Friday, February 5, 2016

Nurse the Hate: The Tragic Failure of The Bull Shark Dive

It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke.  “So I’m in a boat with a Swedish nanny, a Mexican, a Death Metal drummer, and an English Dominatrix…” Yet, there I was.  It was happening.  I had arrived in Playa Mujeres Mexico last Saturday.  I had arranged my dives with a man I had checked out via the one unimpeachable source available to savvy individuals nowadays, the Internet.  It does seem rather absurd to base the merits of willingly jumping into the ocean with the planet’s most aggressive shark on a review from Trip Advisor reading “Scott from San Antonio:  Arturo was great!”, but that was what I had done.  I don’t have many options.  It’s not like I have any personal friendships with anyone that dives, much less anyone that goes for more extreme experiences like Bull Shark Diving.  The Internet is all I have to go on.

This particular dive is seasonal.  Bull Sharks come in from sea to an area surrounding the mangroves primarily to deliver more little sharks.  From December to February they patrol relatively shallow water in large numbers and then go back out to sea as mysteriously as they arrived.  There appeared to be two big differences in available shark dives.  One of these is the method where a guide chums the area, meaning they toss chopped up fish into the water.  When the sharks arrive to see what is doing, these guides will actually hand feed sharks whole fish to insure a close experience for the divers.  This seems like a bad idea.

My thought that the long term ill effects, beyond altering the animal’s natural behavior, is also training these animals that divers=food.  The reality with sharks and divers is this…  The shark is naturally curious about divers, but maintains a buffer.  Sharks don’t encounter something close to their size that has a halo of bubbles coming from it.  It makes them cautious.  Sharks want to attack something they see as a food opportunity.  Flop around the surface on a boogie board around some sharks to see what I mean.  Wear lots of shiny bracelets too.  I think that feeding these 300-400 pound sea monsters opens the door to all sorts of unwanted behaviors, like getting your fucking arm bit off when they think it’s a red snapper you are offering them. 

The guide I had chosen, Alvaro, has a method of keeping chum in a box.  He opens the box letting a little blood and guts seep out, and then allows the sharks to cruise into the area to check out the potential food source.  The game plan for the other divers is to stick close to the sandy bottom, pull in arms and legs, breathe normally, and don’t do anything stupid when the 8-11 foot predator comes to nose around like try to flee to the surface.  Of course, the one potentially fatal flaw in this plan is that we might come in contact with a shark that has had the lightbulb go off that says “I hear a boat and see some divers.  They must have brought me lunch”.  There is a gamble that any particular shark will be pissed off that there are no grouper on the menu and might decide to find out what the meat in the wet suits taste like after all this time.  Still, it seems like a better idea than ringing the dinner bell and purposely getting that behavior in motion by tossing dead fish around. 

I had to take a taxi to Alvaro’s tiny store front in a run down little plaza near a small pier.  The office is behind a sliding glass door that barely fits one desk and two plastic chairs.  To sit in there would be unbelievably claustrophobic.  Small bits of mid-repair scuba hardware sit drying on the small available surface.  The little store front is the only one open in the shabby plaza.  If it was America there would also be a discount mobile phone shop and wig store here.  Alvaro is nowhere to be seen.  I walk out to the pier where heavy lidded and bored Mexican men sitting on benches give me a quick look.  “Are any of you Alvaro?”  They stare at me and say nothing.  I wonder if I’m invisible and wander back.  A few minutes later a man that looks surprisingly like Zac Galifinakis wanders up the hallway.  “Greg?”

Alvaro is middle aged and probably older than I think.  In another life he could be a tired middle manager at a widget company.  He lucked out and discovered a way to live out on the ocean and keep a lively spark about him.  He and I gather some gear from a locker in the back of the cinderblock building while getting to know each other.  Alvaro gives the sporadic cough of a life long smoker as he leans down to pick through the equipment we will need.  He exudes a sense of calm and amusement.  This is the sort of demeanor that one looks for in Mexico.  “A lot of really crazy things can happen here but we will smile and make the best of it” is a healthy attitude in Third World countries.  I climb into his truck and we set out on a drive south to meet up with the boat and a few other divers.  This is when I get the news.

