The Delicate Balance of Friends & Great White Sharks

The warning signs were all there.

One friend was slow to commit to plans and made a point to keep an unusually close eye on me leading up to the day of our trip, and the other needed to be bribed with the promise of several days spent in wine country in order to even think about setting foot on the boat. I should have realized that I was tempting the fate of my friendships to convince them that a day spent cage diving with great white sharks was sure to be the highlight of our lives. But I didn’t. And the day ensued.

I’ll admit that the boat itself, a rusty old converted fishing boat packed to the gills with tourists from across the world boasting all levels of competency and incompetency, wouldn’t have been my first choice as the most sea-worthy vessel available, but off we went. As the boat chugged onward, I remember surveying our fellow thrill-seekers and having the sudden awareness that this very well may have been a boat full of the casting rejects from Gilligan’s Island. There was a nice family of four – possibly six, you really couldn’t tell the exact number since kids in wet suits all seem to look the same – who had packed enough bags of god knows what for what could have been a three year voyage, a young honeymooning couple who was already in crisis as the wife erupted into preemptive, panic-stricken tears at the very mention of the word shark, a pair of enormous former US Marines, and three Asian tourists with more camera equipment than they could possibly manage.

And then there were the three of us. One good sport with her arms crossed, eyes locked firmly on the horizon, forcing a smile, and – if I had to guess – focusing all of her mental energy on the next three days which we had promised to spend in the safety of wine country. The other, rightfully eyeing me with a suspicious gaze and tensed muscles poised to lash out and catch me mid-air at any moment should my excitement cause me to become – shall we say, unreasonable?  If anyone was the odd one out, it was me. I was not calm. I was not collected. And I was definitely not subtle. I was jittery, bouncing up and down with excitement, pacing back and forth across the deck and fully suited up in my wetsuit before we had even come to a stop. To this day, I still thank my friends for not disowning me on the spot just for that display of feverish, child-like mania.

Eventually, enough fish carcasses, unidentifiable animal shrapnel and hideously bloody tuna heads had been strewn throughout the murky water to call forth the mammoths of the deep. As if I hadn’t already been testing the patience of my two friends, I really started to push my luck the moment we slipped into the cages dangling from the side of the boat.

I began to realize my error almost immediately. I glanced to my right at one friend who’s pearl-white knuckles were clenched around the bars at the top of the cage with a forward stare that was somehow still fixed on the distant shoreline. I noticed she had what appeared to be a chunk of some kind of fish gut from the chum sliding down the side of her mask and down her cheek. I made a mental note to apologize for that one later. I didn’t even need to look to my left to know that my other friend was desperately trying to absorb the excitement as much as possible without taking at least one responsible eye off of me as I flailed around in the cage trying to catch every glimpse of every tooth of every shark.

Within 15 minutes, four or five behemoth sharks had erupted from the dark water below us to take individual passes at the chum and baited tuna meant to lure them. The cage rattled and shook as each animal’s massive teeth clanked against the steel bars that kept us just inches from their frenzied strikes. Their powerful bodies – some as big as 19 feet long – thrashed in turbulent, frothy water as their fins and tails continued to send our cage careening into the side of the boat’s hull. When each shark eventually moved on, and we surfaced to catch our breath before the next one arrived, there were endless squeals and squawks of excitement bellowing up from us divers bobbing just below the top of the cage.

In that exact moment of collective excitement and of massive life-affirming adrenaline, I thought I had redeemed myself. I was definitely going to be forgiven for subjecting one friend to a primal fear and another to the difficult task of making sure she returned me to my mother in one piece. I was in the clear. Nobody was gripping the top of the cage for dear life (an understandable reaction, all things considered) and nobody was holding a cautious, wayward eye on my every move.

Turns out, I was wrong.

Before heading in for the day, the crew offered one last dive for anyone who basically needed one last fix of great white shark glory before the day’s once in a lifetime experience became exactly that. As one of us had returned taking up her determined stare at the coastline while sneaking an occasional saltine, we let her be and happily dove back into the cage. Before long, three more sharks came surging through the cloudy water, and once again, put on an epic display of incomprehensible predatory power. When we came up for air, someone from the crew hollered down that this next shark would be our last for the day, and I maintain to this day that his exact words in that distinctively firm Afrikaans accent that we’d “best make the most of it!”

Like clockwork, up came the biggest shark of the day, tearing through the water at an unthinkable speed. As she hurtled towards us, we sank lower into the cage for a better view, my friend and I grabbed each other’s arms and pointed with wild excitement as the shark threw her jaws down around the side of our cage. As her jaws took hold of the cage in one swift bite, she whipped her body from side to side, shaking the metal enclosure – and us – violently through the surging, foaming water.

