ENCOUNTERS WITH SHARKS
Table of Contents
Many encounters with sharks are documented in “The International Shark Attack File” by H. David Baldridge (1994) and in additional publications from the Florida Museum of Natural History. I have personally had several encounters with sharks while both snorkeling and SCUBA diving that would qualify as entries in their database. A physical contact with the shark is not a requirement. My encounters are described in the following sections.
It was the summer of 1957. I found myself on the lovely island of Hilton Head, about a 100-mile drive from my small hometown of Waynesboro, GA. What a difference from my home county with sprawling cotton fields nestled among groves of slash pines. In contrast, white sand tracks of unpaved and rutted roads wind through stands of ancient oaks festooned with beards of Spanish moss. Parula warblers flit among the branches searching for the one Spanish moss stalactite that houses its nest. Hilton Head Island is a world unto itself. The scene is quiet and sound is muted by the ancient oaks with their own version of Spanish moss, acoustic absorbers.
As the road draws closer to the sea, the calming effect of sand dunes cloaked with stands of sea oats can be felt. The sea is relatively quiet. The tide is going out and the waves are mere ripples. The beach at Hilton Head Island State Park slopes very gently away from the shore. It is a perfect place to catch a few rays and enjoy a leisurely dip in the calm, tepid ocean water. But I was, at that time, an avid fisherman, and I couldn’t be that close to an ocean without trying my luck.
I took my casting rod with its Pfluger, barrel reel (spinning reels were not that popular then) and my small bag of shrimp tails for bait and waded out into the gently moving, warm water searching for a waist-deep location. When I finally reached my goal, I realized that I was about 100 yards from shore. No problem, particularly since the water was clear enough for me to still see my feet and, in addition, to see that I was standing in the midst of a school of whiting – sometimes also called Kingfish. They were about one foot in length and just the size for eating.
I stopped walking and let the school, destined to become entrées, settle down. I baited up a hook and tossed the morsel about 10 yards in front of me. I retrieved it slowly, as if it were being moved by a gentle current. It didn’t take long. I got a good hit and hooked the fish. After reeling it in, I realized that I had no fish string for my catch. I cut the line still holding the fish. While grasping the line with the hooked fish, I cut an additional length of 10 lb. test line from my reel. This was to become my fish stringer. I ran one end of the line through the mouth of my first catch and out its gill cover. I tied a bowline hitch in the line making a secure loop through the mouth and gill cover of the catch. I attached the free end of the stringer to the drawstring in my bathing suit. I was now ready to proceed with my fishing.
The school of whiting was still milling about my feet. This was like fishing with bits of liver in a small pond stocked with hungry rainbow trout – or more like shooting fish in a barrel. It wasn’t long before I had accumulated 10 fish on my stringer. Even though the surf was not rough, the motion of water kept changing the location of the stringer. Sometimes it was stretched out directly in front of me. Sometimes it was swept to my rear, and at times it was positioned between my legs. The variation of the location of the stringer was not an annoyance for me. I was focused on the fact that I was located directly in the middle of a school of desirable food fish.
I was so focused on what I was doing, that I never received any forewarning. I didn’t even notice that the school of whiting seemed to have disappeared. The good news was that, at that moment, the fish stringer was stretched out directly in front of me. Without warning, there was an explosive burst in the water about six feet off to my right at 2 o’clock announcing the initiation of a shark attack. In the next instant, a shark – must have been at least six feet long – clamped its jaws around the entire mass of ten fish on the stringer and swam off with them. Oh, wait! The fish stringer was tied to my bathing suit drawstring. I was jerked forward, but before being pulled face-first into the water, the fishing line stringer snapped, and the shark swam away with my entire catch.
Initially, I was upset at the loss and the complete dispersal of my private fishbowl. But when the situation finally sunk in, I realized I had to wade back to the shoreline that was a horrible, one hundred yards away. The shark was evidently satisfied with its catch and had no hungry relatives with it. The wade back to shore was uneventful.
Marcus P. Borom
Skin Diver Magazine
The following story is about a relative of the shark, but exciting nevertheless.
“By cracky, it’s twice a year for more than ten years you divers have been coming to York Beach; seems like you must have covered ‘bout the whole ocean bottom ‘round here. What’s there left to see?” An understandable statement from our annual host at Decatur’s Motel. Few, if any, of the York Beach, Maine residents dive, and the only ocean bottom they ever see are the mud flats, the sand beaches, and seaweed collapsed like soggy leaves among the boulders at low tide. But our diving club, the Schenectady Aqua Addicts, has never failed to find something new and exciting beneath the bone chilling, clear waters that can lie as calm as a mill pond in Lobster Cove or pound with relentless fury against the buttresses of Nubble Light. The color and rhythm in the waters of York Beach’s rockbound coastline rival that of many coral reefs.
Our newly initiated ocean divers are totally captivated by the majesty of the undersea forest - the browns of the kelp, the delicate soft greens of sea lettuce and the pastel pinks of the “ocean lichens”. But it’ s the unexpected, the surprises of the cold water marine life, that keeps us coming back. The phosphorescent displays of phytoplankton on that first night ocean dive; encounters with massive schools of mackerel and Pollock; every discovery of that friendly horror of the New England sea floor, - that steam rolled Cheshire cat - the goosefish. September of 1973 was no exception; the waters off York Beach were to yield yet another morsel to whet our diving enthusiasm.
The early fall day was gorgeous, the sun was bright, the sky clear. The summer crowds had retreated to their winter abodes and the beach was ours. Don Bates’ and his son, Don, Jr.’s ritual of suiting up was made special by the fact that this was to be their first ocean dive. They were to accompany me on a flounder hunt to add to the staples of our club’s evening fish fry.
The tide was rising. A gentle surf, created by an offshore breeze, rhythmically tumbled the fist-sized rocks that formed the shoreline of Lobster Cove. With our gear check completed we began to back into the surf over the shifting gravel bottom with our two-man life raft/diver-float in tow. As we turned to snorkel toward a deeper area, cold ocean water like icy lances seeped into our wet suits down the hollow channel where our spines lay.
Discomfort was soon forgotten as our attention turned to the surroundings. The water was filled with thousands of thimble-sized jellyfish with extended featherlike tentacles filtering the water for food. I had never before witnessed such an infestation in these waters. It appeared as if the combined conditions of tide and wind had dumped all the ocean’s jellyfish into Lobster Cove. Even though we were well protected against contact by our full wet suits, I signaled a dive to get below this armada only to find they extended all the way to the bottom.
The bottom itself was generously peppered with legal-sized lobsters moving over the rocks. The lobster regulations in Maine, however, left us only admiring these primitive creatures as a part of the sea community and not as an addition to our seafood feast.
