The Man In The Gray Suit

In my last post, I wrote about the great value I got out of commercial fishing. But that’s only a small part of my oceanic enjoyment. I absolutely love scuba diving in the warm blue tropical waters. In the Solomon Islands where I lived for eight years, the good news is the water is about 82°F (28°C) in the summer. And the bad news is that in the winter it goes down to a frigid 78°F (26°C) …

For those of you that wonder what is so enchanting about diving on say the wrecks and reefs of the Solomons Islands, this three-minute video answers the question far better than I could. Take a moment to watch it, and then I’ll ramble a bit about the life down below, where Davey Jones rules.

Solomon Islands Diving Video

I was a great fan of reading about undersea adventures when I was a kid. Captain Nemo was my man. I wanted a submarine. We’d flip the rowboat over in our lake and go underneath and breathe the trapped air and marvel at the strange, blue-green color of the light, and pretend to be submariners. And of the early TV shows, “Sea Hunt”, with Lloyd Bridges as Mike Nelson wearing old-school scuba gear, was my favorite. Scuba diving was new then, and most fascinating.

mike nelson sea hunt.png

After working as a diver on a gold dredge when I was young, I didn’t get to hang out underwater again until I was about 35. My gorgeous ex-fiancee and I went to Fiji, where I’d been hired to install a blast freezer system in a steel sailboat. Between times, the crew would fill up a stack of tanks and sail out to the reefs to go diving.

I knew nothing about deep diving, just the shallow river, so the guys explained it to me the first time. They said, never stop breathing or you may pop your lungs … and then we strapped on the gear and jumped overboard. That was the sum total of my dive training. Don’t stop breathing.

For me, I could sum up the first part of that dive in one word: peace. I was so happy to be underwater again, and to be in such a colorful, strange place. I’d snorkeled in Hawaii a lot, but there’s always a sense of urgency when you are holding your breath. You know you have what, thirty, forty seconds of air, the clock is ticking all the time.

But with scuba, you kick back, float in midwater, watch the world go by, take it easy. There’s no urgency. If you see something you have time to react, it’s peaceful.

Now, I’m sure there are folks out there right now thinking, “Willis, you shouldn’t encourage irresponsible behavior—scuba diving is a very dangerous activity. You shouldn’t talk about diving without a Scuba Certificate, you should tell people to get the tickets.”

And in fact, I have the PADI Openwater I, Openwater II, and Rescue Diver tickets myself, so obviously I agree. Education is always a plus—if it saves your life once, it’s probably worth it.

rescue diver cert.png

However, I should also relate that even after getting my first dive ticket, I’ve rented tanks and taken novice friends of mine that I trusted in the water out diving. If I knew that they were at ease in the ocean and not prone to panic, I’d teach them the way I learned. I’d tell them to keep breathing under all conditions, never close your throat, and we’d go down to 50 or 70 feet (15-21m) underwater and cruise back up the slope taking our time, working shallower and shallower, safety stop at 15 feet and up we go … never had a single problem.

Again, do I recommend doing that, taking a friend out diving if you have the ticket? Sure, strongly … and also, no way, strongly. It’s a judgment call. One time a friend of mine tried something very foolish that I’d done successfully, and it killed him. I grieved for him, but it was his choice. I’d spoken of the dangers.

So no, you kids and adults who are ill at ease in tumbling ocean whitewater, don’t ever do what I did in the ocean, you’d be mad to try it. But that wasn’t me. By that time, I’d spent a couple of years surfing and snorkeling in Hawaii. I’d surfed Pipeline and Pupukea. I was at ease being pounded and tossed by the ocean.

For example, one place in Hawaii we used to get out of the ocean on a sheer vertical cliff. I’d wait for a big wave to lift me up high on the cliff, and then I’d limpet onto the cliff and immediately start climbing straight up the ledges to the flat ground above … I don’t know for sure how I’ve lived through what I’ve done, but that’s my level of whitewater skills, and if you have those skills, I’ll hand you the tank and we’ll go diving—for people with the requisite skills and abilities, sure, no problem.

