I put my left hand down the side of its face because my head, shoulders and right arm were right down in its throat. All the way down in its throat," Eric Nerhus told The Scotsman newspaper of his encounter with a shark off the coast of New South Wales in southern Australia. "I felt down to the eye socket and with my stiff fingers, I poked my fingers into the eye socket, which made the shark open its mouth a bit."
The white pointer shark released him, and Nerhus managed to wriggle from its mouth, but not before losing his goggles, breaking his nose and having his torso pinked by the shark's teeth.
"It was circling around my flippers round and around in tight circles and the big, round, black eye was like a five-inch eye staring straight into my face," Nerhus told the newspaper. "They've got no fear at all, those sharks."
Nerhus may be a professional diver with a black belt in karate, but neither fact goes very far toward explaining why an otherwise sane 41-year-old father would brave battling a 9-foot shark in the shallows off the Australian coast. For that we must examine a cause more primitive and invertebrate. For that we must examine abalone.
Tender, creamy and slightly sweet, abalone is no mere chicken of the sea. Its meaty texture is something akin to a scallop, and in richness it easily rivals its more advanced arthropod cousin the lobster. Prized for both its gentle flesh and its iridescent shell, abalone has inspired countless odes to its splendor, including this rhyme attributed to one Opal Heron Search: "Oh some folks boast of quail on toast/Because they think it's tony/But I'm content to pay my rent/And live on abalone."
Clearly Ms. Search is not alone. Overfishing has caused many countries to impose strict prohibitions on abalone harvesting, yet there remains a brisk market in the sale of the illicit gastropods. Earlier this year a California judge fined an Oakland restaurant owner and his diver cohort $60,000 and sentenced them to 90 days' jail time after they pleaded guilty to abalone poaching-related charges. But who can blame them? Legally harvested or farm-raised abalone sells for upward of $100 per pound.
And with such prices and nefarious provenances surrounding all things abalone, who could resist a can of Roland King Top Shell Abalone Type Shellfish?
True, it's unlikely that any King Top Shell Abalone Type Shellfish (most likely adelomelon ancilla, for those keeping score at home) can rival the regal abalone in flavor. What's more, seafood in a can particularly a can filled with milky saltwater rarely inspires an abalonesque state of rapture.
Wait a second. Rapture? Please.
When my can opener's sharpened disc pierced the lid on my can of Roland King Top Shell Abalone Type Shellfish, no word could less adequately describe my state of mind. "Disgust?" Sure. "Dread?" Now we're talking.
Through the can's tiny hole wafted a fetid smell normally relegated to an abandoned fish tank's lowest stratum of gravel. But it didn't stop there. As I turned the opener's crank, the odor increased in force as a stream of milky bubbles breached the lid. My palms moistened and my mouth dried. Oh! I thought to my myself, I need a raise....
Normally I would stand by this column's open-'n'-eat protocol, but here I had to make an exception. After all, these fleshy little feet were going up against a sea king, and they were going to need all the help they could get. (Oh, and did I mention it smelled positively wretched straight from the can?)
So it was that I fired up the grill and rubbed this Abalone Type Shellfish product with olive oil before sprinkling it with sea salt and pepper. It hit the grill with a pleasing sizzle and quickly commenced to develop some nice grill marks.
But that's not all. On the grill these once musky and rubbery Abalone Type Shellfish underwent a transubstantiation of near-religious proportions. Gone was their bottom-of-the-sea fecal redolence, replaced by a salty earthiness that tugged gently against the gastropod's native sweetness. Sure, they were a little tough, but that's a small price to pay for shellfish that, eaten straight from the can, would undoubtedly have summoned my breakfast with an emetic call.
So how did my grilled Top Shell Abalone Type Shellfish compare to real-deal abalone? It didn't.
Truth be told, if someone told me that to harvest a Top Shell Abalone Type Shellfish I'd have to face a possible attack of a white pointer shark, I'd gladly subsist on a diet of wet-packed bay scallops.
Then again, judging from Nerhus' willingness to sacrifice his abalone to the shark, it seems that even abalone's splendorous virtues pale when balanced against our blanching fear of sharks.
"I held my abalone bag in my left hand between the shark and myself," said Nerhus, describing his delicate ascent. "I couldn't think of a worse way to go than to end up as fish food."