's top predators are now "functionally extinct."  We can't let this story end the way the story of the shark that brought poi...."the shark was never seen again."