Think of creatures such as the large hammerhead or the great white shark, and it's understandable, even inevitable, that man has developed a primordial fear of these animals. They rule a vast world in which we are thoroughly incompetent.... They know nothing of mercy, doubt or remorse.... Behold, the perfect predator.
—CARL ROESSLER, The Undersea Predators
I knew plenty about doubt and remorse. Plenty. As I clasped my hand over my mask and prepared to tumble backward from the rubber dinghy into the Pacific Ocean, doubt was my middle name; remorse was my weight belt. Beneath the waves swarmed dozens, nay, hundreds of hammerhead sharks—bizarrely shaped creatures that I had feared primordially since I was nine years old and watched my father reel one to the boat we were on in Florida. The captain, thank god, cut that 12-foot shark free. But I will never forget its terrible head, nearly as wide as my wingspan. Those dull cow eyes. That gash of a mouth. I sat in the middle of the boat the whole way back to the dock.
Now, some 90 feet below me, those perfect predators were cruising a vast world in which I felt incompetent. Thoroughly incompetent? I hoped not. A novice diver, freshly certified, I had made just three descents. (The tour organizers recommended at least 25.) I had been deeper than 60 feet only once. I faced a week of diving off Cocos Island, some 300 miles southwest of Costa Rica, in waters known not only for their massive schools of hammerheads but also for treacherous currents. Most of the hammerhead action would take place at depths between 60 and 110 feet, and the nearest decompression chamber, in case I acquired the bends (or worse), was 30 hours away. The sharks, I'd been told by those who knew, were the least of my problems. I felt like the Sundance Kid, who couldn't swim, hearing Butch Cassidy say before they made their famous leap into the river: "Hell, the fall will probably kill you."
I breathed through my regulator, nodded to dive master Mario Arroyo and tried to ignore the pounding in my chest. Then I tipped backward into the sea. The last words I heard were from photographer Mark Gamba: "Have fun, Shark Bait."
Gamba is the son of a bitch who talked me into this crazy stunt. Easy for him to joke. He'd been scuba diving since birth. When he first suggested diving off Cocos Island, I laughed out loud.
I don't dive, I informed him.
You can learn, he enthused. You're going to love it.
I particularly don't dive with hammerhead sharks, I said.
He craftily played up the literary angle. Robert Louis Stevenson had based Treasure Island on Cocos, Gamba said. It is 15 square miles in size, the largest uninhabited island on earth.
It was such a preposterous notion. The scariest movie I had ever seen was Jaws. You couldn't get me to put my toe in the water for two summers after that film came out. And while some people long to explore the undersea world, I'd never had the least interest in learning to scuba dive, because it would mean confronting my inordinate fear of drowning. I trace this fear to my mother's decision to teach me a lesson when I was two years old. I used to toddle around the edge of the pool at our country club, ignoring her warnings that I couldn't swim and might fall in. One day, naturally, I did fall in, and my mother let me sink to the bottom before rescuing me, so I might remember to heed her words. I think she left me down there too long.
But the next thing I knew, I had told Gamba I would do the trip. I don't know how it happened. Temporary insanity. I was certain, anyway, that my wife, Sally, would forbid me to go, or that my editors would, saving me from my own bravado. But everyone cheerfully said, Go, enjoy. Sally even noted the date of my departure on her calendar with a terse "Eddie to sharks."
So, early on, this became a story about trying to overcome fears. An ingrained fear of drowning. An innate fear of being eaten alive by one of the most grotesque-looking creatures on earth.
Knowledge, I figured, was the best weapon to beat down fear. I took some volumes on sharks out of our local library and was buoyed to discover that I was far more likely to be killed by lightning than by a shark. But the more I thought about it, the less comforting that statistic seemed. Lightning can hit anyone on earth. Sharks can attack only those comparatively few people who wind up in the ocean. Besides, as Jacques Cousteau wrote of sharks in The Silent World, "Their reactions are unpredictable, and ordinary statistics are of no value."
