Wednesday, August 19, 2009
Close Encounters of Underwater Kind
The great bull shark hovered inches away from my face and looked at me with unblinking black beady eyes. It observed me with an abject indifference. I stared back hypnotized not daring to blink or to breathe lest the bubbles escaping from my diving set disturb the ruler of these waters. Commonly we fear sharks as hostile and a predator though they are gentle and loving creatures seldom attacking human beings; my friend and mentor in such sports, Pedro had assured me. Without moving a muscle I strained my eyes to the extreme left to find the idiot suspended in a vertically upright position without a single movement from any parts of his body staring with equal intent at another shark that reposed in front of him. They seemed to be kissing.
I was completely out of my elements and shitting bricks in a manner of speaking. The enterprise at the beginning had seemed harmless enough. A peaceful dip in one of the finest and least explored coastal waters in the world and watch amazing marine lives go past us. A fun-filled afternoon, Pedro had told me when we were putting on our suits. Though I should have questioned him right then and there when I noticed the carving knife strapped to his left thigh… its serrated edge was anything but ‘peaceful’. Only when we had swam a considerable distance from the shore and belly-flopping through the green and red schools of Johnston's Topminnow and Orange River Mudfish, did he confide that we were here to actually sight some sharks feeding on these cute fishes. What would happen if the sharks got bored of the fish and preferred us instead; I had posed, still believing that Pedro was simply fooling around and was having one on me (since I had almost killed him two days before on a trad route in Western Cape), to which he had assured me that Zambezi sharks were on non-human diet. From anyone else, it would sound utterly ridiculous, but from Pedro; well anything concerning sharks and Pedro was pretty much the last word in the whole of Southern Hemisphere. Still, I wondered, what if this nasty looking bugger affronting me decided to change its diet at this very moment! I had absolutely no intention of becoming shark lunch at this far flung corner of the Dark Continent, or at any corner of any continent for that matter.
Born into a traditional Lusitanian pirate family, Pedro had migrated to South Africa in search of sharks. World’s leading marine biologists, ichthyologists, shark aficionados, Hollywood shark movie directors, Nat Geo and Discovery channel film makers, and anyone who wanted to get up close with sharks, called upon Pedro. He was nearly an illiterate man but he knew as much about sharks as there was or it was humanly possible to know.
We were two specks on the eastern most estuaries (Kosi River Bay) of the Maputuland area of Kwa Zulu-Natal province of South Africa. At a stone’s throw from Mozambique border, the tepid currents bore us well plodding us gently to and fro between a smattering of sand dunes and coral reefs. Few white backed night-herons and kingfishers floated in air, hovering above the water in the lookout for fishes. A hippo family walloped in the mud nearby. There were leatherback turtles and crocs too somewhere in the vicinity but thankfully outside our visible range. Intermittently we would dip under and play with the fishes and come up to bask under the sun. The water was clear enough for me to see the fishes from the surface. The water was fresh and felt great on my skin. Though I am a poor swimmer, the fins and the half-body suit kept me buoyant with ease. Pedro was trying his best to show off; to the fishes perhaps since I was least impressed with his antics. And I was in no mood for his soliloquy on sharks. I was on holiday and planned to enjoy myself to the hilt in South Africa.
When fully submerged and breathing through your mouth it is impossible to speak and nearly so to think, therefore abandoning my usual musical overtures, which I normally resort to when outdoors and extremely contented, I just simply observed the geometric patterns pulsating across my limbs as the sun penetrated the clear water and played with the waves. Pedro was sitting on his haunches on the bottom waving his hands at a pool of catfish. He had taken off his mouthpiece and was grinning like a fool, which in reality he was. Pedro held one of the world’s longest free diving records and I knew that he could easily hold his breath for over five minutes. My concern though was if one of these days he forgot that he was underwater and decided to breathe; with him it was possible. I bobbed back to the surface and lay on my back like a sunbathing whale. I had just begin to believe that life was finally turning out to be good and for once an outdoor stint of my life would be uneventful and worthy of telling my grandkids (if I ever had any), when I detected a sharp movement right underneath.
We had been frolicking in a 15 m deep cove. Not deep by any standards but deep enough. I turned over and put my head underwater. The shoals of Blue Kurper were running helter-skelter like random bullets shot from a high caliber gun. The gently playing fishes now zoomed off arrow fashion, darting around and diving into the corals. Incredibly one Lowveld Largemouth buried itself under the bottom sand and soon became one with the brown. I couldn’t understand this sudden exodus. While my friend seemed to be in a frenzy, engaged in a grotesque and seemingly bizarre and indecent Zulu dance ritual albeit in slow motion being underwater. His right hand gestured towards my back, repeatedly jabbing the water around with the index finger. I turned around and looked up. A pair of dorsal fin was heading straight towards us. Being on the surface I couldn’t see what lay beneath the fins but with several sea dives under my belt and having seen many Hollywood films on the topic I knew that a pair of sharks were heading our way. I watched mesmerized as the triangles cut neatly through the calm water, leaving barely a wake behind and closing the distance rapidly.