Our course took us seaward leaving the cove-bound jellyfish behind. The rocks changed from gravel to boulders and finally yielded to the encroaching sands of the deeper waters. This in-between world of rock and sand is a favorite haunt of the large flounders, which traditionally have graced our evening fish fry, but today they were not to be found. In their place we encountered the archenemy of the flounder - the goosefish. Two- and three-foot long specimens lay buried in the sand. Their fishing lure appendage erected above a slight depression in the sea floor gave only a hint of the cavernous maw concealed beneath. My diving partners were hardly prepared for the eruption of the sandy bottom as a camouflaged goosefish lunged for my trailing spear point.
Our flounderless hunt had taken us approximately 600 yards offshore into a depth of 30 feet of water. My concentrated search for the elusive founder was abruptly interrupted by a firm tug on my right flipper. On turning, I faced an agitated Don, Jr. beckoning and frantically signaling with the traditional fisherman’s gesture of fully extended arms. “Well”, I thought, “our novice ocean diver has found another goosefish - big deal”.
As Don and his father led the way back along the rock and sand line, a huge form appeared swimming toward us just inches above the sea floor. As the form took shape it was obviously not a goosefish and neither had Don exaggerated. It appeared first as a world record skate. Several notable features, however, indicated that we were dealing with a different beast entirely. The creature was much rounder in shape than a skate. The back half of his body was shark-like, terminating in a large fish tail - in complete contrast to the more whip-like tail of the skate. In the center of its wings, on either side of its spine, were prominent bulbous regions.
My mind flew back to a childhood trip to Daytona Beach where I had found a much smaller but similar creature trapped at low tide in the shallow water of a sand flat. My youthful curiosity had led me to grab him by the tail and toss him out on the sand. As I moved him about with a metal fishing rod I made the mistake of laying the rod across the two bulbous humps of its back. The sensation was not unlike inserting ones finger into an electrical outlet while standing on a wet bathroom floor. That 18-inch long torpedo or crampfish left a lasting impression that, 25 years later, came rushing back to the surface.
Electric ray! I signaled, “don’t touch” and sized him up with my metal hand spear - four and one-half feet long. This boy could probably fry all three of us if he really decided to dump all of his charge. But my experience has taught me that, if unmolested, sea creatures present no real threat to divers, so for nearly five minutes we swam side by side with this master of the depths. Don Sr. fired his brand new Nikonos three times and brought back available light evidence of our rendezvous with a prehistoric monster.
Post dive research confirmed not only that we had seen, swum with and closely observed a large electric ray, but also that our ray was the largest species known - Torpedo nobiliana. Compared with the records, our ray was as big as they come, probably weighing around 200 pounds and capable of producing over 400 volts. Experiments have been reported in which specimens of this ray have been placed in a tank with leopard sharks. The sharks jumped out of the tank.
So, by cracky, the cold waters of Maine still have enough surprises left in their bag of tricks to attract divers for years to come.
Key West, Florida
By 1970 (1967 actually) I had graduated from wading in the ocean to snorkeling and SCUBA diving. I was even serving as a diving instructor with the task of instructing instructors. I was now in a position to venture bravely into the realm of the SHARK. Up to this point, my diving experience had been limited to the cold, clear waters of Lake George in upstate NY. Lake George is a beautiful lake nestled among the foothills of the Adirondacks. Water visibility, on a good day back then could get to 40 feet. For local divers, that was amazing. My diving had also taken me to the 42 degree waters of the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Maine. Lots of sea creatures there – flounder, Pollack, cod, and Maine Lobster with their huge claws – one for crushing and one for tearing. Our favorite sport was hand-spearing the elusive flounder found in the bays near York Beach. We would enter from shore, swim out to a depth of about 15 feet and continue on SCUBA out to the edge of the rock line about ½ mile for shore. Plenty of flounder, but no shark encounters
Several of my diving buddies and I longed for a dive in the clear waters of the Gulf Stream where visibility can exceed 100 feet. We dreamed of being surrounded by amazing coral shapes and unbelievably colorful reef fish. I talked two other families into joining my family and me with my boat on a trip to Key West to realize this enticing goal.
The trip was to be almost 1700 miles one way with a boat trailer in tow. But the goal was worth it. Three days after departing from Niskayuna, NY, we arrived in three cars at our motel in Key West. There had been no flat tires; no fishtailing boat trailers and we even got to spend a night in my hometown of Waynesboro, Georgia.
The plan now switched from road travel to sea navigation. A local dive shop, where we would be filling out SCUBA tanks suggested some diving spots away from normal channels. Weaving through submerged coral heads in shallow water was something to be done only during daylight hours so we made plans to leave early in the morning so that we could return well before sunlight began to fade.
Our first trip took us to a shallow (less than 30 feet deep) reef on the edge of the Gulf Stream. East of the reef, the depth dropped off to around 100 feet. There were three divers on board, Lyman Johnson, a co-worker of mine with some open ocean experience off the island of Cozumel in Mexico, Ned Simpson, the lead dive instructor in the SCUBA classes we conducted in NY State and myself, whose open ocean experience was limited to the cold waters of Maine and Massachusetts. We arrived at our destination and dropped anchor in about 20 feet of water, in a sandy area away from any coral head. The 20 lb. Danforth anchor, with its 10 feet of heavy chain between the anchor shaft and the anchor rope, gave us a good grip on the seafloor. We felt comfortable leaving the boat unattended while we were all in the water. After all, the weather was calm. There was no breeze and the sea was still.
Lyman and I proposed diving on the shallow reef so we could maximize our underwater time and not have to worry about such things as air embolisms and decompression sickness. Ned, however, was an aficionado of deep diving, and contrary to our advice, chose to dive into the depths of the Gulf Stream – alone. Lyman and I thoroughly enjoyed our more than 60-minute dive among the shallow coral heads where we were enthralled with the colors and shapes of all the corals and fishes.
On returning to the boat, we found Ned already stripped of his diving gear and sitting quietly on one of the boat seats. We all had a second SCUBA tank available, but Ned said he had had enough for the day and that, since he had already spent his time in a depth of over 90 feet, he didn’t want to risk any additional high-pressure exposure. His answer somehow did not ring true, but neither Lyman nor I pursued the issue. We all agreed to call it a day.
On the cruise back to the boat ramp –about 10 miles away – I suggested that we try some trolling along the weed-line. The weed –line is an accumulation of orange-brown Sargassum weed swept into a long line above the Gulf Stream by the wind and currents. It is the perfect place for small baitfish to gather. The weed line is like a buffet dinner for larger predatory fish and a great place to troll your lure. I got nothing but grumbles from the other two, totally non-fishermen. “Let’s just head home”, they complained. I compromised with the promise of no more than 30 minutes of trolling. Lyman piloted the boat. I fed out the line from my deep-sea rod trailing a homemade, six-inch, shiny lure with a green, hula skirt tail. The shape and size of the lure generated more disgruntled comments from my shipmates. Lyman kept the boat moving within 10 feet of the weed line. I kept pumping the rod to generate the motion of an injured squid.
