Swimming with Sharks

The death of Jaws author Peter Benchley turned my mind to sharks, which I suspect isn’t an uncommon occurence at the mention of Benchley’s name. However, unlike the rather scary associations that sprang from the movie, my shark thoughts were much more pleasant.

In 1989, MLB and I traveled to the tiny Caribbean island of Saba. Saba is one of Windward Islands in the Dutch Caribbean and is little more than a thickly forested mountain jutting out of the sea. It’s also a coveted destination for scuba divers, which is why we and a traveling companion named Flo found ourselves on the island during the first week of July.

We did encounter some remarkable diving during the week, but it was on the fourth of July that the truly memorable dive took place. I hauled out my travel journal; here’s the description I recorded later in the evening.

The first dive at Diamond Rock was the high point in my diving experience thus far. Diamond Rock is a huge piece of guano-covered volcanic rock thrusting above the surface 100′ or so, and anchored in the sand at about 80′ subsurface. There’s nothing else near it so it’s a micro-ecosystem in itself.

Today the current was flowing approximately clockwise, opposite from what Lou [the dive operation owner] expected. We had three new people along, a newlywed couple from Ohio and Rod, the only one of the Dallas Dozen diving today. Joan [Lou’s wife] and Lou both went with us, along with Jocelyn [a dive guide] and a friend, Alvin. Everybody went into the water except Alvin, and everybody came up wide-eyed.

The first ten minutes of the dive were spent fighting the current. Visibility was typically so-so but the life around the base of the rock was abundant. We swam around a point and came upon one…then another…and then a third black-tipped reef shark, slowly cruising over the sandy bottom in a large circle. There were accompanied by a few barracuda and some big tunas or something. A fourth shark came into view and we all settled in for the show.

Following Lou’s lead, I settled prone onto the sand out away from the rock, using my dive knife as an anchor against the current. The sharks seemed curious and one in particular kept circling closer. He finally came within 10-15 feet of me and I could see his eye scanning us.

They were incredible, and we were disappointed when they finally drifted off into the haze. The rest of the dive — more barracuda, a big lobster, etc. — was anticlimactic. We circled up around the rock, fought the current back to the boat, and climbed out, raving.

Even Lou was beside himself. He later said that he’d made 2,000 dives around Saba and this was the first time he’d ever seen anything like this.

Contrary to the picture painted in movies like Jaws, sharks are a welcome addition to almost any Caribbean dive experience, and sightings are actually pretty infrequent. I’ve never yet met a diver who wasn’t exhilarated by a shark sighting, and they’re much less threatening when you’re down there with them than when you’re floating on the surface, letting your imagination run wild.

Saba is also where I found myself in the middle of a Sunday evening street dance wearing nothing but flip-flops and a Speedo…and the only white skin (other than that of my companions) in sight. Sorry to leave you with that mental image; another time, perhaps.


  1. Okay, there is no WAY that being underwater WITH the sharks can be relaxing! I’ve only snorkled, but even fish the size of my hand startled me when seen up close and personal. A shark, or any fish larger than me, is down right SCARY!! But maybe only slightly scarier than the street dance scene on Saba. 😉

  2. Trust me on this one, Gwynne…it’s much better to be down there with them. For some reason, they’re not tempted to take a nibble just to make sure you’re not a floating hor, um…hord…uh…snack.
    And I’ll have you know that I cut quite a dashing figure in a speedo…especially as I dashed for cover, which, unfortunately, wasn’t to be found for about an hour.

  3. Heh, it wasn’t the speedo I was worried about. What’s a Texan doing without his boots on? 😉

  4. “I’ve never yet met a diver who wasn’t exhilarated by a shark sighting”
    …proving divers have nerves (along with other parts of their anatomy) of steel. Why do you guys even need with weight belts?
    Being within a shark’s bite-range would give me seizures.
    It wasn’t “Jaws”, either. It was all those nature shows explaining all the different kinds of bites sharks make.
    IIRC, there’s the “aggressive bite” (shark is mad), the “defensive bite” (shark is scared), the “feeding bite” (shark is hungry) and my personal fave, the “exploratory bite” (shark is curious).
    I’m probably forgetting a bunch like the “idle bite” (shark is bored), the “excited bite” (shark got jumpy), the “pathological bite” (shark is psychotic), the “quota bite” (shark hasn’t bitten anything in the last five minutes), or the “branding bite” (shark is a Mac user).

  5. I think I saw the white skin and Speedo on America’s Funniest Vacation Videos You Pray Never Get Shown on Television. Boots would have been a nice touch.

  6. Mr. Freen, that’s a great summary of shark bites…probably one of the few in existence. 😉
    I didn’t mention my closest encounter with a shark — and one of the dumbest things I ever did while diving. I came upon a nurse shark sleeping on the sand and couldn’t resist swimming up to it and touching its tail. It exploded out of its resting pose and darted away; only later did I learn that it’s not uncommon for them to turn around, bite the surprising hand, and then speed off.
    Julie, I’m not responsible for any mental images you take with you from these pages, or for any expenses you incur for therapy related thereto.

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