A Scary Shark Encounter
Copyright 1999 -- story by Jean-Philippe Soule
In the wake of the movie The Big Blue, the sports of freediving and spearfishing have received international recognition and are riding a surge of popularity. But for us, what started as a novelty has become a necessity; it is our sole means to obtain fresh food during our three-year, 5000 mile paddling expedition in Central America. After each paddling day I love to spend a couple of hours in the water. I often encounter sharks, mainly black tip reef sharks and nurse sharks, occasionally hammerheads. These aren't aggressive. When I see them I just move farther on before I start spearfishing. People often ask me, "Aren't you afraid to freedive with sharks?" I always replied, "No, sharks aren't aggressive". However, a nearly tragic experience in Belize recently shook my confidence.
By 5 PM, less than an hour before sunset, I was in the water looking for dinner. The coral was disappointing, but I kept swimming in the channel running between a gap in the reef. I knew that marine life often congregate in channels. I had the strong feeling I would encounter a shark. I like sharks and think they look magnificent underwater. In the Caribbean, they can be sighted daily, something I usually look forward to. Yet, we have to eat and fish is our main food, so I try to avoid sharks when I go spearfishing. After a few minutes in the water I sighted my first prey, a nice blue parrot fish 15 feet just below me. These fish are very quick and if given any warning, are always able to avoid the spear. I dove straight down and arrived on the fish from behind in a way it couldn't see me. The first shot was good. I hit it next to the head and the parrot fish bled profusely leaving a thick trail of green. This is the color blood looks like underwater. I quickly grabbed my rope stringer from my right bootie, ran the stringer through the fish gills, unscrewed the tip of the spear to free the fish and let it drag on the rope 10 feet behind me. I really had the feeling sharks were around and I wanted to leave the water and give the bloody fish to Luke before resuming my hunting. On my way back to shore, a huge spotted eagle ray glided gracefully by me less than 5 feet away. Its wingspan was wider than my arm span. Its tail might have been 10 feet long. The next minute, a squid swam by. Without any hesitation I added it to the stringer after barely avoiding the black cloud of ink it threw in the water. When I reached the shallows, I encountered a large lobster that I grabbed but then released. The season was over and the fine of $1000 wasn't a risk I could afford to take. On shore I called Luke, gave him the fish and squid and returned to the water.
Dusk had come and the visibility was now reduced to 15 feet. In 12 feet of water I spotted my second prey, another blue parrot. The red ones are easy targets but they don't taste nearly as good. I dove in and shot, but the fish saw me at the last minute and moved out. My spear touched it, but the fish came loose and spun all around spreading blood in the water. Back to the surface, I quickly re-set my spear and line, re-stretched the two power bands, and dove back after the injured fish. On the second shot I had the fish on my spear. As I was going back to the surface, large gray masses with lightning speed moved in around me. I feared they were sharks. When I broke the surface, they came closer and I realized that I was surrounded by at least 20 or 30 Tarpons that I would estimate to be between 60 and 80 lbs. A few came less than 4 feet from me. I wished my spear was free from the parrot fish and my gun armed. I could have easily touched their heads maybe even with my arm.
By the time I had the fish on the stringer, the water visibility was less than 10 feet. The Tarpons disappeared. My fish had been bleeding abundantly and I knew I had to get out of the water quickly. I was still in 12-foot deep water but couldn't see the bottom anymore. I re-armed my speargun and before I could swim one more stroke, a gray mass moved right at me. I aimed my gun thinking it might be a large Tarpon. I suddenly choked on my snorkel, swallowed water and quickly kicked backwards. A huge gray shark had stopped just 6 feet from me. My two quick fin kicks seemed to have scared him as much as he scared me, so I thought. Before I had made much progress, the shark was back full speed, coming right at me while shaking its head from side to side. In this water with poor visibility, it quickly disappeared. This time I clearly saw that it was bigger than me. In a few seconds it was back again. I was frozen, unable to swim. I knew my bleeding fish was driving it crazy, but I couldn't look down to my hip to unclip the stringer. I was paralyzed, just holding on to my speargun tightly to fend off my aggressor. Each time I lost sight of it I would quickly spin around, rotating my head, wondering from what direction it would be coming next. I tried to control myself and slowly swam back to shallow water. The shark came back a few times and nearly touched the tip of my spear, each time moving inches from my fins. I felt completely defenseless, as if my speargun was nothing but a toy in my hand. I was the prey and my chance of escaping seemed small.
