Black and white photography of António Araújo

António Araújo

Law Professor and Historian. Managing Director and Director of Publications at Fundação Francisco Manuel dos Santos.

13 minutes

Go away, I was here first. Those up there have just remembered that I exist and that I was here long before them. And, because of a big disease, they now talk about me in very important and widely read literary journals(). One of them, a Norwegian who travelled around, wrote Havboka/The Book of the Sea, the story of how they hunted one of my brothers, just like me (*). But long before all this, I was already here. Go away. Up there, they say a lot of things about me, but they know hardly anything about me, about who I am. They know I can live a long time, more than 500 or 600 years, which is the way of counting the passage of time they have up there. My parents lived at the time of Dante, my great-great-grandparents were contemporaries of Julius Caesar.

As for me, I was here when the ones up there went to India or Brazil, and I’ve come through all the plagues, a lot of wars. I was already here, swimming in the depths, when a great disease broke out, the most deadly pandemic in their history, that infected a quarter of all of them living up there, that killed many of them, so many that they have lost count, maybe 50 or 100 million. That great disease appeared in the year that a great war ended, which killed 15 or 20 million of them.

Not long after, the ones up there had another war, even bigger than the first, in which 70 to 85 million died. In comparison, the disease they’re now experiencing is very minor, hardly anything. Believe me, I was already here, I’ve lived all that, and worse. I’m old, believe me, the oldest of all the existing vertebrates. Go away. I live down here, in the depths, very deep down. The ones up there have this huge construction, an enormous high tower, the Eiffel Tower. I am capable of living six of those towers under the surface of the sea, 2,200 metres down, which is how those up there count the distance between things.

Lithograph by Schmelz after Bevalet pere. Illustration from "Voyage en Islande et au Groenland publie par ordre du Roi sous la direction de M Paul Gaimard" by Eugene Robert (1806-1879), published in Paris in 1851.
Illustration from the book “Voyage to Iceland and Greenland”, published in 1851.

The ones up there think they know everything and have seen everything, but that’s not true, they don’t know me. They’ve never seen one of mine give birth, they’ve never seen us mate or even hunt. They don’t know how I manage to catch seals, who are much faster than me. They say that perhaps I ambush the seals while they are asleep, but the ones up there don’t know, they know very little about me, hardly anything. They know that when seals are sleeping, they sleep deeply, with their eyes closed, with the two halves of their brain switched off, dormant, in what is called “symmetrical bilateral sleep”, and so they are more exposed and vulnerable than other species.

The ones up there also know that I am slow, slow and old, the slowest swimmer of all the fish my size, at most I can swim at about two miles an hour (my cousins can swim five miles an hour, which is the same speed as the fastest Olympic swimmer). The ones up there know that I’m slow, but they don’t know why. They say it has to do with my metabolism, which is extremely slow. It’s true, I have a very slow metabolism, I need very little to live. The ones like me, of my species, if they weigh around 200 kilograms, they only need to eat a daily dose of calories equivalent to a bar of chocolate.

One bar of chocolate a day, to swim and to keep me warm down here, six Eiffel Towers below the water line, more than two kilometres from the surface. The ones up there should learn with me: unlike them, who devour everything they get, who use and waste, I need very little to survive and to reach an old age, a very old age. I was already here 500 years ago. Go away, go away, go away from me.

Most easily seen around Greenland and Iceland, these sharks have been reported on the coasts of Portugal, France and Scotland.

I’m slow, like the elderly up there, who are now dying of a great disease. I can hardly see, I’m almost blind. I’m big and I’m a carnivore, and I can even snare seals while they sleep, but I can’t beat a small creature, a thousand times smaller than me, a crustacean in the form of a worm, to which the ones up there have given a long name, Ommatokoita elongata, and that makes its home in my eyes and parasites them. They’ve given me a long name too, Somniosus microcephalus, several long names, Squalus squatina, Squalus carcharias, Somniosus brevipinna, Squalus borealis, Scymnus gunneri, Scymnus glacialis, Scymnus micropterus, Leodon echinatum, but I am known as the sleeper shark or the Greenland shark.

It’s where I live, but they’ve seen brothers of mine, big ones, in other places, such as in Scotland or off the coast of France. Or Portugal, which went by sea to discover India and Brazil when I was already born and living down here. I was already here, I saw them all passing by. I’m big, huge, one of the largest in my family, the largest carnivorous shark in the world, but I’m going blind because of a worm with a long name that is devouring my corneas. Slowly, bit by bit, my corneas. I’m old, I was already here when Portugal went by sea to India. I have brothers who are more than seven metres long and weigh more than a tonne and a half, in the way they count things up there. I’m big and strong, but a tiny, ridiculous worm is capable of beating me, of blinding me.

The ones up there should learn from me. Now, they’re dying a lot too, dying of a great disease caused by a tiny creature. A microscopic creature, measuring 70 millionths of a milimetre, with a long name, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), and a genetic sequence of twelve letters. A combination of four letters – a, u, g, c – was enough to form the text that has already killed more than 350 thousand of them up there. The whole genetic sequence of the virus can fit on four pages of a newspaper.

“They talk about a ‘war’ on the disease, but they carry on waging wars against each other.”

But, contrary to the belief of the ones up there, who never understand nothing at all, dying of the disease caused by a tiny creature isn’t death, it’s life. Dying like that is dying of life, not dying of death. Dying of death is dying of other things, things that have nothing to do with life. The ones up there are the only ones that kill for death. Not us, we kill for life, to eat, to survive. In the viscera of my brothers, they’ve found the remains of large animals, walruses, polar bears, elks, whales, even the entire body of a reindeer and a leg of one of those up there. But, as I live in cold waters, I don’t often attack the ones up there.

