I’d never seen a shark butchered before, and I wasn’t particularly sure I wanted to see it then.
A man with cigar-sized digits hacked at its lifeless head with a black blade the length of my forearm. Blood and sea water oozed out of its mouth as he cut into its flesh, pooling on the cracked cement floor in a crimson puddle at the butcher’s feet. They’d caught the fish with a hook already stuck in its jaw and he was doing his darndest to remove it. It took over 20 minutes.
Even in death, the shark was a worthy adversary.
We stood in a small, open air shack belonging to a fishing co-op in Cuba situated along the Cojimar River at the edge of a small town by the same name. Fishermen smoking cigarettes and shooting the shit, watched as one of their own went to town on the shark.
The ocean was a few hundred yards away on the other side of an unfortunate strip of land buried in trash. The Cubans were embarrassed by it, but it’d gotten so bad that to clear it would require dump trucks and a landfill and no one had the money for that. There was mention of a Canadian company partnering with the co-op to clean up what would otherwise be a lovely stretch of shore, but I couldn’t get a read on whether that was real or just a fantasy.
It was late morning on a Tuesday and the marina was pretty sleepy by the time we arrived. A man scraped the hull of a ship in dry-dock while others played dominoes. Most of the men had returned from their fishing runs hours before and dozens of vintage wooden boats filled the slips. Like their cousins, the vintage automobiles in Havana, they were held together with bubblegum and baling wire but none of them had the glorious veneers of the country’s classic cars. The Caribbean weather and salt water had not been kind.
It’s said that Cojimar inspired Ernest Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea, a story about an aging Cuban fisherman who battles with a giant marlin off the coast of Florida. Looking at the bloodied shark head, the story seemed reasonable. To the left of the co-op, around the curve of the coastline, a nondescript multi-story building stood facing the bay. The bar at its base, I was told, Hemingway used to frequent.
Our merry band of photographers wandered around the property for a couple of hours, enjoying the change of pace from our exploration of Havana’s frenetic streets and the sun which had hidden during most of our trip. I walked through rows of colorful, broken down storage units, which became my photographic muses for most of my visit. I liked playing with the bold colors, textures and graphics of the buildings to create images a little different from my norm.
I hung out with a wayward crab and watched as two men methodically baited six-inch hooks—a quarter inch thick and the length of my hand—in preparation for the next outing. The size of the hooks and the heavy roped wire attached to them, were a testament to the sheer power of the big fish they battled.
Did you know that fisherman hunt sharks and swordfish at night? (A little fishing trivia for you should you ever need it.) But not on that evening, a full moon would keep them from going out on the black water. Apparently, the fish are frightened by the moonlight reflecting off the hooks.
As a land lubber, it was hard for me to imagine a shark being frightened of anything, but I took his word for it.
*The images above were taken while an invited guest of the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops. The writing and sentiment are my own.