Nearly Scared to Death
By Howard Hall
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Today, sport divers travel to all corners of the globe searching for exciting encounters with sharks. The greatest of ocean predators are now featured attractions for liveaboard dive boats and sport diving resorts. Advertisements beckon customers with promises of waters filled with sharks. And divers flock to these destinations like fleas to the rump of a mangy dog. Twenty-five years ago this would have been considered madness.
There was a time, not so long ago, when the word "shark" struck fear in the hearts of even the most macho divers. Use of the word or images of these creatures was strictly taboo in dive magazines. Even the implication that sharks might be found in the waters frequented by vacationing divers would have been the death knell for a sport diving resort. When the movie "JAWS" was released, many dive shops and resorts saw a forty percent drop in business. Sharks were not big business, they were bad business. No one wanted to see one underwater for we all knew that an encounter would almost certainly be followed by dismemberment and death. Those of us who continued to dive, during those dark times, were heroes indeed. I preface this story with the above in hopes of, at least partially, explaining my own sniveling cowardice and stupidity in the story that follows.
My first encounter with a shark almost resulted in my death. I have no scars or loss of limb as evidence of my close brush with the gray grim reaper. I wasn't mauled to within an inch of my life. But I was nearly scared to death - literally.
The year was 1971 and I was spearfishing more than a mile off the coast of La Jolla, California. For several hours I had been free diving to forty or fifty feet and waiting silently in hopes that an eighty-pound white sea bass would swim within range of my six-foot-long Prodonovich speargun. With each dive, I imagined myself returning to the beach at La Jolla Cove and carrying my prize across the green park lawn to my car as beautiful women rushed to my side begging me to tell the story of my heroic adventure. This dream never quite came true. The largest white sea bass I ever managed to land was less than fifty pounds. And the sight of a wet skin diver flopping across the lawn covered with slime and fish blood never seemed to attract much positive attention from lovely women. On this particular morning, even a small white sea bass was not in the cards.
Not wanting to return to the beach without dinner, I shot a pair of small barracuda. These I attached to a fish stringer which I clipped to my weight belt in such a way that the dead fish flopped against my legs as I swam. Thus adorned, I began my mile-long swim back to the beach leaving behind a trail of blood, scales, and fish slime that was at least as provocative to a passing shark as a sign painted on my butt reading "eat here." Now, you're probably thinking that only an idiot would swim a mile offshore with dead fish tied to his legs. But, ah... Well, you see, ah...
Anyway, I had made it back to within a few hundred yards of shore when I felt something large smack into the back of my legs. Most people would have instantly soiled their Speedos if they felt something large smack into their legs while swimming offshore in a cloud of fish blood. But not I. I knew immediately what had hit me and I refused to show even the slightest trace of fear. It was obvious. Flip Nicklin, or one of my other spearfishing buddies, had expended great effort to sneak up on me to whack me with his speargun in hopes of causing my heart to explode. I was not going to give Flip the satisfaction. I casually bent down to look below and behind me. My forehead almost collided with the dorsal fin of a shark.
What happened next was the result of instinct, a circulatory system flooded with adrenaline, and a lack of anything better to do. The shark passed beneath me, descended ten feet, and then turned to make another pass. I moved the tip of my speargun eight inches to the left and the shark ran right into the sharp tip.
For a few brief moments, the shark struggled against the tip of my spear gun. Then he pulled free and swam away trailing a green plume of blood from the small wound in his head. I made a mad dash for the beach constantly checking behind me in case the shark returned. A lesser man (or more intelligent one) would have discarded his catch. Not I. My blood saturated with adrenaline, I was determined to return to the beach, return from the very jaws of death, return with my catch intact, to be worshiped as a hero by the maidens ashore.
As I climbed up on the slippery rocks, the adrenaline drained from my system. Instead of marching triumphantly to my van with my catch thrown casually over my shoulder and carrying my trusty gun in the crook of my arm, I found my shaking legs wouldn't support me. For fifteen minutes I was helpless. I could do nothing but sit awkwardly on the wet rocks in a pathetic puddle of fish slime. The encounter had been truly terrifying, but the incident had certainly not been nearly fatal. It was not until several months later that this encounter would nearly cause my death.