So let me give the obligatory warning—IF YOU’RE NOT SURE WHICH CATEGORY YOU ARE IN, stick to things where you’ll only hurt yourself, not your friends. If you want to learn to dive with a mate and a half-hour’s instruction, that’s your business—most folks, I’d say go to the school and get the ticket, why not? But I and my good friend both learned to dive like that, and we did it for years without tickets.

One thing we used to do regularly, that none of the diving schools teach except in very advanced courses, is coming up from down deep when you’re out of air. Oddly, no matter how deep you go with scuba (within reason) you can make it to the surface on one single breath of air. This is because as you ascend, the air expands. In fact, it expands so much you have to let it out constantly or your lungs will pop. So as you ascend, you are breathing out constantly as you are rising, and strange to say, when you break the surface you’ll still have a lungful of air.

So we used to practice ascents like that all the time, from when I first started diving. We’d put on the gear, dive straight down as fast as we could to 100 feet depth (30m) so the nitrogen didn’t have time to build up in our blood, take the regulator our of our mouths, and then slowly and peacefully fin to the surface, exhaling all the way.

I consider that essential elementary training for divers. But none of the official schools teach it. I’ve never figured out why. It may be an insurance issue, but it seems like a critical skill, and I did need it once when I ran out of air at 70 feet (21 m) down under the surface … I got so distracted arguing with a lobster I’d speared in a hole in the reef that I drained my air tank dry. It’s a sinking feeling when you suck on the regulator and get nothing at all, but we’d practiced it.

So I handed my speargun to my buddy, and slowly ascended to the surface, exhaling all the way. I swam up as slowly as the smaller bubbles from my continuous exhalation, and I was still exhaling when I broke the surface.

No harm, no foul.

Now, I said above that the first part of my very first ocean scuba dive was peaceful. But after a while, I started cruising the reef. I came over a hole in the reef with sand at the bottom, and I saw what I now know was a nurse shark sleeping quietly on the bottom. Many sharks can’t stop swimming or they die, but not nurse sharks. Heck, they even sleep in bunches when they find a good spot, nuzzling right up against each other. The sleeping shark I saw looked like this:

sleeping nurse shark.png

Being a total novice in the ways of sharks, I was immediately terrified. My brain went into hyperdrive, with big neon signs flashing SHARK! SHARK!

I surfaced, sighted the boat, and started flailing my way towards it. Then I realized I was splashing on the surface, and that would probably attract the shark, so I went back under, breathing like an amateur marathoner. Despite only being in the water a short time, my tank was almost empty when I arrived. I swam underwater with my head down, constantly looking backward between my fins for the shark I was sure was hot on my trail.

I arrived at the boat, scrambled out panting, and told my story. I’m sure the nurse shark never moved from its position on the bottom.

It took me quite a while to be at ease in the water around sharks. Well, not exactly at ease, but not staining my board shorts at least. And eventually, they were part of the landscape, something to investigate and not flee from.

The water is crystal clear in Fiji. The next day we anchored on top of an amazing coral pillar about 80 feet (24m) tall, that came to within about ten feet (3m) of the surface. It’s just outside Frigates Passage, my favorite surf spot. But we were there for diving. We swam the anchor down and set it carefully to avoid destroying the coral. We’d pick it up the same way. We went down and swam up one of the surge channels in the reef. My buddy speared a fish, so we started back to the boat. I swam down near the bottom to watch for sharks. My buddy was paralleling me at the top with the fish he’d speared. We got to the pillar, he went to put the fish in the boat, and I stayed down at the bottom.

I was facing the pillar, maybe ten feet from it, examining the coral, when suddenly I got this really bad feeling. It was the kind of feeling where in the movies they play the creepy music from Jaws. In a panic, I spun around, heart racing, certain that there was a shark behind me that had smelled the blood in the water. I frantically scanned the open area away from the pillar … nothing.

