“e e#…..e e#…e e# e e# e e#” okay written down it doesn’t look that scary, but transform these symbols into musical notes on your nearest musical instrument (yes madam that bassoon will be perfect) and your ears will recognise the haunting theme tune which is now synonymous with one of the world’s most efficient predators – Ladies and gentlemen I give you the shark.
I should say now, for the record, that I do not have a fear of sharks, a healthy respect perhaps, but not a fear. This is despite the best efforts of one of my closest friends (you know who you are) who has taken it upon herself to be my personal shark danger informant, never failing to remind me of the utter terror that awaits me when I even hint at tropical waters. Needless to say when I mentioned I was going to live on a Pacific island for a year, the warnings came thick and fast, and I was quickly reminded of my other “lucky escapes” from certain toothy doom, like snorkelling with the feisty but relatively small and safe Belizean reef sharks, and diving with a couple of less safe, but none the less incredible razortooth sharks in the Cape Town Aquarium (a very surreal diving experience I suggest you try if ever given the opportunity).
After photos from the Cape Town “Sharkgate” incident were leaked on facebook, I was concerned for the continued friendship with my shark informant friend, but it thankfully prevailed – that is perhaps until now – as I describe how a vicious mauling by a group of rare Niutao sharks left me bloodied and bruised, but thankfully will all my limbs intact.
Sharks are some of the most notorious fish in the sea. Love them or hate them, there are loads of shark based facts swimming around out there in the sea of general knowledge, stashed away in our heads somewhere especially for that ‘something fishy’ pub quiz round. I’m sure you know for example that: if ashark stops swimming it will die (well in some species anyway), maybe you even knew that a shark’s liver makes up 30% of its body weight and allows it to float and sink, and of course those of you who were born in the 80s will know that they also make great underwater crime busting units when they team up with colourful fish called George and click their way through the murky depths of the fishy underworld thwarting eely gangsters whilst wearing dapper hats (please see video below for full explanation of this incredibly niche reference!)
[Retro childhood cartoon reference alert]
However, despite my childhood cartoon viewing habits, pub quiz knowledge, and the warnings of my shark informant friend, when I actually found myself face to face with a group of over 30 Niutao sharks one Tuvaluan evening, it soon became clear just how out of my depth I was, both literally and metaphorically.
Niutao (“ni-oo-ta-ow”) sharks are extremely rare. Originally discovered on the tiny Tuvaluan island of Niutao (hence the name) these sharks have now been identified on most of the other islands of Tuvalu (Including Funafuti where I am currently living and swimming) and one or two have been spotted as far afield as New Zealand, Fiji and Vanuatu. Some experts believe that the Niutao shark is the missing evolutionary link which proves humans once swam in the primitive seas before getting out and going for a stroll, as they display several ‘human like’ traits; for example, unlike other sharks, Niutao sharks only have two sets of teeth (often with notable gaps), and eat with a grinding motion instead of a sawing one; they have two ‘ears’ on the sides of their heads (although most are deformed), their eyes are in the front of their heads instead of the sides, and many of them have a ‘beard’ of sorts around their mouth (thought to catch air bubbles and morsels of food); they are also typically over six feet long, covered in hair, and have a certain love for red wine and karaoke.
Okay, you’ve found me out, I admit it, the Niutao Sharks aren’t actually sharks, (but you knew that already didn’t you?), they are actually the Niutao island rugby team, and as well as making up a quarter of the Tuvaluan national rugby league, they can also claim to have the only non-Pacific Islander player in the league playing for them – *ahem* yours truly…
To jump off on a contextual side note quickly – rugby was a new sport to me aged 11, and I instantly fell in love with it. I couldn’t get enough of it, and every week I relished the opportunity to head out onto the wet, muddy, (often manure covered) school field and effectively get beaten up whilst trying to run with a ball. I was a sucker for punishment and despite not being the biggest or strongest, I would always get stuck in and go back for more. I think it would be fair to say that what I lacked in natural talent I made up for with perseverance and enthusiasm, and eventually, I carved out a small niche for myself, enjoying an, if not illustrious, fun rugby career as a second row forward.
I still have fantastic memories of playing rugby at school, and it was these memories, and the lack of a Tuvaluan lacrosse team, which made me approach the intimidating group of guys playing touch rugby on the runway and ask if I could play. Without hesitation they let me get stuck in, and I soon realised what I had let myself in for. In the next five minutes I had been outpaced, dodged round, faked out, sidestepped, confused, and laughed at more times than I have eaten fish in Tuvalu. The creativity and the flair of some of the guys was incredible, and they were only playing touch rugby on a runway, half of them weren’t even wearing shoes.
Sport is a way of life in Tuvalu, and most evenings the runway is transformed into a 1.5km long, 50m wide playground, with jumpers for goal posts, buckets for basketball hoops, and volleyball nets for, well, volleyball. Although football and volleyball are the most popular sports, tennis, basketball, rugby, and even cricket (apparently) are amongst the other sports played enthusiastically by all ages, and often get very competitive, especially when there are inter-island competitions. Ask anyone in Tuvalu where they are from, and they will never say “Tuvalu” instead it will be the name of their island. Island allegiances run deep in Tuvalu, and when you are born into a particular island community, you remain so forever, and are fiercely proud of it – none of this “My dad went through Manchester on the train once which is why I support Manchester United” type allegiance for the Tuvaluans.