More comments of, “boring”, and “are we done yet”. Then it happened. A 25 lb bull dolphin (the fish), which is now called a Dorado or a Mahi-mahi to distinguish it from the friendly Flipper of TV fame), struck the lure and got hooked. The reel started singing its special song as the reel ratchet began feeding out line against the setting of the drag. The deep-sea rod began to bow, and I began to yell. The bull dolphin in all its iridescent green, silver and gold coloration burst out of the water as if to take flight. But the real transformation occurred in the boat cabin. The two divers had become instant fishermen, yelling expletives of encouragement and jumping up and down in disbelief.
The fish put on a spectacular show. It couldn’t have been better on a sport-fishing channel. When I finally maneuvered the fish along side the boat, we all realized that we had neither a net nor a gaff. How were we going to boat this fish? As Ned was about to grab the fish by the small of its tail, he saw that two large sharks were following the captured fish closely. Hands in the water no longer looked like a good practice. We were about to lose my (our) catch to marauding sharks. Ned shouted, “To hell with it. Lyman, you grab the line and I’ll grab the tail.” Without hesitation and totally in concert, the two lifted the dolphin into the boat. High fives all around.
I put away the fishing gear and we headed home to enjoy our Dorado, barbequed on the outdoor grill at the motel. At dinner, Ned announced that he would not be diving anymore on this trip. He provided no further explanation at that time.
Later, back in Niskayuna, NY in a weak moment, he related to me the experience of his deep, solo dive into the Gulf Stream. He had swum down a gentle sandy slope that bottomed out at about 90 feet. He was exploring among the sparse coral when he became aware of another presence. He rolled over onto his back so he could better look upwards. What he saw changed his life. Passing overhead, almost within arms reach was a huge shark - species unidentified beyond BIG. He estimated the length of the shark to be 15 feet. Even allowing for the magnification factor of water, that was still a frigging big fish. He lay stuck to the bottom on his back for several minutes, making sure that the shark was not making a return run. With his heart pumping like mad, he made what, for him, seemed like a 10-mile swim back up the slope to the anchored boat. Ned never dived again – not even in fresh water.
Lyman and I elected to continue diving somewhere along the edge of the Gulf Stream. We were disappointed that we had not seen any sharks. At the dive shop we had been frequenting, we asked the dive shop owner where we might encounter some large sharks. He advised that we could visit a location called the Western J-Marker Reef. It was easily identified by the presence of a channel marker sporting a large letter “J”. He also advised that it was not dived often because it was well known as a hangout for sharks. Sounded like this could be the real highlight of the trip.
With some primitive navigation instructions in hand, we drove to the launch ramp and slid my 17-foot tri-hull into the clear waters surrounding Key West. With the car and trailer safely parked, I fired up the 80 HP outboard and Marc’s Arc began its journey to the Western J-Marker reef. Lyman stood in the fishing platform of the bow and called out directions to avoid the numerous shallow coral heads. He was even using the nautical terms of port and starboard. When danger of collision was imminent, he would shout out the modifiers of hard to port or hard to starboard as the situation required. When we were finally out of the shallows, I pushed the throttle forward and we set out eastward toward the Gulf Stream, cruising at 25 mph.
The Western J-Marker stood on the edge of a large coral reef that came to within five feet of the surface and dropped off to a sandy bottom at around 25 feet. This would make for a comfortable dive with a maximum bottom time of more than 60 minutes. We would have plenty of time to explore the nooks and crannies of the shallow reef and to search out critters like green morays and large spider crabs and spiny lobsters.
The real question was where to anchor. We would be leaving the boat unattended for about an hour. There was no fear of it being stolen since we were completely alone in this part of the ocean. There were no other boats around and we had seen no one else during our trip out. But there was a real fear that the anchor could become dislodged allowing the boat to drift away while we were submerged. I toured around until I found a lone piece of dead coral in the middle of a sand patch at a depth of around 20 feet. This was to be our mooring.
Dropping anchor was not sufficient. I suited up- wetsuit, SCUBA tank, mask, snorkel, and fins, and finally my 20 lb weight belt. Lyman lowered the anchor with its chain lead and polypropylene anchor line off the bow and left the line slack. I rolled off the port gunnel and sank into the water surrounded by an obscuring raft of air bubbles generated by the entry splash. I swam down to the anchor and drove the Danforth flukes into the sand and passed the anchor chain through a crevice in the dead coral. The boat was securely attached to the bottom.
Back in the boat and confident of its mooring, I discussed a dive plan with Lyman and announced that I planed to take my Hawaiian sling along in case we encountered a large grouper or some other edible fish. A Hawaiian sling is a long spear propelled by a hand-driven rubber loop attached to the butt end of the spear. The spearhead contains barbs that are deployed to prevent extraction when the spear penetrates the prey.
“OK” said Lyman, “but be aware that, if you spear a fish in these waters, you are on your own. I will immediately swim back to the boat, and get out of the water.” I understood his concern and agreed with the plan.
The spectacular scenery underwater was everything we had wished for. The coral was pristine. Colorful reef fish were everywhere. The depth was sufficiently shallow that the water did not filter out the brilliant reds and yellows of the sponges and crinoids. We swam over a sandy bottom covered with living sand dollars. Blue-headed cleaner wrasses darted in and out of the coral crevices. Brilliantly yellow, four-eyed butterfly fish, so named for their false eyespots located at the base of their tail, swam in pairs along the coral. The reef was alive with activity.
In the first 15 minutes, I spotted a red hind – a member of the grouper family, and swam toward it with my spear cocked. I am sure that Lyman took a quick breath when he sensed my intentions. The fish swam into the coral. I swam up over the coral head into which the fish had disappeared. At the top of the coral there was a hole that could serve as an inspection entrance into the lair. I did a headstand and disappeared into the hole down to my waist. The fish was hiding under a ledge. I released the spear and struck the fish amidships. The shot was not a killing shot and the fish struggled valiantly in the coral. He was difficult to extract. His loud grunting noises and the vibrations of his struggle were being telegraphed throughout the reef. After several minutes, I was able to extract the fish and back out of the vertical hole.
I pulled the fish clear of the coral and turned to show Lyman my catch. What I saw was Lyman’s flippers disappearing into the distance, clearly on a track back to the boat. “Well,” I thought, “that’s what he said he would do, but I didn’t expect his exit to be that fast.” To assure Lyman that I understood his concern, I swam to the surface and raised the spear with its attached prey out of the water just in case he were to look back. As it turned out, this was a very good move on my part.
I watched as Lyman reached the boat ladder. The usual procedure for exiting the water is to remove one’s flippers, and to ascend the boat ladder. If there is someone already on board, the diver will also remove his 20 lb weight belt and pass up his 35 lb SCUBA tank. That makes for a comfortable exit.
