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The shark cruised slowly below me. Maybe he was looking for food, maybe he was just cruising the neighborhood, but at least he was alone. On the other hand, so was I.
I knew as well as anyone that diving without a buddy was risky. Every day, as I taught beginning skin divers at Club Med, I would include the admonition never to dive alone, “That way,” I would drive home the lesson with a bit of flippant humor, “if you meet a shark there’s a fifty-fifty chance he’ll eat your buddy and not you.”
I had been at Club Med’s Tahiti – or more precisely, Moorea – village for nearly eighteen months, and was scheduled to rotate out in a few weeks. As a final adventure I took a three-day jaunt to Rangiroa, an atoll several hundred miles away. Rangiroa was the largest of Tuamotus, a chain of coral rings isolated in the middle of the Pacific. At one end of the chain was the French atomic test area. At the other, Rangiroa offered diving experiences completely different from those I had experienced in Moorea.
Like Tahiti and the major Hawaiian islands, Moorea is a “high island,” a volcanic peak now long dormant. Around its edge, coral had grown in the warm, shallow water. The volcano had slowly settled, while the coral remained just below the surface of the ocean, forming a shallow lagoon between itself and the shore. I had done lots of snorkeling in the 5 to 15 foot depths of the coral-filled lagoon, and weekly scuba dives at the base of the reef on the ocean side, between 60 and 120 feet down.
An atoll is, you might say, what a “high island” becomes in its old age. After a few million years the volcanic part of the island sinks until it disappears altogether. Only the barrier reef and the string of little islets – motu in Polynesian – that form around clumps of debris on the reef remain. This theory of atoll formation, formulated by Charles Darwin, was only confirmed empirically more than a half-century after his death. Seismic readings from the Bikini atoll hydrogen bomb tests revealed the volcanic “seed” of the atoll, covered by a two-mile thick coral cap.
In Rangiroa, I intended to dive in the lagoon, somewhat deeper and with far less coral than the lagoon in Moorea, but reputedly well-stocked with murex ramosus (pictured left), a spectacular large, pink, spiny shell that I lusted after for my collection. I also looked forward to drift-diving through the pass, the channel between the lagoon and the ocean. Tides are almost invisible in mid-Pacific. However, when six inches’ worth of a five-mile by twenty-five-mile lagoon tries to funnel out through a two hundred yard wide passage, you get an impressive current. Divers leave the boat just inside the lagoon and are carried along the wails of the pass at up to four knots (“like a train” my friends who had experienced it told me) until they are disgorged on the ocean side and picked up by the same boat, which has enjoyed an equally exhilarating (if less scenic) ride through the pass on the surface.
The lagoon yielded my hoped-for trophy shell, and the trip through the pass was sufficiently train-like. I was into my third day in Rangiroa and it was boring. At loose ends, I decided to try a risky dive on the ocean side of the reef.
Just getting into the water was a challenge. The coral began right at the beach, and was a solid, uneven floor at or just below the surface of the water. Wearing plastic sandals for protection from coral cuts, I traversed the hundred yards out to where the ocean waves pummeled the reef, the water rushing up mini-fjords and then receding every fifteen seconds or so. I sat on the rim of one of the crevasses and quickly swapped the sandals for the swim fins I had carried out. With the sandals strapped into my weight belt, I waited for a wave to come rushing up the coral ravine, slipped into it and let it carry me back out to the open water.
To tell the truth, it wasn’t all that different out there from other diving I had done in the tropics: lots of coral shelves and exotic fish. The major new feature was that the reef sloped down as far as I could see, and apparently just kept on going.
Then the shark showed up. He was a blue shark, probably six or seven feet long, but he seemed a good deal larger. The dive mask magnifies everything you see, and so does fear.
A couple of thoughts came to me as I watched him approaching. Neither was reassuring. First, I remembered that the last fatal shark attack in Polynesia had happened right here in Rangiroa. True, it had been a couple of years earlier, and the victim had really brought it on himself. He was a native spear fisherman, and one of their techniques is to hide behind a coral head and make a noise like the thrashing of a wounded fish. Others come to investigate and become targets themselves. In this case, the “target” he had attracted turned out to be a hungry shark.
Second, I had read that sharks will attack in self-defense if they feel their “space” has been invaded. Unfortunately, they consider their space to be a sphere some three or four body lengths’ radius. I was well within that sphere.
I edged toward the coral wall, tried to become part of it. The shark continued to cruise quietly. I don’t know if he saw me or not, but he never got closer than twelve or fifteen feet. Eventually he cruised away as quietly as he had arrived. The rest of the dive seemed an anticlimax.
Until it was time to leave the water. How was I going to negotiate the “surf zone” of waves pounding on the coral? The best strategy seemed to try to exit as I had entered the water: let a wave carry me up a ravine and then scramble for it. I got myself lined up with a likely looking canyon, tried to get a feel for the surge, and finally went in with a strong wave. As the water started to recede I boosted myself up on the coral and sat there as I began the quick swap from swim fins to sandals.
I was just congratulating myself on a successful escape when the third wave hit. I remember thinking as it rolled me in a cartwheel that my wetsuit would protect my body when I came down on the coral, but if I landed on my head there could be some serious damage. I put my hand above my head and, indeed, it absorbed the shock.
I sat there like a James Bond martini: shaken, not stirred. My head was in one piece, but there seemed a good chance I had broken a finger. Not much remained but to put on the sandals, pack and return to home base in Moorea.
As it turned out, my finger was just badly sprained, though I went through a frustrating and painful experience with the French versions of bureaucracy and socialized medicine to find that out. But that’s another adventure….
Originally published in the San Diego Mensan, Vol. 29, No. 8, August 1991 in Bob’s column, The Eclectic Typewriter
Bob Tutelman is a longtime member or Mensa and is currently the director of the Moonlight Serenade Orchestra which performs every Thursday Evening at the Lucky Star Seafood Restaurant at 54th and University in San Diego.