Sharks and Shipwrecks

by Sydney Koeplin

While snorkeling through a shipwreck site in the Bahamas, a traveler glimpses a dorsal fin moving amongst the wreckage.

The rusted carcass of the S.S. Sapona jutted out of the cerulean water like a ghost ship. I squinted, not entirely unconvinced that the tanker wasn’t a mirage created by the blazing Bahamian sun. The sides had disintegrated in the last hundred years so that only the support beams were left, looking like the nightmarish teeth of some grinning predator.

“Ready to go?” my sister asked beside me, fastening goggles around her head. I had come down to Bimini to visit her while she studied sharks at the island’s biological field station. She’d shown my parents and me around the station the day before; an unobtrusive rectangular building at the end of a dirt road, its yard was half-submerged in high tide, and the electricity was out after the power station had caught fire a few months earlier. The island had experienced rolling blackouts ever since.

“Are there usually many sharks around here?” I asked. Maddie had arranged a boat to take us snorkeling at the wreck and later to another spot to swim with a group of supposedly friendly reef sharks. Inherent to the position of researcher was the role of advocate: they weren’t the man-eating monsters that Jaws had made them out to be, she’d say, but complex creatures crucial to the ecosystem’s overall wellbeing. I agreed that sharks, for the most part, got a bad rap. It didn’t necessarily mean I wanted to swim with them, though.

“Maybe. Shouldn’t be anything big,” she said with a shrug before entering the water.

On the docks in the Bahamas

A night earlier, we’d watched as a few fishermen gutted their catch on the dock, tossing various entrails into the water below. Each piece would barely hit the waterline before being snapped up by one of four large bull sharks trolling the shallows for an easy meal. They swarmed over each other to get to the scraps, fins, tails, and teeth regularly gnashing the surface. The sharks were bulky but surprisingly quick.

“Even though our research focuses on the lemon sharks, we’ll tag the occasional hammerhead or nurse shark. Not the bulls, though,” Maddie told us.

“What are you supposed to do if you see one of them?”

She looked at me. “Get the hell out of the water.”

The very last scene of The Silence of the Lambs was filmed on Bimini’s North Island. After Hannibal Lecter tells Clarice, “I do wish we could chat longer, but… I’m having an old friend for dinner,” he hangs up the phone and strolls down the busy King’s Highway, framed by rustling palm trees and rushing crowds, off to meet his friend we’re left to assume he did, literally, have for dinner.

“Don’t take your fins off in the water,” one of the deckhands told me as he handed me my gear. “A shark sees your pale foot? That’s a fish to it.”

I couldn’t help but feel out of place in a snorkel and flippers, that maybe I was the dinner.

My family was already at the reef by the time I got all my gear on and pushed off the boat’s ladder. The water was as warm as a bubble bath and crystal clear. As I swam towards the wreck, I kept my eyes on the seafloor, drawn to the tranquil dunes of sand that the currents had created. It looked like a child’s drawing, peaks and valleys traced as if by design. Gentle lines, one after another.

A few local kids leaped off the top as I approached the ship, having scaled the rusted sides. They seemed suspended in the air for a moment, shrieking in glee, before cannonballing into the water. The boy who landed nearest me paddled back to the ship and ascended again.

A calm sea on a day spent snorkeling a shipwreck in the Bahamas

Since its grounding, the boat had crumbled into the Caribbean, creating a synthetic reef that was colorful and teeming with life. If you were careful, you could swim your way inside the hull of the ship, moving from compartment to compartment with the help of the high tide. Below me was a snorkeler’s dream; above me, the remnants of the boat seemed almost haunted. There was something eerie about seeing a ship stripped bare, failing its original and only purpose to float and instead settling on the ocean floor like an old dog too weak to walk anymore. Water lapping at the leftover concrete echoed throughout the hull. From the outside, I’d thought it looked like a skeletal grin, but once inside, I realized that was wrong; the ship was a rib cage, and I had breached its chest cavity.

As I made my way towards the back of the wreck, I saw butterflyfish and a few balloonfish swimming amicably, their fins whirring furiously as if too small for their bodies. Lithe royal gammas, bright purple heads with neon yellow bottoms, darted in and out of minuscule holes in the coral. The tail of a moray eel disappeared into a cross section of concrete, and I moved on quickly.

I imagined dozens of eyes following my movements through the dark belly of the ship. As I gawked at the sea life, they gawked at me. Though the sun glared mercilessly, inside the wreckage was cool and dim, somewhat shielded from the rays. I’d passed one or two other snorkelers, but they, like my family earlier, soon left to explore the reef outside the confines of the ship.

A submerged section of metal at the back of the boat, perhaps the remnants of an old wall, blocked any direct exit. I started to turn, ready to take a last look at the reef, when I sensed a dark form moving behind me. My stomach leapt into my throat as I registered a flash of a dorsal fin.

Small, spotted, and uninterested in my sudden thrashing, the nurse shark glided past me, scanning the water for food that was mercifully not me. Mustache-like feelers swayed in the current as she snuffed along the seabed, searching for crustaceans. Deeming nothing up to her standards, the shark headed back from where she had come, disappearing into the depths of the wreck.

It took a moment for my heart rate to catch up with my brain. I’d just had my first shark encounter of the day, but it wouldn’t be the last. Still somewhat in awe, I swam out from between the ship’s siding and into the light.

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