Travel Journal No. 11: Swimming with sharks

The water churned with what appeared to be hundreds of reef sharks as they glided in a wide, loose circle, a few lazily opening their jaws in a show of serrated teeth before they effortlessly flicked their tails, sending them streaking through the aqua-blue water.

My younger brother, Shane, and I, along with a couple of local guides and a few other adventurers from our boat, had dived deep under the South Pacific Ocean’s surface, miles off the island of Fiji, in search of sharks.

To reach the underwater sanctuary our Fijian guides had led us along a twisting mazelike coral reef until everything solid fell away to reveal a vast blue expanse of water that seemed to stretch to infinity. The marbled ocean before us twisted with shadows and golden stabs of sunlight.

Being an experienced diver and a trained NAUI Divemaster, I had lingered toward the back of the group to watch for signs of distress as we settled in at the viewing station, a small natural clearing tucked into a coral-reef cliff. I also kept Shane, a relatively new diver at the time, in close visual check as I had sensed his apprehension on the surface.

As all scuba divers know, as one descends the weight of the water compresses both the air in the tank and the body itself. For roughly every 33 feet of depth the weight of water above a diver increases by one atmosphere of pressure (the pressure of the air above us at the surface), so at 90 feet deep there is the equivalent of nearly three atmospheres of pressure. This means two things: First, there is effectively less air available in an air tank at deeper depths because it is compressed, and second, in an emergency a diver can’t just bolt quickly to the surface because doing so can result in decompression illness, a rather nasty condition that can include excruciating joint pain, embolisms and a host of other potentially debilitating effects, including death.

After what seemed like only a few minutes, I glanced excitedly at Shane. I expected to see only wonder in his eyes, but instead I saw panic. He raised his computerized air gauge and jabbed his finger toward the screen. “Low air, ascend immediately,” blinked the red warning light. He had run through his air more quickly than expected, and we had to get to the surface — and get there fast. There was no time to retrace our steps back along the safety of the canyon walls. We’d need to head straight up.

I peered up through 90 feet of crystalline water. The gleaming white underbellies of more than a dozen sharks lay in our path. There was no choice. I nodded and thrust my fist out, giving him the thumbs-up signal, which in scuba sign language means head for the surface.

The night before the shark dive we had sat on the deck and watched the Fijian sunset that had made fiery cracks in the otherwise white and gray cloud-covered sky. We sat listening as the water sloshed against the hull of the ship, making the sound of wet towels slapping against cement. One of the crew members picked up a guitar and sang a soft song in the Fijian language. We’d spent the week diving spectacular sites aboard one of the world’s most famous scuba ships, the NAI’A. The crew was Fijian except for two Australian photographers. The 14 other guests represented all walks of life and came from around the world: the United States, Australia, Africa, Asia, South America and Europe. Each had come to witness one of the world’s last remaining undisturbed wild places.

Our journey had allowed us to observe a stunning number of fish and other sea creatures in every shape, size and color imaginable. We’d also seen spectacular coral reefs that often looked as though they’d been digitally enhanced beyond reality, the intensity and concentrations of textures and colors mind-blowing. The water itself was mesmerizing, its ever-changing shades and composition that of a Norwegian’s ice-chip eyes. Even the sky seemed alive, quick to change from nearly white to dense blue or from violent clouds to a stillness and translucence that made it indistinguishable from the sea, sometimes giving the impression that the boat was floating in air.

Our captain’s name was Momo, typically a woman’s name, but no one teased him about that. He was a stout man with a wide grin, leathery skin and enormous flat feet that reminded me of flippers.

“Where are we headed to find the sharks?” I asked him.

He stopped and turned slowly, retaining his big smile but with darkened eyes.

“Couldn’t say,” he said. “We don’t talk much about that location. One of them foreign ship find out and all them gone in less than a day.”

I nodded and left it at that. A few days earlier we’d seen three plumes of black smoke on the horizon. The smoke was from three foreign ships that were found hunting sharks. The illegal fishing boats caught sharks by the hundreds, cutting off their fins before chucking the still-live creatures back into the water to die a slow death as they sunk helplessly to the bottom. When such ships were caught, I had learned, their crews were removed and the vessels were hauled out to sea, where they were set afire and allowed to sink to join their victims at the bottom of the ocean.

We started our emergency ascent.

We stayed close and I prepared for sharing my air, trying to recall my training and trying not to think about the sharks that now glided past us silently, their unblinking eyes evoking equal amounts awe and a primal fear in the lower recesses of my gut. We lifted up through the water column no faster than the bubbles around us, and when I peered down I saw the captain looking up. He curled his forefinger and thumb together to make the OK sign. I signaled back the same. He nodded just as a shark’s body blocked him from view. I steadied my breath and continued the journey.

At the surface I inflated my signal buoy as we waited for the dingy. We were silent for a long time until Shane looked at me, his expression peaceful, almost serene.

“That was really something,” he said.

I nodded.

“I mean, we did that,” he said, amazed. “We swam with those awesome creatures.”

I kept nodding. He plunged his head down, mask in the water to peer under the surface.

“We’ll never forget that,” he said, his voice muffled by the water and barely audible.

“No, I don’t imagine we will,” I said.

But I don’t think he heard me. Instead he seemed transfixed by the school of sharks calmly circling a steady stream of bubbles from those who remained below.


Originally published in the Napa Register, October 2017