In 1971 I didn't know blue sharks from white sharks. All I knew was that if it was big and shaped like a shark, you were going to die. At first, I thought the shark that had attacked me was probably a ten-foot blue shark. A few weeks later, I revised my memory to accommodate a fifteen foot great white. Years later, after decades of photographing sharks, I realize that the shark that tried to eat the fish attached to my fish stringer had certainly been a blue and probably no more than seven feet long. But in 1971, the animal had seemed a monster.
For two months after the incident I didn't go spearfishing. Somehow, I just didn't have the urge. But finally, during a boat trip to San Clemente Island aboard the 65-foot motor vessel Bottom Scratcher, I found the courage to take my trusty gun back into the water. It was during this dive that the incident with the blue shark, two months earlier, almost killed me.
I was swimming near the outside edge of a large kelp forest. Several small yellowtail had passed close enough for a shot but I hesitated. Somehow, I didn't want to risk a shot, risk all that blood in the water, risk the long swim back to the boat, unless the fish was a real prize. Half-heartedly, I took a deep breath and dropped down forty feet and began finning slowly along the edge of the forest. Another school of yellowtail approached. One looked to be near forty pounds, a real prize. I raised the gun and fired, striking the fish just behind the pectoral fin, but a few inches too high for a kill shot. The yellowtail began to struggle while spewing out great crimson clouds of shark attractant.
For several minutes I struggled to subdue the fish all the while intensely aware of the blood surrounding me, intensely aware that a shark was out there. If I felt something touch my legs this time, I wouldn't suspect Flip. I would launch myself vertically clear out of the ocean. My beating heart would eject itself from my mouth, like the second stage of an intercontinental ballistic missile, rocket high into the sky and burst like a fireworks display on the Fourth of July. Finally, I gained control of my blood-gushing prize and began a frantic swim back to the Bottom Scratcher. The blood pouring from the yellowtail had me completely freaked out. I wanted out of the water, now!
Instead of swimming to the stern of the boat, I swam the shorter distance to the port side. I knew better, but I was anxious to climb aboard as soon as possible and I wanted to get rid of the fish. A stiff wind was blowing the boat away from me as it swung on its anchor. Finally, clawing my way over the dense kelp, I reached the side of the boat and yelled for someone to relieve me of the hopeless tangle of spearfishng line, bleeding fish, and speargun.
Just as eager hands reached down to take my catch, the wind began pushing the boat back in the opposite direction. I found myself being pushed through the water as mounds of kelp began to build up across my shoulders. I struggled to pass my gun to those helping me, but I was completely tangled in speargun line and kelp. As the wind continued to push the boat across the kelp bed, I found myself being sucked beneath the hull, hopelessly tangled in kelp and spearfishing line. Suddenly, I was underwater rolling beneath the boat. My body was surrounded by an enormous tangle of kelp and nylon line. I was exhausted and desperately needed a breath of air. That's when it occurred to me. I was going to die like this. The shark had won. It had essentially scared me to death. I would have laughed at myself if I hadn't been feeling so pathetic.
During this short period of introspection, I was also frantically occupied with the business of trying to save my sorry life. After what seemed like an eternity, I managed to plant my feet against the hull of the boat and push myself downward. Then, with my lungs screaming for air, I struggled to free myself of the tangles of kelp and nylon cord.
When I climbed up the ladder to the stern of the Bottom Scratcher, I expected a flood of relief from my friends and fellow passengers. But nobody seemed to have noticed that I had been missing. A few were busy taking photos of the fine fish that I had passed aboard before being nearly sucked down to my death. They weren't much interested in me. And since what had happened to me had been the result of such hapless stupidity, I didn't bring it up. I just marched aboard with an idiotically forced grin spread upon my face and accepted congratulations for my slimy trophy.
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