Now the waters are getting warmer, perhaps my brothers and I will start attacking the ones up there more often, but it is rare, we usually prefer animals that are already dead, the fish that the ones up there take in their nets. This is not death, it’s life, it’s killing to live. But the ones up there are capable of killing for other things, in just two wars they killed each other for no reason at all, more than a 100 million died, no one knows why they died. I was already here, I know, I saw all that, more than a 100 million of them dying for nothing. Even now, at the time of the great sickness, there are 47 active wars up there. They talk about a “war” on the disease, but they carry on waging wars against each other: in just three of those wars, in Afghanistan, Yemen and Syria, around 73 thousand of those up there died last year, much more than in the year before. I’m old, slow and almost blind, like the old ones up there who, because of the great sickness, are dying more than the others.

I stink. My body has a lot of urea, like a lot of the old people or the sick people up there. I need it, the urea, to maintain the same concentration of salt as the ocean in which I live, to avoid my body gaining or losing salt water by osmosis. And that’s why I smell so bad, like urea. It’s so bad that the ones up there can’t eat me. When they’re rash enough to eat my flesh, they become poisoned, stunned, they stumble around like a blind old man. The ones up there call it “shark drunk”. If they eat my flesh, they lose their balance, vomit everything in their guts and fall down unconscious. All because of a substance I have in my body that has a long name, Trimethylamine N-oxide, which makes my flesh toxic and tasting like urine.

Sculpture of Sedna, the goddess of the sea in Inuit culture, at the old harbour in Nuuk, Greenland. By artist Christian ‘Nuunu’ Rosing

Up there, there are some, not many, who like to eat my flesh, after burying it for months, to ferment, and then leaving it another few months in the sun, to dry. Just a few, not many, enjoy eating my flesh like that. For these, it’s delicious, a delicacy that they call hákarl, but most of the ones up there find the smell repugnant and the taste abominable. Even after drying out in the sun for months, my flesh is rough, impregnated with urea. Because of this, the few who like to eat it say that I came into the world in a pot of Sedna’s urine. Sedna’s, the goddess of the sea. It’s an old story, invented many years ago. I don’t mind, I was here before they invented that story. Actually, the ones who invented it and who like my dry flesh, they’re also dying.

Up there, some die more than others, some have worse deaths, younger, and with more suffering. Death is not equal for everyone, nor is life. And this disease they have now is also not equal, the ones up there are going to be even more different from each other. Not here, down in the depths we’re all equal. They say I smell, that I was born in a pot of urine, but I don’t mind. I also don’t mind that they say I’m ugly. The literary journal published by the ones up there says I’m very ugly, that I don’t have the beauty of my cousins, the white sharks. I’m not sad or angry about that. Actually, I never get happy or sad, I don’t know what that is, I don’t have moods (you’ve never seen a cheerful or depressed shark). I don’t even know what it is to be handsome or ugly, nor what good or evil are, right or wrong, these are things that the ones up there invented to carry on just as they like or see fit, always in their own way. My own kind and I, and all my cousins, we don’t say that something is beautiful, that it’s good or that it’s wrong.

We don’t say that nature is beautiful, that the bottom of the sea where I live is beautiful, that the mountains or glaciers are beautiful. Not us, we don’t say that nature is beautiful or that it is good, because neither nature nor myself are beautiful or ugly, we’re not good or bad, that’s just how the ones up there see us and treat us, with words that mean nothing to us, that are worthless to us. Down here, we don’t call nature “mother”, Mother Nature, and then do her harm and kill her little by little. Some years they’ve killed more than 30 thousand of my kind, my brothers, just to extract the oil we have in our livers. They don’t kill us to eat, or to survive, but to paint houses, their houses, facing the sea.

Greenland shark isolated on black background, Somniosus microcephalus front view
The Greenland shark (Somniosus microcephalus) is the longestliving vertebrate on Earth. It may live for 500 years.

They used to say that a house painted with our oil lasted forever and still looked shiny and new after 50 years. And for that, they killed us. For that, for nothing more, because of the oil to paint their houses. From my family alone, they killed more than 30 thousand a year. We’re old, a female in my family only reaches maturity and is able to procreate at 150 years of age. None of those up there have ever reached that age, the age when we start to create life. Our males only start to copulate at the age of 100. And so, when they kill us, there’s a large risk of us not yet having left descendants, the danger of wiping us out for ever is much greater. The ones up there don’t know how many of us there are left. To tell the truth, they don’t know much about us, hardly anything.

Not even I know how many of us remain, and we’ve been here for millions of years, since prehistoric times. Now there’s just a few of us, less and less. That really is death, killing for death. The virus that causes the great sickness is minuscule, 70 millionths of a millimetre. The proportion between the virus and one of them, a human being, is the same as between a chicken and the whole planet Earth. When the virus kills one of them, it’s like if a chicken had destroyed the whole world, from the highest mountains down to where I live, in the deeps. An organism measuring 70 millionths of a millimetre can kill a human being and infect many more.

Something just 70 millionths of a millimetre has put 7.7 billion human beings on alert, locked up at home, terrified, unlike me, because I’m slow but free, and no, I won’t let this frighten me. I was here long before this, I’ve been through a lot, I’ve seen worse. They say the virus is death, but it’s not. It’s life, the miracle of life. A chicken being capable of destroying a whole planet is life, a celebration of the amazing strength of life. Believe me, I know, I’ve been here for a long time, longer, much longer than any of you. Oh, and go away from me, because sometimes I bite.