When I was certain that there was no shark sneaking up on me, and my pulse had slowed, and I couldn’t see anything threatening anywhere, feeling like an absolute fool I turned around to continue my examination of the coral pillar … and between me and the coral pillar was about a six-foot shark.

The shark seemed as surprised as I was, and disappeared in a flash. I’d used up my adrenalin stores when I spun around in raw terror, so I was curiously unmoved, although certainly surprised. Plus it was gone before I could really react. That was my second shark encounter.

The next shark I saw, I was spearfishing with my friend. My friend was leading, I was trailing. He was following a fish, heading down to a big coral head. From above I could see a shark going under the coral head from the other side … I raced after my friend to warn him, but it seemed to take forever. Old nautical maxim: “A stern chase is a slow chase”. But just when he was about to go under the coral head I finally caught up, grabbed his fin, and stopped him.

divers sign for shark.png

I made the universal diver’s sign for shark, where you make a dorsal fin on the top of your head with your hand, and we both booked it for the surface.

About then, I stopped spearfishing, because I realized that sharks are a lot like dogs.

By that, I mean that if you walk through a strange town, the dogs will come out and bark at you, and follow you, and check you out. They’ll make lots of noise, put on a show, but they’re unlikely to bite you.

But if you really want to get bitten, just try walking through the same town taking the food out of those same dogs’ bowls … I guarantee you the dogs will break out the fangs if you try that. And sharks are no different. They are territorial, and as far as they are concerned the fish you’re hunting is their fish. And if you shoot it, the blood and vibration will attract the sharks from a long way around … no bueno.

I’ve since read that the number one human activity associated with shark attacks is … you guessed it … spearfishing.

So I gave up spearfishing, and since then I’ve had much friendlier relations with the shark tribe. They are quite amazing beings. Oceanic creatures are very sensitive to your intentions—at any given moment the sharks know if you are competitors or not.

I’d given up eating shark some years previously. As I mentioned in my last post, when I first started fishing we caught a lot of thresher shark. We couldn’t sell it, but it was very good to eat, so the crew got it.

But eventually I started thinking, “Y’know … as much time as I spend in and on and under the ocean, maybe eating sharks isn’t that brilliant a plan” … so I gave it up, hoping for reciprocal recognition.

All I can say about the outcome is … so far, so good …

The man in the gray suit is the bane of surfers, of course. That’s what some surfers call sharks. I call them that when I’m out on my board talking with my friends. You never know who might be listening … and as the folk wisdom has it, “Speak of the Devil and he appears”, so there’s no sense taking chances.

And the danger is assuredly real around here on the coast of California where I live, fifty miles or so north of San Francisco. A guy I know was out diving with my brother-in-law at the mouth of Tomales Bay. He said the first indication he had that there was a great white in the area was when it took him crosswise in its mouth. He showed me the scars. It was a series of cuts about an inch long (3cm) and an inch apart that started at one shoulder, went across his rib cage, around to the stomach and back across his belly. He had the same scars on his back.

I asked him what he’d done when the shark took him in its mouth. He said, “I just went totally limp.” Limp! I’d never have had that much presence of mind, I’d have been freaking to the max, screaming and struggling … but he was chill. Amazing. I asked what happened next.

After he went limp, he said, the shark swam forwards maybe fifteen or twenty feet … and then it spat him out.

Zowie … if the shark had just bitten down, the guy would have been killed by a bite like this, but straight across his chest. Even without that, his wetsuit was in tatters. He kept it to remind him of his good fortune.

shark bite.png

Then there was another buddy who was a commercial sea urchin diver out at the Farallon Islands, not far offshore from where I live. I asked him if he saw great whites, being as how the Farallons are one of their favorite spots. “Oh, I see them, not all the time, but once in a while”, he said

“What do you do to keep from getting attacked”, I asked.

“I just go and lie down on the bottom. Nobody I know has ever been attacked when they were lying on the bottom,” he said.

