Photographs by Nick Caloyianis
Huge Greenland shark as it approaches Harbor Branch’s Johnson-Sea-Link submersible Credit: HARBOR BRANCH/Youngbluth
Somniosus microcephalus -- known as the the sleeper shark, Greenland shark, or gurry shark -- lives in polar waters all year round. It is a large shark: lengths of 8 to 14 feet are not unusual, and the largest measured specimen was 21 feet long. (Only the whale shark, basking shark, and great white shark are known to reach a greater length.) This shark eats a wide variety of food, from fish of its native polar waters to seals, carrion, flesh from dead whales, and even (in one captured specimen) an entire reindeer. The Greenland shark has a reputation for being very sluggish, but its diet includes salmon and other fast-swimming fishes.
This shark suffers from a parasite called a copepod that attaches itself to the cornea of the eye: Most of them have one copepod -- a whitish-yellow creature from 3 mm. to 3 inches in size -- on each eye.
Other facts: bears live young; said to have highly toxic flesh unless dried or boiled in several changes of water; has smooth-edged teeth with thorn-like appearance in upper jaw and squarish, overlapping appearance in lower jaw.
The Greenland shark has a place of its own in Eskimo culture. The lower teeth are made into a tool for cutting hair. Eskimo mythology has a story that all other Greenland fishes were created from chips of wood, but the Greenland shark smells so strongly of ammonia, its origin is different. Long ago, as legend has it, an old woman washed her hair with urine and was drying it with a cloth. A gust of wind carried the cloth to sea and there it turned into skalugsuak, the Greenland shark.