Monday, June 21, 2004

Fakarava Snorkeling Tale

May 28th - June 21st

I had heard that snorkeling and diving in the Tuamotos was going to be great, but never could I have imagined the potential that existed.  After Chris’s dive in Kauehi, I was extremely jealous, I felt as though I had missed out on something … worse, not being certified I felt that I would never have a similar experience.  Outside of an aquarium I had never seen a (live) shark … and I was longing to see them first hand.

When we arrived in the Southern anchorage of Fakarava, Emerald came by, reporting on the great snorkeling in the pass and the huge quantities of sharks.  I was psyched, I couldn’t wait to go.  They picked us up the next morning and off we went.  The water was crystal blue and the visibility the best I’ve ever been in.  The quantities and variations of fish and coral were amazing.  Rick pointed out a sleeping gray at the bottom (about 60 feet away).  I was instantly thrilled … this it!  We’re going to see some sharks!  In the first few minutes of being in the water we saw two or three grays swimming around, but they felt pretty far away, and part of me couldn’t help thinking, where are the mass quantities I heard about? It was at about that moment that Corbie popped her head out and said, “Are you guys seeing this?”  I quickly swam over to her and looked down, tons of gray sharks were circling below us, like 747’s in a holding pattern over LAX.  Wow!  Wow!  Wow!  That was pretty much all I could think.  We had the video camera, so I instantly started filming (as Chris said the film/pictures just don’t do it justice).  Rick also had his camera and would free dive down to get closer shots.  I’m not very good at free diving, especially in a wetsuit, so Chris eventually took the camera to get some closer shots.

It was hard to pull myself away from the grays to move down the reef, I could’ve watched them all morning.  We came across a few white tips as well; they reminded me of typical shark-movie sharks (only smaller).  They were so graceful and swift.  They would also come a bit closer, which left me with mixed feelings … on one hand disturbed to think I was swimming so close to them, on the other elated that I could get a closer view!

We slowly moved into the shallow coral area, where hundreds of fish reside, including the large Napolean Chris talks about.  I couldn’t believe how big he was.  Then came the black-tips.  I never realized that sharks swam in such shallow waters.  And they were everywhere; there wasn’t a direction you could look that you wouldn’t see at least three of them.  It felt unreal to watch them swimming all around you.  For the most part they just ignored us, going about there own business.  I was also shocked to find that the other fish didn’t run and hide when a shark came by … I guess they know when it’s feeding time or not!

I was pumped up when we finally got out of the water.  I couldn’t stop talking, smiling, and laughing.  My first question was, “when is the next slack tide?”  We easily saw two hundred sharks that morning!  We snorkeled nearly every day (sometimes twice a day) after that, and while the water clarity or number of sharks was never has good as the first day, ever time I was still in awe.  I felt as though I had jumped into the Monterey aquarium.

The more times we got in the water with the sharks, the more I began to relax and realize that they really didn’t seem to care that I was there.  Of course there is always the exception, which I realized on day five!

We had started actually doing more drift snorkeling (rather than hitting the pass at exact slack), which would push us through the pass and around, almost to where our boats where anchored.  It is an amazing feeling to be pushed through the water while watching the underwater world zoom by you.  It seems that the sharks on the ‘other-side’ of the pass were a bit more curious.  They would actually swim towards us, and then turn after a quick investigatory glance.  On the drift it wasn’t always so easy to stay in the group, you were fighting the current as it was.  It so happened that a cute, small black tip was nearby, and I followed him for a bit, not noticing that I was no longer with the group.

Let me get a visual going for you … imagine this … you are snorkeling (therefore lying, if you will, horizontally on top of the water), looking down at a small black-tip shark who is swimming away from you (ie no threat), when into your view, directly below you, from behind, swims in a six foot shark!  This shark is longer than you, perfectly parallel and right below you, and so close you could easily reach down and touch it!  First I was a bit shocked (as I’m sure you could imagine).  I had periodically been looking around and behind me, and had not spotted this white-tip shark anywhere. Where had this guy come from? And why was he so close?  I was also quite excited, thinking, Wow this is so cool, I wish I had the camera!   The shark swam out a few feet ahead of me, then turned, heading straight back in my direction.  At this point in time I was still running on excitement thinking that it was great that he was so close, and cursing myself for giving the camera to Chris.  The excitement lasted for about five minutes, as the shark continued to come towards me, turn away, and then circle back.  Sometimes he would circle under me, coming up before retreating back down, other times he would head out in front (or side) then circle back.  EVERYTIME he came just a bit closer. It was about then that my thoughts turned on me … Why was he so interested in me?  Shouldn’t his curiosity have died by now?  Doesn’t he realize I’m bigger and he should be afraid (like the other sharks)?  Time continued to go by … I’m not afraid.  Can you smell fear underwater?  It doesn’t mater I’m not afraid.  I’m not afraid. I’m not afraid.  It’s just a shark.  Shit, it’s a shark!  I want to say that perhaps ten minutes has now gone by, I’m swimming vertically, always sure to face this shark that I’m now convinced is frowning, scowling at me.  I started doing quick surface checks looking for Chris and the dinghy.  It felt as though they were miles away.  I was trying to swim towards them, but did not want to turn my back to this shark, and therefore was not making very good progress towards the dinghy.  Rather I was just spinning circles in the same spot.  I wish I had the camera … it would make a good weapon.  Should I take my fin off so that I have something in my hand to hit it with if he comes too close?  Should I make a fast movement towards him to scare him, or will he fight instead of fright?  Should I just turn and “run”?  Finally I saw Chris (and everyone) getting into the dinghies, but they were still far away.  With my head underwater (watching the shark), I started waving my arm in what I intended to be a “get over here” motion.  Apparently nobody noticed.  When I popped my head up again Chris yelled, “KT come on”.  “Come and get me,” I shouted.  “What?”  “COME AND GET ME”.  I guess they didn’t hear the panic in my voice because they took their sweet time in coming.  The shark continued to circle and come towards me the entire time … more than half the time he came within easy reach!  Finally, after what felt like hours, they were close, I yelled out “I’m being chased!”  “What?”  “Get me in the dinghy a SHARK is following me!”  I took one last glance down as the dinghy approached; the shark made one more turn towards me, but quickly turned away when the dinghy came into site.

As I pulled myself into the dinghy, adrenaline coursed through me.  I couldn’t believe that a shark had just followed me for more than fifteen minutes!  At first I was pumped up, any fright I had had in the water quickly dissipated.  About an hour or two later the fright returned, and I vowed to never separate from the group again!  Oh, and the next time we snorkeled I took along a poking stick … just in case!  Later on I borrowed a fish book from Emerald where, under white-tip reef shark, I read, “Aggressive and Dangerous”.  I’m glad I didn’t have that bit of information before!

Curious what it might be like to have a white tip interested in you?

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