Shark Trouble

   Anything Goes


Then there's the oceanic whitetip, whose Latin name so aptly describes the creature that I'll burden you with it: C. Iongimanus, or "long-hands." This shark's pectoral fins are extraordinarily long and graceful, resembling the wings of a modern fighter jet. Longimanus tends to stay in the deep ocean, and nobody on earth has the vaguest notion about total numbers of long-hand attacks because the people they do attack are either adrift, alone, or survivors of shipwrecks, who don't much care what species of shark it is that's harassing them. I'd bet that many of the crewmen of the Indianapolis, in 1945, were killed by long-hands, but no one will ever know.

I do know, however, that longimanus is unpredictable, scary, and demonstrably capable of killing a human. There's a story about one that attacked two U.S. Navy divers in the deep waters of the Tongue of the Ocean in the Bahamas. The shark took a big bite out of one of the divers and then, as the diver's mate fought it for possession of his friend, dragged the diver into the abyss. Finally, at a depth of about three hundred feet—far beyond safe scuba depth—the mate had to choose between letting go of his friend and dying himself, and he watched as shark and body disappeared into the gloom.

Long-hands are my personal betes noires—one of the few species of shark of which I am genuinely and viscerally afraid. A couple of decades ago one made an honest effort to eat me. I don't blame the shark for trying, because my situation fell well within the bounds of Stupid Things You Should Avoid at All Costs, but the near-miss scared me— and scarred me permanently— nevertheless.

I was with an ABC-TV crew, also in the Tongue of the Ocean, in open water more than a mile deep. We had tied our boat to a Navy buoy that had become a popular spot to film because it had been in the water for so long that the sea had claimed it, transforming it into an artificial reef. Microscopic animals had taken shelter in the buoy and the chain and had been followed by tiny crustacea and other small critters. Then the larger ones had come to feed, and those larger still, until— in the magical way the sea has of generating life on all levels— the entire food chain had come to use buoy and chain as a feeding ground.

A school of yellowfin tuna was swarming around the buoy, attracted by something, and in the brilliant sunlight of the summer day the colors were so gorgeous that we decided to take some footage for the film segment about the Bahamas that we were working on for The American Sportsman.

I, as the so-called talent, was dispatched into the water. Stan Waterman followed to film whatever happened— presumably nothing more than the contrasting colors of the beautiful fish against the cobalt sea, interrupted now and then by a blackrubber-suited human wearing a yellow "horse-collar" buoyancy compensator vest around his neck.

Back then I was still a pretty green blue-water diver. Bluewater diving is diving in water with no bottom visible or reachable; it can spark fears and phobias, for to look down into the darkling blue nothingness is to harken back to childhood nightmares about monsters and infinity. I wasn't accustomed to diving in water I knew to be more than five thousand feet deep, and once in a while I was haunted by a vision of my body drifting down, down, down, from light blue to darker blue, to purple and violet and the unknown black.

So, naturally, whenever I had to dive in blue water, I carried a security blanket: a sawed-off broomstick about three feet long, attached to my wrist by a rawhide thong. Exactly what it was supposed to protect me from I never determined, but my logic was unassailable: if cameramen could carry cameras with which to ward off attackers, and assistants could carry cameras and lights, why shouldn't I be allowed to carry a broomstick?

Thus armed, I jumped overboard and swam among the yellowfin tuna— or, rather, they swam around me. I held on to the barnacle-covered buoy chain to keep from being swept away by the current, and the school of tuna, which had scattered when I splashed into the water, re-formed and circled me. The shafts of sunlight piercing the surface glittered on their silver scales and yellow fins, and it seemed to me that Stan must be gathering an entire library of beauty shots.

The water was very clear, visibility more than a hundred feet, I was sure, though it's hard to tell in blue water, for there's nothing visible against which to gauge distances.

At the very edge of my vision I saw a shark swimming by. I couldn't discern what kind it was, and I didn't much care, for it was ambling, really, and showing no interest in me or the tuna.

Meanwhile, far up on the bow of the fifty-five-foot boat, one of the crew—bored and tantalized by the sight of so many delicious meals swimming so close to the boat, rigged a fishing rod, dropped a baited hook into the water, and let it drift back into the school of tuna. He had not asked permission, nor had he told anyone what he was doing, for— hey, who cares?— he was stayin' out of the way and minding his own business. When he hooked a fish, he would simply drag it up to the bow and haul it aboard and no one need be the wiser.

Stan gestured for me to move away from the buoy, so that he could frame me and the fish cleanly against the blue background. I let go of the chain and kicked my way out into open water. Obligingly, the tuna followed.

Suddenly I was gone, jerked downward by an irresistible force, with a searing pain in my lower leg, arms flung over my head, broomstick aiming at the surface. I could see Stan and the tuna receding above me. I looked around, panicked and confused, to see what had grabbed me. The shark? Had I been taken by the shark? I saw nothing.

I looked down. I was already in the dark blue; all that lay below were the violet and the black and . . . wait . . . there, against the darkness . . . what could it possibly—

A tuna, fleeing for the bottom, struggling, fighting . . .fighting? Against WHAT?

Then I saw the line, and the silvery leader. The fish was hooked, for God's sake. Somehow it had gotten . . . no, impossible, no way it could have—

A cloud billowed around my face, black as ink, thick as. . . blood. My blood.

I leaned backward and kicked forward, wanting to see my feet.

The steel leader was wrapped around my ankle. The wire had bitten deep, and a plume of black was rising from the wound, a sign that I was already down very, very deep, for blood doesn't become black till the twilight depths. (The sea consumes the visible spectrum of light, one color at a time, beginning a few feet under water. Red disappears first, then orange, yellow, green, and so on, until, when you reach 50 or 200 feet, blood looks black.)