We have already established from previous posts that there isn’t much space in Tuvalu, so you might be surprised to hear, that sandwiched between the pig farms and the public works department, with the runway on one side, and the Pacific Ocean on the other, is the national football/rugby/athletics field – not quite Twickenham or the Millennium Stadium, the rusty raked seating looks as if it will fall down any second, and the rugby posts have that classic school field slant – I immediately felt at home as I arrived for my first taste of rugby training Tuvalu style.
To be honest it wasn’t too different from a training session in the UK – just much, much hotter! After we had cleared the packs of dogs from the pitch, chatted with the 100m Olympic hopeful also using the pitch to train, and completed a half-hearted attempt at stretching, we played some touch rugby, and then split into forwards and backs. So whilst the backs were busy running their intricate moves which even from a distance seemed baffling, I was trying to remember how to correctly bind in a scrum – as most of the rugby that has been previously played in Tuvalu has been sevens, the majority of players have been too busy perfecting their sidesteps, to have learned some of the finer points required of a forward, otherwise known as ‘the donkey work’. Enter stage right a lifelong forward with classic English ‘donkey work’ pedigree, and at least a couple of months experience of coaching the mighty (if not slightly sweary and violent) Great Yarmouth High School U16s team, and everyone was looking to me for the answers – I wonder who I would need to speak to, to get a Tuvalu national rugby coach application form? I’ll ask Robert the 25 stone prop who plays for Niutao, and is the current international 7s coach – he’ll know.
Not to be outdone by their watery namesakes, the Niutao Sharks are every bit as fast, strong, and frankly terrifying as a great white with a temper. Off the pitch however you couldn’t meet a nicer bunch, basking in their civil service jobs, preparing to deliver their Sunday morning sermons, feeding their family pigs or tinkering with their motorbikes. As game day approached however, everyone was very much in dangerous predator mode. I was looking forward to watching an epic game of South Pacific rugby, when the team captain asked me if I wanted to borrow his boots so I didn’t have to play in my trainers, he was of course going to be playing in bare feet. This was news to me, as I hadn’t been planning on playing at all, regardless of footwear! I’d only wanted to train with them to force me to do a bit more exercise – I double checked that something hadn’t been lost in translation, but before I could even begin to invent an old injury that would prevent me from playing, I had been given the number 7 shirt, a pair of boots and a scrum cap to avoid the top of my ear being torn from my head as it had done at university - No doubt the nearest stitches would be in Fiji rather than Tuvalu's rather modest hospital.
Running out onto the pitch, and waiting for the game to start I considered my situation – I was on the other side of the planet, surrounded by fierce looking, not to mention large and intimidating Pacific islanders, who were practically licking their lips at taking a run at the English guy. The only other foreigners on the pitch were a giant of a Fijian (luckily on our team), and a Tongan who was easily double my size in all dimensions, and my opposite number. I was the starting open side flanker for an island I had never been to, I hadn’t played a competitive rugby match for about five years, and now I was going to try it in the heat of the tropical sun in boots that were slightly too small for my feet – hilarious and ridiculous in equal measure.
Now is neither the time nor the place for a full match report, but I did learn several things from the match namely:
• You can’t score a try over the five meter line regardless of how spectacular your dive is (even if, due to an error in measuring this is where the posts are)
• Sidesteps only work once per game.
• Kicking is NOT my forte.
• I need to do more fitness training.
• Tuvaluan ground is much harder than your standard pitch in the UK.
• If you insist on trying to tackle 6’6” 20 stone Pacific islander who has the acceleration of a rocket, you have to at least try and get lower than his tree like torsos – it hurts.
• Getting dump tackled produces lots of laughs from the crowd.
• My ribs are no match for the shoulders of a Tongan.
• “Passi” means “Pass” in Tuvaluan.
• Re-hydration solution isn’t just for when you get diarrhoea.
An exhausting 80 minutes finished with a 12-5 victory for Niutao, and after the team had quenched their thirst with cigarettes and warm strawberry milkshake (I still don’t know where the milk came from, but it tasted very strange) we sat down and had the traditional Tuvaluan circle time debrief. I say “we” as during the debrief, I was formally welcomed into the team, by the team captain, and one of the island elders, and pronounced a Niutao Shark for life; and I have my own Niutao shirt to prove it. On the front of the shirt it says “Mate mo Niutao” (“Die for Niutao”) a bit extreme perhaps, but I have certainly shed enough blood for the tiny island I have never visited, with cracked ribs and new scars on my knees to prove it.
Many scientists and environmentalists will attest to the amazing nature of sharks in their ability to hunt prey, navigate with such precision, and communicate over vast swathes of oceans, and rather than being dangerous or violent animals, they are simply efficient predators, and popularly misunderstood. I completely agree with this, however, until Jaws and a couple of his hammerhead mates have grabbed a microphone and crooned along to the entire backstreet boys back catalogue in a Tuvaluan karaoke bar, I know which sharks I’d rather take my chances with.
“Mate Mo Niutao”