… “Well, except for my dive partner Mike, he got kinda nipped one day lying on the bottom”.

I shuddered to think of what a “nip” from a great white shark might look like, and we spoke of other things …

Another friend of mine was surfing one day at the local break here where I never surf, Salmon Creek. I ran into him that afternoon. He looked what we used to call “sanpaku”, where you can see the whites all around the iris of the eyes. I asked him what had happened.

He said he got spyhopped by a great white shark. They’re not uncommon around here. We’re in what they call the “Crimson Triangle”, Santa Cruz to the Farallon Islands to Salmon Creek, where whites are found in numbers. They’re one of the few sharks that will stick their head vertically out of the water and just hang there, looking at what’s around them. It’s called “spyhopping”.

He said he was out just beyond the rocks at Salmon Creek, waiting for a wave, and he got the bad movie feeling where the theme from Jaws is playing. And when he looked around, he was staring into the featureless black eyeball of a great white about thirty feet (9m) away … he said “Seeing that white shark stick its head out of the water and look at me was the second scariest thing I’ve ever seen in my entire life.”


Now as you might imagine, I’m a fan of stories of all kinds, particularly sea stories. So his comment intrigued me. Mystified, I asked him “Dude, what have you been up to? If that was only the second scariest thing, what was the scariest thing you ever saw in your life?”

He said, “The scariest thing I ever saw was when the head of that white shark slid back below the surface!”

Crazy bugger still surfs that same spot though … not me. I don’t dive or surf around my home at all. Too sharky, but mostly too cold, green, and murky. I’m a blue-water, clear-water, warm-water diver, and here it’s none of those three. I like it when I can go out at night wearing a t-shirt and go in for a dive. What can I say, I’m a tropical boy.

Sadly, these days I’m a long ways from the blue warm water … but I can’t worry about that. As the song sorta goes, with apologies to the author:

I think about Fiji when I’m high on red wine,
And I wish that I could jump on a plane.
So many nights I just dream of the ocean.
God, I wish I was sailing again.

Oh, yesterdays are over my shoulder,
So I can’t look back for too long.
There’s just too much to see waiting in front of me,
and I know that I just can’t go wrong.

Best wishes to all of you in everything waiting in front of you—may your lives be replete with joy, friends, family, warm oceans and warmer hearts, and yes, perhaps even the occasional shark—hey, you know that you just can’t go wrong.


30 thoughts on “The Man In The Gray Suit

  1. Loved your diving story W. Qatched the 4 minute video….WOW….Diving in the Solomon Islands is officiallt on my bucket list.

    Qas trained to dive while in the Marines…did some recreational diving around Oceanside and loved it.

    Look forward to seeing you this Sunday …tomorrow at our Annual EH S picnic.. :-))


  2. Had a similar nurse shark experience when I lived in Key West. We were spear fishing with snorkels and had just come back to the surface. I saw my diving buddy racing toward the boat, He was half out of the water he was going so fast. He leapt into the boat in one movement, stood up and yelled “shark!!” I looked around, saw nothing but moved carefully back the boat.

    He had moved over to a coral head and saw the head of a large, what he thought, grouper. But then the “grouper started swimming out and he recognized his error by the size and the fin.He left in a panic.
    Unfortunately he left his gun on the bottom, so I looked over the side, saw the shark swim by on the bottom, waited a bit for it to clear and went down and retrieved the gun.

    I swam with sharks many times after that, but it was an interesting first experience. After we got back in we learned the place we were spearfishing was called “Shark Channel.”

    Greatly enjoy your posts, Your posts on the ocean bring back my many years at sea in the Navy.


  3. Since you don’t like typos: “the danger is assuredly real around her on the coast”.

    There have been news stories recently about escaping from a shark by punching it on the nose. Sounds like a Hail Mary.

    There have been other discussions about the right color to wear in the water. Black like seals? Some say orange life jackets and survival suits attract them — “yum yum yellow”. Camo?