My alarm was reinforced by the editors of Reader's Digest, who produced the informative book Sharks: Silent Hunters of the Deep. In that volume I was treated to graphic photographs of a diver with his rib cage ripped open and another with his leg bitten off. Hammerheads are among those shark species designated as man-eaters by the folks at Reader's Digest, though the book seemed a little ambivalent on the subject. "Feared as a man-eater but is merely a strong suspect," read the thumbnail description of the species Sphyrna mokarran, or great hammerhead. "Potentially very dangerous."
Most of the sharks off Cocos Island are of the slightly smaller and more numerous species Sphyrna lewini, or scalloped hammerhead. "Has reputation for attacking humans, but the large hammerheads are often mistaken for one another," said Silent Hunters. "Probably unaggressive."
It was that "probably" that bothered me. Besides, there are also great hammerheads around Cocos. In another book, Marine Life in the Galàpagos, by Pierre Constant, the author claimed that there were 434 hammerhead attacks on humans off the California coast and 937 provoked and 448 unprovoked attacks in Australia through 1975. That sounded a little high for a shark that is "merely a strong suspect" as a man-eater. Whether the numbers were accurate or not was irrelevant. I believed them.
Equally disturbing was a statement I read in Tarpon Times, a newsletter that my brother Lock had sent me. In an article entitled "Old Hitler: A 20-Foot Shark with an Attitude Towards Fishermen," the author wrote that "the No. 2 spot for fatal [shark] attacks on man is held by the hammerhead, with tiger sharks rated third worldwide."
I had never seen this asserted anywhere else—hammerheads are generally considered far less dangerous than tiger sharks—but the claim certainly got my attention. Old Hitler was, naturally, a hammerhead, and one of the world's longest if indeed he measured 20 feet. The article said that ever since World War II, Old Hitler has been patrolling Boca Grande Pass in southwest Florida, eating tarpon after they've been hooked. My brother didn't claim to have seen Old Hitler, but while fishing in the Keys he had seen what might have been one of Old Hitler's offspring. A friend of my brother's had just caught a 55-pound tarpon, and as he released it, the poor critter was attacked by a hammerhead. As Lock watched in horror, the hammerhead, a 12-footer, played with the tarpon like a cat with a mouse, swimming up beneath it and flipping it out of the water with its broad head. The shark did this for about a minute, then swallowed the tarpon whole. Lock wasn't sure I belonged in the same ocean as this sort of beast.
This kind of tale can prey on one's mind. I soon discovered that almost everyone has a shark story. There was the gentleman with whom I was playing golf, who stiffened when I mentioned I was going diving with hammerheads. After a pause, he said, "My daughter almost lost her leg to a bullshark." A Yale undergraduate, she had merely been wading in the surf in Florida. Her father took note of my expression. "Don't let it worry you," he said. "They won't bother you when you're in a cage."
I told him I wouldn't be in a cage.
I began to notice stories in the paper. Two scuba divers in one week were eaten by great white sharks in the waters off Australia. One of the victims was on his honeymoon. Why did that matter? Somehow it did. And if I wasn't running across shark stories, it was scuba diving accidents. Kelsey Grammer of Cheers (and now Frasier) had two half brothers who died while scuba diving. One brother's body was never found, and it was believed that he was eaten by sharks.
Knowledge, I discovered, was not such a great way to overcome a fear when the fear wasn't irrational. Sharks have been eating people for a very long time. There is every reason to fear them. But in the five years that charter boats had been going to Cocos Island, I was assured, no diver had been attacked. How should I behave so as not to be the first? How not to incite the hammerheads to a feeding frenzy? Here my shark books had some definite ideas, the most pertinent of which I culled from Cousteau and Constant.
1) Always swim with a companion.
2) Avoid swimming in dirty water, where visibility is poor.
3) Do not provoke sharks!
4) Do not spearfish around sharks.
5) Swim easily and smoothly while diving. No sudden movements.
6) Turn around often to look back at your legs, which are normally out of your field of vision. If a shark should swim toward you, do not try to flee.
7) In case of attack, hit shark on the snout with a club or shark billy.
