I push the button to dump the air from my BC and slip beneath the surface of the Caribbean. Blue hued water replaces the crisp white boat my eyes witnessed only seconds before. In through the regulator, out through the regulator becomes my internal mantra as I sink toward the ocean floor. The sinking isn’t always the easiest for me. As I watch the other divers in our group drop to the bottom like sinking anchors, I hover above struggling to equalize my ears. It is always in these moments, the moments of descent, that my heart thunders in panic, my ears pound under pressure, and I wonder why I am doing this. Why do I enjoy being uncomfortable? Why do I enjoy stuffing myself into a sausage casing of a wet suit? But then my ears pop, I sink, and I am rewarded with pink coral, a loggerhead turtle, a school of blue fish. And when my eyes land on those sights, the panic diminishes, my breathing slows, and I start to enjoy myself.
Diving is all about the secrets of the ocean revealing themselves to you. And on a day in March 2012 one of the ocean’s top predators was going to reveal itself to me off the coast of St. Maarten. I was going to intentionally dive with Caribbean reef sharks.
“In a cage?”
“Are you crazy?”
“Aren’t you scared?”
These were many of the questions posed to me by family and friends upon my telling them of my plans for St. Maarten. My answers: no, yes, yes, why not? I’m not going to lie, diving with sharks was not my idea. I’m more of a swim with dolphins type girl, but my husband had his heart set on it, and I do love adventure. So when I found a shark dive offered through Ocean Explorers Dive Center, I knew we were set.
We arrived at Kim Sha Beach on the Dutch side of the island and were introduced to Jef, our dive master. He quickly helped us find some gear. and before long we were loading into the boat and motoring towards the dive location. The waves were choppy, but Jef assured us we would be in the water soon. Thank goodness because after about ten minutes on the boat I was ready to provide chum for the fish.
We located the shark dive site and were quickly in the water. I was to descend first along an anchor line. This created great anxiety for me since I never descend quickly, but Jef had mentioned that since I always had trouble equalizing I should try to blow out my nose as a dropped instead of my mouth. His advice was the best I had ever received. Not only did I have no trouble with my ears, I dropped to the ocean floor in record time. (In fact, I dropped so fast, my husband told me that he couldn’t find me for a few minutes.) I found a concrete block, made myself comfortable, and waited for the rest of our group to catch up.
One by one the members of our group joined me in a half circle. As I laid on the ocean floor the shadows of sharks beginning to school appeared in the dark blue abyss. They knew it was dinner time. I just hoped that they wouldn’t be tasting me as an appetizer. Not two seconds after I thought that, I felt a sharp, quick bite on my calf muscle. I whipped my head around looking for the culprit, but I saw nothing but the cloudy water around me. I looked to my husband thinking he was screwing with me, but he was looking the other direction. I chalked it up to my imagination and nerves playing tricks on me, but just as I convinced myself that there was nothing behind me, I felt another quick bite. This sneak attack continued for the entirety of the dive. On the boat ride back, Jef asked if anyone had gotten bitten. I immediately said that I had, and he laughed. He proceeded to tell us that there is a Sergeant Major fish that lives inside of the cement blocks. He apparently doesn’t like it when the divers invade his territory and he bites.
I was forced to ignore my phantom menace and redirect my attention to Jef. He wore a chainmail shirt and carried a spear and box with bait. Each diver was firmly planted to his or her concrete block. We were instructed before the dive to stay as still as possible. I glued myself to the ocean floor and hugged that concrete block like it was a stuffed animal.
Then it happened. Sharks glided into our makeshift arena. They swarmed around us and took turns going to Jef for their snacks. It was rhythmic to watch. They each took turns getting food and removing themselves from the circle like dancers in a ballet. In and out, over and around, the sharks continued their dance for food. Hypnotized by figure eights these graceful fish made around me, I thought they acted rather like dogs. Each seemed to have its own personality and Jef seemed to know how to greet and gage each one of them.
As one shark glided over my head, a tooth fell out of his mouth settling on the sand directly in front of me. It was tiny, no bigger than the size of my pinky fingernail. And out of sheer determination I managed to rescue the tooth as a souvenir of the day. Now that tooth sits on my dresses in a jewelry box.
Finally, we received the signal that it was time to ascend. Our shark encounter was at an end. I watched as the divers left the arena in reverse order making me last. I savored those few extra moments with the sharks, most of my fear had dissipated as they left their feeding grounds one by one. And with one last glance over my shoulder I too started to ascend the line tied to the boat. In a few short minutes I would surface. All of the anxiety and discomfort of earlier in the day had disappeared like the sharks into the depths of the ocean. And I knew that this close encounter would become a fantastic shark tale.
An unforgettable day.
So, what do you think, would you like to dive with sharks?