The rich reefs of the Maldives attract over a million tourists each year, partly drawn by the huge number of sharks who themselves are enticed by the abundant marine life.
So famous is the archipelago for sharks, American writer Herman Melville – most famous for the novel Moby Dick – even dedicated a poem to ‘the Maldive Shark’.
But whether he was inspired by the friendly creatures who today entertain tourists, or the more sinister reports that had, at the time of his writing, made their way back to Europe is not known.
Maldivian sharks are not regarded as dangerous, with the most common sightings being of placid reef sharks. Larger species include whale sharks and hammerhead sharks, while sightings of tiger sharks – often considered the most aggressive of the species – are incredibly rare.
Stories of sharks attacking humans are almost unheard of; the reverse is far more common.
However, one early tourist to the Maldives – the shipwrecked Frenchman Francois Pyrard – brought home tales of fearsome fish that terrorised the island’s natives:
“The one great fishes called Paimones, which devoure men and breake their legges and arms, when they encounter them,” he wrote after his return to France in 1607.
More than a century and a half later, Pyrard’s countryman, Jean Francois La Harpe, repeated these claims (word for word, in fact), again reporting these Maldivian man-eaters in his own summary of the isles.
Two centuries on, British servicemen constructing the airbase in Addu were warned of sharks ‘renowned throughout the atoll for attacking bathers in the shallows’, reports ex RAF squadron leader Peter Doling in his history of RAF Gan.
Historically, Maldivians’ relationship with the shark – before their new-found value to tourism and environmentally-protected status – had revolved around hunting the animals for their liver oil. While the meat is considered by locals to be a little smelly, the oil is perfect for treating the hulls of their boats.
Indeed, it is through tales of heroic Maakeyolu (head fishermen) that these animals entered popular culture, often through raivaru poems as well as a famous folk tale about a girl swallowed whole by a huge shark before being set free by brave fishermen.
Pyrard doesn’t seem to have himself witnessed a shark attack, and may simply have picked up on the healthy fear of these creatures, whose numbers must have then dwarfed today’s endangered populations.
Which shark Melville was writing about, however, is up to you to decide:
About the Shark, phlegmatical one,
Pale sot of the Maldive sea,
The sleek little pilot-fish, azure and slim,
How alert in attendance be.
From his saw-pit of mouth, from his charnel of maw
They have nothing of harm to dread,
But liquidly glide on his ghastly flank
Or before his Gorgonian head;
Or lurk in the port of serrated teeth
In white triple tiers of glittering gates,
And there find a haven when peril’s abroad,
An asylum in jaws of the Fates!
They are friends; and friendly they guide him to prey,
Yet never partake of the treat—
Eyes and brains to the dotard lethargic and dull,
Pale ravener of horrible meat.