Close Encounters of the Extraordinary Kind


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Caribbean Reef Shark — Grand Bahama Island

I am in the mouth of the shark.

Forearm fixed between her jaws.

The pressure of the bite. The shiver of her body side to side that follows like a drum roll:


Not big as reef sharks go. But bigger than me. Heavier than me. I am dressed in chain mail head to toe and her small sharp teeth do not penetrate. Though the teeth are many, arranged row upon row and I can feel the power held in reserve. Which is, enormous.

The shark releases and speeds away.

I continue…


Now at the ocean floor sharks surround me completely.

Moving moving moving, a liquid force within the water. Predator of the purest kind. Seven, eight, nine feet long, hundred and fifty, hundred and seventy pounds they circle in long arcs.



Straight towards.



One from behind nudges my elbow, shark exploring what I am. Another with a remora dangling at the middle of her chin glides so close above my head I feel the water move. Yet another passes beneath my outstretched hand; I run my palm along her long smooth side, a privilege they provide me of their own accord, sojourner in a strange land.

While the common wisdom informs us with no self doubt, You are a fool! That the gravid female, wide and supple expresses herself only in teeth and the hunger brought to bear, never the eye, never the face whose expression does not change. Closer closer the creature of the nightmare dark, that a mindless purpose drives. The shark to her prey what the thresher is to the wheat.

All this and every bad dream you have been taught, is a lie.

When the reef shark had me in her jaws, three quarters of a second and she realized her mistake.

For it was a mistake and not her intention to harm me. And departed with such abruptness. As if she was the one startled by what had occurred. In the mouth of the shark is as intimate as one can become. With the shark. With the sea. We look through the fathoms from the vantage of our terrors. And are struck blind.

Believe when I tell you I was never afraid.

Author’s Note:

You cannot do this on your own.

Don’t try.

Cristina Zenato (my safety diver and instructor) has had the benefit of years of regular encounter with this particular shiver (the term of art for a pod of sharks). I had very specific instructions and training from her before entering the water and I was wearing a stainless steel chain mail suit that shielded every part of my body except my face which my dive mask and the regulator through which I was breathing almost completely covered.

The encounters with sharks which followed were extraordinary in every way. Despite my three decades of experience with wildlife, had Cristina not been there none of this would have been possible. Under normal circumstances I would never touch a shark or any other wild animal, nor should you, for their safety as much as yours.

Above all be aware that diving is an inherently dangerous enterprise. No matter what some resort host may tell you, diving is for PADI Certified Open Water Divers only. These are not suggestions. They are iron-clad principals. Violating any one of them can get you severely and irreparably injured, or killed.

Field Note:

There is a tendency in our species akin to the two hour cruise ship drop off in the Port of Lisbon after which (when we did not even learn to pronounce, Lisboa) we are allowed to say we have seen Portugal.

Portugal: Check it off.
We name, and dismiss.

When a wild creature comes close especially in a way we do not expect we resort by rote to that most empty of empty phrases, “They’re Just Curious.” This is the sentential equivalent of Portugal. The product of that same incomplete and dismissive thinking. Next time “Portugal” rises in your throat choke it down by simply asking, Why?

In what is reported here the shark was testing, as sharks do, with her jaws. I was wearing chainmail not to fend off attack but rather to prepare for just this testing scenario. Juvenile sea lions, by the way, have done exactly the same thing to me and I can assure you I was not in any way on their menu. Same for reef sharks. It is almost a handshake, where the strength of the other person’s grip is similarly informative. True it can be a test for edibility and when it is, it is just that, a test. The problem arises where instead of a 160 to 170 pound Caribbean reef shark the one performing the test is a 12 or 15 foot tiger shark weighing in at north of a 1,000 pounds: much less a great white weighing tons. The intention may be exactly the same, but even held back, the strength of the test is too much.

In the United states alone at least 3,000 of us die driving to the beach every summer. Nationwide, in that same period of time, it is uncommon for a single person to die from being bitten by a shark.

© 2023 Seahouse Press

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Shark Expert Cristina Zenato can be reached here 

Mark Seth Lender is the author together will his wife Valerie Elaine Pettis, of Smeagull the Seagull, A True Story which can be found here

Mark Seth Lender’s The Decisive Sequence, the work-in-progress of his first book of photography, can be found here