Expect the Unexpected
The first time our daughter, Alyssa, went scuba diving with us in the open ocean was quite memorable. At fifteen she had done fresh water dives, plus we had snorkeled together several times, but she was a little intimidated by the vastness of life under the sea. We chose a spot in the Abaco Islands in the Bahamas where the water was clear and shallow. Our dive was on a reef that brushed the water’s surface, extending down to only about thirty feet at the deepest point. There was a nice sandy bottom without sudden drop offs. It was the perfect place for her to feel comfortable but have the chance to see the beauty of a thriving reef ecosystem.
We rented a small boat for the week so that we could dive at our leisure.Gary’s mom was along for the trip and was happy to go out on the boat with us. She took a book to read while she waited topside. We arrived at a spot we had previously scoped out and tied the boat to a buoy situated about thirty yards from the reef. Before we began gearing up Alyssa pointed at a large dark shadow in the water moving toward the boat. It was roughly five feet long and cruising slowly toward us.
Gary and I grabbed masks and scrambled to lean over the side for a peak. It was a barracuda. I don’t know if you’ve ever faced one of these toothy guys before, but they look scary. There are tales of divers being bitten, but I suspect that those cases involve some sort of antagonism on the part of the diver. We’ve seen hundreds, and as intimidating as they look, we’ve only witnessed curiosity from them, never aggression. Obviously this guy associated boats with food and had come to investigate.
The whole time she was gearing up, Alyssa watched that fish watching us. I began to doubt she would actually go through with the dive. To make matters worse, the fish stationed himself at the rear of the boat next to the ladder we would use to enter the water. Gary went in first, popping back up to report that the ‘cuda was big, but harmless. As soon as we were all three in the water we dropped below the surface and set out in the direction of the reef.
The reef was essentially a small island. Since the diving was shallow, our plan was to spend about an hour exploring one end of the reef, followed by a leisurely lunch on the boat with Grandma, then back down for the opposite end. The first dive was incredible. Visibility was about seventy five feet, the reef was teeming with life, and we had a full hour to spend enjoying it. Alyssa was completely comfortable, thanks in part, to the fact that our friendly barracuda chose to keep Grandma company at the boat, rather than follow us.
Back on the boat Alyssa couldn’t talk fast enough between bites of sandwich to share all that we had seen with Grandma. It was definitely one of those travel moments you keep with you for a very long time. My desk is home to the picture Grandma took of the three of us in wetsuits on the bow of the boat as we awaited the second dive. Mr. ‘Cuda had been waiting patiently at the ladder and sent us off on our second adventure with a grin.
The boat was at a slight angle to the position of the reef, so we had a bit longer swim this time, but still only about sixty yards. We noticed that the sea was a little choppier and that the visibility had dropped to about fifty feet. We slowly cruised the reef, peering into holes looking for lobsters and studying the intricate dance of life that takes place in every nook and cranny. Gary was leading the dive about twenty feet ahead of Alyssa, with me bringing up the rear.
After about forty minutes I moved toward him to signal that my air tank was well past the half way mark and that we should turn around. Before I reached him he turned around and put his hand on top of his head in the divers’ universal gesture for “shark.” I looked in the direction he pointed, expecting to see a nurse shark, which is a common reef sighting. Instead, I spotted a six foot Caribbean reef shark cruising toward us from behind an outcropping. I turned to point it out to Alyssa who had seen it and was already in mid panic. I gestured for her to slow down her breathing and stay still. She shook me off.
I knew the shark meant no harm; he was just checking us out, but I could not convey that to her. I gestured for us to slowly swim away from him in the direction of the boat, while maintaining our depth. Gary was snapping pictures. Just as Alyssa and I started our swim, a second shark appeared in front of us. This one was at least eight feet long and had the girth of an NFL linebacker. Being in the restaurant business, the first thought that popped into my head was that this guy might be here for the buffet and I hoped we weren’t on it.
He cruised past us, seeming to hook up with his buddy. Alyssa started to swim at a speed that simply was not possible for me to match. She quickly faded into the blue out of sight. I watched the sharks to see if they gave any indication of following her, but they paid no attention. Gary still had the camera in front of his face. It was one of those big decision moments. I knew Gary would not leave until the sharks did or he ran out of air. I hoped Alyssa could navigate her way back to the boat in the lower visibility, but I wasn’t sure. I looked at my air gauge, which was fast approaching the red zone, then motioned to Gary that I was following Alyssa. He nodded and took another picture.
As I swam, I kept an eye on my air gauge with a quick glance into the blue haze behind me now and then, half expecting the sharks to appear there. I concentrated on maintaining my depth. I’ve watched enough of Discovery Channel Shark Week to know that the last thing I wanted to do was splash around at the surface. It seemed like a long swim, but in reality it was only a moment before I spotted the bottom of the boat up ahead. And there was Mr. ‘Cuda next to the ladder, wickedly smiling like a snake in a toilet.
Don’t just expect the unexpected, embrace it because it breathes life deep down into your soul. It forces you to make tough decisions and to see things with a new clarity. Gary eventually climbed back into the boat with a grin bigger than that barracuda’s. He had taken pictures until his film was spent, then followed the sharks from a distance as they slowly meandered around the reef until his air supply would allow no more.
It was a day full of irreplaceable memories worth every airport delay, every grumpy ticket agent, every drop of rain that fell during our first three days on the island. Was our condo perfect? Nope. Did everything on the island cost more than we thought it would? Yup. Were we happy travelers anyway? I think you know the answer.