Monday, April 11, 2011

Swimming with the sharks or What I did on vacation

I was out in the Gulf off Florida's Sanibel Island in late March swimming in six feet of water parallel to the beach. I go about a quarter mile up the beach and then turn around and swim back, leisurely, just enjoying the pleasure of it. I'm almost always the only one in the water who swims out this far and stays out for any length of time. I overcome the resistance of waves lapping, the bumps in the water as I paddle along in broad, even strokes. The minutes pass. Nothing disturbs me. There is no sound out here. The children and the grownups I see on the beach as I slowly pass them are silent from here even though it is noisy where they are. Their chairs and beach umbrellas and swimsuits dot the shore with bright colors.

Now I swim with my face underwater and see only yellow--the color when water has a white sandy bottom. When I look toward the shore the water is gray-green and when I look the other way farther out facing toward Mexico it turns dark blue. The line of the dark blue meets the middle blue of the sky at the horizon. I float on my back and look up the sky and the sky infinitely absorbs the color blue. I can stare into the blazing sun, too, which makes me see a blob of orange. It is dreamy and delightful. The sea buoys up my body, now motionless. I roll to one side and take in the whole scene on the beach, pleased that I am the only one here and they can look out and see me daring to be out alone--the old guy with the bald head. I cruise along swimming slowly, my arms moving effortlessly, my breath coming easily and I regard all those on the beach as off in another world.

The days are perfect for a swim--85 degrees and water temperature 72. It is so peaceful. I am aware, however, of the slightest feeling of dread. That spooky feeling that everything could be smashed in a split second. There are sharks around. They roam close to shore in the warm waters surrounding Florida. They are all predators but the small ones that the anglers pull in out of the surf and less aggressive species like hammerheads aren't going to bother me. Just the big guys. You eat sharks—they serve fried shark balls at one of the restaurants, even though they're garbage eaters and carry germs. My father served us shark steaks that he caught with an ordinary line off the pier at Clearwater Beach in 1937.

Over on the Atlantic side you do hear of encounters. It isn't fun because these marauders are sheer power and evil. They have rows of big, sharp teeth like you see on Discovery Channel when they extract one from the sea and open its jaws. No way to escape those jagged tines. The thing is, sharks are dumb or don't see well because they sometimes bump into a swimmer with an immense whack and miss getting a good bite. That's the story I keep in mind, how a teenage girl on her board off Lantana Beach on the Atlantic side was smashed into but the shark missed making a kill. She told the newspaper it felt like getting hit with a truck. And he drove her down in the water to drown her. I'm in only a few feet of water so that doesn't scare me but the idea of being bowled over while I'm innocently watching the girls on the beach, does.

I believe sharks have a miserable time trying to catch anything at all. They don't want a human, that's not their main food. The story is that the surfers lie on their boards waiting for a good wave and the poor shark mistakes the shape of the board for a dolphin, his favorite meal. So I'm careful not to lie motionless on my back too long or dangle a leg that might look like a meal to a shark. I keep moving a little.

Would I know how to fight back if one of these monsters attacked? I learned from Discovery Channel you punch them on the snout in a sensitive place just above the upper lip. Or was that an alligator? They release their grip, although your arm or leg may be inside their jaws by then. Those rows of teeth—BIG, pointy and razor sharp, are going to take a chunk out of you. And you know what that means? You bleed profusely in the water and that immediately attracts all the sharks from South Beach to Acupulco, because they smartly pick up the scent.

So the gambit is not to flop in the water and fight tooth and nail, so to speak, or try to wrestle with a leathery skinned beast far bigger than you and uglier, who loves chomping pieces of flesh off other animals. That's what he does for a living. You run for it—you swim like you never swam before, straight for shore, like you're Michael Phelps racing for the wall in the 100 meters in the Olympics. You yell for help —they will point to you but they won't come. Would you head out from shore to make a second meal for some leviathan? Anyway, you don't stop till you reach beach because the shark has had a taste of you and he's just following the trail of blood now, with a few of his brothers, licking at your toes.

They will lay you flat on the sand while the blood oozes out and the waves lap at your feet. The bystanders will ooh and aah at your gaping punctures. Your wife can't look. The children are told to draw away. When the EMC's come they gently shift you onto a gurney and carry you through the crowd to their vehicle. You wake up to find yourself in a whitewashed hospital room, attended by sweet young nurses. They coo and hover over you while you put aside the pain and tell them how you fought off the biggest of the big sharks. The photographer snaps your picture with the gash in full color. And you'll take a copy of the newspaper back home to show your buddies up north what bravery is really all about. (Roy Neville)

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