I watched in astonishment as Lyman grasped the top curve of the boat ladder and, with a powerful kick of his flippers, propelled himself - in full dive gear - over the gunnel and into the deck of the boat with a resounding crash.
“What is going on?” I thought.
At that moment, Lyman spit out his regulator and yelled, “SHAAARK!!”
I spun around and saw nothing in the water out of the ordinary. I swam up to the boat ladder. Without the aid of the adrenaline rush that had accompanied Lyman’s exit, I was relegated to a normal exit. I threw the spear and the fish in the boat and went through the normal routine of re-entering the boat. Once back on board, I asked Lyman for an explanation.
“After you had speared that fish and was attempting to retrieve it with your legs still sticking straight up out of that crevice, a six-foot long shark circled your legs twice. At that point I left”, he said.
I explained that I had not seen any sharks during my swim back to the boat. He explained that, nevertheless, there were sharks in the water. I challenged him by saying that, if there were sharks in the water, we should be able to attract them with the speared fish. I picked up the spear with the fish still attached and swirled it in the water alongside the boat. To my amazement, six sharks appeared instantly and circled the boat. My heart skipped a beat and my breathing accelerated. Damn! This should be no surprise. After all, the dive shop owner said that this spot was a known hangout for sharks. And I even knew better than to spearfish in shark-infested waters.
Our focus changed. Diving was over. Fishing was in. Our dinner catch switched from being an entrée to serving as shark bait. I rigged the deep-sea rod with a heavy steel leader and a large hook. A thin fillet from the red hind served as the first piece of bait. I dropped the baited hook over the side of the boat. I didn’t even try and cast it out for any distance. The baited hook was not in the water for more than 20 seconds when a sizable shark clamped on to it. I let the line go free for 15 to 20 feet to allow the shark to swallow the bait. I then threw on the reel lock and pulled back on the rod to set the hook. The shark was on.
There was no match here. The shark headed for the deep reef. The reel bale sped out and the ratchet sang its buzzing song. I tried to increase the drag in order to slow the escape of the shark. My efforts were all to no avail. At almost the limit of the spooled line, the line broke near the leader. I retrieved the slack line and rigged it for a second try. There were no more hits. The sharks seemed to have disappeared.
But had they??
We gave up on fishing and had our luncheon sandwiches and drinks. While eating, we noticed an ominous, black, cigar-shaped cloud rolling toward us out of the east. It had the appearance of a devastating steamroller - all set to smash us into the reef. In all the excitement, the afternoon had worn on. I said to Lyman, “Raise anchor and let’s get out of here while we still have time.” Lyman went to the bow and began to pull in the anchor rope up to the point that the line was pointing straight down. There was no way that it was going to come loose. We tried positioning the boat at several angles to free the wrapped chain, but to no avail. Our boat had been securely attached to the bottom. Our mooring had truly been secure. The only way to free it was to dive down and untangle the chain.
I said to Lyman, “Someone has to dive down and free the anchor.”
He replied simply, “It’s YOUR anchor.”
Unfortunately, I am a very frugal man, and I could not envision cutting the anchor line and leaving that beautiful Danforth anchor, which I had retrieved from the bottom of Lake George, with its ten feet of chain lying on the bottom of the ocean. We had not seen sharks for a while, but we recalled how rapidly they had responded to some splashing about in the water. With those things in mind, I suited up, tank and all, and sat on the gunnel preparing for a rear splashing entry into the unknown. I sucked on the regulator and found it delivered air properly. I fell backwards into the cloud of surrounding bubbles. As they cleared, I did a 360-degree turn and saw no sharks. I waited a few minutes before swimming down toward the anchor. This was, without a doubt, the longest and deepest dive I have ever made.
With the anchor freed and again on board, we headed back toward the boat ramp with sufficient light to avoid the scattered coral heads in the shallows, and with a new set of stories for our diving repertoire.
In 1975, Steven Spielberg produced a blockbuster movie entitled JAWS, based on the book of the same name by Peter Benchley. It was to change the public’s outlook on sharks and on swimming in the ocean. I felt that it was a must see for SCUBA divers. I had already introduced my four sons to the wonderful world of snorkeling. They had all embraced the experience of viewing things beneath the surface of the clear waters of Lake George, a deep mountain lake nestled in the foothills of the Adirondacks They were anticipating entering the deeper realm of underwater beauty and excitement afforded by my instructing them in the skill of SCUBA diving.
I made a major goof in implementing my plan by taking my sons to see the movie, JAWS. I had some reservations regarding what my eight-year-old Andrew’s reaction to the scenes in the movie might be. I thought I could handle the violent scenes by just covering his eyes, but that didn’t work. My bad!!
After the movie, Andrew would still accompany the family to Lake George to putt around the lake in our 17-foot outboard, but he would not jump into the water. I tried to assure him that there were no sharks in Lake George. His reply, very logical for an eight-year-old boy, was, “Lake George flows into the Hudson River. The Hudson River flows into the Atlantic Ocean. The Atlantic Ocean is full of sharks and they can swim upstream. They do it in the Amazon. How can you be sure that there are no sharks in Lake George?” Arguments that the Hudson is filled with barriers like waterfalls, and that saltwater fish have difficulty adjusting to a non-saline environment, and that sharks have never been encountered in Lake George, all fell short. “What about salmon?”, Andrew asked, “They spend their life in the ocean and then swim upstream, and jump over waterfalls to spawn.” My work was cut out. I had to change this outlook that I had fostered by exposing such a young mind to such a life-changing movie.
Truly, my bad.
Andrew slowly gave in to snorkeling in clear, fresh water, but salt water was a horse of a different color. At least twice every year the family would join in a trip to the cold waters of Maine with the local SCUBA club – the Schenectady Aqua Addicts. During these trips, Andrew would enjoy playing in the surf, but he didn’t go far into the water. Gradually he began to accept the possibility of trying SCUBA diving.
When he was 15, I enrolled him in a SCUBA class, in which I was an instructor and lecturer, and took him through the paces of a 30-hour lecture course followed by a similar time in the pool with SCUBA gear. He learned all the skills and even sailed through the challenging tasks of ditching all his gear underwater, surfacing and leaving all the gear, including his mask and snorkel, on the bottom of the pool. The routine was completed by breath hold diving down to the bottom of the pool and donning all the gear – again - underwater – and swimming away in SCUBA mode. The course also included several open water dives in clear, fresh-water lakes. Andrew even graduated to open water dives from shore in the cold, 42-degree waters of Maine. Somehow, there, the threat of sharks seemed more remote. I felt that he was now ready for a trip to a coral reef in warm ocean waters.
There, the presence of sharks was almost guaranteed.