For some reason the shark didn't even get my fish, maybe because the string had been entangled around my leg. With the fins kicking around in a cloud of fish blood, maybe it thought I was the bleeding animal. I will never know. By the time I reached 6 feet of water it must have been only 2 minutes since the first encounter. I was completely out of breath, but dashed for the shore still swimming on my back aiming the speargun toward deeper water. Both my calves cramped up under the tremendous pressure I put on my long and stiff freediving fins, but my adrenaline boost was much superior to the pain of the cramps. When I reached 30 inches depth, I let loose all the panic that I had contained in the water. I removed my fins and ran out of the water, ripping my neoprene booties on the coral. I was completely exhausted, out of breath and nauseated. I walked back toward camp in a state of half shock and half high on adrenaline. Before I could do anything, I had to walk back and forth around camp to discharge all my emotions. Then in the dark, I skinned the squid and cut it in thin slices of sashimi while Luke fixed us a sauce of ginger and soya. It was marvelous. We finished dinner with Luke's special rice and the delicious flesh of the parrot fish. Then exhausted after such a long paddling day I fell asleep.
In the middle of the night rain woke us up. We quickly pulled out our goretex bivi bags and stuffed our mats and sleeping bags in them. By the time we were protected under our shells, the rain had already almost stopped. It wasn't a great night. We slept uncomfortably, but with the aid of fatigue and a full meal we made the best of our lumpy beds of dead coral.
For years I've been trying to dispel the myth of Jaws. I like sharks and have been in the water with various species a number of times. I really think they're fascinating. Before this encounter, I had never felt threatened in any way in their presence. When I think about what happened, all I can say is that I made a few mistakes. I went spearfishing at dusk, which is the time sharks feed. I was free diving alone which isn't advised. Also I knew that channels are prime spots for sharks and rays. Sighting the eagle ray reinforced this. My first fish had bled a lot for 15 minutes before I came out of the water to give it to Luke. This might have already attracted the shark to the area. It took me 2 shots for the second fish and by the time I had it on my stringer, it had also bled profusely and the shark was of course very excited by all the blood. Still the shark was probably more interested in the fish than me. What made me think otherwise at the moment was both fear and the fact that my stringer rope had been entangled in the knife I was wearing on my left calf. The fish moved along with my fin just inches from it. The shark might have even thought that the blood was coming from those long flippers, which were mine. I don't know for sure. Also, considering the size of the head and body of the shark, and its gray color without any particular markings, despite the low visibility, I strongly believe it was either a "small" bull shark or a large lemon shark. Both species are known to be aggressive, especially around speared fish.
The next morning I jokingly asked Luke: "So, who's going spearfishing today?" In spite of my last experience, I will go back because this shark wasn't there to get me. It was just enraged by the blood I left in his water during his feeding time.
The next day I was back in the water. During the next week I fed us with delicious snappers, chubs, mullets, and barracudas, but sharks still haunted my thoughts. It took me weeks to free myself of irrational fear. Now, when people ask me if I'm afraid of sharks, I still say no with little hesitation, as most sharks aren't aggressive. I learned from my mistakes and with two more years of expedition forthcoming, I will likely meet other bull sharks or the larger tiger sharks before we reach our destination of Panama. Shark-attacks are accidents. They don't normally prey on people and they are one of the stars of the beautiful marine environment one can best experience by freediving.