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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.