I didn’t think I was afraid until I hit the water.
The moon and stars reflected on the Coral Sea and the lights from the boat illuminated the water for a few meters before fading to pitch. In the green light, the shadows of large fish—wrasse, grouper and cods—were visible. I watched their movements, nothing their size and shape to find one of the four sharks I saw an hour before.
Swimming with sharks is one of the selling points Deep Sea Divers Den emphasizes for their overnight diving packages; they promote it as “Sharks in the Dark.”
Unlike requiem sharks that must constantly swim in order to breathe, reef sharks do not. They can lie still at the sandy bottom or inside a coral-cave during the day. They are curious creatures and are known to approach swimmers and divers. After dusk, groups of sharks will scour the reef, breaking off bits of coral to hunt sleeping fish. Unlike their great white cousins to the south, reef sharks are seldom aggressive toward humans.
But my previous encounters with reef sharks didn’t prepare me for the panic I would feel, landing in the dark sea during their primary time of hunt.
working to dive
I was unwittingly excited and hurried back to the kitchen, motivated to get things done as quickly as possible.
getting ready to dive the gbr (at night with sharks)
After dinner, the guests spilled onto the dive deck, chatting about the sharks as they wrestled on their equipment.
We three in the kitchen—Kat, Noriaki and I—were quiet in our hurried tasks and listened as the noise outside the door dissipated.
“We’d better go,” I finally said.
“Yep, let’s do it!” Kat agreed.
Noriaki, a man unwilling to leave a task incomplete—or take a suggestion from a little woman like me—continued to dry forks.
“If you leave them, they will have air-dried by the time we get back,” I said.
“Go ahead,” was his response.
Kat and I looked at each other in quiet desperation. As annoying as Noriaki was in our daily tasks and about the proper ways to scuba diving, we needed him. Among other idiosyncrasies we had while diving—Kat equalizing her ears, and me managing my buoyancy and air intake—we were awful at navigation. We depended on Noriaki’s know-it-all personality to get us back to the boat during the day. How would be fare without him in the dark?
Our desperation was short lived. Alice, the pursuer on the boat and our boss for the week, entered the kitchen carrying a bag of trash from the dining room. “You better go. You can finish this when you get back.”
Noriaki put down the dishtowel and followed us outside to the deserted dive deck.
Volunteering and diving demanded that we get our gear on quickly (and then back into our dry-cloths even faster).
First, I’d shimmy into the wet suit. Because the Great Barrier Reef is in the tropics and the water temperature is about 24 degree Celsius in the winter, we wear short wet suits that fall to the knee. I found the easiest way to put them on is one leg at a time, to the knee and then jump into the rest of it, letting the Newtonian theory of gravity help get my thighs and butt into the unforgiving fabric.
Second was the weight belt, of which I finally determined I needed only one, three-kilo-weight.
Next was the BCD. After checking that everything was filled, working and attached properly—the air tank is at 200 bar (a full tank of air), both the regulator and the alternative air source work, and the BCD inflates/ deflates—I shrugged the BCD onto my back and tighten the releases.
In no time at all, I was on the back platform, fins and mask on, and staring into the black water where I had seen so many sharks before.
Unbelievable! I’m about to go swimming with sharks! This is awesome! I thought as I held my mask and regulator to my face and stepped into the sea.
“hey mom, look at me! i’m night-diving.”
It wasn’t until I hit the water, bobbed back to the surface like an apple in a barrel, that the cold reality of panic seeped into my pours.
Diving at night is a little different than diving during the day. The most obvious difference: you can’t see anything without a flashlight. The divers who jumped in ahead of us had descended into darkness. I searched for their lights below the dark depths as I searched for lurking sharks, seeing neither.
Kat and Noriaki stood above me on the boat, fiddling with their equipment, thus leaving me in the water alone with my panic.
How would this go in the movies? Something would brush my leg and before I was able to move or scream or think, sharp teeth would break my skin and jerk me down. My ears would explode from the sudden change in pressure, and I’d scream senselessly into the salt water, my regulator floating away from me, out of my reach as the shark dragged me deeper and deeper. Would I drown? Would the sudden change in pressure cause my lungs to explore like that balloon? Would my heart explode? Or would the loss of blood do me in? Had I not had this same, waking nightmare the first time I swam in the deep end of my local pool at the age of six? Had that been a premonition of my death? Should I have taken my mother’s fear of sharks (and Jaws) more seriously?
