Thursday, December 22, 2016

Nurse the Hate: At Last, The Bull Shark Dive

We pulled up to a dusty road near a public beachfront in Playa del Carmen.  Little boys with dirty feet and Kool Ade stained mouths played in the sand near where their fisherman fathers brought in their catch.  A heavy lidded bored looking woman sat at a cart selling terrifying looking food.  A leathery looking tramp looked at us with a smile of broken teeth, amused at what we were about to do.  Alvaro, a man that I had dove with about ten months earlier, gathered us together as we struggled into our wet suits.  “OK!  Listen up!  We are going to move fast!  We are going to drop down to the bottom quickly but not too quickly.  Understand?  You are going to be weighted down so you are going to drop.  We want to get down to the bottom before the shark gets any ideas.  OK?  So get down fast… but not too fast!’.

With that we all got moving hauling our gear to the small boat anchored just off shore.  I had gone to great lengths to be here.  I have been fascinated with sharks since I saw the movie “Jaws” as a kid.  The idea that I could swim in the ocean right next to them without a cage was too good to pass up.  The fact that they are full-grown bull sharks just ratcheted the whole thing up a few notches.  As most of you are probably not well versed with bull sharks, let me give you a quick rundown.

The bull shark is widely considered to be the most dangerous shark on the planet.  This is due to the fact of them being large, very aggressive, prone to habitat near populated tropical beaches, and of the habit of attacking almost anything.  They are part of the Big Three along with Great Whites and Tiger Sharks as being the three species most likely to attack humans.  They are between 7 and 11 feet long and max out at about 500 pounds.  One would think that it would be an unbelievably bad idea to put oneself in the water with one of these, much less with multiple full grown adult bulls expected to be circling.

I would like to point out that I’m not crazy.  I take calculated risks.  The bull sharks come into the Playa del Carmen area around November and cruise off shore for a few months during their mating season.  They tend to back off their aggressive behavior.  The belief is that the bull sharks attack humans by accident thinking that they are another type of their food.  For example, a friend of a friend of mine almost lost his leg while swimming off a boat.  The sharks saw him flopping around on the surface and thought “What luck!  An injured seal!”.  The shark nailed him in the leg and then let go when he thought “Hey… That’s not seal!”.  Now the down side to this guy was that by the time the shark realized this he had clamped down on his leg with a four foot wide mouth of razor sharp teeth with 478 pound bite force.  To put that in perspective, bull sharks can bite sea turtles in half.  “Sorry man!  My bad!  Sorry about that leg!  My fault!  100%!”

Alvaro has made this dive many times.  My thought is that if he has done this over and over, I’m sure I can do it once.  Of course, Alvaro also dove in the water with Great Whites feeding on seals in La Jolla with a video camera, so maybe he wasn’t the best guy the have my gauge of acceptable risk ratios.  Regardless, the whole idea seemed so fucking gnarly, I had to have the experience.  I knew people that had dove with sharks while in cages, but I’ve never heard of anyone a) diving with bull sharks and b) doing so without any protection whatsoever.  It’s like running around a pride of lions nude.  It’s really a bad idea.

We got on the boat.  It was a small group.  Jung was a very talkative Chinese national that was much more focused on his camera than following instructions.  I had the sneaking suspicion that Jung would fail to heed a basic part of the plan and get bitten in half in front of me.  Not having much of an attachment to the man, it did interest me in seeing what that would look like in person.  The father son duo of Adolfo and Adolfo rolled up in a Porsche McCann Turbo.  The son was probably 16 or so, and my gut told me I was a better swimmer than he was, thus my plan of not out swimming the sharks but out swimming Adolfo Jr. was formed.  When the bull sharks went into a feeding frenzy feasting on Jung’s leaking corpse, I’d ascend quickly as Adolfo Jr. got pulled down behind me.  Sorry kid.  It was a good run.      

Alvaro led the dive and his helper Favio served as our wingman.  The plan was to drop down to the sandy bottom at 70 feet, form a line with the current to our shoulder.  The key was to get to the bottom quickly so as not to look like an injured animal flopping around.  Get to the sand and don’t move around.  Alvaro took the right wing in front of us, and Favio the left wing.  Alvaro would open a little bucket of fish guts, let some seep out, and the sharks would come see what the smell in the current was all about.  They would cruise by us and check us out.  If they started to get too aggressive, we’d bug out.  I assumed by ”too aggressive”, that meant when Jung got bit in half.

I would like to point out to anyone that has ever vacationed in Playa Del Carmen that about 1000 feet off shore in Nov-Jan there are so many bull sharks you would completely lose your shit.  When the boat stopped, we were well within site of a packed resort beach.  If those people on that beach had any idea of what we were doing, they’d never have gone in the water.  The boat stopped and almost immediately we all flopped back frogman style into the water.  In my head the only thing I could think of was “get down fast but not too fast…  What the fuck does that mean?”. 