I had made several diving trips to a very special reef off the coast of Belize (formerly British Honduras) in Central America. There are many atolls in the Pacific Ocean associated with volcanic islands, which have sunk into the sea. The coral reefs that surrounded the sinking island continued to grow upward even as the island sank. The final result is a lagoon, where the island originally was, surrounded by a barrier coral reef. These features are typically absent in the seawaters of the Atlantic, the Caribbean, and the Gulf of Mexico. Belize, however, is graced with several rare atolls that sit on the tops of plateaus that drop off to over 2000 feet at the edge of the reef. One of them is Glover’s Reef. It lies about 25 miles offshore and beyond the Belizean barrier reef that protects the country’s shoreline.
Glover’s Reef is about 15 miles long and 6.5 miles wide (see attached map of the reef). Its long axis lies almost north/south. Almost 700 shallow coral patches are found in the lagoon inside the fringing reef. The water within the lagoon reaches a maximum depth of about 50 feet and is often murky. Not a good spot for diving, but great for shelling. The real diving is to be found outside the fringing reef on the coral blanketed 30 to 90 foot deep ledges, which drop off abruptly to 2500 feet.
Glover’s Reef back in the late 70’s had no real accommodations relative to well-developed dive resorts. The remoteness of the atoll and its several small islands was the big draw for me – no crowds and the diving was on pristine reefs. The accommodations on Northeast Cay, where we would be staying, were thatched huts, elevated on 6-foot high stilts to reduce exposure to mosquitoes and sand flies. There was no electricity and air conditioning was provided “au natural” by the trade winds. The accommodations were, at best, primitive, but, for me, they were perfect. I was not sure how Andrew would take to them, but he did fine.
The trip from Belize City on board a converted, wooden rice-hauler motor-sailer was cramped and took more than 7 hours – mostly under power even though sailing was an option. Northeast Cay is covered with coconut palms, which have their own special population of large tree iguanas, which the native Caribes call Wish Willies. Numerous hermit crabs traverse the ground during the day, and, at night, the land is taken over by large, blue land crabs that remain hidden in their damp burrows during the day. The real activity is that on the reef, but that would have to wait for the next morning.
The pathways on the small cay were all natural, coarse beach sand filled with shell fragments. Our French-Canadian host, Gilbert Lomont, suggested that we not wear shoes on the island since the coarse sand would grind down even the best sneakers. Barefoot might start out being uncomfortable, but he predicted that our soles would harden in just a few days. We took his advice to heart and found that it was solid.
Diving on the shelf beyond the fringing reef started out in relatively shallow water – 30 to 40 feet. Andrew was, unfortunately, unable to clear his ears. He began to experience ear pain around a depth of 10 feet. If he tried to go any deeper, the pain became unbearable. He aborted every dive for the first two days. At that point, I sat down with him and had a serious talk about sharks.
“Andrew,” I said, “the pain you are feeling is not in your ears. It is in what is between your ears. You are overly anxious about sharks. I have been coming here for several years and have never seen a pelagic shark. Monsieur Lomont assures me that the pelagic sharks hang out at a depth of around 300 feet and do not come up into the shallower depths until after sunset. The only kind of shark you are going to see will be a harmless nurse shark.”
“Tomorrow,” I said, “we are going to be anchoring in 90 feet of water, and you and I are going to take it very slowly – one foot of depth at a time until we get past that critical 10 foot depth. Beyond 10 feet, clearing of your ears should become easier. We WILL GET to the bottom.”
As advertised, the dive boat anchored in 90 feet of water near the ledge drop-off. Andrew and I let the other two divers (that was our crowd) go ahead. We entered the water at the stern of the boat and swam on the surface using our snorkels to conserve air until we reached the anchor line at the bow. There we switched to compressed air and began our slow descent down the anchor line.
The water was crystal clear and we could see the bottom from the surface as if we were floating in air. The bottom was sandy with scattered, huge coral heads, but between the anchor and the ledge lay a solid table of coral. The most significant feature of the bottom, however, was the sand channels or sand rivers that ran through the extensive coral platform. The channels were about 10 feet wide with walls about six to eight feet high. They were like alleyways to the deep ocean. Entering one of these at a depth of 90 feet was our agreed upon goal.
We started down the anchor line and Andrew went through the procedure of swallowing vigorously and making chewing motions with his jaw to try and get his ears to pop. Of course, what he was doing was forcing his Eustachian channel between his throat and his inner ear to open and allow the high-pressure air filling his lungs from his SCUBA tank to enter his inner ear and equalize with the external water pressure. When that channel remains closed, the external water pressure pushes in on the eardrum and can cause pain. If one ignores that pain, and continues to descend, the eardrum likely will burst. The pain will go away and you can descend further, but on returning, you will be deaf. Not a desirable outcome.
We descended slowly. If there was any pain, we rose up several feet until the Eustachian tube opened and the pressure equalized. The deeper we got, the faster we could descend. Finally, we reached the anchor and Andrew threw up both arms, pounding at the water in glee. He had done it.
We entered one of the sand channels and began the 40-yard swim to the drop-off. The coral that formed the walls of the channel were festooned with sponges and Christmas tree worms. Blue chromis and fairy basslets were competing for space among the coral crevices. The reds and yellows that decorate the corals were all absent since those wavelengths of light had long been filtered out by the water depth. We were left only with blues and greens. As a point of interest, the blood that comes out of any cut suffered at this depth is green in color. Weird! But sight seeing along the channel was not our plan. Any delay would just consume our needed air supply and put us at greater risk of incurring dreaded decompression sickness – and there was no decompression chamber available. An event of decompression sickness could prove fatal. We were heading for the drop off and the coral wall that disappears into the depths.
At the exit of the channel Andrew and I looked down a wall that fell off at an angle of about 60 degrees. We moved beyond the channel and began a descent to 125 feet – our planned maximum depth. At that level I spotted a large nurse shark. It was about eight feet long and was lying still among the sheet coral. I caught Andrew’s attention and gave him the sign that he should look toward his right. He saw the nurse shark and responded with the diver’s OK sign by making an “O” by touching his thumb with his forefinger. When I saw that he was not disturbed by sharing the ocean with a nurse shark, regardless of size, I signed that I was going to swim closer and take a picture of the fish. He acknowledged again with an OK sign.
I adjusted the settings on my Nikonos underwater camera and swam slowly forward. I was using chemical flash – i.e. flash bulbs - to provide sufficient light for the picture and to replace the missing wavelengths to bring out the colors. The shark was cooperating and remained still as I approached. When the framing was right, I release the shutter.
Instead of providing a flash of light, the flashbulb exploded and released a pressure wave that startled the shark. The huge nurse shark bolted off through the coral, thrashing left and right with its tail and breaking off large chunks of table coral. I turned back to Andrew with an OK sign to let him know there was nothing to worry about. What I saw startled me. Andrew was staring out into the depths and his eyes were like saucers. I turned my gaze into the direction of his.