    Viewed from the proper conditions (in a walk through tunnel in a big aquarium), sharks are amazing creatures.


    • The recent death prompted a BBC article, which then linked to this interesting page:
      “Surviving a shark attack: Do you really have to punch it?”
      Everyone agrees, do not play dead!

      The article includes this quote, which is meaningless at face value:
      “The chances of dying in a shark attack are definitely extremely slim. The Florida Museum of Natural History puts the odds of a fatal attack at about 1 in 3,748,067.” That quote was a link, although it is broken.
      But this link has that and much much more:

      The 1 in 3,748,067 number is the “risk of death by shark during one’s lifetime”.
      “Lifetime risk is calculated by dividing 2003 population (290,850,005) by the number of deaths, divided by 77.6, the life expectancy of a person born in 2003.” Still useless, since over 290 million of that population never goes into shark infested water, I’m guessing.

      Lots of data at the floridamuseum site. Just picking one of interest:

      Watch out for the Whites in October in the late morning and early evening in San Diego when you are surfing.


  4. Another wonderful post, Willis, thanks.

    Never tried board-surfing, but grew up body-surfing on our northern 90-mile beach. The name is one of your typical southern hemisphere exaggerations, of course. It arose from the time it took to drive cattle the length of the beach in the old days when drovers ruled.. That was three days, and folk wisdom had it that you can drive cattle thirty miles a day. So, 90 miles!

    Of course, the beach is ruled by tides, and you can only drive the herd in daylight, and then only when the tide is between low and half-tide, so the usable portion of the day was shortened. Never mind, 90 miles sounds more impressive than the paltry 55-mile length of the beach. Sadly, the days of cattle droving on the beach ended early in the sixties, when roads and stock trucks improved to the extent that the old ways became uneconomic.

    That beach filled me with the wonder of existence. It seemed to me as a child to embody infinity, like the ocean that formed it. The bloody thing is quarter of a mile wide at low tide, and runs in an almost straight line to the southwest for most of its length. In my early teens, I and my friend would ride our bicycles twelve miles North of Kaitaia when there was a North-west wind, access the beach at Waipapakauri, and ride along the beach to Ahipara, which is nine miles South of Kaitaia. We would open our raincoats to catch the following wind, and sail all the way, no hands. Sal? We nearly flew.

    One night, I got home after the day, to be faced by my father. His face told me I was in for a bollicking. One of his mates had phoned to report that my friend and I had overtaken him on the beach when he was doing fifty miles an hour. Dad was breathing hard through his nose like an angry ram. He demanded to know hat the hell I was thinking, didn’t I realise the danger? I looked him in the eye, but I was worried. Then I noticed the corners of his mouth twitching, and realised he was fighting to suppress his smile of pride in his adventurous offspring. He failed – we both burst out laughing.

    I loved scuba diving in our marine reserves, but those days are passed. My arthritic fingers now hurt too much for me to drag on a wet-suit – its all I can do to pull on my socks and boots. But in summer when the water is warm, I take my grandson snorkelling in those same reserves I discovered long ago. The underwater world is as beautiful as it ever was.




    • Damn – the comment should have gone in under my own name, not Herkinderkin. I have to edit it every time, as WordPress wont let me change it permanently.



    • John, first, thanks for posting under your own name. On my planet it is a mark of honesty and bravery, although in some cases I’m more than happy to admit that there is a valid reason for an alias.

      Second, thanks for a look at the land of the long white cloud through your eyes. Kiwiville is one place I’ve always wanted to visit and never gotten to. One of these days, though, yer gonna find me on your doorstep.

      Finally, your dad sounds like the best kind of guy.




      • Thank you, Willis.

        Now I’m retired and no longer work for the multinational that would have sanctioned me for publicly expressing skepticism about climate change. If you or anyone who reads this know how to reset my comments moniker to my own name, please let me know here or by tweeting @herkinderkin

        And yes, the old man was the best kind of guy. That’s another story..




