B.G. Hilton – Author

In Search Of… S02E12 The Shark Worshipers

Well, the title tells me nothing. Let’s check out the show.

Two people stand in a canoe, silhouetted by the sea. Leonard Nimoy tells us that they’re dumping stuff from a tuna cannery in the Solomon Islands. Sure enough, the sea is full of frenzied sharks chowing down on the chum. The seething mass of ocean is pretty impressive, especially from a show that isn’t known for its wildlife photography. Nimoy tells us that a camera was attacked, and an oar bitten in half.


Now a lovely pan along a golden beach, the sun on the horizon. Nimoy says that to be in the sea is to risk ‘the remote but ever-present possibility of shark attack’. Now some gnarly footage of radical surfers on bodacious waves. And now we’re back to sharks for a bit, and now we’re looking at waterskiers. Then some children in shallow water. Then more swimming children, shot from below, Jaws style, then some windsurfers

Well, if you like visuals of watersports, this episode is pretty good so far. While this footage is rolling, Nimoy talks up how horrible shark attacks are. So, my guess is this episode will be about shark attacks, in the vein of the episode about killer bees. But why shark worshipers? Oh In Search Of… you’ve intrigued me!

There’s a black and white photo of a beach scene (1950s?) and a grinning woman posing in the sand next to a small shark. Nimoy tells us that the woman killed it with a piece of driftwood when she saw it circling her children. That is one tough old-timey housewife! I bet when she came by, it was the mice jumped onto the chairs.

Now a gruesome series of still photos of shark attack victims. Then we’re looking at an 1970s mini-sub chasing a shark. Nimoy tells us that it looks like the shark is retreating, but after the filming stopped it turned and attacked the sub, damaging it. I bet whichever cameraman stopped shooting too early had a fun time explaining that.

A truly awesome shot of a shark swimming under a shark cage, all shot from below silhouetted against the dim underwater sunlight. This precedes a long list of shark-protective gear and devices. It’s goes on for a bit, but the music is really good, creating some excellent tension while Nimoy is basically just reading out of a catalogue.

There’s an explanation of shark behaviour leading up to an attack, and a nifty bit of editing between footage of a shark and footage of a bikini-clad swimmer. It’s a little Spielbergian, except that the shark actually looks real.

Next up is a discussion of the shark’s ability to detect it’s prey with electrical signals, which to my non-expert ears sounds a little mangled. Now a lab experiment to test a shark’s eyesight. I’d watch out for the scientist behind that one. Pure supervillain move. A marine biologist drops a speaker into the ocean to attract a school of sharks with the sound of struggling fish. I bet that’s the guy. One step away from gluing a dorsal fin to his hat and calling himself ‘Great White’ or ‘Captain Cartilaginous.’

Okay, and we’re back to the people dumping fishguts in the Solomons. The shots of both of the shoveling workers and the terrifying frenzy beneath the surface are excellent. It’s seriously good wildlife photography. Too bad they couldn’t get pictures of Nessie this good.

Talking about the worship of shark gods in the South Pacific. Finally! The title, she makes sense! Black and white footage of Islander dances, while Nimoy explains that missionaries wiped out the shark worship, which he claims involved human sacrifice. Am I going to look that up? Maybe later.

Nimoy stands in front of the sea in a Hawaiian shirt and explains that small pockets of shark worshipers can still be found. Specifically, we’re talking about the Fijian shark-god Takawanga. Nimoy says that he is a benevolent god if properly appeased. Nice shot of a beach in Fiji, supposedly his dwelling place but now a resort.

The locals supposedly say that sharks have never attacked anyone there. There’s another nice story about a Fijian policeman who prayed to Takawanga before successfully rescuing a man from a shark. In another story, a bricklayer claims he was saved from drowning by riding on the back of a shark. All of this is narrated over some pleasant scenes of people in Fiji just going about their business.

Now we’re looking at some sort of ceremony lead by a man Nimoy insists on calling a ‘witch-doctor’. He mentions Takawanga in his prayers and offers a sacred tooth to the god twice a year.

Now we go via helicopter tracking shot to a Solomon Island village that I won’t insult by trying to spell. Nimoy tells us that the people there ‘cling precariously to the stone age’. We’re traveling with ‘adventurer’ Terry Hannigan. He’s one of that class of bearded, be-sunglassed Australians who bedeviled the world in the 1970s with their cheap documentaries. Over footage of local children singing and playing in the water, Hannigan talks about shark-calling, which I hope they’ll demonstrate, because it’s cool.

Hannigan talks about the decline of village life, and chats to friends in Pidgin. The people are unhappy because their way of life is in decline and the young people are all running off to the cities. One of the elders claims that it’s a curse and can only be lifted by appeasing the shark-god.

While the In Search Of… cameras are in town. Interesting.

So the priests go to see this ninety year old holy hermit called Moses who spends his days talking to the ghosts that live the heads of the dead people, preserved in leaves and, when necessary, older skulls.

Best. Religion. Ever!

The ghosts apparently give their go ahead for the ceremony. There’s a dance, a sacrificial pig is prepared… It’s all a really well filmed sequence. I can’t be sure how accurate the narration is, but then again I’m sort of primed to distrust this show. If this were a BBC documentary with exactly the same narration, I’d probably trust it implicitly. Snobbery on my part? Maybe.

The sacrificed pig is placed in the water – Nimoy points out that the village children are happily splashing about just a short distance away. A shark appears. The first shark is said to be the spirit of the shark god, and it must eat the sacrifice first. Sure enough, it does. The islanders sing a song of praise to the shark god.

Hannigan talks about how much he likes the place and its people and wonders whether shark-calling is going to die out.  Nimoy assumes that it is, and then says that there will be ‘no one left to love the shark’, which is both very sad and kind of misses the point.

So, interesting episode. I’ve spoken before about the weird tension within this series, between a desire to present factual information and a love of sensation. Sometimes that tension creates meandering WTF episodes, but in Shark Worshippers it works. The scientific information about sharks in the first half of the episode is almost completely irrelevant in the anthropological exploration of the second half, and yet it doesn’t feel separate. There are definite themes running through the episode, and it’s not just a theme called ‘sharks’. And sharks are, after all, pretty interesting.

Best Quotes

“Fables and symbolic ceremonies are all that remain of what was once the all-powerful religion of Fiji.”

“The ancient bond between man and shark has been kept alive… but for how long?”

These statements are either very, very dumb or very, very profound. I can’t quite make out which.


Nature documentary: 8/10, Anthropology documentary: 8/10, Nimoyness: 9/10, Electronic Music: 8/10, SHARKS!: 10/10. Overall: 43/50. High Distinction

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B.G. Hilton - Author