What I saw frightened me. Rising from the depths at incredible speed was a very large black-tipped shark. It had evidently heard the commotion caused by the escaping nurse shark and was coming to join in on what must have sounded like a feeding frenzy. Imagine looking down the axis of a big shark with a 2-foot cross-section. All you can see are the eyes, the pectoral fins, the dorsal fin and a rapidly pumping tail. It was coming straight for us on a collision course. What options did we have? We already had our backs to the wall. There was nothing to get behind. We didn’t have time to take off our tanks and put them in front of us. I thought, “Maybe I can just hit him with the flash attachment – after all, that is what caused the problem in the first place.”
With no viable options, all we could do was let things play out. The huge predator was still coming straight at us. We could now see his sharp teeth as well as look into his eyes. The last thing a shark does before striking its victim is to draw its opaque eyelids over its eyes to keep them from being damaged by the ensuing mayhem. That action, fortunately, never occurred. At a separation distance of about four feet, at a point when I was sure the game was over, the shark made an abrupt left turn at full speed. I don’t know how he accomplished that without a drag chute, but he did.
I breathed a sigh of relief and turned toward Andrew. He was grinning so hard that he almost lost his regulator. He had met his nemesis, and he had survived. Sharks would no longer be an issue for him. Our return to the boat was joyous, and neither of us could stop talking about the near miss.
One more phobia was removed from the list. The curse of JAWS had been banished.
I was feeling a bit strange as I stood on the handmade dock and watched the last guests and their luggage being ferried by dingy out to the 65 foot, heavy planked sail boat, which had been converted from a Belizean rice hauler. As a part of my barter agreement with the French Canadian “resort” owner, Monsieur Gilbert Lomont, I was to remain on the island as the only non-Carib and help build a new guest cabin. This would give me a third week for diving. The cabin was to be built on Northeast Cay, one of four inhabitable small islets on the eastern side of Glover’s Reef. Little Cay lies south of Northeast Cay in the 50-yard wide channel between Northeast Cay and Long Cay. The fourth islet, Southeast Cay, lies about 6 miles away at the southern tip of Golver’s Reef. At that time, only Northeast Cay and Long Cay were inhabited. Lomont’s diving operation was located on Northeast Cay and Long Cay was populated by Honduran fishermen and occasioned by British Marines on training maneuvers.
I had watched some of the construction of the dock I was standing on – now alone, and had been puzzled by how the pilings made of red mangrove were sunk into the sand in the lagoon. The ends of the pilings were cut off blunt. The blunt end was placed on the bottom of the lagoon and a hose pushed pressurized water under the blunt end. The piling sank into the hole where the sand had been displaced by the pressurized water.
I asked Gilbert [Geel-berh’] why he did not sharpen the end of the piling. He replied that a piling with a sharpened end would only last about two weeks before the lifting action of waves and tides would pull it out of the sand. A blunt ended piling, on the other hand would resist removal since the vacuum created beneath the piling would resist any upward motion. I was impressed; both with the explanation and the fact that Gilbert would buy into it.
The rice-hauler sailboat disappeared over the western horizon as it moved through the many coral patches on its journey across the lagoon. Its goal was the only cut in the western reef about six miles away. I was now alone on the north end of this small islet. The other occupants consisted of the Carib employees, Bimbo and Philip and their families, which occupied a small settlement on the southern end of Northeast Cay. My task was to work with Bimbo and Philip and construct a new, one-room cabin for future guests.
As I walked back to my cabin that evening after a dinner of sandwiches, I passed a two-foot long, tree-climbing iguana, which the residents called a Wish Willie. It did look intimidating, but not threatening. My cabin faced a shallow, coral-rich lagoon to the north. The primitive stairs led to the plank-floored patio about six feet above the island surface. A swinging plank door opened into a 15 x 15 foot bedroom containing two single beds, each against a wall, separated by a simple table and two crude chairs. Not five star, but compensated by ten star diving. The bathroom was an outdoor latrine and the shower was also outdoors.
A sun-heated, 25-gallon, black plastic barrel serviced the shower. The barrel had to be re-filled with water that came from a one-foot deep hole behind the cabin. The hole contained about a six-inch depth of fresh rainwater that floated on a base of seawater. If one dug any deeper than one foot, the water would become brackish. Employees ordinarily filled the shower barrel, but now I was one of them.
That night, the island was quiet except for the welcomed breeze that came through the long patio shutter that I had chosen to prop open. The foot of my bed was adjacent to the patio door and I choose also to prop the door open to enhance cooling by the northerly trade winds. I had begun to drift off in this new and lonesome environment, when I suddenly became aware that I was not alone. Something had entered my bedroom through the open patio door. I could not discern exactly what it was, but from the scratching and padding, I decided that it was a four-legged creature – probably not from the lagoon.
I knew that it was coming closer. I listened more intently, when, suddenly, it leapt up onto the foot of my bed. My flashlight was too far away for me to reach. I had no weapon. My thought swept back to the giant iguana, the Wish Willie that I had seen climbing up the trunk of a coconut palm. What would this creature do when it reached my exposed throat? “How,” I wondered, “would they report my death?” I could feel the quadruped moving up between my legs, beyond my knees and toward my crotch.
When the creature began to step on my chest, I could no long restrain my emotions. I was already clutching the top edge of my single sheet. I vigorously pulled the sheet back and upwards. The creature became airborne. It emitted a high-pitched snarl and landed solidly on all fours on the planks of the bedroom floor. From there it ran out the patio door and leapt from the patio level to the island surface six feet below. I now recognized that the invader was the island cat just looking for some human contact. The cat never returned to my cabin.
The next morning I walked south along the coarse, broken shell pathway to the employees’ quarters looking for some sort of breakfast. I had been forewarned about Tarzan, a very territorial rooster that was a favorite of Gilbert, but I wasn’t prepared for our first encounter. As I approached the employees’ quarters, I found my pathway blocked by a huge brown, black and red rooster with spurs almost 2 inches long. I stopped. Tarzan charged. In his charge he took to the air with his legs pulled up against his breast and his spurs pointing outward and toward me.
If I had failed to respond to Tarzan’s charge, he would have impaled me with his spurs. My only weapon was my sneakers, and Tarzan looked like a soccer ball. I caught him in mid-flight with a sharp blow from my right toe. Tarzan fell to the ground. “He’s stunned,” I thought. But no, he was totally dead. Bimbo attracted by the commotion showed up and cried out, “Monsieur Lomont is going to be furious. Tarzan was his favorite pet.” “Don’t worry,’ he continued, “We will just tell him he die and we eat him.”
Reassuring conversations ensued. I asked Bimbo how he had gotten the name, Bimbo. He said that Lomont could not pronounce his name properly with his French accent. He was named for Admiral Benbow, a British commander who plied the seas of the West Indies at the end of the 17th century. From that point on, I addressed him as Admiral Benbow. After a breakfast of eggs, which had been fertilized by the now deceased Tarzan, and potatoes, I followed Admiral Benbow and Philip to the construction site. The cabin had already been framed. The floor planks had been installed and the red mangrove roof rafters and joists were in place. All that was remaining was to thatch the roof.
