Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Swimming with Sharks

"Shark" Kai yells through his snorkel.

You would think that at this point we're supposed to scramble out of the water and into our dinghy -- quickly. After all, there's not one, but ten sharks in the vicinity at the South Pass here in Fakarava. Instead, Maya, Tim and I swim over to Kai and watch the black tipped reef shark swim towards us, waving its tail rhythmically, like a dog at a beach. We watch it come towards us, close enough so we can count its seven gills. My heart pounds, worried that maybe our children would become tasty snack food for the sharks, but then I take a deep breath. It's just a reef shark and they're more scared of us than we should be of them.

I guard as it moves towards us. I watched the movie "Jaws" a long time ago and that embedded my fear of sharks, but I remind myself that "Jaws" was a great white shark, not one of these picturesque black tips where it seems as if Picasso took a thick black brush and painted the creature's fins and tails. This one coming towards us looks like a lurker, as its cartilaginous body zigzags towards us. I wouldn't want to meet him in an alley in the middle of the night.

Instead of a swim bladder which most fish have for buoyancy, oil in the liver helps keep the sharks afloat, yet they're still negatively buoyant and must keep swimming otherwise they sink. The sharks in and around the South Pass are curious, but shy. They like to congregate by the hundreds at about 80 feet deep in the sandy canal at the mouth of the pass.

We're doing a drift snorkel where we begin at the outside of the Pass to the atoll and the inflowing current takes us inside. The water is so clear that I can see all the way down to the bottom. This time it was my turn to gather the crew of snorkelers. "Barracuda," I mumble through my snorkel. Kai, Maya and Evi from the boat "Wonderland" swim over to me and I point down at the school of barracuda swimming underneath us. We watch their long silver bodies shimmer with the reflected sun. Tim can hold his breath for a long time and is swimming deep with the barracuda.

The current takes us into shallow water with carpets of coral and colorful fish. It feels like we're in a Jacques Cousteau movie. Maya, our budding scientist, is teaching Evi all the names of the fish. I love watching the Chinese trumpet fish nibble on the coral and the funny looking unicorn fish dance circles around each other. Perhaps the most intriguing one and indeed the largest is the four feet long, 300 pound Napoleon wrasse. When Christine, the mother on the catamaran "Stray Kitty" first saw the gigantic fish, she grabbed her children and jumped back into the dinghy, only to laugh about it much later.

"I'm having trouble with my snorkel because I keep smiling so much looking at all the colors and shapes of the fish," says Evi as we gather back into the dinghy.

After ten snorkels through the pass, I realize the sharks are more scared of me than I am of them and I don't hesitate to get close to them. Mike, a marine biologist and captain of the boat "IO" told me that I should be more afraid of the erratic behavior of the moray eels than of the sharks. That is, unless there is blood, which is what happened one afternoon when Jim, on the catamaran "Sea Level" was surfing the wave just outside the pass and on his first ride, his surfboard rammed into his nose. We were just getting into the water and saw him screaming, "Get the dinghy!" Apparently, there was so much blood that he feared the sharks would come over, inspect and perhaps chomp on his bloddy broken nose. He fortunately got out of the water before the sharks smelled blood.

And...we continued our snorkel, admiring the fish and watching the sharks along the way.

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