While scuba diving with hammerhead sharks in Belize, Jack Woods finds out that the sharks seem to be just as interested in him as he is in them…
“No spears on this one,” says Sam, eyes straying out to sea.
I set the scuba tanks on the edge of the dock. The cement is cracked and weathered. We’re alone. My eyes follow Sam’s out over the ocean. Cays rise out of the Caribbean like bubbles of life. Some are frosted with white sand and dotted with palms. Others overflow with mangroves.
The day is clear enough to see Guatemala where she strains to hide behind the western horizon. The jagged coastal peaks of Honduras float black over the shining waters to the south.
“No lionfish,” says Sam, his accent thick and Belizean. “Just a fun dive.”
I nod, masking my disappointment.
“Wanna see a shark?”
“Yeah.” I run my hand through a mess of salty hair.
“We’ll go to Northeast Wall.”
“Yeah. Northeast Wall. It drops off good. Real deep water.” His eyes light up. “Sometimes we get big ones.”
“Sometimes. Sometimes a hammerhead. Big fucking sharks.” His smile is bright in the early morning sun. It’s barely seven in the morning, and the sun is already strong. “Maybe we get lucky.”
I’m smiling too. “Fingers crossed.”
“Any more tanks?” asks Sam, grabbing the two I’d just set down.
“Just one more.”
“Good,” says Sam, starting down the dock. “Tell them to grab their BCD’s. It’s almost time to go.”
Before I turn, I take one last look at the neighboring island. Three hundred meters to the south, it’s around the size of a basketball court. A handful of palms sprout out of the sand. They’re vibrant green against the blended blues of the horizon. A house made almost entirely of pink spiral conch shells dominates the west half of the island.
My eyes linger on the Dr. Seus-esque house. In a few hours, I would be leaving Tom Owens to continue south through Central America. It was my second trip to the small Belizean Cay in two months. I didn’t know when I’ll be back. The conch house was the first thing I’d noticed when I first came to the cay. It symbolized the magic and adventure of the island. Turning away before nostalgia could settle in, I head back toward the compressor room, stepping over the roots of palm trees as I pad barefoot through the white sand.
Suspended in silence, my fins propel me rhythmically forward. A stream of bubbles gurgles out of my regulator. I begin to sink. The bubbles stop. The silence returns. Pressing the tip of my tongue to the roof of my mouth, I inhale. The breath is slow and deliberate, the air dry. It makes a slight hiss. My lungs begin to fill. I start to rise.
My eyes scour the water for movement. Scattered sparks flash below, electric blue pinpricks in the darkness of the depths. A few weeks earlier, an old friend pointed them out during a safety stop in Sosua in the DR. She called them sea sapphires when we surfaced. Little crustaceans, they’re too small to see any of their details, but they shine when they catch the sunlight.
Besides the specks of fluorescent blue, nothing catches my eye. The scenery hasn’t changed since the start of the dive. To my right, the rock wall falls away, turning black before it drops out of sight. Silhouettes of fish occasionally flash through the shadowy curtain of blue to my left, but their interruptions have been fleeting, more of a tease than anything.
I’m in the open ocean. The water is deep enough that it might as well be bottomless, but despite all of the legends of sea monsters that the Caribbean has inspired, nothing has risen up from the depths to meet me. I’d thought I would’ve made better bait.
Exhaling, I glance at my dive computer. I’m sixteen and a half meters deep and have been underwater for thirty-two minutes. The computer should be showing my nitrogen saturation levels and calculating my no-decompression limit, but it’s been stuck in free dive mode for almost two months. I’m wearing it more out of habit than anything else. I look back down searching for movement. Still nothing.
Inhaling, I look to the right. Fifteen meters away, the gentle down-sloping reef drops off a few meters below me to form an underwater cliff. The rest of the group drifts along just above the drop-off, black figures against the reef. Silver and concave, their bubbles trail behind them like giant mushroom caps, expanding as the air rises toward the surface.
I exhale, keeping my breathing even. Diving in the blue can be unsettling. There are no references to help you maintain your depth. It is easy to start to sink or ascend without realizing it which can be dangerous. You’re also alone floating through the middle of the ocean. Your mind starts to play tricks on you. Long-overcome anxieties rear almost-forgotten heads. It’s easy to get scared and panic. You have to stay calm.