The ground between two rows of coconut palms was piled high with stacks of green palm-fronds. Our first job was to split each frond into left and right-handed sections by starting at the tip and pulling the frond apart down its axis. It was more easily done than I had thought. Benbow and Philip said that this was a total wasted effort, because the fronds had been cut in the wrong phase of the moon and would quickly rot with mold. They had advised Lomont, and he had rejected their counsel even though he had accepted the advice regarding the shape of the end of a sunken piling. Unfortunately, less than a year later the advice proved true, and the roof had to be redone.
The next step was to begin the tedious process of strapping the fronds to the roof frame, which was made of small diameter, red mangrove trunks. We gained access to the roof rafters from the raised floor of the cabin. There were no ladders.
Sitting astride one of the rafters, we laid out left-handed fronds in bundles of three, each bottom-side up, at right angles to the rafters and lashed them to the frame. We continued until a row of left-handed fronds, laid butt to tip, stretched completely across the lower extent of the roofline.
A second layer of “shingles” was started using right-handed fronds. Once again, the bundles were laid down bottom-side up. The axis of the frond bundle was placed just beyond the axis of the previous layer of fronds. The leaf portion of the new layer completely overlapped the lower, previous layer. The criss-cross latticework of the left and right-handed fronds made for a water impermeable layer. Any rainwater would be swapped back and forth between the left and right-handed fronds with the upside down leaves forming troughs to guide the running water to the next row of “shingles”
Philip and Admiral Benbow spoke continually with one another in Carib. I understood nothing. Here, I thought, is an opportunity to learn a little bit of Carib as well as understand a little bit of what Philip and Benbow were so intently discussing. I expressed my concerns regarding not being able to understand even the simplest of safety issues without knowing a little bit of Carib. Benbow responded in a very direct and straightforward manner.
“I teach you all the Carib you need to know.
If roof is falling down, and I jump off,
you jump off, too.”
He and Philip returned to their conversation in Carib. By the end of the week, the roof was completely thatched, and I knew not one word of Carib.
On one trip to Glover’s Reef, my longtime diving buddy, Scott Petrequin, and I were the only guests on the small island of Northeast Cay. Our French Canadian host, Gilbert Lomont (Geel-berh Low mon) and his family had chosen to sleep in their large sailboat used for transportation between Belize City and the reef. Sleeping on the boat anchored in the lagoon minimized contact with the island insects – mosquitoes and sandflies. Therefore, Scott and I were startled when we were awakened by the early morning, frantic shouts of Admiral Benbow. Benbow was on the raised porch of our thatched cabin. “Come quick! We have a serious problem!! A young boy has been burned and his skin is falling off.”
Benbow had tried to awaken Gilbert, but his shouts across the lagoon to the sailboat went unanswered. The sun was just rising, and our host was still sleeping. We were the next best source of help.
We grabbed all the first aid equipment we could gather – including triple antibiotic ointment - and followed Benbow, barefoot and only in our shorts, back to the servants’ quarters on the south side of the island. Shockingly, a 13 year-old boy lay on a rattan bed. He was surrounded by several strangers, which we supposed were members of his family. Where did they come from? How did they get there? And how did the boy get burned?
The boy, Alejandro (Alex), was in a state of shock. His shiny, jet-black skin stood out in sharp contrast to the bright, pinkish-red color of the large patches on his arms and legs and chest where his skin was falling off. Envelop-sized patches of black skin were hanging loosely from still attached edges. Even a slight breeze wafting over the exposed raw flesh must have induced excruciating pain, but Alex lay quiet, uttering no expressions of pain.
Scott and I gently spread the antibiotic ointment over as much of the exposed raw flesh as we could. We used gauze bandages to cover the wounds as best as we could.
Several questions were still blowing in the wind.
How did this happen?
How were we going to get Alex to a much-needed medical facility?
Were we doing the right thing?
We knew that whatever we were to do, it had to be done quickly.
Glover’s Reef is about six miles wide. It has only one cut in the western reef, which can accommodate small vessels. Once through this cut, the route to Northeast Cay on the opposite side of the reef involves dodging coral heads that come nearly to the surface. The route is definitely not a straight line and has to be followed by visual cues. It is not a pathway to be sought out after dark. Alejandro’s fisherman family had reached the western cut in the reef just as the sun was sinking below the horizon. They maneuvered their small sailboat through the cut and anchored it in a sandy patch in a depth of about five feet. The plan was to sleep at anchor until the following sunrise and then make their way across the lagoon in daylight to Long Cay where they could begin their fishing expedition.
No one on board knew how to swim. Oddly enough, this is the case for many sea-faring Belizeans. Alejandro was sent into the cabin to get a lantern to cut some of the darkness, which was enveloping their craft like a malevolent cloak. Alejandro stepped down into the darkened galley and reached up onto the upper shelf to get a kerosene lantern and a box of matches. In the process of reaching up, he tipped over a small gasoline can whose top was open. The fuel drenched his clothing and flowed into the bilge water sloshing below the floorboards. Alex had succeeded in getting hold of the box of matches. To get a better view of the situation, Alex did the worst of all things. He struck a match. His clothing lit up like exploding fireworks. The woodwork inside the cabin caught fire as well and the fuel floating on the bilge water also ignited.
Alex – aflame and screaming – leapt up the cabin stairs. He was grabbed by his father who jumped into the lagoon with him. Fortunately, the water was not over the father’s head and the flame consuming the boy was quenched. I can’t imagine how painful it must have been when salt water came in contact with the burned flesh. Several other men and women, similarly, unceremoniously abandoned ship. Fortunately, they were able to stand on the bottom with their heads above water. Those who stayed aboard were able to put out the fire. They were then faced with spending the rest of the night at anchor, in clothing soaked with saltwater, and, furthermore, faced with caring for a young boy with 3rd degree burns. At first light, they began their transit of the lagoon.
A possible solution for getting Alex rapidly to competent medical care lay only about 500 yards away on Long Cay. A platoon of British Marines was engaged in some training activities on Long Cay. They had arrived from Dangriga (Stann Creek) several days earlier via a large, motorized, inflatable Zodiac capable of more than 30 mph over the sea. We could see that the Marines were loading the Zodiac in preparation for an early morning departure. If we could just get to them before they left, they could have Alex in a medical facility within two hours.
Admiral Benbow galvanized into action. He took the dingy out to the 24-foot long sailboat used for short runs to nearby dive sites and sailed it in to the dock. Scott and I jumped aboard and Benbow set sail for the nearby Long Cay. He had to tack to close the distance as well as deal with strong currents while crossing the channel that opened to open ocean. As we were making the crossing, we could see that the marines were coming closer to departure. Shouting was useless over the rushing channel waters. As we were approaching a spot where Benbow could beach the boat and we could leap ashore, the twin engines of the Zodiac fired up and the boat with the marines plowed out across the lagoon. Our hopes for obtaining rapid transportation were fading.