8) Show no fear. Sharks may sense it.
I love that last one. Show no fear. Sharks may sense it. I'm swimming around with my shark billy, looking back at my legs every few seconds, and I'm not showing any fear? Get real. This is a diver wetting his pants.
Still, I got the message. Don't panic. That's pretty much the secret to all scuba diving, as it turns out. Shark comes at you: Don't panic. Mask comes off underwater: Don't panic. Run out of air: Don't panic.
I earned my open-water scuba certification in the Cayman Islands in a five-day program, and I panicked every time my instructor asked me to take off my mask underwater and clear it. Salt water kept shooting up my nose. When he told me during my final certification test to remove my mask at 40 feet, I couldn't bring myself to pull it away from my face. I hyperventilated from the effort. Eventually I convinced him to let me go up to 20 feet and do it there, since I was reasonably sure I could make it to the surface from that depth without drowning. He extracted his revenge by making me clear my mask twice.
Naturally, I wondered what would happen if someone accidentally kicked off my mask in the Cocos currents when I was 100 feet down. That sort of thing happens more often than you might think. Would I panic, inhale cold salt water, curse Gamba and drown? Would I sprint blindly to the surface, bursting my lungs? I didn't know. So I bought the smallest mask I could find, figuring someone would have to break my nose to dislodge it.
"Tranquilo" was the advice Ernesto Marcer, one of my fellow divers, gave me on the subject. I spoke no Spanish, but the word didn't need translation. "Tranquilo. This is the key to diving," he said.
Ernesto and I were seated beside one another on the two-hour bus ride from San Josè, Costa Rica, to the Pacific port of Puntarenas, where we would climb aboard our home for the next 10 days, the 120-foot dive boat Okeanos Aggressor. Ours was an international group, 18 divers from the U.S., Argentina, Japan, Italy, Germany and Costa Rica. Ernesto is a lawyer from Buenos Aires, greatly experienced in diving and much impressed that I had chosen to tackle Cocos Island on my first diving trip. "You will be spoiled," he predicted. "Every place after this will seem dull."
It was a 36-hour boat trip from Puntarenas to Cocos, during which we organized our gear, sunbathed, read and watched videotapes of the diving experienced by the previous week's passengers. There had been plenty of hammerheads. It was late August, the beginning of the rainy season, which, Mario said, is when hammerheads are most plentiful around Cocos. And the Costa Rican government had been cracking down on poachers, so the number of sharks was up. The hammerheads, Mario believed, were getting used to divers, coming closer than they ever had before. It was important for divers to breathe easy as the sharks neared, since hammerheads are frightened of bubbles. Some of them had approached to within arm's length of divers.
"Yesss!" the diver beside me said in delight. He was Bob Johnson, from Springfield, Mo. He had been on the Okeanos Aggressor the year before, during the dry season, but the hammerheads had been wary and few.
Mario told us we could expect to see many dozens of whitetip sharks, six-footers that milled about like so many chickens. They were not considered dangerous, but we should be careful if we tried to touch them. Manta rays were generally about too. And we might also see a whale shark—three were seen in 1993—the largest fish in the ocean, reaching lengths of more than 50 feet.
"Yesss!" Bob said, sounding orgasmic.
We should be on the lookout for Galàpagos sharks, Mario continued, which are more aggressive than hammerheads. Galàpagos sharks are not in the least afraid of bubbles, and they might swim right up and bump you.
"Awwriiight!" Bob gushed. I began to think he was insane. From my research I knew that a shark might bump you before it ate you, to make sure you weren't, say, a small sub. I tremulously raised my hand.
"What should you do if one bumps you?" I asked seriously. I was hoping Mario would say, Hit it with one of the shark billies I'm about to pass out.
"You get out of the water if he will let you," Mario said, smiling.
