To the Inuit, the Greenland shark holds a place of honour and mystery
Story by Lindsay O’Reilly
Inuit legend has it that once, long ago, an old woman was drying her hair after washing it
with urine, when the wind suddenly whipped the damp cloth from her hand and carried it out
to sea. This cloth, the Inuit say, became “skalugsuak,” the Greenland shark.
This story would seem to explain why the meat of this massive, mysterious shark smells
and tastes of urine. In fact, the Greenland shark’s flesh has such a high concentration of
uric acid, a component of urine, that it can only be eaten after it’s been boiled in several
changes of water. If the meat is not prepared in this way, it can cause nausea, vomiting,
a burning sensation in the mouth, and even coma and death.
Not surprisingly, skalugsuak is not one of the Inuit people’s preferred foods.
This is good news for the lethargic shark, which offers so little resistance to hunters that,
once lured to a hole in the ice, it can be dragged from the water with bare hands.
In spite of its reputation for sluggishness, however, the Greenland shark, which can grow
more than six metres long, manages to feed on seals, salmon, and other agile prey. Inuit
people in the Northwest Territories even tell of Greenland sharks attacking and eating caribou
that come to drink at the mouths of Arctic rivers.
The skalugsuak is the only shark that lives year-round in polar waters. In Canada,
it has been found in the North Atlantic and Arctic oceans, and as far south as Nova Scotia.
It is thought to be responsible for hundreds of seal carcasses, with bizarre, spiral-shaped
wounds, that have washed ashore on Sable Island in recent years. Perhaps such "gifts" inspired
the Inuit story of “The Shark as Provider:”
A mother and a daughter, it is said, having been abandoned by their relatives, were saved
from starvation by a dead seal that drifted ashore. “After a time,” the story says, “they
found another, and a shark appeared to them, rising out of the sea and saying he would fulfill
all their wants.”
The Inuit have traditionally made special knives and shear-like tools from the shark’s
sharp or bags from the skin. Also, when food supplies were low, the Inuit would sometimes
haul a Greenland shark from the ice and use it to feed their dogs.
The skalugsuak has gained a special place in Inuit culture, despite the unpleasantness
of its meat. Perhaps it is their special respect of this ancient predator that has kept this
elusive shark shadowed in mystery all these years.