The tiger shark was having a really bad day.
Other sharks and fish were picking on him and he was fed up. After fighting them, he met up with the hammerhead shark and some stingrays at Vanderlin Rocks in the waters of Australia’s Gulf of Carpentaria to speak of their woes before they set out to find their own places to call home.
This forms one of the oldest stories in the world, the tiger shark dreaming. The ‘dreaming’ is what Aboriginal people call their more than 40,000-year-old history and mythology; in this case, the dreaming describes how the Gulf of Carpentaria and rivers were created by the tiger shark. The story has been passed down by word of mouth through generations of the Aboriginal Yanyuwa people, who call themselves ‘li-antha wirriyara’ or ‘people of the salt water’.
As we sailed past the rocks and sandstone cliffs of Vanderlin Island, heading towards the mouth of the Wearyan River, dugongs and fish swam by. We were searching beneath the waves for a glimpse of shark fins, following in the path of the tiger shark in this creation story.
The tiger shark’s journey was challenging as he forged his way through the Gulf, creating the water holes and rivers in the landscape. He was turned away by many other angry animals who did not want him to live with them. A wallaby even hurled rocks at him when he asked if he could stay with her. But as he swam, the dreaming story explains, the shark helped create the waters of the Gulf of Carpentaria that we see today.
“Tiger sharks are very important in our dreaming,” said Aboriginal elder Graham Friday, who is a sea ranger here and one of the few remaining speakers of Yanyuwa language. Some people here still believe the tiger shark is their ancestor, and the Yanyuwa are known for their ‘tiger shark language’, as they have so many words for the sea and shark.
The Yanyuwa traditionally fish these waters, catching and eating fish, turtle and dugong, but very rarely shark. Their heartlands lie over five main islands and more than 60 smaller, barren sandstone islets of the Sir Edward Pellew Group, which are scattered over 2,100 sq km. Vanderlin Island is the largest and furthest east, 32km from north to south and 13km wide. The 5.5m-long tiger shark, which travels over thousands of kilometres from these coastal waters to the Pacific Ocean each year, would have been a powerful mythological figure.
However, today conservationists are concerned about tiger shark numbers, with them currently listed as ‘Near Threatened’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Read more: BBC