All I could guess was that, in some implausible fluke, as the fish had fled the surface it must have passed between my legs, or circled around my feet, or somehow wrapped the leader around my leg. And all I knew was that, somehow, I'd better find a way to free my leg before I was taken to depths from which no traveler returns.

I reached for my knife, to cut the line, but—encumbered by gear and disoriented by fear—first I couldn't find the knife, and then I couldn't release it.

The tuna stopped diving and turned, and the change in pressure against its mouth, the release of resistance, must have convinced it that it was free, for it swam upward, toward me.

The line slackened, the leader eased and spread, and I slid my foot and fin out through the widening coil.

Giddy with relief, I checked my air and depth gauges: 185 feet deep, 500 pounds of air, more than enough for a controlled ascent but nowhere near enough for a decompression stop, if one was necessary, a contingency about which I knew nothing. Diving computers were still years in the future (as were any computers for the common man). Because I hadn't intended to leave the surface, certainly not to venture deeper than, say, ten feet, I hadn't consulted the standard of the day: the U.S. Navy's decompression tables, a reliable guide—though calibrated for a twentyfive-year-old male in peak physical condition—to safe diving atvarious depths.

How long have I been at this depth? At any depth? How long have I been in the water? No idea.

I started up slowly and now the black blood no longer billowed around me but trailed behind. The pain in my leg had waned, and my foot seemed to be working, which meant that no major tendon had been cut.

I passed a hundred feet, then ninety, eighty. . . things were lighter now, visibility had returned, and I could see the rays of the sun angling down from the shimmering surface. Everything would be okay, after all. There was noth—

The shark came straight for me, emerging quickly from the blue haze, its fins forming a triangle of lopsided symmetry because of the slight downward curve of the extraordinary pectorals.

Ten, maybe fifteen feet from me it veered away, banked downward, and passed through the trail of blood leaking from my ankle. Convinced now of the source of the savory scent it had picked up from far away, it rose again, leveled off before me, and began the final, almost ritual, stage of the hunt.

Because seawater acts as a refractive lens, sizes are difficult to ascertain under water. The generally accepted rule is that animals appear to be roughly a third again as large as they actually are. This shark looked ten or twelve feet long, which meant that, in fact, it was probably seven to nine feet long. But "in fact" didn't matter to me; all I cared about was that the closer this shark came, the bigger it looked, and near to me or far, it was very big.

It circled me twice, perhaps twenty feet away, establishing for itself a pattern and perimeter of comfort, and then began gradually to close the distance between us. With each circle, it shrank the perimeter by six inches, then by twelve, then fifteen.

I raised my broomstick and held it out like a sword, waving its blunt tip back and forth to impress upon the shark that I was a living being armed with the weapons and determination to defend myself.

Longimanus was not impressed. It circled closer, staying just beyond the reach of the broomstick. I could count the tiny black dots on its snout, the celebrated ampullae of Lorenzini, which carry untold megabytes of information, chemical and electromagnetic, to the shark's control center.

The mouth hung open about an inch, enough to give me a glimpse of the teeth in the lower jaw.

As I turned with the shark, trying to maintain some upward movement, I watched the eye— always the eye— for movement of the nictitating membrane, the signal that the threat display was ending and the attack itself beginning.

It quickened its pace, circling me faster than I could turn, so I began to kick backward as well as upward, to increase the distance between us.

I jabbed randomly with the broomstick, never touching flesh, never causing longimanus even to flinch.

I glanced upward and saw the bottom of the boat, a squat, gray black shape perhaps fifty feet away, forty-five, forty . . .

The shark appeared from behind me, a pectoral fin nearly touching my shoulder. The mouth opened, the membrane flickered upward, covering most of the eye, the upper jaw dropped down and forward, and the head turned toward me.

I remember seeing the tail sweep once, propelling longimanus forward.

I remember bending backward to avoid the gaping mouth.

I remember the ghostly, yellowish white eyeball, and I remember stabbing at it with the broomstick.

I don't remember hitting, instead, the roof of the shark's mouth, but that's what must have happened, for the next thing I knew, the shark bit down on the broomstick, shook its head back and forth to tear it loose, and, when that failed, lunged with its powerful tail, intent on fleeing with its prize.

The broomstick, of course, was attached to my wrist, and I was suddenly dragged through the water like a rag doll, flopping helplessly behind the (by now) frightened shark, which had taken a test bite from a strange, bleeding prey and now found itself dragging a great rubber thing through the water.

Breathing became difficult; I was running out of air.

I tried to peel the rawhide thong off my wrist, but the tension on it was too great and I couldn't budge it.

I was on my back now, upside down, my right arm over my head as longimanus towed me away from the safety of the boat. I could once again see blood trailing from my leg; at this depth it was dark blue, and it streamed behind me like a wake.

Everything stopped. At once. My arm was free, and I was floating, neutrally buoyant, about thirty feet beneath the surface. I looked at the broomstick—or at what remained of it: longimanus had bitten through it, and the strands of mashed wood fiber looked splayed, like a flowering weed.

Far away, at the outer limits of my sight, I saw the black scythe of a tail fin vanish into the blue.

I sucked one final breath from my tank, opened my mouth, tipped my head back, and propelled by a couple of kicks, ascended to the kingdom of light and air.

Not until I reached the swim step at the stern of the boat did the weakness of fear overcome me, and the shock.

I spat out my mouthpiece, took off my mask, and gurgled something like, "Goddamm... son of a bitch!... mother—"

"No!" said the director. "No, no, no. You can't use that language on network television. Go back down and surface again and tell us what you saw."

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Photo Credit: Jennifer Hayes

Excerpted from Shark Trouble by Peter Benchley. Copyright © 2002 by Peter Benchley. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.