Swimming with the Sharks

An eight-year-old's severed arm and a broker's chewed-off leg aren't enough to convince Florida to ban interactive diving

My stomach rumbles but I'm not nauseous. I swallowed seasickness pills at Eckerd's more than an hour ago and I'm sure they've kicked in. Last-minute nerves strike as I approach the edge of the boat. It's just a wave of butterflies, not an all-out panic. I'm not going to break into flop sweat or have an emotional meltdown in front of the nearly 30 snorkelers and scuba divers on the glass-bottomed boat. A couple of deep breaths will take care of it, I tell myself, as a freckle-faced girl who looks just like Buffy from Family Affair splashes eagerly into the water not quite 300 feet from the Pompano Beach shore.

My jelly belly quivers. Lightning strikes the horizon. Below me, large sharks await a feeding. I'm next. A moment ago we passengers stood around the undersea window amazed at our first sighting -- a real, live sand-colored nurse shark, its whip-perfect tail swaying beneath the glass for our cameras. If I didn't know better, I'd swear it was smiling. Up until then I was ready to go -- my mind clear, Speedos secure, neon-orange flippers in place, mask and snorkel strapped securely to my head. I snickered coolly when Renee, the dive assistant, pointed to my flippers and said that sharks are attracted to orange. But now, as I approach the ledge -- my nerves do a reality check. She was kidding, right?

"SHARKS," whispers a voice in my head, sort of loudly. "SHARKS," it echoes in rhythm with my pulse while I ponder the ripples that splash against the hull. In a blink, I relive those moments when the slightest hint of motion under me or brush of seaweed would set off a JAWS panic. Growing up in Miami, I avoided the water until my late teens, partly because of the Steven Spielberg epic. I was marred by the shark flick at the old Miracle Mile Cinema when I was about the same age as Buffy, who bravely plunged in ahead of me. I remember feeling certain that a Great White had somehow breached the ocean and was lurking beneath the surface even when I paddled in lakes and swimming pools. These paralyzing moments were punctuated by the JAWS score. Tah -- Duh Tah-DUH TAHDUH TAHDUHTAHDUHTAHDUH . . . that awful accelerating fear sound. Irrational, I know, but I was an imaginative, if not delusional child.

But I'm over that now. I'm 35 years old -- I've been swimming for years -- I freestyle from buoy to buoy at Miami Beach. That fear of getting eaten by JAWS is gone, I tell myself. Or is that a delusion? A breath, and I'm flashing to that time, not long ago, when I sprinted to shore upon catching a glimpse of tarpon cruising the sandy bottom of Dania Beach. I'm 35 years old, I repeat -- I can swim a mile in a pool -- I use $20 goggles and wear Speedos with confidence. I attended an EST seminar, damn it -- I'm not afraid.

The next moment I'm in.

"SHARKS!" My subconscious screams as I splash into the water. "SHARKS!" it cries as I adjust the mask and snorkel to immediately see a five-foot nurse shark cruising just ten feet below me. Its head looks wider than my waist. It navigates the ocean floor like a skilled morning commuter on I-95 -- direct, efficient, and late to work. The shark joins a school of meaty brethren who gather around shark-feeder Scot Dickerson, as he waves a PVC cylinder full of bloody tuna in front of their eager mouths. He is chumming the water I swim in, and dancing around with the fine, finned elasmobranch of my deepest nightmares. What am I doing?? I ask myself. And then I remember pint-sized, freckled Buffy who jumped in before me, and her pigtailed bravery. She's in here, too. I don't hear her crying. I try to relax and do a dead man's float.

When I lift my head out of the water, I see my fellow voyagers taking the plunge. A plump German family jumps in -- white-haired father, his voluptuous wife, and their teenage son -- each one so pink it's as if they'd been bitch-slapped by the sun. Then Jim and Kira Goodyear take a dive. Tourists from Stuart's Draft, Virginia, the couple brought their fifteen-year-old daughter and eleven-year-old son to watch the sharks feed. A teenage boy who asked me to snap his picture under the waves plops in next. He's the nephew of a local dive instructor and wants to work on a boat this summer. Then sixth-grader Kimberly Pate and her grandmother, Betty Decker, hit the water. They escaped hot and parched De Land, Florida, to do some grandmother-granddaughter bonding over the weekend at the family time-share in Deerfield Beach. Decker, a nurse, signed the couple up for a snorkeling trip. She discovered just moments before boarding our boat, the Aqua View, that they'd be swimming with sharks. Still, they splash into the Atlantic, unfazed.

We are the snorkelers. We float on the surface sans Professional Association of Dive Instructors (PADI) certifications, air tanks, or wetsuits. Our beachy bathing suits mark us as recreational swimmers, not pros or entertainers. Breathing through plastic tubes that stick out of the ocean, we are rapt in sheer wonder, if not frozen by initial fear, as Scot stains the water a murky pink and the sharks come out to feed. It's a riveting sight, and we bump into each other as the sleek predators -- ranging from four to seven feet -- circle our tour guide to get a taste of his bloody tuna. This is what we paid $45 for -- this is what we'll be talking about as we share the snapshots from our waterproof disposable cameras.

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