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A Life Underwater
The accelerated impact of the great white shark slamming into my dive flippered feet jolted me backwards through the water column with a stunning force! The audible “whump” still echoed in my ears when the Great White Shark’s head began rolling in a violent sweeping motion, teeth gnashing and head shaking as his bite then engulfed three quarters of my Cressi dive fin in its jaws. By great white shark standards, this was considered a small specimen! The ten foot male shark had shown an unusual interest in my dive fins immediately upon my entering the waters where he had been circling our anchored dive vessel for the past half hour. In the cold waters of South Africa, the favorite prey of great white sharks is seal. I quickly realized that the seal like movement of my dive fins was an instinctual trigger for this current assault. The shark had already done two tentative bump passes with his head to the underside of my flippers as myself and back up cameraman and white shark expert, Andre Hartman, began filming this investigative behavior. Now he seemed to have made a decision in his prehistoric mind. With this latest sudden lunge I had become his prey of choice! All I could think of at that moment was how glad I was to be wearing the longest dive fins I owned because the shark's teeth had stopped just short of the foot pocket where my toes ended! As often happens in a crisis moment such as this, time slows down to a crawl. The shark began to swim away with my fin still in his mouth while at the same time biting down and violently shaking my attached foot and leg. It was quickly becoming a great white shark version of a whaling mariner's Nantucket sleigh ride!
I took my housed video camera and began pummeling the great white in the head and gill slits behind his eye. Simultaneously, Andre took his video camera and drove the front of his underwater housing into the other side of the great white's head. I had a brief impression of the shark's wide blue-black orb of an eye staring unflinchingly at me before its nictitating membrane winked across it.....and then the shark released his grip on my flipper and swam away. But only for a moment!
Andre and I began swimming with strong steady strokes back to the dive boat when the predator returned. His gray and white mass crowded itself along my left side within a foot or two of my body, matching my swimming speed. I knew that it would be just a matter of moments before my adversary would lunge at me again. I did not feel that I would be quite as lucky the next time around. And then an amazing intervention occurred! Like an enormous gray angel against the background of the green depths of the bay waters, there arose a second much larger female great white shark. Her massive body was easily more than two and a half times my size as she took up an escort position on my right side. I briefly considered that this apex predator had been attracted by the commotion that her little “brother” had caused when he had unsuccessfully tried to give me a foot massage!
Suddenly the female shark began vigorously wagging her head from side to side and quickly opening and closing her mouth while at the same time dropping her wing like pectoral fins which created a hunched like threatening posture in the water. Immediately the male great white shark to my left began mimicking the same gaping hunching contortions. This gaping behavior between dominant sharks has been infrequently observed by shark biologists and never had I ever dreamed that I would be the focus of a “discussion” between two of the ocean's greatest apex predators! This “discussion” continued for what seemed like an eternity but in reality lasted less than a minute. It was just enough time, however, to allow Andre, myself and our “gray escort” to reach the safety of our anchored vessel's dive platform. To this day, I do believe, Andre and I levitated on to that boat deck as neither of us can recall ever grabbing and vaulting over that dive platform!
As we laughed and high fived each other, congratulating ourselves on our risky brush with such a magnificent and powerful predator, I could not help but think back over my past career underwater which constituted a span of 35 years of adventure diving. I appreciated the fact that each of the countless underwater encounters such as this latest one, which I had experienced throughout my life underwater, were gifts.... and that I was a very lucky guy to have these rare opportunities in which to embrace the richness of the sea and its many creatures.
The earliest recollections I have from my childhood always seemed to center around my fascination with water! My parents and grandparents tried to child proof our western Kansas backyard to keep me in close sight, sequestered and safe. However, the tenacious and clever mind of a three year old always managed to find a way to escape! The reason for my need to explore was a mysterious deep creek which flowed nearby. It was deep, dirty brown in color and swift moving. It drew me as if it could possess all the ingredients for a three year olds active imagination and adventuring spirit! 50 years later when I stood on the shores of that same “river” I still felt that same familiar swell of exhilaration in my chest, the upwelling of excitement, fear and the potential of mysteries yet to be discovered that this dirty creek inspired. Funny how that river appeared as vast as the Amazon back then and now it's sluggish trickle was less than 30 feet wide! Everything looks larger when seen through the eyes of a child!
My family moved a lot because my father worked for Continental Oil Company and his work carried us to the various oil fields of the mid west. My Dad would take us to the lakes around every area we lived in to fish or swim and I always remember the peace I felt starring at the water. I remember wondering what the world looked like from the perspective of a fish! As I grew older I would locate the creeks, ponds, springs and sand pits of every place we lived as a part of my own explorations. I always had that same wonderful feeling of discovery as I explored these “new frontiers”. The rich adventures that surrounded the catching of fish, snakes and turtles were endless for me.