And then, for just an instant, for one fleetingly glorious and unforgettable instant, one of her enormous gray fins came bursting into the cage through a space between the bars. I swear that in that moment, the whole world slowed down and went silent as I had what can only describe as an out of body experience. For just that moment, there I was, alone in my warped little world, where a 19 ft great white shark and I were destined to develop a bond unlike any other that would put Free Willy to shame.

I couldn’t help it. I reached out and touched her fin, letting my fingers run along that unmistakeable rough sandpaper-like shark skin. How could I not? It was right there – right there in front of me, inside the cage, practically reaching out to me as this apex predator and I continued our delicate waltz of what was sure to be a beautiful friendship. As her fin slipped out from between the bars, my hand (which at this point, I’m not entirely convinced was receiving signals from my brain at all) followed her and proceeded to break the day’s painfully easy to follow, impossible to screw up cardinal rule #1 for staying alive: keep your hands and feet inside the cage at all times under all circumstances. Duh.

With my arm freely outstretched beyond the (relative) safety of the cage and into the open ocean, I flattened my palm and let my hand run all the way across the shark’s tail for 0.8 seconds of triumphant splendor. Which is precisely when I realized that I had not, in fact, redeemed myself in the eyes of my friends, nor had I won the day.

Suddenly, the world was no longer suspended within that shimmering moment of beautiful slow motion existence. Ripped from my peaceful trance, it became quickly apparent to me that the world had become extremely loud, alarmingly chaotic, and that something was slamming on my shoulder with all its might while a muffled screeching sound rocketed through my ear.

Ah. Yes. It was my friend. And she was very, very understandably angry – at me. While continuing to scream and presumably reprimand me through the mouth of her snorkel, she yanked me to the surface with what can only be described as a surge of immense adrenaline strength. Before we had even fully come up for air, my friend unleashed swearing, furious barrage of what in hindsight are very fair questions including, but not limited to:

“Are you FUCKING kidding me!? Are you trying to lose your arm?! What the FUCK were you thinking!? How much of an idiot can you be?! How do you think I was supposed to explain to Christie [my mother] that you LOST YOUR ARM TO A GREAT WHITE SHARK BECAUSE YOU WANTED TO PET IT?!  Who PETS A GREAT WHITE SHARK!?”

I was in trouble and I knew it. She was furious, and what’s worse – she was genuinely right on all charges of idiocy, endangerment, reckless abandon, and madness that she was rightfully bringing against me. Sheepishly, and with her watchful eyes now once again really tracking my every move with a newly verified purpose, we peeled off our wetsuits, dried off, and climbed the stairs to the upper deck where we found our ever-vigilant horizon-watching friend in the exact same place where we had left her. As we sat down on opposite sides of her in the bright South African sunshine, I realized that she really hadn’t moved an inch from when we had left her to embark on what is now known as “the infamous second dive.” This, I realized, gave me a potential ally that could offset the rightful rage of my friend. Since she appeared to have remained there on the upper deck during our dive, there was no conceivable way that she could have seen me perform what was quite possibly the most ill-thought out action of my existence. This was a reassuring thought – that at least one of my two companions didn’t want to stick me on the next plane home before I had another opportunity to pet something with teeth bigger than my head.

As we settled in for the ride home, and rummaged through our bags for warm clothing, I became acutely aware of a deeply self-satisfied grin caused by the knowledge that, Yes, I had just pet a great white shark and it was exactly as awesome and as mind-blowing as I’ve always dreamed it would be, that was beginning to stretch across my stupid face. (For the record, I really was trying to hide it.) Meanwhile, out of the corner of my eye, it was impossible not to notice the pronounced look of displeasure that was directed squarely at yours truly emanating from my trusty dive buddy.

Under a blanket of crushing silence, I kept waiting for the moment when the humor would creep in, for the moment when I would be able to claw my way out of the particularly deep dog house that I had relegated myself to, or for the moment when my hopeful ally would come to my rescue. My optimism for a lifeline of any sort slipped by as the boat’s wake became longer and longer. I began to accept my (again, understandable) punishment for sheer idiocy in the form of silence and hunkered down in my seat thinking that maybe a nap was my best bet.

But then, without ever breaking her calm, statuesque gaze that rested on the great horizon beyond, our friend between us erupted into laughter. When she finally got a hold of herself, she rolled her eyes, looked at me, shook her head and said with an amused laugh, “You are such an idiot. And wow do you owe me some wine.”

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