The Greenland Shark
Description and Habitat
Greenland sharks flourish in the waters around Iceland. They move through the northern Atlantic and Arctic oceans, huge and old and slow as mountains. Approaching the heft of the Great White, they eat whatever they want—apex predator/crafty scavenger—and could eat you, too, but for the icy, inhospitable habitat they prefer that keeps you mostly out of their way.
Members of the somniosidae, or sleeper shark, family, with small eyes and snub snout, underwhelming dorsal and pectoral fins, they are less terrifying than awe-inspiring to behold. If you beheld, which is hard to do because they can dive so very deep, more than a mile, to hang out on the continental shelf.
The scientific name for the Greenland shark is Somniosus microcephalus, which as far as I can discern, seems to mean sleeping small head. Some call them gurry shark or grey, or by their Inuit name, eqalussuaq, which just means shark.
My father was born and lived in New York for a lot of his life. He died in Connecticut. Both states belong to the eastern region of the United States, though in his businessman career, he did venture further east to Tokyo; as far south as Sydney and Buenos Aires; and West to Waikiki. In 1967 he left his hometown of Dobbs Ferry, NY for the northernmost place of his life–Anchorage, Alaska where he was stationed as an M.P. at the end of the Vietnam War.
Narrow-shouldered and slight, he nevertheless elicited terror or awe in my friends who would gather on our back porch under the ceiling fan after school. “Your father never speaks,” they would say. “Does he hate us? Why is he always so quiet?” Holidays at my mother’s sister’s house, her eleven raucous siblings in the kitchen and my father, gone deep and solitary, escaped to the crook of the living room couch.
His name was Richard, which means brave power, but mostly he answered to Rick. His parents playfully called him Churd, which took me an embarrassing number of years to figure out.
When feasting on the bodies of colossal prey—say polar bears—the Greenland shark’s top teeth serve to anchor the animal while the bottom jaw’s interlocking teeth cut through with a rolling motion.
When feeding on something he enjoyed—say sweetbreads or a greasy slice of New York-style pizza—my father would sometimes close his eyes while he chewed.
I find I do this while I brush my teeth.
History and Legend
Prized for their production of rich liver oil which was used for industrial purposes, the Greenland shark was once an immensely important catch for fishermen. In an Inuit legend, the first Greenland shark, a creature called Skalugsuak, is created when an old woman washes her hair in urine and throws the drying cloth into the sea.
My father never took us fishing as kids, but he told me stories about catching crayfish on the banks of the Hudson River when he was a teenager. I imagine him traipsing back to their dark railroad apartment smelling of stolen Budweiser and brine. His mother, who worked the night shift, would have been sleeping. If he was very quiet, he could sneak past without rousing her wrath.
The Greenland shark preys on cod, sculpins, lumpfish, skates and even smaller members of its own species. They scavenge seals. Parts of larger creatures like polar bears, horses, reindeer and moose have turned up inside their behemoth bodies.
My father’s Army jeep almost hit a moose on an icy road in Anchorage. He told me it was one of the scariest moments of his life.
Anchorage and Reykjavik occupy almost the same latitude: 61.2181° and 64.1265° respectively.
In Tokyo he ate so much fresh fish. In Buenos Aires, steak—the best, he told me, he’d ever had. In Sydney, huge prawns, juicy with their heads still on. Good to suck.
In Honolulu in 1985, when I was fifteen and on a family vacation, we shared fresh pineapple until it shredded my mouth, and a surprising kind of seaweed you could pick right from the beach. Sweet and salt.
In Reykjavik with students in 2017, when I was 46, my father was not with me to eat hákarl —an Icelandic delicacy of fermented Greenland shark. To be honest, I had no plans of trying it, ammonia not being a flavor I want in my mouth.
The Greenland shark has the longest known lifespan of all vertebrate species. The oldest on record is said to have lived for 392 plus or minus 120 years.
The current average life expectancy for a white, American male, like my father was, is 76.71 years. For white, American females, like I am, it is 81.48 years.
My father’s life lasted 46 years and 10 months.
I am currently 46 years and 8 months old.
Longevity in the Greenland shark likely has something to do with the speed—that is, the lack of speed, the slowest rate of movement of all fish species—with which it moves through the water. With only a top speed of 1.6 mph, even my father and I, walking for exercise down our street, so sluggish in the summer after his heart attack, could have outpaced it.
In this way, the Greenland shark is much like the gigantic Galapagos tortoise, Chelonoidis nigra, whose slow metabolism carries it forward, inchingly, on sturdy legs until it earns the word ancient. Wingless leviathan, it is quite the opposite, then, of the Ruby-throated hummingbird, Archilochus colubris, whose ceaseless, frantic flapping is fueled by a simple, evolutionary urgency: keep moving.