It is pointless trying to outrun a shark underwater. Nature had created this predator purely for killing underwater. It was the essence in water and every part of its body was meant for underwater propulsion, navigation and hunting. The best chance a diver stood was to blind a shark with a knife or a sharp object and I had no such objects. Having read a bit about the area I also knew that these two had to be bull sharks or Zambezi Shark as it was called in this part of the world. Weighing an average of 200 – 250 kg they measured around 10 ft in length with mean rounded head and were one of the most aggressive specimens of their specie. What ran rapidly through my mind at that moment was the thought that if one of them decided to gobble me for lunch then could it swallow me at one go or would I get stuck midway. Though Pedro with his tall and fleshy form would perhaps suffice for both. I would be a fool to expect that they were here just for sightseeing. I had always known that when death finally came to me I wouldn’t turn my back but stare right into its eyes and dare it to snip my lifeline off. So I dipped below the water and stared back.
I knew sharks could smell blood from miles away and were attracted by movements that warned them that a prey was nearby. But could they smell fear! My fear fragrance by then must have reached the Cape of Good Hope. I did not need any efforts to stay still. I was fear-frozen for eternity. One of the sharks, seemingly the bigger one (but then I could be wrong), approached me with its jaws marginally open. Was it smiling and saying ‘hello’! I wish I could return his greetings. While it surveyed me through its unblinking eyes I counted the row of teeth that would soon be crushing my bones and tearing my flesh into smithereens. It’s strange how the human mind works when confronted with his last moment on Mother Earth. No matter what, I couldn’t stop counting the teeth. They were razor sharp, fascinatingly streamlined and flossy white. The pink tongue in between appeared like a strip of tomato pepperoni pizza. Humans can’t smell underwater but I smelled the brute through my pores. Its oily smooth skin, white underneath and black above pulsated with life. The gills moved up and down as it breathed. As we remained suspended I begin to wash away my fears and succumbed to fascination. I must be one of the very few surviving human beings (along with the idiot to my left) to have ever seen a shark up so close without a cage in between.
Shark is one of the most fascinating marine creatures ever known to man. None has ever been tamed and we can’t predict its behavior. Despite all its bad publicity, sharks remain one of the least understood fishes. We almost know nothing about its migratory and reproductive patterns. They are definitely not friendly or playful as a dolphin or a whale but neither are they necessarily aggressive or lethal. We still can’t explain when or how would a shark attack and what it liked the most.
I scrutinized the pale white short rounded snout and gentle play of the tail fin that waved from left to right keeping it afloat nearly in a stopped trim condition. Being a submariner, principals of buoyancy and floatation was my bread and butter and now I studied the same theories as perfected by nature. I had no idea what my new found friend was thinking. I tried to read its left eye that remained mostly towards me but found myself spiraling into its dark depths. It was hypnotic, trance like. I suddenly saw my left hand swing up on its own and caress the shark’s belly. Not a bad gesture to placate my killer so as it would snap my head at one go and not prolong the agony. The shark remained motionless and allowed my hand to graze on its belly. Encouraged thus I begin to move. I went around its body tracing my fingers on its skin. It turned around to keep me in view. Its body had now formed into a half-circle. I caressed the tail and felt the rough thorn like scale. I spied Pedro atop the shark that he had befriended. He was holding on to its fin and groping along the upper body. He looked at me and raised his right hand thumb. And suddenly my fear abandoned me completely.
Over the next few minutes the sharks became our playmates. They nudged us with their nose as we held on to their fins. We swam alongside and even probed together through the bottom sands unearthing crabs and shells. We chased each other and I observed much to my wonderment that they knew that we could never outrun them so they in fact remained slow and allowed us to catch up. As they had suddenly appeared, they suddenly decided to go. Perhaps it was indeed their lunch time. They gave a gentle swing of the tails and zoomed off like torpedoes darting away into the water towards the ocean where lunch must be waiting. No goodbyes, no last words of parting… one moment we were playing together, in the next they were gone as if they had never been. I still don’t know what really happened in Kosi Bay or how it could be possible but I simply know that on that day I had once again become a part of nature where everyone, however insignificant or otherwise, is linked to another. A spell was cast and I and the shark had become one for few moments. Pedro did not offer any explanations either, nor did I seek any and I would now never know what he had felt about the whole thing since three years later he died filming tiger sharks feeding on a dead whale. He ended up inside the belly of those whom he loved the most.
I did shark diving thereafter too, but always within the confines of a steel cage that even an elephant wouldn’t be able to crack. After all why tempt nature more than once! Oh, and by the way did I mention that it was I and not the shark who would occupy the cage. If any of you are up for shark diving do let me know and I would arrange it for you. Pedro’ brother now runs a charter in Haleiwa Harbor Hawaii.
P.S. The above episode happened on my trip to South Africa in 1995. The picture accompanying this post has been borrowed from my friend and the world famous underwater photographer and adventurer Ms Fiona Ayerst.