The great white misadventure

IT'S that time of year again. In Hong Kong newsrooms, dragon boats and across beaches rimming the territory's murky waters, a frantic cry has gone up.

'Shark!' Who're we gonna call? 'Vic Hislop!' Vic, marine warrior, Australian slayer of sharks, who has devoted his life to hunting, hooking, embalming and displaying them for public exhibition in a massive freezer.

If he had his way 'those bloody greenie conversationists' (sic) who brand him an environmental outlaw and intellectual pygmy would be used as bait.

His motto: 'There is no such thing as a full shark. So better to kill it before it kills you.' But as the Hong Kong Government pauses to consider luring the maverick to launch a hunt for the shark believed responsible for the two attacks in the past two days near Silverstrand beach, I offer some background.

In the wake of two similar attacks in the same area exactly two years ago, Hislop made a 'mercy dash' to Hong Kong at the behest of the newspaper I then worked for.

At the end of a week in which my editor looked likely to suffer a heart attack from the stress, staff were threatening to mutiny, the accountants were having kittens over the mounting costs and countless live ducks had been impaled on sharpened hooks as bait, Hislop had caught nothing more than a cold.

We should have known it would be a difficult task; Hislop had warned us. 'Sharks have tiny brains. And this hunt is really going to be a battle of wits,' he said.

After loping down the arrivals ramp at Kai Tak with a shark's tooth dangling around his neck and a bunch of heavy steel hooks trailing behind him, he was whisked to a nearby five-star hotel. Like something out of Crocodile Dundee, he seemed unable to come to grips with the luxury.

'Shark hunters don't stay in hotels,' he barked, unrolling a sleeping bag on the lounge tiles of my Sai Kung flat.

A frenzy of expectation was developing around the shark hunt. A 'command centre' - a junk - was moored off Silverstrand beach, and mobile phones given to reporters despatched overnight so they could communicate with the 'mother ship' (newsroom).

But after a few days, nothing. Not even a nibble. Hislop was convinced on one occasion he had the 'monster', only to find he had an anchor on the end of his lines instead of a shark.

And then disaster. Hislop - who was blaming his lack of success on the bait, the command centre, the weather and the pleasure boats churning the waters - fell ill. (For this he blamed the savoury mince brought on board by senior Agriculture and Fisheries officer David Cook).

We were in a bind. Hislop had abandoned ship and sought refuge on land in Sai Kung 'feeling as crook as a turtle in a tiger shark's belly'. At the same time, two of our staff in a dinghy chugging towards the command centre had lost power and began drifting in the South China Sea. Then the lines began bobbing as if there was something attached.

Drastic action ensued: Hislop was hauled off his sick bed, our sun-burned staff rescued and the lines examined: the tide was the culprit.

Soon afterwards, Hislop was quietly let go, vowing never to return to Hong Kong, and warning: 'That shark will be back, you can set your watch by it.' Will Hislop be?