It was a day like any other in Margaritaville. Some people awakened with clear heads. Some didn't. I did and was almost eaten by a shark.
Every year I go with my husband to Islamorada on Florida's Upper Matecumbe Key, because he knows bonefish are found there. Each morning men rise before dawn, bounce over the chop of Florida Bay and spend eight hours in an uncovered boat, squinting into the glare of a sunbaked flat to hunt a fish that, when caught, looks like a carp, a freshwater fish held in disdain by American anglers. Bonefishing is the kind of sport girlfriends and brides pretend to like. Today, long married, I snorkel.
And so it happened that on this April afternoon a few miles west of the Lorelei Restaurant and Cabana Bar—the pulse of the island—my husband was stalking fish. A few miles east a hammerhead shark was stalking me.
The dive-boat concession was operated by a woman of some size and little mirth. The boat was crewed by a species ubiquitous throughout the Keys: placid young men with unusual eyes and high mileage on their thin, brown bodies.
April 1, 1990
It was such a man who had given me permission to snorkel from the dive boat to a lighthouse 300 yards away. I figured the most spectacular-looking fish would be lurking around the lighthouse pilings. None of my comrades shared my enthusiasm for this aquatic hike. Most of them, in fact, were sitting in the boat, peering through its glass bottom.
And so I set out, kicking up a storm, moving against a slight current. Each time I looked up, I made a note to re-remember that things are always farther away than they look. Especially when you're kicking with $5 fins. About midway, I began to have faith in my "visibility vest," which the charter people assured me their insurance company stood behind all the way. I felt very small all alone in 25 feet of water, but figured that any insurance company that insured this operation couldn't be wrong about the vest. I was tired. I thought about turning back. I kicked on.
I was right about the truly great fish being around the pilings, but I wouldn't find out until later. What I did know was that a small boat—fishermen, I thought—was working around the lighthouse. I raised my head to see if they saw me. They did. In fact, five men were screaming their heads off at me in Spanish and English. I took off my mask and shook water from my head. I gave a real friendly wave. Then I heard what they were screaming: "Get out of the water! Get out of the water! Shark! Big shark!"
I was not scared. I assessed the situation. Then I was scared. Getting out of the water is not easy when you are the only solid object within 20 yards. "Where is your boat?" a man called. I pointed far to the east.
Taking the deepest breath I could, I screamed, "Can you come and get me? Please." The answer came: "Hold very still." Within seconds, two men were pulling on the anchor and another was gunning the boat. Boy, can he drive that thing, I thought, watching him zigzag toward me. A sense of calm filled me for, oh, two seconds. I decided this wasn't really happening to me; I was only a character in a Reader's Digest piece. Then I realized why the boat was zigzagging. They were keeping the boat between me and the shark.
For a couple of seconds I wondered how a shark eats you. Would he nibble off limbs, go for the middle, or swallow me whole? My rescuers spun the boat around as they reached me and cut the motor. A lined face of some age called down to me softly but firmly, "Hurry."
I don't know if I hurried the last few feet or not. Suddenly, four strong, tanned arms reached down, grabbed hold of my visibility vest and pulled me like a big slug into the boat. I regained my finned footing and stood up. By now I had enough adrenaline pumping that I probably could have walked right on top of the water. "My heroes!" I said, patting one man on the arm.
"Your camera," he said. "Take a picture!"
There in the water just off the little boat's bow was a big black object. It circled and did figure eights and came up out of the water, just like in the movies. "Ten feet," a young man said.
"Twelve feet," an older man countered.
I stared. I never even reached for the camera. As it turned out, some people had been spearfishing under the lighthouse, so the water was full of blood and the sharks were stirred up. How stirred up, I'll never know.
Back at the marina the large lady scoffed at my fear. "Hammerhead shark won't hurt you," she said. A second large lady at our motel uttered those same words. But it was their word against that of five men of the sea.
Back home, I asked some of my snorkeling buddies about hammerheads. They are ill-tempered, I was told. They are to be avoided. In fact, they are responsible for the first recorded fatal shark attack in American waters—in 1815 off Long Island, New York.