In 1606 a devastating pestilence swept through London; the dying were boarded up in their homes with their families, and a decree went out that the theatres, the bear-baiting yards and the brothels be closed. It was then that Shakespeare wrote one of his very few references to the plague, catching at our precarity: ‘The dead man’s knell/Is there scarce asked for who, and good men’s lives/Expire before the flowers in their caps/Dying or ere they sicken.’ As he wrote, a Greenland shark who is still alive today swam untroubled through the waters of the northern seas. Its parents would have been old enough to have lived alongside Dante; its great-great-grandparents alongside Julius Caesar. For thousands of years Greenland sharks have swum in silence, as above them the world has burned, rebuilt, burned again.
The Greenland shark is the planet’s longest-lived vertebrate, but it was only recently that scientists were able to ascertain exactly how old they might be. In 2008, Jan Heinemeier, a Danish physicist, discovered a way to test lens crystallines, a protein found in the eye, for carbon-14. The amount of carbon-14, a radioactive isotope, found naturally on Earth varies from year to year; there were huge spikes during the 1960s, when mankind was at its most enthusiastic about nuclear weapons, but every period has its own carbon-14 signature. By testing the crystallines in the sharks’ eyes, it was possible to determine, very roughly, their date of birth: of 28 tested, the largest, a 16-foot female, was reckoned to be somewhere between 272 and 512 years old. Size is a relatively good indicator of age, and there are records of sharks reaching 24 feet long; so it’s very possible that there are sharks in the water today who are well into their sixth century.
The Greenland shark is not obviously beautiful. Its face is blunt, its fins stunted, and its eyes attract a long worm-like crustacean, ommatokoita elongata. These attach themselves to the cornea of the sharks’ eyes, fluttering from their eyeballs like paper streamers, rendering them both almost blind and more disgusting than seems fair. They smell, too. Their bodies have high concentrations of urea; a necessity, to ensure they maintain the same salt concentration as the ocean, preventing them from losing or gaining water through osmosis, but it is a necessity that means they smell of pee – so much so that, in Inuit legend, the shark is said to have arisen from the chamberpot of Sedna, goddess of the sea. The urea is also what makes them poisonous to humans when eaten fresh. If raw and untreated, the toxins in the flesh can render you ‘shark drunk’: giddy, staggering, slurring, vomiting. They become safe only if the meat is buried for several months and left to ferment, then hung out to dry for months more. Served in small chunks, and known as hákarl, it is considered, by some, a delicacy, and by others an abomination. Apparently it tastes like a very ripe cheese, left for a week in high summer in a teenage boy’s car.
The Greenland shark is slow, as befits a fish so venerable. At full speed and with strenuous effort, it moves somewhere between 1.7 and 2.2 mph. Although one of the two largest flesh-eating creatures in the sea, it has an astonishingly slow metabolism; in order to survive, a 200-kilo shark has to consume the calorific equivalent of one and a half chocolate digestives a day. They are both hunters and scavengers; they have been thought to hunt seals, perhaps inhaling them as they sleep on the surface of the water, but largely they eat whatever falls off the ice: reindeer, polar bears. The leg of a man was found in one shark’s stomach, but none of the rest of him. And they are slow even in the process of dying. Henry Dewhurst, a ship’s surgeon writing in 1834, saw a shark caught and killed:
When hoisted upon deck, it beats so violently with its tail, that it is dangerous to be near it, and the seamen generally dispatch it, without much loss of time. The pieces that are cut off exhibit a contraction of their muscular fibres for some time after life is extinct. It is, therefore, extremely difficult to kill, and unsafe to trust the hand within its mouth, even when the head is cut off. And, if we are to believe Crantz, this motion is to be observed three days after, if the part is trod on or struck.
They live deep down and lead secret lives. Although they have been seen at the water’s surface, they prefer to be close to the bottom of the ocean, where it’s dark and cold: they’ve been found as far down as 2200 meters: six Eiffel Towers deep. Nobody has ever seen one give birth; we have never seen them mate. Their invisibility to humans also means that we don’t know how endangered they are: they’re currently listed as ‘near threatened’, but they could be the most populous sharks in the world, or urgently at risk. We do know that for some time they were over-fished in large numbers – thirty thousand a year in the 1900s – in order to extract oil from their bodies. It was said that there were places in the Norwegian archipelago where houses painted in the emulsion made from the sharks’ liver oil shone bright even after fifty years: a paint like no other. We know, too, that because it takes 150 years for a female to be ready to breed, they replenish slowly. The Greek poet Oppian claimed that, when threatened with danger, a parent shark would open her cavernous mouth and conceal her young ones within. As this is, alas, unlikely to be true, we will need to take care of them ourselves.
Because they live so far below our ships and divers, we do not know where they swim. They come to the surface only in the places where it is cold enough, in the Arctic, around Greenland and Iceland, but they have been found in the depths near France, Portugal, Scotland. Scientists say they may be everywhere the ocean goes deep and cold: they could be far closer to us than we think.
I am glad not to be a Greenland shark; I don’t have enough thoughts to fill five hundred years. But I find the very idea of them hopeful. They will see us pass through our current spinning apocalypse, and the crash that will come after it, and they will see the currently unimagined things that will come after that: the transformations, revelations, the possible liberations. That is their beauty, and it’s breathtaking: they go on. These slow, odorous, half-blind creatures are perhaps the closest thing to eternal this planet has to offer.