  5. The sensation the first time you breathe underwater is unforgettable, even if it is in a pool in Ithaca, NY, in January. As for certification, a man’s got to know his limitations. Lack of knowledge and over-certainty can be as lethal as Great Whites.


  6. I’m just trying to stay quiet and keep my head down on this thread. I love Thresher shark steaks on the grill and I don’t want the word to get out to the “man in the grey suit.” Mum’s the word, OK?


  7. My first and only encounter with a shark was on Green Island, 20 miles off Caines and the coast of Australia, Great Barrier Reef. Snorkeling, a four footer glided around near the surface and paused only to inspect some marine life near me. I just lay there, on the surface, breathing slowly, and then it was over. Went snorkeling the next day, didn’t have a recurrent sighting. Maybe I was a bigger fish than what he/she was looking for?


    • Thanks RiHo08. Regarding your story, the US Navy is kinda interested in this subject, as you might imagine …

      In their endless quest for a shark repellent, they’ve tested literally thousands of chemical compounds to see how sharks react to them. The reactions of the sharks to smelling these chemicals in the water can be divided into three groups:

      • The sharks paid no attention at all.

      • The sharks noticed the smell, sniffed around, but didn’t follow it up.

      • The sharks turned and followed the smell to the source.

      Note that nothing that they found seemed to repel the sharks …

      So where does the smell of human blood, urine, menstrual blood, and the like fit in that?

      Sharks notice those smells but don’t follow them. It makes sense because after all, they’re millions of years old, and we have never been even a minor food item in their diet.

      Even fish blood doesn’t attract them all that much … but the slightest smell of fish gastric juices will bring them from a long ways away.

      Again, this makes sense. Fish are always bumping into things, getting small nips from other creatures, there’s often a bit of fish blood in the water.

      But fish gastric juices mean that somewhere a fish is very badly wounded … and after a million years of learning they know exactly what that means.

      So the answer to your story is … he’s just not into you …




  8. Mark of shame – not my real name… 😦

    Up in the Eastern end of the Great White North (where we only have two seasons – bugs and snow), we have some utterly gorgeous ocean-front white sand beaches. Great to walk, great to skip stones off if you can find some good ones, but nobody ever goes into the water – and not because of men in grey (you’ll note the correct spelling 😉 suits. It’s because our local phenomenon defies a law of physics, you know, the one that says “water turns solid at 0 degrees Celsius, 32 degrees Fahrenheit”… well, I’ve seen 29 degrees Fahrenheit on my console – was snuggly and warm, all except my lips which were uncovered and felt like cocktail weenies.

    We have a most interesting gent in these waters – the Greenland Shark. I gather he’s mostly Prestone (TM); the Eskimos and the Greenland natives eat them, but only when they find a carcass washed-ashore and steep it in a gravel bank for about six months, waiting for all its anti-freeze to leach-out; until then it’s poisonous. Hakarl – said to be the foulest food in existence. The other things the locals use the Greenland Shark for is, the teeth are so sharp they shave with them.

    We have another funny local resident, which a buddy of mine encountered on a dive. He’d procured (through means foul) a length of stainless steel rod; he hammered its one end into a point and the other end into a loop, through which he threaded some surgical tubing, and went spearfishing, to much hilarity and no fish – they had one fish nibbling on the pointed end and still missed it. They’re swimming back to the shore when a shadow passed-over them; it was perfectly round and six-feet across, and had a stupid little tail (his words) flitting-along behind it. He gestured to his buddy to spear it – his buddy instantly handed him the spear.

    So he comes-up underneath it and pokes it once or twice, and it ignores him. So he pokes it a little further back, toward the tail – and it cracks-on a 90-degree banked turn and comes back around to see what’s bugging it. At this point, common sense intrudes; my buddy recounts the tale, “This thing is as big as we are, it’s utterly unafraid of us – maybe I should leave it alone until I find out what it is…”

    So they exited the water, and he looked it up in his fish book – the Atlantic Torpedo, largest species of electric ray; it can power a clothes dryer, albeit for a short period of time. It’s a famed resident of the Halifax approaches; a local dive shop is named after it.