Right away Jung is having problems.  In my experience anyone that is totally fixated with cameras is never in tune with what is actually happening.  They are always a disaster on a dive.  Every single time.  So there’s Jung in the water.  He has no idea how to operate his gear and isn’t descending.  Of course.  Adolfo Jr. is dicking around at about 10 feet.  Meanwhile I’m by myself at about 35 feet dropping down while pressurizing and start to notice a bull shark about nine feet long twenty feet below my feet.  Holy mother of fuck.  That thing is fucking huge.   Guys?  Guys?  Adolfo Sr. starts to get in the game and he gets to the bottom about 20 long seconds after I do.  I don’t see Alvaro.  I don’t see Favio.  All I know is I’m not going to start swimming around like an asshole and get my leg bit off.

When I learned how to dive a Jamaican guy helped teach me.  “Hey man… Don’t worry man.  Just relax.  You got everything you need.  Don’t ever freak out man.”  Alvaro appeared above me to my right.  Jung and Adolfo Jr. got down to the bottom.  We made our line.  Alvaro opened the bucket.  It couldn’t have been more than 10 seconds later the biggest fish I have ever seen swam three feet away from me.  Yup.  That’s a bull shark all right.  300 pounds?  Nine feet long?  Without question it is the most impressive thing I have ever seen in the ocean.  Powerful and graceful, it is perfectly designed.  It’s small eye looks right at you as it effortlessly cruises next to you.  This is his house and you are a visitor.  No one had to remind me not to move around like an asshole.  “Me?  No, I’m just a rock over here… Nothing to see.  Move along.  No need to give me that eye.”  Closer and closer they come.  Straight at you and then a quick turn a couple feet before impact.  It’s hard not to give in to your base instincts and flee.  It is very hard to put into words the feeling that in an instant those creatures can tear you up and there’s really nothing you can do about it.

If I can make a suggestion to you, if you ever get cut in the ocean, get out of the water.  Each time Alvaro would open the bucket a crack, three to five massive bull sharks would immediately respond out of nowhere to see what smelled so good.  One in particular with a gash behind the dorsal fin was especially noteworthy.  This was the largest of the group, probably ten feet and 400+ pounds.  I don’t know if a shark can be a wiseass, but this one certainly seemed like one.  It would get so close passing by that I could have grabbed it by the tail.  At one point 7 or 8 of them were circling us.  I had to remind myself to keep my shit together when I’m staring at “Gash Fin” in front of me and another 300 pounder would swim out of my blind spot to the right.  It really felt as if we had lost some of the illusionary control of the situation by that point.  I couldn’t keep track of all of them.  I'm thinking “OK… I’ve seen enough…  Whattya say we go back up to the boat guys?”.

The problem becomes surfacing.  Being stationary on the sand, we don’t look like food to them.  Slowly ascending through their playroom at 65-45 feet would change our profile.  Jung and Adolfo Jr. had blown through their gas and had to surface.  Favio grabbed them up into a group and they ascended when the sharks made a brief exit.  Adolfo Sr, Alvaro and I still had 1500 on the tanks so we stayed down.  This was when Alvaro decided to get a little crazy and open the bucket enough so little fish guts seeped out and a group of twenty small fish began to feed on it.  With absolutely awe inspiring speed and force, one of the larger bulls appeared from our left, accelerated as he rose and tore though the group of fish clamping down on God knows how many of them.  The strength and grace was awesome.  It was humbling, terrifying and amazing.  To put into The King’s English, that fish can fuck you up.  Time to go.

We waited until the coast was clear and ascended in a circle looking out in our assigned direction.  A three minute safety stop at 15 feet took an eternity.  Alavaro was excited and clenched my hand screaming, “Yes!” through his mouthpiece while laughing.  I wasn’t the only one that thought that aggressive shit at the end was impressive I see.  We saw about six bulls cruising the sandy bottom paying us no attention.  We got to the surface and got in the boat quickly.  Jung was aggressively barfing off the side.  Adolfo Jr. seemed happy but a little taken back by this odd little Chinese man violently heaving.  I could feel the adrenalin coursing though me, something I didn’t really notice in the water.  Within a couple moments we started the engine for the quick trip back to the beach.

Without question, this was one of the best things I have ever done.  It's everything I thought it would be, totally hardcore.  I got to see something almost no one else on the planet will or would even consider attempting.  It was a test of courage; something one doesn’t get the chance to do very often in modern life.  It’s hard not to fall into a rut, to let the normal shove you away from the extraordinary.  Life is about experiences and testing limits.  I’m going to try keep doing it until I fail. 

(That's me on the left...)


At January 3, 2017 at 1:31:00 PM EST , Blogger Not the Kook said...

a true whiskey daredevil.


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