Regardless of the loss of our potential transportation for Alex, we launched an effort to find some marines still on the island with possible radio contact with the Zodiac. A barefoot marine, clad only in a skimpy Speedo, responded to our shouts for help, and listened to and absorbed our story of need. There was no radio on the island, which could be used to contact the Zodiac, but there was another, very small, two-man, motorized inflatable available. Mr. Speedo and another similarly clad marine pulled the inflatable into the water. One of the marines ran and got a half-full gas can and hooked it up to the motor. The pair pushed out into the water, started the engine and sped off in pursuit of the larger Zodiac with hopes of intercepting them before they reached Dangriga.
As they disappeared into the distance, Scott and I reflected on several disturbing facts. Both marines were totally exposed to the fierceness of the tropical sun without either shade or sunscreen. The course they had set was clearly a straight line with no attempt to avoid coral heads. What if a coral head punctured their little craft? I could imagine them trying to find a firm footing on the jagged coral and having blood from wounds in their bare feet sending dinner messages to the predatory fish of the reef. I could also imagine their small and half-full fuel tank being sucked dry in mid ocean, leaving them stranded with no one having a clue as to where they were. This was a mission that was borne on ill winds.
We returned to Northeast Cay. When Lomont finally showed up, we related the events to him. His first admonition was that we should never have put grease on the open wounds. Antibiotic ointment was, of course, not grease and was an appropriate barrier to infection. We all agreed that the fishermen and their women should head back to Dangriga immediately. The boat was prepared for departure and Alejandro was made as comfortable as possible atop the pile of supplies on the aft deck. We watched with some trepidation as the small craft sailed out of the bay on Northeast Cay and disappeared across the lagoon.
As the day grew on and our shadows lengthened, we began to become more concerned about the two Mr. Speedos, who had motored out of view across the lagoon with the intention of catching the large Zodiac somewhere along the 30-mile stretch of open water. They had not returned and their fate was a mystery. Suggestions that Lomont sail out in the large sailboat to find the pair was rejected. “They will make it”, he proclaimed.
The story does have a happy ending. Unbeknownst to us, the encamped marines did have radio contact with the mainland. They explained the situation to the land-based marines who were waiting for the arrival of the two inflatable crafts and the fishermen’s boat. They had reserved a small aircraft to transport Alejandro to Belize City. The patient transfer was successful and Alex was in good hands in the main hospital in Belize City.
When Scott and I returned to Belize City at the completion of our weeklong diving stay on Northeast Cay, we made it a point to drop in on Alejandro in the hospital. He was resting comfortably in a clean bed, and was happy to see us. Scott was wearing a dark baseball cap with embroidered Admiral lettuce on the top of the brim. Alejandro though it was neat. Scott did the right thing and left his cap with Alex along with our hopes for a good recovery.
One of the opportunities provided to us as guests on Northeast Cay on Glover’s Reef was the option of collecting our own food in the form of Queen Conch. Conchs were found in the sandy areas between the coral heads and in shallow sandy areas just inside the fringing reef. Conch was abundant on the reef and not protected. Honduran fishermen, who spent the season fishing from nearby Long Cay, considered conch as a valued catch. They generally took them from the clear waters by using long poles with curved forks on the end to serve as lifting devices. It was not necessary for the non-swimmers to enter the water.
The morning was typically clear, and under a bright sun. A mild breeze was blowing and the situation was ripe for a sail to the inside of the fringing reef more than a mile from the Cay. Island regulations prohibited taking of any shellfish within a mile radius of the Cay. Admiral Benbow dropped my snorkeling companion and me off the boat in a shallow sandy area. My snorkeling partner, who managed a ski resort in Donner Pass, CA, agreed to just be in the same ocean together. After all, we were in water only five feet deep. What could possibly go wrong? The plan was that Benbow would drift downwind of us for three or four hundred yards and wait there for us to show up.
My snorkeling partner and I separated in order to cover more ground. We began to snorkel in the shallow water where the horizontal visibility was limited by the wind-stirred silt in the water to around 40 feet. We were soon out of sight of each other and were snorkeling essentially alone in the lagoon behind the fringing reef. Our main contact was Admiral Benbow, who was now anchored over a quarter mile away.
I scanned the bottom in search of conch and whatever other delightful shells I might find and drop into my trailing catch bag. When snorkeling, one’s area of vision is a narrow cone at right angles to the surface. Occasionally I would turn on my side so that I could extend my cone of view, and get a better sense of the bottom in the 40-foot zone of visibility. I was not expecting what I saw and I definitely experienced a startle response.
Just coming into my limit of visibility and swimming directly toward me was a seven-foot long Lemon Shark accompanied by its entourage of a dozen, vertically stripped, one-foot long pilot fish waiting to pick up any scraps scattered by the shark during a feeding event. Lemon sharks are known to attack humans, and this one seemed to have read the news. Its approach was focused and deliberate. The distance between us was rapidly diminishing.
Shark feeding attacks, as opposed to attacks demonstrating territorial dominance, generally occur in a three-step process. First the shark approaches the target and circles it at a comfortable distance of several yards. After circling several times, and the shark feels confident enough that the prey is not a danger, it will move in and bump or brush the prey object. Sharks have a denticulate skin that is used in some island cultures as sandpaper. That bump or brush gives the shark and initial taste of the prey. The third stage is a full-fledged, open-mouthed attack. This stage generally results in massive loss of tissue from the prey.
I am reminded of a shark joke. A papa shark was teaching his young son the elements of the feeding attack. The son asked the papa, “Why do we circle the prey three times before taking a bite?” The papa shark responded, “They always taste better after we have scared the s*** out of them.” So there, I was trying not to be frightened in order to mess up my taste. “Oh, come on, I have to do something! But what are my options?” I thought.
In reality, I was in five feet of water over a sandy bottom. There was nothing in the water to either climb on or to get behind. Standing still certainly was not a good move. The shark had already acknowledged my presence and was still coming toward me. It could enter the attack protocol at will. Standing still would permit that to happen.
What about swimming away? No! Definitely not. Swimming away is a biologically perceived prey response, and would foreshorten the attack protocol. Not being religiously inclined, walking on water was also not an option.
There was only one response left, and it was the one with the greatest hope for success. I chose to select it. I initiated an aggressive swim directly toward the shark. The shark and I would come nose to nose in a matter of seconds. The ploy was correct. Without expressing any fear or entertaining any intent to flee, the big Lemon Shark merely altered its course by about 45 degrees and swam away into the veil of obscurity beyond my 40-foot limit of visibility.
Feeling confident that I had established my own territorial dominance, I continued my drift snorkel toward Admiral Benbow and his waiting sailboat.
Just another eventful day on the remote atoll of Glover’s Reef.