“Greg my friend…  I must tell you…  The sharks?  They have gone out to sea.  No one has seen them in five days.”


I learn that I will not get my shark dive.  Alvaro tells me how some shady operators will try to milk out another couple of weeks on unsuspecting tourists, making them sign a waiver along the lines of “sharks are wild animals and there are no guarantees we will see these wild animals as we can’t control them so give me a couple hundred bucks and we will go sit on the sand alone for an hour while I chop fish up and then afterwards I will shrug my shoulders as we head back inland as I stare at your disappointed faces”.  I like Alvaro’s cadence.  “Yes my friend…  I do not want to live my life that way.  Each year we know…  The sharks come.  The sharks go.  We cannot control it.  So today we try to have the best dive we can have today if that is ok with you?  We can go dive at the wreck where yesterday it was good, quite good… (he smiles)  Or we can do the wall dive today?  It is up to you my friend…”

I am very disappointed that I have missed this window of opportunity.  I know he isn’t bullshitting me though.  Alvaro has an impish quality, but has the relaxed manner of a man that knows what he is talking about.  The guy learned to dive in 1968 and has done any type of dive you can name. He doesn’t want to waste our time when anything can happen if we put ourselves in position to see it.  I knew when I originally scheduled the shark dive that I was pushing the end of the season, but that type of thing usually works out for me.  Fuck.  Oh well, as Alvaro said, let’s have the best dive we can have today.  I decide that as the winds have picked up and are forecast for much worse tomorrow, the wreck would be great if we can convince the others.  The currents will be challenging today, but tomorrow that site will be off the table.  Alvaro makes a call as we bounce along sun bleached roads.  Something isn’t working out for the wreck on the other end of the line.  He hangs up with a grumble, looks at me and smiles.  “Well?  It looks like we dive the wall!  They don't want to do the wreck today.  I try to tell them tomorrow is no good but...”  He shrugs and smiles.

The wall dive is fine by me.  That was my other goal on this trip.  It is hard to explain what it feels like to be swimming in 80 feet of reef and then come to the edge of a cliff where it drops off into deep blue nothingness.  It is almost like flying except the current slyly tries to pull you out into the abyss.  All sense of perspective is instantly lost.  Giant fish work the wall looking for smaller fish that creep too far away from their little reef nooks of safety.  The grand scale of the thing is amazing.  It can truly be spectacular.

We arrive at a small dirt road that ends at a beach.  A small boat is tied up bobbing up and down in a few feet of water.  Dark skinned Mexicans scurry around stowing gear.  We share the boat with another guide and his small party.  I cannot stress enough the differences in the two groups.  The other group is led by an American expat ex-Marine.  I know he is an ex-Marine as he has sown Marine patches onto his wet suit for no particular reason.  He also has maintained that military haircut just in case you forgot he was once in The Corps.  “Hello everyone.  Did you see my haircut?  Do you want to ask me about the armed services?  Because I really want to tell you about it.  I really, really want to tell you…”  I am generally uneasy around anyone that has taken their complete identity around their brief time in the military.  If they loved the military so much, why aren’t they still there?  What need is this total embrace of force and order fulfilling for them?  It takes just a few seconds to look at this guy and go “Ehhhhh….  Something’s not right there….”