At the start of the dive, I made a constant effort to control my breathing and monitor my depth. It felt like an adventure. But after the first five to ten minutes, I’d overcome the sensation of unease of being alone the blue and settled into the dive. The Kraken hadn’t appeared. Neither had a shark—the reason I was out in the blue. I was worried that I’d wasted my last dive cruising through the open ocean trying to attract something big and ended up seeing nothing.
I look to the left. Nothing. I look back down. Nothing. The darkness continued to conceal the secrets of the depths. Couldn’t something big come up? I needed action, even if it scared me and made me wish the dive had just been a boring trip through the blue. I was willing to roll the dice.
The most interesting thing I’d seen so far was a moon jelly, its short transparent tentacles streaming out behind it as its saucer-sized bowl of a body propelled itself through the blue. There’d been a few short-lived seconds of excitement when a shadowy mass had approached through the darkness, but it had only been a school of pelagic fish swimming close together. The only other life I’d seen were occasional ribbons of creole wrasse, the small blue and yellow fish finning their way along like commuters following each other down the freeway, their pectoral fins winging them through the water like sparrows through the air.
I inhale. If I hadn’t tried to attract a shark and had stuck with the group, I would have had a good dive on the reef. It might have lacked excitement, but it would have been a good dive—a nice mellow moment before I left the water behind for a while.
I look down. Nothing. I look to the left. Nothing. I look up hoping to see something big cruising over me, but the only thing to see it the surface, silvery and distant. I look down again.
My exhale catches in my throat. Shark. It’s a shark. A hammerhead—my first hammerhead. She’s angling toward me, slicing up through the water. Her back and sides are dark gray. Her stomach is pale, almost white. Her tail fin is a scythe. Black bottomless eyes bulge out of her prehistoric head which whips side to side like the back of a jackknifing truck. The gums of her half-open mouth are pale pink; teeth sprout out of them like rows of twisted thorns.
Appearing from the darkness, the shark swims up along the wall. She’s headed toward the water in between me and the group. I pray that she doesn’t change directions. She’s still far away. I want her to get closer. I want to experience her.
She keeps swimming toward us, her size making her seem closer than she really is. No longer kicking, I use my fins to slowly turn in the water, keeping my face toward the shark. I focus on my breathing, keeping it slow and controlled. She’s big.
The shark is getting closer and closer, her head dancing back and forth faster than a swaying cobra’s. It’s hypnotic, but at the same time, her swinging head makes her unpredictable. It looks like she is always about to turn, changing directions with a thrust of her tail and a flash of her teeth. Her head flails to the right. She turns toward me, cutting me off from the others.
She has an agility I’ve never seen in other sharks. The closer she gets, the more beautiful she becomes. I try to keep the excitement out of my body to keep my heart rate down. I don’t want to scare her away. I want her to get closer. And she’s big.
I hang motionless, my fins holding me in place. My breathing is slow and shallow. The shark swims closer. The rest of the world has stopped. She slides effortlessly through the water, getting closer and closer. I’m transfixed.
She’s sleek and graceful, something I’ve never seen in the strength of a bull shark or the power of a tiger shark. Something about her is intriguingly feminine. She’s lithe and powerful like a lioness roaming through the savannah. Over twice as long as I am tall, she demands respect.
She’s six of her body lengths away. Now five. She’s coming fast. I look into her approaching mouth. Past the pink gums and white teeth is only darkness. I need to remember it’s a shark. I was safe, but I shouldn’t push it.
She’s swimming straighter now, no longer testing the water, her head no longer dancing side to side but aimed straight at me. She’s four body lengths away. Now three. My eyes flick down to the snorkel across my chest. One of the other divers knocked it off the boat when we were getting ready. I dove down to rescue it, clipping it to my chest strap. It’s bright yellow—yum-yum yellow—a color said to attract sharks. Don’t let it be a problem.
My eyes are back on the shark. She’s two body lengths away and closing. I unclip the snorkel from my chest strap, ready to poke it in the nose if it comes in to bump me, trying to project strong, even aggressive, energy out into the water as the shark closes in on me, so it knows I’m not food.
Head jerking to the side, the shark explodes into motion, her tail thrusting back and forth. Fuck. Everything slows down.
Clenching the snorkel in my hand, I’m ready for the worst, but she doesn’t attack. Circumscribing three-quarters of a circle around me, she passes so close that I lean back. Then she takes off going in the direction we’d been going in before she arrived, huge and gray in the world of blue. I give chase, following her out to sea.
All photos credit Iris Wud