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Those Other Sharks

Greenland Shark
Greenland Shark (US Public Domain)

Whenever we think of sharks, we think of warm oceans, palm trees, bright sunshine, and golden beaches, all at the same time. Right? In these areas, we never swim out too far for fear of getting bitten by these nasty underwater creatures who don’t take any prisoners.  But did you know that sharks also exist in northern waterways?

Oh, but they do.

I discovered this one day while reading about the internationally known Sable Island, a narrow, 26-mile-long sliver of a sandbar in the northern Atlantic a hundred miles off the Nova Scotia mainland. The island contains the famous Sable Island horses. The horses and the land is protected by the Canadian National Park Service and opened to tourists only by special permission. Apparently, as I continued reading, Grey seals breed on the island shores where they are often preyed upon by the Greenland shark who like to leave their marks. Wait, a minute…what? The Greenland shark? You don’t say?

Also called the gurry shark and the grey shark, the Greenland shark is found in the northern Atlantic and Arctic Oceans, the Gulf of St. Lawrence, along the shores of Nova Scotia, as far south as the Carolinas, and Portugal across the Atlantic pond: usually at great depths such as 5,000 feet or more where the water temperatures are the coldest. Then when they do come to the surface, they often feed off rotting bear, moose, reindeer and horse carcasses near the shorelines. Otherwise, deep down, they consume lots of other fish, especially halibut.

The Greenland shark (Somniosus microcephalus in the scientific world) is the longest-living vertebrae on this planet, reaching 300-400 years of age in many cases, making them older than the United States, actually. They have barrel-shaped bodies with short, round faces, and small eyes. Gray, dark brown or violet in color, they meander through the water slowly, only one foot per second due to their small fins. Weighing in as much as 2,500 pounds and reaching 20-plus feet in length, the females are generally larger than the males. And these boys and girls don’t reach sexual maturity until approximately 150 years of age. Whew!

For years they have been hunted for their liver oil and are now a near-threatened species. Sometimes, they can be found in deep-sea nets when fishermen had been looking for halibut and other species that frequent the lower watery reaches. When caught, the Greenland shark meat is quite the delicacy in Iceland, however, a national dish best washed down with locally prepared schnapps. Ever hear of Bird’s Nest Soup or the ever-dangerous Fugu fish which chefs need 3-4 years of special training before they are qualified to serve or else it could kill you? Yes, that kind of delicacy.

Greenland shark meat is also toxic if not prepared properly. In small amounts, it can give you a sickly, staggering high. In greater amounts, it can kill you. The reason is that the meat is high in uric acid and trimethylamine oxide (the way God made them), a mixture that provides a natural anti-freeze to protect the sharks from the frigid waters they frequent. To make the meat edible, the Icelanders participate in a traditional method dating back to the Viking occupation of their country more than a thousand years ago. It is known as kaestur hakarl (“fermented shark” in the Icelandic language). In those barbaric days of the 9th century, the food options were rather limited to the small country surrounded by icy waters. The bigger the species of food, the better. So, the Greenland shark certainly fit their culinary needs.

The unchanged preparation for centuries all starts when the dead shark is beheaded. The head--useless for consumption--is thrown away and the rest of the body is buried underground in a sand and gravel pit with heavy stones placed on top to press the shark’s fluids out. This lasts for approximately three months, depending on the season, then cut into long strips and hung in specially constructed shacks for another three to four months to dry and cure. 

Iceland 2004
Iceland, January, 2004, as seen from space (US Public Domain)

During that time, the meat develops a tough, brownish crust and takes on a distinct odor like that of rotten cheese. The crust is removed and the meat is cut and then served either in restaurants or purchased in plastic bags in grocery stores. It comes in cubes--when served in a glass it appears to be a lobster cocktail--and is eaten not with forks but with toothpicks. Two types of hakarl exist: the pinkish, spongy meat from the stomach called glerhakarl; and the lighter, smoother meat from the main body called skyrhakarl. 

Times do change, however. Besides the traditional fermentation procedure, more modern methods for curing the meat include storing it in boxes or plastic containers instead of the sand. No matter the fermentation process, according to those who have sampled hakarl say it is a taste you have to acquire. That’s putting it mildly because others simply can’t stand the smell or the taste. At best, some have said it is like a strong cheese with a hint of fish flavor or simply blue cheese a hundred times stronger, and that it tastes better than it smells.

On camera, iconic American chef Anthony Bourdain admitted that fermented Greenland shark was “unspeakably nasty.” Then he added, “This is possibly the single-most worst thing I’ve ever put in my mouth.” 

English chef Ainsley Harriott, star of Ainsley Eats the Streets, was just as descriptive during one of his around-the-globe episodes for his TV show. The ammonia smell nearly floored him. Then when he bit into the meat, he had to spit it out. “I’m sorry, I can’t. It’s like…chewing a urine-infested mattress,” he said, between gasps. “That’s awful.” 

Well, all righty then. Moving right along…

Anyone for Bird’s Nest Soup?

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