    Oh and, for those of you who don’t have Rescue Diver – the first rule of rescue diving is “Never let a one-person accident become a two-person accident”. Get yer courses…


  9. An awesome recounting, Willis. Your stories always push a guy to read through to the end. The bit about slowly releasing your breath as you surface was neat to learn about.

    Two comments: First, I think that if the proper training saves your life once, it was definitely worth it, not just probably. 🙂 Second, on the limp/playing dead vs punching debate, at least in the case of your shark-rejected friend, I can certainly see why not fighting would be the best course of action: you’d just be lacerating the heck out of your own body. But good lord, the self-control! I have major doubts my primate hindbrain would fare so well.


  10. My fun story is off the main span of the 7 mile bridge, gulf side. The only thing riskier than snorkeling/diving with a crazy person is doing it with 2 of them. I pop up to SitRep the boat there’s a large hole, no lobster, keeper grouper on on side and nurse shark on the other. Crazy guy one, brings the spear gun and shoots the grouper who ducks under the ledge and locks in. Grouper grunt is surprisingly startling. Crazy guy one is struggling with grouper. Crazy guy two x marine is hovering overhead. Water was about 11 ft which doesn’t give you much time snorkeling to wrestle grouper. So SOP I went back to the boat to grab the tank and regulators we kept staged. I’m swimming on the bottom, get tapped on the back and waved back to the boat. Story goes that the grouper expired, and the shark immediately shot over to pick up dinner. Crazy x marine grabs the grouper from the sharks mouth, pops the speared fish out of the water and speed boats back to boat. Shark bite teeth marks included.


  11. Always follow the bubbles as they usually go up!

    I have a friend that was diving off Dry Tortugas west of the Florida Keys. They would rent /charter a boat for 3 – 4 days at a time and pay for the trip with spear fishing bounty consisting mainly of grouper and snapper. As Jim was outfitting his own boat, an old old inboard twin engine about 30 – 35 ft. shrimper, by replacing the engine hold with Ice boxes for future dives and four ~250 hp Black Max outboards on a rear platform and my meager assistance at the time. He warned me about an experience he had that he doesn’t want to do again. Short story goes like this. He was diving in 90 – 110 ft of water and had a big ring ( sort of like a shower curtain hook) attached to his waist that he would carry his speared fish on. He had several fish on the ring when a big grouper (called jewfish or goliath grouper that can grow to a few hundred hundred lbs. and 6 ft long) decided to eat his catch for lunch. It gulped the fish on the ring and started shaking to get it away from Jim. He said it was like a big dog shaking a stuffed toy or rag doll. Knocked off his mask and the regulator from his mouth. He was badly beaten and bruised but survived. I don’t remember how he got loose from the grouper but he warned me to always have a ‘weak link’ or safety ‘break-away’. Anyway, Goliath doesn’t wear a grey suit but holds a place in the hierarchy.