These are facts I learned by re-reading the essay, “Joyas Voladoras,” by the writer Brian Doyle, who died this year at the age of 60, which is also much too young. I have a habit of counting up from 46 on my fingers, of looking into the faces of aging men and trying to find my father there. It feels wrong – voyeuristic and invasive, but the longing to know what he might have looked like at 50, 60, 70 compels me. I did not know Brian Doyle beyond his beautiful essays, but he had a kind, bearded face and a bright smile. My father, too, had a bright smile, though he was always clean-shaven. They seem to have shared the same preference for wireless-rimmed eyeglasses, though, and that detail alone is enough.
In his essay, Doyle observes about the hummingbird that “The price of their ambition is a life closer to death,” and I think of my father’s constant working, corporate climbing, always going, country after country, his never satisfied constitution or location, his not-presence, and I try, but no. I cannot find an analogous beauty there.
I have children, as my father did. If he was a hummingbird, then I will be the lumbering tortoise, the torpid Greenland shark.
Greenland sharks migrate annually based on depth and temperature rather than distance, although some have traveled as far south as Cape Hatteras in North Carolina, a little over 3,000 miles from Iceland.
The farthest I’d traveled prior to my trip to Iceland was to Germany when my son was two years old. Since then, we have tried to take our kids to someplace new every year, though we haven’t yet ventured that far from our home in Pittsburgh. Lake Erie. Washington, D.C. The woods of West Virginia. Iceland is 1,241 miles closer to Pittsburgh than Germany.
The farthest I’d traveled prior to Germany was to Hawaii for ten days when I was a teenager, 4,935 miles from our home in western Connecticut which was 7.3 miles from Danbury Hospital where my father would die 8 years later. He had won an award at work that came with a sizable cash prize, so we got to fly first class where they served us Dole pineapple slices and chicken Marsala on real plates for dinner.
The flesh of the Greenland shark is toxic because of high concentrations of trimethylamine N-oxide, a compound that helps balance the shark’s internal salinity, and which degrades to become the characteristic stink of old fish; and urea, which is piss. In order to eat it, it must be processed by boiling and then fermenting, traditionally by burying it in sand and gravel, for several months. The result is the Icelandic delicacy called Kæstur hákarl, or just hákarl, a foodstuff which even those two famous adventurous-eater guys on TV couldn’t choke down.
“Mama, are you going to eat the rotten shark?” my son asked before I left for ten days in Iceland with my students.
And as I said, I hadn’t planned on it. More than that, I had convinced myself that opting out would be just fine this time. I could watch my students’ faces twist and grimace as they chewed. I could read the words they use to describe it in their journals on the plane ride home: Windex. Old cheese. Feet.
“Mama, have you tried the shark yet?” my son wondered every time I called home from Reykjavik because he is the child I have most closely shared this part of me, which was also part of my father: the curious, expansive, adventurous appetite that runs in our family. When he was two years old he ate the raw red onions off of his Opa’s plate. When he was three, fried, spiced grasshoppers from Oaxaca out of a jar.
In a few months it will have been 25 years since my father died, and it has always been that I mark that day with food I can imagine we might have shared. My father, in all of his global travels, never visited Iceland. Hákarl is something I know he never tried, and something I know he would have made a point to seek out. I have to eat the shark. I know I do.
So on my last day, I wander the city, passing the souvenir-stuffed Puffin shops and window displays filled with scratchy-lovely Icelandic woolens, until I come to a tapas restaurant that includes it in on the menu. The room is long and narrow with a warm wooden bench that runs the whole length and a wooden bar on the opposite wall. I sit by myself at a table close to the door and look over the menu of stained and stapled pages that lists various available bites: salt cod fritters, grilled lamb liver, sweet potatoes with vanilla yogurt sauce, licorice cheesecake. For 1600 Icelandic Króna, or about $16, you can pick four different tapas to start. That seems like plenty for lunch, so I place an order that includes the hákarl, and I add a shot of the caraway liquor called Brennivin, or “Black Death,” that I’ve been told traditionally accompanies it. I’ve heard that you are supposed to dip the small pieces of fish into the liquor as a kind of seasoning. I’ve also heard what I expect is a more likely reason: you drink it down to kill the taste.
At the far end of the restaurant, a group of six young women, all with long blond hair, are celebrating a birthday. It’s nice to listen to their laughter. White string lights over the bar reflect in the brushed chrome tabletops and I am at this point almost in tears from poignancy, thinking about my father and my son, about the power of memory and expectation. My food arrives quickly and beautifully in four mason jars on a wooden tray. I’ve chosen acras, or salt cod fritters, lobster soup with fresh sourdough bread, and beet hummus the color of crushed blackberries with celery pesto to buffer the bits of shark.
