Caribbean Reef Shark: Close Encounter No. 2


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Where I live people own houses as wide and twice as long and just as high as I am now deep. It does not look like much. On land. Beneath the constant of the waves that never cease this is under the sea as far as would I ever want to go. At the surface, bright with tropical color. Here on the ocean floor blue and cold and the bubbles rise crystalline as ice.

A mutton snapper, big and curious and completely unafraid approaches head on, and turns, to give me a thorough look.

Yellowtail jack in small schools.

Wrasses and a blue hamlet hover at a nearby clump of coral dense with purple fans and branching sponges. 

One lone grouper watching from beneath a ledge, the pattern of his scales like dappled underwater light.

And all around us, sharks.

The fish do not distance themselves. The ones at the coral where there are crevices in which to hide do not shy or seek cover. Even the grouper comes out. As if some agreement obtains between the fish and the sharks. Or that this thick medium of salt sea slows time, in the way it bends light; so that space itself is perceptibly changed. Life comes closer overall than it does in air.  Safer here, perhaps, in this strange medium where ten meters of depth equals the entire atmosphere. Or just a subtle avoidance of the line of attack, of the part that eats?

Or that the focus of sharks and fish together is on the animals that do not belong here:

Me, a stranger and the diver I am with, whom they know.  

From the gray distance comes a shark with a hook buried in the corner of her mouth. And passes and passes again, close.

Another pass.

The diver grasps.

Plucks the hook out!

The shark swims on…

The shark reacted to the tug, pulling away (as you would, if someone yanked a rusty nail from the sole of your foot or even a splinter from your thumb) but she did not turn did not sally back and forth back and forth did not work her jaws as she would in warning and in anger. Help was expected. They all expect it. Even the males who range, far. They come here too, come to the diver, only for this, only when hooked and in pain. Then leave. And do not return unless there is need. Their contact so brief they can hardly know the diver and yet… And yet…

In an act of compassion and its acceptance, all arguments, all logics of différence, are impaled.

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:

We find unremarkable that a great whale entangled in nets and lines would accept and sometimes even seek out our help. We are incredulous that a shark would do the same. News reports of the one, are common. What I present here is a first-hand account of the other. And the photographs to prove it.

According to the evolutionary paleontologist Michael James Benton, Chondrichthyes (the cartilaginous fish including sharks) cleaved from the lineage that gave rise to Osteichthyes (the boney fish) in the Silurian Period, 420,000,000 years ago. Osteichthyes gave rise to us. This means we are almost as distant in genetic and geological terms from sharks as we are from insects.

Despite this incomprehensible separation, we know empirically that sharks seek and accept our help. If they did assume that we are alive and conscious and capable of reason they would never make the attempt to communicate their need. That attempt can only depend on projection, meaning that life and consciousness and reason – self-awareness – also exists in them. No living creature can project qualities and states it does not have.

© 2023 Mark Seth Lender
All Rights Reserved


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