Swimming with Sharks (all 18 of ‘em)

I can't believe I swam with sharks

I can’t believe I swam with sharks

April 2008: Ambergris Caye, Belize

13…14…15… 14, 15, 16, 17….18 17…18…19…

For some reasons, I thought if I kept count of the sharks it would be a much better – you know, keep ‘em all in eye sight.

Of course, it doesn’t work this way. I was scuba diving in Belize, in the famous crystal clear waters of Ambergris Caye. I’m new to scuba diving and this was only my second dive trip and my first stop on a 4-week trek through Central America. It was a 2-dive day. The first dive was at a spot called the Tackle Box, where we swam through tunnels and caverns and along two vertical walls, spying hexagon fish, moray eels, a couple of nurse sharks. But it was the day’s second dive that was the doozey.

A top dive spot: the famous Blue Hole of Belize

A top dive spot: the famous Blue Hole of Belize

We would be diving at a spot called Esmerelda, just 5 minutes from shore. Between the first and second dive, we boated back to the pier to have a snack and load up for the next dive. At the pier, one of the boat hands was cutting up some fish and we laughingly asked him if he was going to use it to feed the sharks. Ha HA HA HA ha ha. Everyone knows you don’t chum the water with divers present—I mean that’s just crazy. And we walked away.  (Note to self: Never just walk away!)

So now we’re in the boat, gearing up and heading off to Esmerelda. We’re finally set and tumble backwards off the side of the boat. As we descend slowly toward the bottom, I see that dive master Matt has a long bag tied to his waste, trailing him as he swims. And trailing the bag were sharks — lots of them.  He was indeed chumming the water, leaving a thin stream of red blood and chunks of raw fish for the sharks to follow.

Now, as a new diver, I usually like to stay pretty close to the dive master, but since he was the one with the sack of bloody fish that wasn’t an ideal option. Also swimming away wasn’t a good option, because I couldn’t trust myself not to just begin flailing – my panic button was just barely in check. Returning to the boat was also not an option since it’s actually when you’re surfacing (like seal) that’s most dangerous. No good options. So I decide to stay put, kneeling on the sandy bottom, watching the sharks swirl around us. It was at this point that I started to count. And kept counting for most of the dive. Even at the time, I knew it was insane, but the repetition was keeping me calm. I even calmed down enough to swim around a bit. At one point, I kicked a shark in the face and he just kind of looked at me. That wasn’t a good moment. 

Clara and me diving. Ignorance is indeed bliss.

Clara and me diving. Ignorance is indeed bliss.

Another time, I gave my dive-buddy Clara the sign of the shark (hand on head, fin-like) and she sort of impatiently gave me the OK sign.

Thing was, she thought I was referring to the 4 sharks in front of her. But in fact, I was looking at the Daddy-O directly behind her. Big Daddy-O. I figured it was probably just as well she didn’t know anyway. Half-way through the dive, the dive master came over (trailing his bag of bloodies) and he showed us how to pet the sharks, which I did.

I mean, at that point the toothy monsters were swarming around us, so what’s the loss of a hand, when you’re about to lose your head any minute. (I concede that my faulty logic is frightenly mind numbing).

For the record, I am totally and completely against chumming the water at any time, but especially when divers are present. Teaching sharks that “people = food” is not a good thing. And I would never knowingly go into the water that is being chummed. What I mean is, I would never do it again. Because 17…18…19…might be fabulous numbers in a soccer match, but not when counting sharks in the open sea.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, June 24th, 2009 and is filed under South America.

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