Wednesday, 26 April 2017

The Great Shark Hunt

Latest column in The Australian, in which I recall the heady days when Hong Kong was terrorised by a tiger shark and great shark hunter Vic Hislop was summoned to save the day

Shortly after taking up residence in Hong Kong in the early 1990s, I woke one morning to find Vic Hislop, notorious Australian shark hunter, in my bed. Fortunately, I was on the sofa.

He staggered out into the living room; short, stocky, smelling vaguely of stingray. Vic had just flown in from Queensland, and we had put him up for the night in the house my friends and I had rented in Sai Kung, a fishing village and expat hangout in the New Territories.

Nearby Clearwater Bay had been terrorised by a spate of shark attacks and my employer, The Hong Kong Standard newspaper, on a brilliant wheeze from my flatmate, colleague and this paper’s national chief correspondent, Hedley Thomas, hired Hislop to catch the suspected tiger shark.

The Standard’s Great Shark Hunt, as the dinkuses and T-shirts proclaimed, came flooding back in vivid technicolour this week when I read Hislop had broken his self-imposed media exile following the latest tragic death by shark in Esperance, Western Australia. And it’s clear age has not wearied the great shark hunter, nor made him any more sane. It’s time for a cull, argues Hislop, and let’s have a royal commission while we’re at it. The sharks are patrolling both coasts, he warns, and while we are all brainwashed by the pro-shark lobby, “they continue to let the sharks escape after they eat somebody. It’s going to get worse and worse. Make no mistake.”

The night he arrived in Hong Kong, Hislop regaled us with tales of monsters pursued and killed. It was apparent at once that he was possessed of a monomaniacal hatred of sharks not far short of Captain Ahab’s obsession with the white whale. What sticks in my mind from that first evening’s conversation, however, is not so much the gorily graphic accounts of man-eaters hooked and shot and clubbed and knifed, but an encounter with a pit bull terrier in a friend’s backyard.

“Mate, yeah, this bastard dog just comes out of nowhere, eh,’’ he recounted in pure Queensland-inflected ocker. “And he’s coming right for me. I look around, but there’s nothing I can pick up to defend meself. I know I’ll never make it to the fence if I run. So as the bastard jumps at me, I get under him and grab him by the balls. And he lets out this yelp like he’s just been shot. He’s trying to bite me, the bastard, but I start swinging him around faster and faster, and then I let him go. And that does the trick, eh, he just lies there looking at me, and I jump over the fence.’’

It was all downhill from there. We procured a junk — the Great Shark Hunt Mothership — and armed Vic with all manner of hooks and lines and sinkers. We scoured the wet markets of Sai Kung for suitable shark bait: stingrays and groupers. And as the Chinese press worked itself into a frenzy, thus began two fruitless, sanity-sapping weeks on board an increasingly reeking junk with Hislop.

I fear I may be partly to blame for Vic’s self-imposed media exile. I was charged with penning his daily dispatches and succumbed to a creeping lunacy, inventing all sorts of wild rubbish to keep the story going. As I milked the Ahab angle, Vic fell ill with flu. After a couple of days, he began to question what was appearing in the paper under his byline, so I took to hiding his glasses.

It soon became apparent that the shark had left town. Despite Vic’s increasingly desperate efforts, the stingrays were left unmolested and the groupers ungutted. “I’ll fight on, vows sick Vic” was one of the last headlines, before we stuck a cheque in his pocket and pushed him on to a plane.

I mention all of this by way of warning, lest a groundswell grow to summon the great shark hunter once again. The shark menace may indeed be growing, but for Hislop the Hong Kong scoreline hangs around his neck like a decomposing albatross: Shark 1, Vic 0. He would be best advised to limp quietly back into his self-imposed exile and retreat to his memories of great whites vanquished and pit bull balls crushed.

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