I’ve been gone for almost ten days and it’s the first time I’ve been abroad without my family; the first time I’ve been anywhere requiring a passport in a decade. My father’s job took him all over the world but he never brought us with him. I always wondered if he missed us when he was gone. I guess I figured he didn’t. I miss my family. I feel guilty that I’m here in this astonishing country without them, but I now understand the logistical impossibility of traveling with them, too. This makes me feel a little better about feeling left behind as a child. Iceland was a place my father missed in his travels, but here I am, these many years after his death, staring down three small skewers of pale, innocent-looking cubes of fermented Greenland shark, feeling his presence deeply and absolutely.
I raise the toothpick to my mouth and a jolt of ammonia hits me, clings to the back of my nasal passage. I have three elderly cats at home and this scent is familiar in the worst way. I push past it and take a piece of the fish into my mouth. One of my students recommended chewing it only for a few moments, as opposed to what she did: grinding it down to a paste in her mouth, allowing layers upon layers of funk to permeate and coat her tongue. I take her advice and bite down tentatively, noting the slight resistance—it’s not as soft as sushi, not as firm as fully cooked fillets. I wait for the gag reflex I’ve been assured will come, but apart from a slightly sour, slightly musty taste, nothing much is happening. I sip the Brennevin and tuck into the rest of my meal, pacing myself before I’m ready to take another bite. In the end, I finish all three skewers of the shark because, why not? It’s not delicious and I don’t ever need to eat it again, but it’s there and mostly inoffensive and I hate to waste food.
Do I wish it had been, as that famous adventurous eater on TV called it, “the single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting thing,” he’d ever ingested? You know, so it would make a more dramatic story? Not especially. It wasn’t drama that compelled me into the restaurant, but obligation, which I had now satisfyingly met.
The World Conservation Union currently lists Greenland sharks as “near threatened.” Whereas in the 19th century, the sharks were an important commercial species for Iceland, these days most are caught accidentally in nets meant for other, more desirable species. And while it’s true that hákarl has its roots in traditional Icelandic cuisine, it’s now relegated mostly to tourists who seek it out to be challenged and say they survived. I cringe a little to admit to being that tourist. For sure this Icelandic lunch will take its place in my pantheon of formidable food next to durian, the southeast Asian fruit so malodorous it’s banned on public transit; and Japanese natto, another fermented food—this time, soybeans—whose mucous-like texture makes westerners (not my husband, but definitely me) shiver and squirm. I am at least part threat, but it’s more than that, too.
There have been cultures throughout history whose funerary practices include endocannibalism, where family and tribe members consume the flesh or the bones of the dead in order to gain supernatural powers or immortality. The Wari people of western Brazil did so out of a sense of compassion for the deceased, a gesture of highest respect for them and for those they left behind. They believed that by ingesting the body, the soul of their beloved departed would be kept safely inside their own flesh, not abandoned to wander the forests, alone.
I’m not going to tell you that I would have consumed my father’s body after he died of viral encephalitis at the age of 46. But there is a part of me that understands how people did this, lovingly. I once wrote an essay where I said that I hoped my friends would consume my own dead body should our plane crash and I perish, yet they live.
My father was not a hummingbird or a tortoise. He was not a Greenland shark, swimming slow in the ocean or fermented and presented on a tourist’s plate in a Reykjavik restaurant. Still, he is here, animal-shaped and substantial. Sour and surprising and also a little sweet. At home, when my daughter asks me where my father is, I always tell her, “he is in our hearts and our memories.”
Yes, I carry him inside my body. For 25 years, I have eaten his challenging, difficult love.
Sheila Squillante is the author of the poetry collection, Beautiful Nerve (Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2016), and three chapbooks of poetry: In This Dream of My Father (Seven Kitchens, 2014), Women Who Pawn Their Jewelry (Finishing Line, 2012) and A Woman Traces the Shoreline (Dancing Girl, 2011). She is also co-author, along with Sandra L. Faulkner, of the writing craft book, Writing the Personal: Getting Your Stories Onto the Page (Sense Publishers, 2015). Recent work has appeared or will appear in places like Copper Nickel, North Dakota Quarterly, Indiana Review, Waxwing, Menacing Hedge and River Teeth. She teaches in the MFA program in creative writing at Chatham University, where she edits The Fourth River, a journal of nature and place-based writing. From her dining room table, she edits the blog at Barrelhouse.