    ! have been spared from catastrophe a number of times with the ‘safety link’ in swift water canoeing. In swift water boating “Murphy’s Law” rules. An upright canoe can be capsized with 30 lb test fishing line. That meager force will cause the canoe to turn sideways in the current without breaking the line and then the canoe will start swinging and surfing and dipping to the side as you sink. Not good! A readily accessible sharp knife is a MUST in swift water. Once in fairly swift moving water I fished a 2 ft vertical fall from a large rock in the river where striped bass could run. Caught about a 20 lb’er and not having a stringer I used the 15 ft long 1/2″ dia rope that was spliced to the end of the canoe and was normally braided for safety and efficient storage. Bad Idea! It was getting dark and I had about a mile to go to the take-out. Long story short, when I passed a big boulder in the river the fish swam on the other side. It wedged the rope under the rock and the rope was attached to the front of the boat and passed under the front seat and over the side with the fish on the end. In swift water there will be a strong eddy line coming off the side of the rock. Downstream current on one side and upstream on the other with the eddy line being turbulent as hell. The front of the boat was catching the downstream current and trying to surf away from the rock. The eddy was trying to pull the back of the boat upstream. As the canoe would be pushed backwards out of the current on the front, the current on the back end of the canoe would take over. Clusterf*ck situation indeed! The boat was trying to flip over in the upstream fashion they always do. I’m on my knees leaning downstream with the paddle extended out as far as possible trying to stop the water pouring in over the side as the boat was violently rocking and at the same time I’m trying to lean forward far enough to cut the rope. After what seemed a long 5 – 8 minutes with the boat half full of water and now dark I finally cut the rope. I was glad when that one got away! Maybe that was the river gods payback for me laughing hysterically when a fishing buddy on another trip dropped his anchor in swift water and sank over a 3-5 min period as the canoe filled with water and washed everything including his dog downstream. Slow motion disaster. He got a bit upset as I was eddied out and he was yelling for me to do something. My response was that I can’t laugh any harder! Me and my dogs salvaged his dog and anything that didn’t float is still there! What did float was scattered for 2 miles!

    I could tell a bunch of stories about whitewater and swift water or another dive buddy who thought it would be funny to poke a few 6 ft sharks resting on the bottom under a coral reef or poking moray eels for the hell of it. Then there is the story about the 12 ft alligator on the Loxahatchee River in Florida and how big someone’s eyes can get! And then the bear story. Being young or at least not too old and doing crazy stuff just to see if you can do it or what will happen when you do! The more you feed the rat, the more it wants! Sure beats sitting around with a bunch of old geezers talking about how many warm meals they had or how well they do at Putt-Putt or Bingo.

    What’s that? It seems the rat is gnawing at me again! Humm…..


  12. – The which – I heard an apocryphal tale about Moray Eels; hopefully somebody here can comment with authority.

    “When you dive in the sea
    And an eel bites your knee
    That’s a moray…”

    The story is interesting to those who brave the water in the Great White North, because we have wolf-eels. A wolf-eel’s body looks a lot like a moray’s, supposedly they’re related, but its head is another matter entirely; the size of a grapefruit with a fearful array of nasty long fangs, truly the stuff of nightmares. But they’re very timid; their first reaction to you becoming a pest is to expose those awful fangs at you, their second is to swim very fast in the other direction. They have those monster fangs because part of their diet is sea urchins, and their teeth have to be long enough to crush the urchin’s shell without impaling their mouths on the spines.

    So the story of the Moray Eel goes, they’re every bit as timid as the wolf eel, and if you leave ’em alone they won’t come anywhere near you; and their fearsome reputation is the result of a face-saving fabrication by early snorkelers. Back then, they had a “see how much of a man I am!” game they played, called “choke the moray”. They’d spot a moray poking its head out of a crevice on the bottom below, dive down and pinch finger-and-thumb through its breathing holes on the back of its head, bodily yank it out of its hole and bear it to the surface in triumph while it slowly suffocated. Being a man myself, I sadly confess that it is the sorta’ thing we’d do…

    Well, the morays didn’t like this game; and if the snorkeler muffed his approach or didn’t have as firm a grasp as he thought he did, the moray was quite prepared to give as good as it got. And a crestfallen snorkeler in Outpatients getting his hand stitched back together by a sympathetic nurse, isn’t likely to spoil her mood (or solicit a tart “looks good on you!”) by telling the truth about why the moray mauled him in the first place; no, he’d have to be all mock-heroic, like “Oh, those morays are KILLERS! There were all those kids in the water, just up the beach – I HAD to fight it off, and so what if I got chewed-on in the process?”

    “My hero…” Anybody know the truth of the matter? We snorkel full-time whenever we can swing a trip to sunnier climes, and I’ve seen several morays; never been mauled by one…


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