Marine Dive Master Guy has more gear on than I ever thought possible on a recreational dive in less than 100 feet of water.  He is playing Navy Seal to the hilt.  We haven’t even pulled up anchor to depart and he has his wet suit zipped up, complete with a hood.  It is 80 degrees.  We have an hour on the boat.  Why does he have that hood on?  He also has plastic knee pads.  Three different flashlights are clipped to his belt line.  He has four (4) separate watch gauges on.  A knife is strapped to his thigh.  He has black booties on.  What the fuck does he need all that shit for?  He asks a member of his group in a very serious tone “How would you rate your buoyancy?  On a 1-10 scale?”.  How the hell do you even answer that?  If I didn’t know any better, I would think they were on some type of black ops to blow up an Isis secret underwater cave lair.  Meanwhile Alvaro is in an old pair of bathing trunks with his shirt off smoking a cigarette laughing with the deckhands.  “Okay… Today we are going to do one thing.  We are going to have fun!”  The difference between the two guys is as absolute as it can be, and I am relieved to be on this side.  Marine Dive Master Guy is going to make it as fun as oral surgery for his group.  They all have a grim determination that has nothing to do with my “flop in the water and don’t do anything stupid” agenda. 

Our group is a bit more colorful.  A cute girl with a butterfly tattoo on her foot turns out to be a Swedish nanny that learned to dive this week.  An impossibly pale couple with English accents look the part of the greaser scene, she with a “13” tattoo on the neck, him in his sleeves, aggressive sideburns and Motorhead t-shirt.  He turns out to be a drummer in a very well known Death Metal band, and today is his last day before starting a tour.  His wife, a very friendly and proper sounding woman, I later discover by two internet clicks to be a very popular fetish model that is available to torture you, put cigarettes out on you, or take a shit on your face if that’s what you’d prefer.  I have to say, if I ever need someone in the London area to piss in my mouth, she seems like she would be a good choice.  She is very cheerful and polite.  Quite nice really.

We let Marine Dive Guy take his group out first.  We watch them as they wobble off the boat, fearful of a mistake.  I lean into Alvaro and whisper “Hey, do you think the water is going to get murky when they complete their secret mission and the explosives go off?”.  Alvaro roars in laughter, tells the crew in rapid Spanish and then they too are all cackling.  I’m glad I’m not the only guy that sees the only other American as ridiculous.  I do feel sort of embarrassed to be associated with this man as both of us being Americans. 

The dive is gorgeous.  90 feet of water with abundant sea life.  An enormous sea turtle with a shell four feet long munches on some plant life.  A nurse shark looks on blankly.  We go through caves that pop out onto brilliant sunlight and a sheer 3000 foot drop off.  It’s amazing.  The current pushes us along.  A purple eel with white polka dots pops out of his hole in the coral to give me a looking over.  I float through a giant school of bright yellow fish.  A trigger fish swims up to my mask.  My air is getting low.  I give the signal to Alvaro which I hope conveys “hey dude, I wasn’t paying as close attention as I should and I only have 450 left on the air tank so we should probably surface so I don’t drown during the safety stop”.  He gives me the “OK” sign which I take to mean “OK”.

After a second dive through a site called “Paradise” we get back in the boat to go back.  It was a relaxing drift dive in shallow depth through multi colored reefs and urgent little fish.  Totally relaxed.  The taut faces of “Dive Team Alpha” wait for us on the return.  What a totally different experience they must have had on their day.  I speak to a dark skinned Mexican crew member on our ride back.  We talk about a friend of his that passed out drunk on the beach and woke up not only without his wallet, but without any of his clothes.  I like to think about someone in Mexico right now walking around in dirty stolen underwear.  Viva la Mexico.

I will admit a real sense of failure around not being able to get this shark dive done.  There are only so many opportunities a man in Ohio will have to dive with enormous sharks.  I feel like I bungled this by not getting to the site earlier.  I was too haphazard in my prep.  I drive back to Playa Mujeres sitting shotgun.  The Swedish nanny comes with us.  She is in the back seat.  She is munching on potato chips and drinking one of the Tecates I bought at a small roadside shack.  Alvaro and I make a pact to dive the sharks when they return.  “Yes my friend…  You will be back.  And so will the sharks.  We will go see them together.”

He’s right.  But until then I will have this shadow of failure gnaw at me.  It really bothers me that I didn’t get this accomplished.  I get back to the room.  I’m working through the Tecate.  I look at the calendar on my phone and try to plan my return.  These goddamn sharks got away again.                 


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