Sometimes, it takes only one.
The first experience with a shark in the blue ocean is a life-changer. Rarely does the sight of an animal inspire such passionate admiration and everlasting memory. For those of us lucky enough to meet one face to face—through the lens of a dive mask, over the transom of a small boat, or from edge of a surfboard—the moment of contact renders us speechless. Only after considerable thought can we speak of this feeling in a way others might understand.
My moment happened in the summer of 2005, a few months after my twenty-first birthday. Though I had been diving for five years, most of my time underwater was logged in the cold water of Lake Erie or the flooded rock quarries of Western Pennsylvania. After my first open-water dive under the local dock, as I sipped hot chocolate from a thermos, I made a silent pact with my young rational mind: I will do this diving stuff, but never in the saltwater. While it seems crazy I would say such a thing, I had just obtained a copy of Dr. Bruce Halstead’s book, Poisonous and Venomous Marine Animals of the World (Darwin, 1978). With over a thousand pages of drawings and descriptions of box jellyfish, blue-ringed octopus, and their nasty neighbors, the book is both a scientific wonder and the stuff of nightmares. When I moved to the Sunshine State in 2002, I left that massive text behind to collect dust on my bedroom bookshelf.
Falling asleep on humid Florida nights to the low hum of the air-conditioner, my dreams were filled with the pleasantries of the sea. Rather then the stinging tentacles of a Portuguese Man-of-War, I dreamed of its beautiful indigo bubble. Instead of the gory shark bite, I dreamed of seeing the animal swim past in open water. Within weeks, I cast aside the pact I had made to myself back in Erie. I found myself making plans to go further into the tropics, and in 2005 I flew to the island of Papua New Guinea to begin a three month residency at Tufi Dive Resort. (Anthropology lesson: The power of taboo lies in its transgression).
Situated at the center of a small village in the “fjordlands” of PNG, the dive resort had several dive boats staffed by an expert crew of divers from the village. On my first shore dive in just ten feet of water, these guys pointed out frogfish lying in ambush, ghost pipefish slipping through the seagrass, and hundreds of species of nudibranch. Like the divers back in Erie who could pick out hundred year-old glass bottles from the lake bottom, my new friends were truly at home under that old wharf. But what really excited them were the sharks.
The following week, we convinced a group of tourists to come with us on a dive trip to Veale’s Reef, a coral “bommie” rising up from the incalculable depth of the Solomon Sea. As the Captain steered through the glassy water, we talked and laughed with the guests, drank tea, and ate too many sweet bananas. At one point, we passed a featureless, sunburned island with white coral rocks and whiter sand. Our captain, shaking his head, told us that the island had recently been used by foreign fishing boats as a drying site for shark fins. “We don’t see sharks here anymore,” he said in disgust. “They know not to come back.” The gruesome thought of shark finning mixed in our minds with even more curiosity about these animals.
How did they know not to come back?
Finally we arrived, and after donning our gear and a thorough buddy check, we stepped off the side of the boat into the eighty degree water. When the bubbles of my splash cleared, the entire scene below seemed to jump up at me. It wasn’t me looking down, but in this unlimited visibility, the ocean rose up as if it were yelling “Look at ME!” It was truly breathtaking—the upside-down ice cream cone of the bommie pointing to the sky through rays of sunlight, covered in a million colors of soft coral and swarms of tropical fish. Barely aware of my depth, I descended, recalling the delighted words of Cousteau as he took his first breaths from the Aqualung: “My arms hanging at my sides, I kicked the fins languidly and traveled down, gaining speed, watching the beach reeling past. I stopped kicking and the momentum carried me on a fabulous glide.”
I continued this downward glide, wrapping a trail of bubbles around the reef. It occurred to me that I should not go too far, for even with a slight excess of nitrogen in my system, the call of that deeper blue would be impossible to refuse. So at ninety feet, I took a big deep breath and leveled out. My sense of time dissolved, and when I finally looked around I saw that my partner had joined with the group. They were higher up on the reef, looking at a sinewy moral eel that had emerged its den to say hello. I continued on, kicking now into the current and enjoying the risk of that deep solitude. Then, whether from paranoia or an evolved desire for solid ground, I moved closer to the reef.
I glanced back out at the trail of bubbles rising in that dramatic blue, and when they cleared, I could barely see three figures swimming a hundred or so feet away. They circled the reef at the same depth as me, gradually coming closer with slow beats of their massive tails. I watched as they came closer…and closer. They’re Hammerheads!!! I looked up to get the attention of the group, but they were still taking photos of that eel. When I looked back out to sea, they were even closer, just twenty feet away. I could see one was a male, and at his side were two females, one darker grey and the other a stunning silver. They swam effortlessly, frustrating me with my impatient computer, noisy breath, and quickening heartbeat. As I watched in amazement, the silver female turned suddenly toward me. I was only a few feet out from the reef, and felt completely out of my element. She came closer and closer, that hammered head glancing side to side with each pulse of her tail. And then, when she was just four feet away from my face, she paused for a brief moment and quickly turned to rejoin her group. They swam away, and there was no way I could keep up.
I don’t remember any thoughts of death or danger at the moment she approached—that only came later as I told the story to friends and tried my best to provide sensible answers to their sensible questions. Several non-divers at home (probably having dusted off that old Halstead book) expressed their concern for my safety. “What would you do if she bit you?” they asked. (Try to live I suppose). Or my parents, “Where was the nearest hospital?” (Too far). The truth is, atthat moment I didn’t think that big girl would bite. The magic of it all overwhelmed any chance of rational thought, and with that, any sense of danger. Sure, she could have. But there is plenty of evidence (much of it available here on this site) on that shows that sharks don’t bite people in crystal clear water when no dead or dying fish are around. The only real danger of that encounter was the growing distance between me and the other divers.
I like to think that silver shark and I shared a special moment under the sea. Above all, I think of it as a connection between two sentient, perceiving animals that left at least one of them with the feeling that something special happened that day.