At the age of 10, I discovered the television show, Sea Hunt, which starred the actor, Lloyd Bridges. (Thirty years later I had the opportunity to meet and chat with the actor and thanked him for planting the seed of underwater exploration in the mind of a 10 year old kid from Oklahoma. He told me that of all the parts he had ever played in his acting career, the Sea Hunt series had earned him more “thanks” from divers like myself and had become one of his proudest accomplishments!) If there was ever a definitive change of focus in a kid’s life, this one was it for me! I would race home from the bus stop, leaving my friends behind in the afternoon Oklahoma sunshine to catch the latest rerun episode. I was going to become a Scuba Diver! I would rig toy regulators out of candy boxes and strap pillows to my back simulating scuba tanks as I explored the undersea world of......my bedroom floor!
When I was 12 years old, a neighbor boy down the street showed me his father's scuba gear sitting in the dusty corner of their garage. He said his father never used it and he did not think his Dad would mind us borrowing it. Here was the ticket to the underwater world I had craved my whole life! I dragged that gear to the nearest mudhole pond and jumped in. In retrospect, it is a wonder I did not kill myself with an air embolism or a drowning or black out from toxic bad air! Somehow I instinctively knew this would be the most natural experience of my life and I never felt nervous or fearful. To this day I distinctly remember lying on the bottom of that pond with 12 inches of visibility, intently watching a sunfish protecting a nest of freshly spawned eggs in a fanned out spot on the hard mud bottom. It was this simple vision of an underwater ecosystem at its purest that became an inspiration to me and dictated the environmentally aware life I would lead.
Having a steady diet of Jacques Cousteau television specials depicting his adventures with the Calypso crew had to sustain me through the next 8 years of living in Oklahoma and Texas. Back in those days there were no dive shops in the mid-west since scuba diving was still considered along the same lines as space exploration. Not to be tried at home! My water cravings were tempered by taking every type of swimming course available until I became a senior life saving instructor. Around this same time I grew interested in Judo and Karate. Partially because I had a big mouth but nothing to back it up! Subsequently I got my ass kicked by school bullies while attempting to stand up for several of my geek friends! I ate and slept martial arts training until ultimately I won the state overall championship three consecutive years and became one of the youngest ranking belts in the United States. My room was filled with trophies and medals. Funny thing happened with all that accomplishment. I never got in a single fight again in school! Go figure! With power and strength comes wisdom I suppose. The most important aspect of my martial arts abilities was the physical conditioning I attained which would serve me well in the pursuit of my love of diving.
After traveling around Europe for a summer and spending a couple confused years in college,
I joined the Air Force when I was 20 years old. My first station assignment fresh out of tech school was as a medical corpsman and psychiatric social worker in San Antonio, Texas. There I met a sergeant Joe Bruscia who owned the most beautiful set of modern diving equipment and he had no one to dive with! With one of my first paychecks I immediately found a local dive shop and signed up for a basic certification class which allowed me to become Joe's dive buddy. I breezed through the course and soon began acquiring dive gear on every subsequent pay day. There wasn't a body of water in a 200 mile radius safe from my underwater explorations. I became a master of poor visibility, cold water thermal climes and fresh water fish species!
These excursions were not without mishap. My enthusiasm for diving was dangerously infectious as I almost killed one of my barracks buddies who nearly drowned himself and me as I tried to rescue him in Canyon Lake, Texas. All because I talked him into trying scuba diving! This experience was without its subtle lessons that I never forgot once I became a professional diver responsible for the lives of thousands of trusting divers who followed me on thousands of guided tours in all depths and water conditions around the world. I learned quickly the effects of compromised reason through the plague of panic! I became a master of personal assessment of an individual's skill level before they ever went into the water with me simply by having a brief relaxing conversation with them and watching how they assembled their equipment. To this day I have a sixth sense when underwater that has helped me avoid disasters and accidents with these thousands of divers and their varied skill levels as I guided them through the wonders of the underwater world that was my backyard.
When I was discharged from the Air Force I headed to Florida. It was time to make my home near clear salt water. During several of my Air Force leaves I would head to the Florida Keys and there I discovered how rich in life the saltwater reefs were. It was astounding and I could spend hours laying on the bottom in one spot and watch with joyous wonder a day in the life of a coral reef ecosystem! I enrolled in Florida Institute of Technology in Jensen Beach, Florida and began working on my degree in Underwater Engineering and Technology. On weekends I would work in a dive shop in West Palm Beach. I worked for free as a dive guide, just for the chance to get wet! The owner was a 50 year old lady named Norine Rouse who was a legend in diving circles around the world. A close personal friend of Jacques Cousteau, Norine became my mentor and there has never been another single individual who so profoundly set the course of my life than this tough, intelligent and environmentally outspoken lady!
Norine passed away peacefully and at her funeral there were over a hundred divers in attendance whose lives were forever changed by this feisty and opinionated conservationist. She was my hero and in presenting her eulogy that day I recalled the many insights she had shared with me concerning the fragility of the marine world which we all had the privilege to visit by reason of technology. She had given me, most notably, the appreciation of interactive diving with sharks. Together we would dive in the pursuit of understanding shark behavior via the observation of their beauty and their calm magnificence. She and I never missed an opportunity to swim with sharks! This was in the days of post Jaws movie frenzy, when diving with sharks was considered just short of lunacy and a certain death wish of major proportion!