Sharks in a storm, Australia

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It was a stormy night.  The boat was pitching back and forth, arching in the continuous flow of waves breaking over the surrounding reefs.  Seasickness had kicked in a few hours ago, and the darkness of the night made staying on two feet all the more challenging.  Resolute, I forced my way into my wetsuit and assembled my regs – it was time to dive blind, and I wasn’t going to miss it.

Everyone was struggling.  A few were ”sitting it out”, confidence knocked by the choppy water and the lack of visibility underwater.  I tested my torch; it was strong, but the beam narrow.  If you shone it on your depth gauge/air measure, it briefly glowed an eery green before fading back to its usual white – this is how you keep a measure of your air and buoyancy underwater at night, with the surface and the bottom invisible maintaining a level profile is challenging.  The dive boat had a fairly bright blue light underneath which was designed to give you a reference by which to return.  As I pulled on my fins and shuffled to the bucking edge of the boat, what was revealed by the light caused me to pause momentarily. 

The water was teeming with sharks, their sleek silhouettes moving slowly, circling around in the light, using the small source of light as an aid to their hunt.  Most of the bodies were typically small, white and black reef sharks, and they wouldn’t trouble any of the divers many of whom were already paddling in the water just above them.  One or two were a little larger.  I held my mask in place and took a giant stride out into the water, and then descended through the sleek, barrel-shaped bodies which paid me no heed and finned away from the boat’s light, into the dark. 

The light of the torch probably went up to 10 metres ahead in a straight, narrow beam, and other than that long white line I could see absolutely nothing else.  It was a matter of luck as to what the light found, usually sleeping fish but occasionally something greater; a huge green turtle making its bed for the night being the highlight.  Navigating using the brief green glow of the compass was difficult, and after 30 minutes or so I signalled to my buddy to ascend.  We located the light beneath the boat, grabbed the mooring line and began to pull ourselves up, the current sweeping us out horizontally as we climbed hand over hand.

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At 5 metres we stopped, in order to allow excess gasses built up at depth to seep out of our bodies and avoid ‘the bends’.  We were being swept sideways by the powerful current, all the while right in the middle of the dozens of circling reef sharks.  Suddenly, my buddy’s grip on my arm tightened, and a pointing hand gestured wildly to my left.  I turned just in time to see the dark eyes and white teeth of a large grey shark, close to the largest length to which they can grow, about two feet in front of me.  At the very last minute, staring into my eyes, it bent its trajectory and soared over my head, knocking my mask with the lower lobe of its caudal fin and disappearing out of the light into the murky darkness.  We surfaced, bucked back and forth by the now stronger waves, and fought our way up the kicking steps at the rear of the boat.

I spent the rest of the night racked by seasickness, but still grinning to myself about the close encounter with the inquisitive grey.  I had gotten in the way, I suspect, he had just wanted to know what clumsy creature was interrupting his feeding. 

Lost in the Great Barrier Reef

ImageThe horizon curved around us, stretching in azure blue with not another boat in sight. Looking overboard, the surface of the water was made of transparent crystal, the bottom of the ocean clearly visible 25 metres below, such was the stillness. Our dive boat, a small white speck on an endless blue, had moored up at Flynn Reef, on the outer rim of the Great Barrier Reef, and we were decompressing, waiting eagerly to get back into the 29 degree celcius water. The divemaster was mapping out the coming dive on the whiteboard, giving us bearings, fin-kicks to measure distance, turning circles. He promised a great dive if we could maintain enough air to allow us to get amongst the farther corals. That shouldn’t be a problem, we agreed.

It was time to dive – we undertook our equipment checks which by this point are second nature, and took a giant stride out into the unknown. The noise of entry and the fizz of bubbles that accompany it are always the only chaotic part of any dive, and as soon as we had followed the mooring down just one meter the familiar, peaceful silence of the warm ocean had engulfed us, and life and colour was everywhere. Brilliant streaks of sunlight led us down to the sandy ocean floor 20 metres below, we checked our compasses and set off on the route unguided, just the two of us, surrounded everywhere by beauty. Bommies, small underwater islands of life, scattered across the seabed each one covered in a different aray of greens, yellows and reds. Hard coral stood like miniature fortresses guarded by their faithful fish, soft coral stretched out as though awakening from a deep sleep. Turquoise parrotfish pecked at rocks, batfish floated by with their signature shape, a giant trevally soared past the size of a small shark. We followed the coral to shallower water, gliding along a solid wall of colour for what felt like eternity, the tiny creatures watching us intently from within. The underwater world was welcoming us, with unspeakable splendour.

As we got lost gliding through endless swim-throughs and along the reef wall at 10 metres, several ‘nemo’ fish ushered us away from their anemone homes, a blue spotted stingray shovelled its nose into the sand in defiance, several green turtles slowly swept within inches of us, unconcerned by our presence, each shell a distinct pattern of pentagonal greens and browns. Utterly lost in the brilliance of the moment, only our diminishing air could drag us back to the surface; we signalled to the boat that all was well, and snorkelled across the glass-like surface back to the boat. “I said an hour,” said the divemaster. I looked down at my computer – 73 minutes flashed back at me. Looking sheepishly up, I met his stare as I removed my mask, and what did he say? “To be honest mate, I don’t blame you. Beautiful, isn’t it?”. I sit here now and think yes, it truly is, beautiful