Sunday, September 15, 2013

In the Shark’s Den

A diver found herself preparing for a boxing match with sharks during a recent visit to the Similan Islands.

Leopard Shark Copyright Uwe Schust

“Die! Die! Die!” shouted our smiling boat boy, urging us to jump quickly off of the dive platform. It was a shocking sendoff, especially since we were preparing for our first and deepest dive of the day – the exciting, if not crazy, 7 am pre-breakfast shark dive. A second passed before we realized that the young Thai man wasn’t actually shouting for us to hurry into our next lives, but rather he wanted us to “Dive!” into the water.

We bobbed in the calm sea waiting for the rest of our group. My Japanese dive buddy Rioshi gave me a wicked grin and asked me if I knew what to do in case of a shark attack. I shook my head. From what I’d heard, the sharks here were nearly harmless. In fact, some of the “friendlier” sharks even had names like “Snoopy”.

“You punch them in the nose,” Rioshi advised, with all the authority of a shark expert. 

At that point, I couldn’t quite imagine having a boxing match with a shark and winning. I was about to learn.

Dive Instructor Eric Nuechterlein on Scuba Cat liveabord

Rioshi, myself and nine other divers had all come to the Similan Islands aboard the Scuba Cat, a catamaran live-aboard dive boat with an excellent if oddly named, mostly Thai crew including; Captain Nut, Chef Pooh and Noisy, the charming and surprisingly animated mute first mate. The crew’s only farang, or foreign member, was my American husband Eric, who tirelessly worked as Scuba Cat’s cruise director and PADI dive instructor. Eric had more than two thousand dives under his belt and would be leading us on this morning dive to the secret shark den some 35 meters below.

Lying approximately 50 nautical miles northwest of the resort island of Phuket, the enchanting Similan Islands are idyllic – not only for divers, but for anyone seeking pristine white sandy beaches and an escape from the maddening crowds. Visitors can snorkel in the clear turquoise blue waters of the Andaman Sea, explore lush tropical jungles, climb among the large granite boulders lining the shores, sea kayak, sail or dive in an underwater world teeming with marine life.

The diving environment is especially dramatic on the western, seaward side of the islands. Imagine an aquatic Angkor Wat with Mother Nature as the architect, submerged for aeons with a stunning seascape of archways, coral “alleys”, caverns and rocky swim-throughs. These ancient stones pulsate with ceaseless marine activity, inhabited by small flitting reef fish, lumbering sea turtles, brightly colored nudibranchs and countless larger marine creatures.

Clown Fish Copyright Uwe Schust

Diving on the east side, the boulder-less underwater terrain is vastly different, but equally spectacular. Gently sloping thickets of branching hard corals dominate this region. The rich reef supports a diverse profusion of colorful reef fish; including vibrant schools of snapper, yellow damselfish, garden eels, neon blue and yellow angelfish and the regal lionfish. Eastside currents are usually slight and appropriate for divers of all levels. By comparison, Westside diving conditions are much more challenging, where currents are frequently changing in strength and direction. Visibility can vary greatly and wet suits are recommended for the chilly thermoclines.

Over the previous six days we had encountered an amazing array of sea life. At Beacon Point, while diving close to the ocean floor, I was startled when the sandy bottom began moving. Like a flock of birds taking flight, dozens of small blue-spotted stingrays emerged from the sand in circling groups. I was mesmerized by the stingray’s swirling ocean ballet. A moment later, a larger fantasy stingray appeared. With a wingspan of nearly three meters, it flew ahead of the smaller rays and then over a huge orange gorgonian sea fan.

We were diving four to six times a day, rarely remaining topside except to rest between dives and fill up our bellies on mouthwatering Thai meals. Throughout the day and into the night, Chef Pooh would shuffle up to our outside dining area, carrying trays overflowing with pineapple, bananas and papayas.  Pooh’s garlic fried prawns, imaginative squid dishes, green chicken curry and spicy shrimp soup, were heavenly. Our days would end with cold beers up on the moondeck; under a brilliant starlit sky, reliving the day’s exciting dives and sharing stories late into the night. 

Turtle Rock Sunset Picture by Prisana Nuechterlein

One early morning at Elephant Head Rock, an extremely popular dive site, I had an unforgettable encounter with a creature I had waited six years to see. I was ascending to the surface at the end of my dive, when I suddenly felt something watching me. I turned in the water and was beyond startled, when I saw a giant manta ray hovering in the sunlit water only an arm’s length away from me. The elusive flying creature eyed me for one of the longest, nirvanic moments of my life, almost as if it was waiting for me to rub its belly. I must admit, I was tempted to touch it, but instead I floated absolutely still, enraptured by the graceful swooping flips the manta made over and over. After giving me one last look, the huge manta flew off into the infinite blue expanse.

Manta Ray Copyright Uwe Schust

On our final day, Eric took us to Christmas Point - his own personal favorite dive site where he had discovered the secret shark den. Only moments into our dive, I heard a familiar metallic plinking sound, meant to alert us when Eric saw something worth sharing.

At first glance, the creature swimming near Eric appeared to be something shark-like, but as I finned closer and closer, I realized it was like nothing I had ever seen before. The genetic marvel looked like an alien fish, with big round eyes protruding from a stingray-shaped head, attached to a shark-like body. 

Rioshi looked at me with an expression that mirrored my own thoughts: What is that? Later we would learn that the mysterious otherworldly fish was the rarely ever encountered bowmouth guitar fish. 

At 35 meters depth, a strong current was taking its toll on me. I felt nearly exhausted and had given up any attempt to conserve air. Ahead of me, Eric and Rioshi finned with irritating ease, unaware of my private struggle to keep up with their pace. Kicking with all of my strength, I began to wonder if we would ever reach the shark den. Perhaps we had already missed it. Or maybe today, the sharks were elsewhere.

My legs began screaming in protest as we made our way in between large boulders and shivering thermoclines. The visibility was almost nil. Why not just ascend and forget the shark den? Just as I was about to signal Rioshi that I wanted to go up, Eric stopped and made the “shark” sign over his head, pointing into the gloomy water. Barely visible below us was a two meter white tip reef shark resting on the sandy floor. Elated, I quickly scanned the rocky area and counted a total of six other white tips and one leopard shark. Adrenalin raced through me when I realized we were actually floating in the middle of the den!

One by one, the sharks began slowly circling beneath us. I watched awestruck as one shark rolled on the ocean floor trying to scratch its back. Was it possible, I wondered, that we had found Snoopy? His behavior reminded me more of a dog than a fearsome predator. Without any warning, the dog-like shark suddenly stopped rolling and headed straight toward me with alarming speed. My entire body tensed, gripped with a moment of panic. I even attempted to fin backwards. Only a scant moment before a face-to-face encounter, the curious shark veered off with a powerful flick of its tail. I was ready with my right hook, but I was glad that I didn’t have to use it.

Author's Note: A longer version of this story was originally published  in Sawasdee Magazine (Thai Airways International Magazine) in 1998. Sadly, shark encounters in the Similan Islands has decreased significantly in the past decade.

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