(This is Part III in a three-part entry! Again, all underwater pictures are courtesy of my super-talented friend Annie.)
There are a slew of phrases that you never want to hear in your lifetime:
“I’m sorry. We’ve done everything we can.”
“Oxygen masks will now be dropping from the compartments above you.”
“There is a gunman in the parking lot.”
“Oh my God, a shark!”
The Red Sea is a potpourri of all sorts of aquatic life you can’t find anywhere else, including sharks. So when one of the divers eagerly returned from a chat with the captain early Saturday morning, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that sharks had been spotted at our diving destination an hour ago.
Her reaction was anything but typical.
“There were sharks spotted there this morning!” she exclaimed, rousing her friend from a deep sleep. “We might see sharks!”
Her drowsy friend suddenly became alert and ecstatic.
“Sharks!” she cried, casting off her blanket. “Are you just saying that to get me out of bed?”
“No! The captain just told me!”
I witnessed the spectacle from the table where I sat swallowing seasickness pills with tea, observing with confusion the conversation that was taking place in front of me. It seemed I’d been brought up in a different world, a world where sharks were paragons of imminent danger, creatures you fled from, half-swimming, half-stumbling up the shore, coughing out the gallons of saltwater you inhaled, your bikini top around your ankles, your feet impaled with pieces of glass, all to avoid losing an arm. Here, they shared the level of excitement one might find in a child on Christmas Eve.
“I’m sorry,” I cut in, “did you say sharks?”
“Do you know how cool it would be to see a shark?”
No, I did not. Just yesterday, everyone had been hoping to spot a turtle. That was something I could get on board with.
“They’re out there?” I asked, pointing toward Panorama Reef, a coral reef absolutely teeming with vibrant life, a place I’d been excited to investigate.
“That’s what they’re saying,” said Rachel. “Divers don’t have too much of a problem with sharks. They’re surface creatures, right? So if we see one, we’re usually underneath it. We can see it coming. Besides, sharks are afraid of bubbles, so we’re pretty well equipped. We can just use our regulators to scare them off. It’s you guys that should worry!”
I put my book down and glanced again at the unbridled expanse of reef. I wanted to explore it. An image popped into my mind of the watery greens and blues suddenly spattered with blood, dozens of fins circling in a frenzy.
“So…what do you think? Can I snorkel?”
“I wouldn’t,” Rachel said after a pause. “I mean, I guess you can. But don’t do it if you’re not totally comfortable.”
I wasn’t sure how to react to that. Who is ever “totally comfortable” about the idea of swimming with sharks? It wasn’t hard to imagine what would happen if I snorkeled: My family would be informed that I was eaten by a shark. Since there are no great whites or bull sharks in the Red Sea, I’d be eaten in a freak accident involving a small shark that, prior to my consumption, had been known to dine solely on tiny fish. In addition, my family would be informed that I’d been warned of the shark’s presence and the danger of snorkeling with it but I’d chosen to do so anyway. The newspaper headlines would also detail the stunning survival of my snorkeling partner, who had tried to save me and instead been miraculously carried back to the boat by the attacking shark, who had recognized his deft swimming skills and thought to reward him.
(Did I actually have this exact thought while sitting on the boat? Yes.)
I wasn’t sure what to do until Judson showed up, eager to get in.
“They said there’s sharks out there,” I told him uncertainly.
“Cool? Aren’t you afraid?” (Maybe sharks are kinder in Alabama.)
“Because I don’t think I’d make a great meal for a shark. I’m not a small fish.”
He did have a point, and I did want to snorkel, but I opted to linger on the boat while he scouted out the area for me. He returned, pronouncing it shark-free. I wasn’t convinced. I knew the truth: once a person enters the water, a submarine all-points-bulletin goes out to all sharks within a one-mile radius and a thrashing race toward the potential victim ensues. And I’ve spent many an August planted on a couch watching Shark Week; I know I’m suitable bait for a prowling maneater. (Say what you will. They have a very diverse diet and I’m willing to bet my arm is tastier than a license plate.)
