Ocean of Terror
A beautiful morning swim becomes a race against death.
“What are you doing? We have to go in! Now!” he screamed as my head popped up above the surface.
I don’t like being yelled at, ever – especially not while treading water a quarter mile from shore at 7 a.m. Normally, this is my happy place: swimming with my group, watching the fish dart in and out of the corals, maybe spying a green sea turtle gliding by. But not today; not with this jackass grabbing onto my feet and legs, nearly pulling me under, and disrupting the seven other swimmers.
I floated at the surface and reached my ankle where his nails were biting into my flesh. I wrenched his fingers from my leg – not at all gently. Keeping a grip, I pulled him closer before planting my foot on his chest and pushing him away from me; perfect little ripples formed in the water before his struggles to stay in place turned them to chaos. One of the first rules in ocean swimming is to keep yourself safe, then deal with the person who is panicking; preventing him from drowning me was pretty important. Instead, he grabbed the yellow safety float trailing from a rope around my waist, thankfully, and held on tightly.
“Everything is fine,” I told him, gracefully floating on my back, demonstrating my calm. “I do this nearly every day. It’s your first time and I can understand how unnerving it can be so far out, but ripping off my foot won’t get us in any faster. And hey, why not scratch my leg so it bleeds and we really do attract a shark?”
A couple chuckles from the surrounding group made him look around and realize everyone had surfaced to see what the commotion was about; he looked embarrassed and let go of the float, treading water like the rest.
I continued. “I’ve been doing this for years, and I have never had an encounter with a shark. They don’t want anything to do with us, especially in a group this size.”
Someone started singing the Jaws theme, “Da-na, da-na, dana-da-na…”
“Stop.” I threw a look at the singer which was supposed to be harsh, but I had a hard time keeping the smile off my face. Everyone was giggling by now, except him, and trying to hide it, but blowing bubbles just under the surface made it pretty obvious.
It took a long time for me to get over my fear of sharks when I moved to Kauai and joined an open-ocean swim group, and I wasn’t going to let this newbie let those shadows back into my mind. On my first few swims I barely left the bay, imagining a shark was waiting just outside the surf break; every rock became a threat and each time I turned my head to breathe I thought I saw something moving toward me. Slowly, though, I relaxed enough to swim the entire coastline and allowed myself to enjoy the beauty of the underwater world. But in all that time, I never once freaked out and yelled at other swimmers; I swore to myself I’d never take this guy out again.
His breathing had started to lengthen from the short, gasping breaths of panic until he once again put his face in the water, scanning around him for danger. The water was clear and calm, and the visibility was at least 50 feet. Still, he was not convinced we were safe.
“Hey, relax,” the woman nearest him said calmly. She placed a hand on his back to reassure him, but instead, the unexpected touch caused him to spin wildly and suck a mouthful of salt water into his lungs. He started coughing and flailing his arms wildly. I glided over and attached my safety buoy around his waist, and again placed the floating plastic tube in his arms. Slowly, the water cleared from his throat and his breathing became normal once more.
“It’s pretty ironic, isn’t it?” one of the swimmers asked conversationally. “We invite the new coach of the high school swim team out and he drowns?”
“No one is going to drown.” This time I did manage the angry glare I had tried for earlier, and leveled it at the wise guy. “And no one is going to get eaten,” I said and returned my attention to the struggling coach. He had moved to the island only two weeks previously, from Indiana, and although he was a world-class swimmer in college he had never been on an ocean swim. I should have considered that before leading him out this far, but who would have thought the swim coach would freak out in water? The swimming community was small, and humiliation was now the best possible outcome.
“I don’t think you get it,” the coach spat out. “I saw something big and we need to go in now.” He put his face back in the water, scanning the depths obsessively.
“I’ve been swimming out here for over 50 years,” began the oldest swimmer, a woman who taught her children and grandchildren to swim in the Pacific Ocean. “I’ve seen monk seals and turtles and manta rays, and if you catch one out of the corner of your eye it can easily resemble a shark. Especially if that’s all you’re thinking of.” She looked at me. “I’ll go in with him if you like, and the rest of you can continue your swim.”
“I think we should all go in,” I replied, “let’s stick together like normal and get to the beach.” In truth, all the talk of sharks had begun to get to me, and when I put my goggles back on and looked underwater I was no longer positive we were alone, either. My skin began to prickle, and I tried to tell myself it was just an old phobia playing with my mind, brought on by the coach’s fears. I began reciting shark facts to reassure myself as we started to swim back to shore.
Less than 50 swimmers were attacked by sharks in the past 60 years in the islands, I thought. Only four of them were fatal. Four in 60 years – I did the simple math in my head – less than one percent. Chances are much greater that a surfer gets attacked. And it’s always by accident. Sharks don’t like humans, they’d rather eat turtles and baby humpback whales. I couldn’t remember any more facts and upped the pace of my stroke, hoping everyone could keep up. I don’t look like a turtle. I don’t look like a turtle. I don’t look like a turtle, I repeated in my head as a mantra, as I felt my throat constrict and my muscles tense in fear. I shivered in the warm water. My mind is playing tricks on me. The chances of the coach seeing a shark on his very first ocean swim are astronomically small. There’s no way.