I was pulled from my fantasy of sudden death by a splash to my right. Kat bobbed up next to me and adjusted her goggles.
“You good?” I was asking Kat as much as myself.
Kat gave me the “okay” with her left hand, her right clutching the grey, metal flashlight.
Once Noriaki was in the water, we swam to the mooring line at the front of the boat. The panic has lessened, but it was still there under my skin. I jerked my head back and forth and I swam against the waves the lapped against the boat.
I have never been more relieved to have Noriaki in my face telling me what to do. He gave the signals to descend and we floated down. With each breath, my body sank lower. Submerged under water and sinking farther and farther away from the surface-waves, the world became quiet and calm. The only sound is the rushing bubbles of air as it is sucked and pushed through my regulator.
It’s rhythmic and it’s peaceful.
Just 2 or 3 meters down, the water didn’t seem as scary as it had at the surface. I could finally use my flashlight to assess my surrounding, visually comforting myself that no mutant sharks were lying in wait.
I did see sharks, though. They had moved to the front of the boat once divers started jumping in the water. I saw three of them swimming overhead, moving in and out of darkness to circle the front of the boat.
They were a beautiful sight.
And in that moment, sinking closer the Great Barrier Reef, panic gave way to appreciation: Look at where you are, little girl, and remember how lucky you are to be here.
monsters in the dark
After swimming along the glowing reef for 30 minutes—in which time we spotted a sleeping sea turtle, a giant brown manta ray and several curious sharks in the distance—we turned back to the mooring line, back to dishes and back to kitchen cleanup. Noriaki and Kat swam ahead of me, their flashlights and streams of air the only thing I could see in the distance.
For whatever sentimental reason, I turned around. I wanted to cast my blue light along the reef; wanted to catch sight of lime green or bright orange just one more time. When I turned around and cast my light, I saw a set of green eyes swimming towards me in the darkness.
The eyes and the long, slender body they were attached to, swerved to the left and passed me. If I reached out my arm, I could have touched the white underbelly of the shark, could have held onto one of those threatening dorsal fins to see if the shark would carry me along with it. Its small, downward facing mouth and overbite of thin, white teeth looked ever-so-much-more frightful for the simple fact that reef sharks look like a small version of a great white.
I wanted to catch fold of it, as if touching a shark would have been the only thing that could possibly top my previous experiences under water. I didn’t touch the shark. Despite my dream-like impulses, I’m not an idiot.
(Though, I did jump into black, shark-invested waters, so you might have a different idea of what makes one an idiot. My mother sure does.)
The white tip reef shark disappeared, gliding away from the reef and to black.
Later, when I recounted my “monster out the darkness” story, Norikaki said that reef sharks are known to bite ankles. His comment—though more than likely teasing—chilled me and chills me still.
At the time, however, I wasn’t afraid, not suddenly or in the slightest. I was surprised and then pleased. I wanted to touch that which embodied so much fear just as I wanted to reach out and touch the electric colors of the coral. What is the difference–where is the line–between the things that scare us and the things we want?
learn more about the gbr
The effect of global warm are heating up the oceans ever-so-slightly. The increased water temperature is destroying aquatic life, seen in the rapid destruction of the Great Barrier Reef. The GBR is dying, and some even say it’s beyond repair. Read more about the effects of global warming on our reefs.
- CNN article, “Great Barrier Reef ‘cooking and dying’ as seas heat up, warns scientists”
- The Washington Post article, “Great Barrier Reef is dying”
- The Guardian article, “Great Barrier Reef at ‘terminal stage’ scientist despair at latest coral bleaching data”
- NPR article, “While corals die along the Great Barrier Reef, humans struggle to adjust”
- PRI article, “Scientist say the Great Barrier Reef is official dying”
- Independent article, “Great Barrier Reef may no longer be salvageable, Australian experts concede