To be fair, Rachel had mentioned earlier that it wasn’t really sharks we had to worry about.
“More people die from dolphin attacks than shark attacks. Dolphins are playful, they’ll grab your ankle and drag you down thinking it’s a game.”
Well that’s not mildly horrifying or anything. I decided then that I’d prefer the shark attack; there’s something mentally troublesome about being dragged to your death, your ankle caught in the jaws of an animal who thinks you’re playing some deranged form of freeze tag. At least the shark is intentionally killing you.
With this in mind, I joined Judson in the water.
“Remember that part in Jaws where the kid stays alive by treading water?” he asked optimistically while we straightened our masks. I shook my head.
No, I did not remember this part. I remembered the other 99% of the movie where the shark eats everybody and survives various attempts on its life.
“Well if you see one, just relax.”
“And then you’ll come hit it on the nose,” I offered.
Slightly comforted, I followed him out to the reef. It took me a few minutes to stop frantically turning my head every which way, expecting to see a shark barreling out of the blue in my direction. But once we arrived at the reef, I stopped thinking about them.
There was just too much to see: diaphanous, anxious-looking fish with long noses; electric blue squiggles of coral; anemone; bright yellow butterfly fish; schools of shimmering angel fish darting back and forth in perfect rhythm; schools of minnows; a waterfall of black triangular fish tumbling through the propeller beneath the boat; the bottom of the boat in the water.
We spent more time exploring than we did the day before, and I felt myself longing to strap on an oxygen tank and dive down where I could see more. At the surface, Judson taught me how to dive further down, holding my breath as I went. Apparently it was very humorous to watch. He noted that my feet seemed to possess a weird buoyancy that kept me sort of afloat. Toward the end, I was getting the hang of it, and it was quite cool.
And believe it or not, as we headed back to the boat, I felt a surprising sense of disappointment at not having spotted a shark.
Once on board, Kilian mentioned that there was time to do some intro dives, which meant that Judson and I could each take turns actually diving. I was slightly nervous at this, but after having a taste of what’s below, I was more excited than anything. Judson went first, and I attempted to take meticulous mental notes: oxygen tank should be at about 200 bars; oxygen should deplete when regulator is in use, otherwise the tank is open. Kilian explained a few skills that he would teach Judson and how to successfully attempt those skills.
Then, they disappeared for forty minutes. When they resurfaced, Judson was completely euphoric. It had been amazing. By this time, it was nearly one, and the captain had wanted to leave at 12:30. Kilian’s dive group was hoping to get one more dive in, so he told me he would take me when they came back. I was still entertaining the idea of diving, keeping my bathing suit on, when the others told me it wasn’t happening. The captain was not happy.
By two, before Kilian and his group resurfaced, the captain was just about fuming.
“If we’re still sailing at nightfall, we’re spending one more night on the boat, whether you like it or not,” said one of the crew members angrily. “We’re not going back to Hurghada at night. We wanted to leave at 12:30.”
And so, I realized I would not be diving today. Kilian and his group returned, and no sooner had the last diver emerged from the water, the boat took off.
I was surprisingly disappointed, but I’ve been told there is to be a trip in Dahab in the coming weeks and I can finally have my chance there. Regardless, it was impossible to be too unhappy; the three hour boat journey back was replete with sunshine, brilliant company and conversation, and a good book.
We made it back safely and began the five hour car ride back to Cairo, stopping at a convenience store/gas station hybrid on the way.
Despite the fact that I’d have to wake up for work a few hours later, I was quite happy to be standing in the dark parking lot at 11:00 at night eating half a cheese sandwich, partly because it wasn’t fish, but mainly because it’s impossible to be unhappy around such a stellar group of people.
Also because my limbs were in place and I hadn’t been eaten by a shark.