But it was nagging at my mind now. I had to talk myself down or I would panic as well.
I was in the lead, and turned quickly to check on the group – no one was near me. I had to pick my head up from the water to locate the other swimmers; they had barely moved from our previous position, and were once again treading water, calling for me. I swam back, suddenly terrified to be even a few yards away from them.
“I think I saw something, too. It was behind us,” a younger woman sobbed as I approached. Everyone but her had their faces in the water, searching, while keeping their ears above in case someone called out. The coach was surprisingly calm, holding onto the buoy; maybe his instincts as a leader finally kicked in, I thought.
The young woman, one of my regular swim buddies, continued.
“I think it’s following us.”
It was my job to keep everyone calm, but I was far from it myself. “Come on, guys, we need to get back. I’m sure nothing is following us – statistically there’s almost no chance of that. You’re just freaking yourselves out. Let’s go.” Let’s go, let’s go, oh God, please get us in safe.
No one moved to follow me. Instead, they kept their faces in the water, slowly turning circles, vigilant.
Our route back to land had us swimming over a rocky shelf, normally teeming with life, and we were directly above it. Although the sea floor was 40 feet below us, the reef extended upward to within 10 feet of the surface. Ledges and holes in the reef provided shelter for thousands of small creatures, and larger caves often housed resting turtles. I had snorkeled this section of reef dozens of times, kicking to the bottom to explore, and learning which animals called it home. At any given moment hundreds of small fish could be observed in their daily activities.
Except today. I had never felt so alone in the water – yet so not alone. I searched the reef with my eyes; the fish were gone, probably hiding in their small, safe spaces. They knew what we was quickly becoming apparent to us.
Someone screamed, and we all turned in her direction to see her pointing underwater. A massive school of fish rushed toward us – a school made up of numerous different species, something I’ve rarely ever seen. Fish tend to keep to their own kind, and swim away from people. Get out of here! my mind screamed at me.
“People! Let’s go! Now!” I had their attention. “Stick close together and don’t leave anyone behind!”
We swam frantically toward the beach, still nearly a quarter mile out. People kicked and punched me as everyone swam on top of each other, thrashing, unwilling to be the last swimmer. I felt someone practically on my back and had to stop – I was being pushed underwater, the swimming equivalent to being trampled. I risked a quick peak backward, between my legs, and saw no big black shapes. I had to stop; I had to get this person off my back and breathe, or I would die in the ocean anyway.
I ducked underwater and allowed the person on top of me to swim away. It was the coach. So much for leadership, I thought, momentarily forgetting my own panic until the group left me behind without a care. They didn’t even notice. I looked back again before I continued and saw my yellow buoy floating out to sea, abandoned in haste. I didn’t think twice about leaving it, but hurried to catch up.
I was breathing on every other stroke now, barely able to fill my lungs. My goggles were quickly filling with water and I barely noticed I was crying. Just a few more minutes and we’d be in a populated area, in shallow water, and safe. I caught up to the group and tucked back into the flailing, gasping, choking mass of bodies, much less graceful than the fleeing school of fish. My lungs ached and my head spun – I couldn’t catch my breath.
Images of sharks formed in my head; nondescript, almost cartoon-like pictures featuring rows and rows of razor-sharp teeth. Scenes from the famous movie played in a loop – bloody, ripped off limbs, water turning from clear blue to red. I ducked my head down again to look behind and got a knee in the face; my goggles were knocked loose and lost in the panic. I was nearly blind and every rock now looked like a blurry menace.
I breathed in water and had to stop swimming when I started coughing. It was every man for himself, apparently, and although we were closing in on the beach there was still plenty of time for disaster. I heard someone else coughing, and when I rubbed the salt from my eyes I saw the older woman, the most confident swimmer of the group, barely holding her head above the surface.
She was choking.
I swam over and grasped her under her arms; kicking with the last of my strength, I held her up until she cleared the water and could breathe. She was hyperventilating.
“Deep breaths,” I told her, although I was having trouble with them myself. “You’re okay. Just breathe.”
Towing her on her back, we finally reached the shallows. The rest of the group was already standing in the sand, panting and gasping for air. Two women were sobbing uncontrollably.
My husband ran over and helped me tow the woman the final few yards; he is a runner, and ends most days by meeting me on the beach after my swims. He splashed into the water, soaking his expensive shoes. I laid back on the sand and tried to catch my breath after I counted heads and made certain medical attention was not needed for anyone.
My husband stood over me, uncertain of what was happening, but sensing the group’s panic. “Everyone seems okay,” he said. “I watched you at the reef, and saw a massive pod of dolphins swimming nearby. I know how much you love to swim with them so I don’t understand why you all bolted for shore. They were jumping and playing right behind you. I thought you’d be in heaven.”
Fucking coach, I thought as I closed my eyes to rest. Never again.
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