Peals of laughter. Scuba humor. One must whistle past the graveyard. I would get used to this kind of humor eventually—people swimming up behind mc and grabbing my leg—but you can appreciate that my state of mind during that 36-hour boat ride was not tranquilo. And it certainly wasn't tranquilo at eight o'clock the next morning, when we reached our first dive site, the isle of Manuelita, and I pitched myself backward from the dinghy with the words Have fun, Shark Bait ringing in my ears. Bucking every instinct of self-preservation, I descended into the cobalt-blue depths behind Mario, pinching my nose and blowing to ease the pressure in my ears.
We went straight to 90 feet. It was not quite as easy as that sentence reads, but the important part is that I made it. My mask and my face, you see, had made an imperfect seal. Salt water seeped into my eyes and nose during the entire descent. I don't know why the seal was bad. The mask had fit. Perhaps my face was all scrunched up from worry. Mario, concerned, kept looking back and signaling for me to clear the mask. I would try, fail and nod agreeably that everything was A-O.K. Onward, downward, lemme at those hammerheads. Of course, I couldn't see a damn thing.
I could hear, though. Whoosh-whoosh, whoosh-whoosh. I was breathing so hard that my head must have looked like the stack on a locomotive. If those sharks didn't like bubbles, they were in for a heck of a shock. Tranquilo, a voice within me kept pleading. Tranquilo! Show no fear, lad, calm yourself. Look behind you. Breathe slowly. Don't panic! For god's sake, Shark Bait, don't panic! My pulse, I believe, was 180, though I was barely moving my limbs.
That was the odd thing. While my brain was careening out of control, my muscles had voted to rehearse rigor mortis. I was descending like a clamshell. Mario looked back and, without any great concern, signaled for me to put some air in my buoyancy-control jacket. With some effort I did so, immediately checking my descent. For the first time I read my depth gauge: 87 feet and holding. When I looked up again, Mario was pointing.
Four hammerheads were cruising just above us no more than 30 yards away. Amazing what a shot of adrenaline will do. I stopped panting like a spaniel. I cleared my mask, gently exhaling through my nose, then stopped breathing altogether. My body, which had been frozen, suddenly relaxed. My mind clicked into gear. Careful to make no sudden movement, I swam down next to Mario and, avoiding the dozens of black, spiny sea urchins that were perched there, grabbed hold of a rock.
The hammerheads glided past. I could see a number of jagged white scars on their sleek bodies. The sharks were gray, smoothly muscled, feline, their movements unhurried. As they swam, their hammer-shaped heads swung from side to side in wide, purposeful arcs. Clearly they saw us. But they betrayed no special interest and didn't fill me with fear. They looked graceful, powerful, fast. Not bizarre. Certainly not grotesque. Beautiful in their efficiency of movement. It was similar to watching a lion walk through the grass or a grizzly bear fish in a stream. Dangerous? Perhaps, but we were not in their plans. As I exhaled, the hammerheads changed course, cruising away from the rocks and into the blue of the deep.
We waited, and soon more hammerheads came. Mario let go of the rock and swam toward them. As he approached, they languorously moved on with the current. I looked up toward the surface and counted 50, 60 hammerheads silhouetted above us, their long slender tails waggling from side to side. Mario was 50 yards away now, and I was debating whether to swim out and join him when a school of 25 hammerheads swam directly between us. They were 30 feet away—six-footers, eight-footers, 10-footers. The light filtering down from the surface threw shadows on their big, thick shoulders. Invariably they veered away when they saw my bubbles. It was a comfort to know that my last line of defense was to breathe.
I later learned that we were hanging out in what is known as a cleaning station. Not a lot is known about the habits of hammerheads, many of which are pelagics, meaning they spend most of their lives in the open ocean. But it's believed that they come to Cocos to be "cleaned" of the scar tissue that is visible all over their bodies. These were mating scars—literal love bites. The small barberfish, angelfish and the colorful Moorish idols that live in Cocos waters swim up to the cruising hammerheads and nibble at the dead skin that hangs from their numerous wounds. Mario believes the scar tissue makes the sharks itch, because once in a while we would see a hammerhead shake its body furiously as it made a short dash through the water. It was the only sign I ever saw of their awesome speed.
Afterward, back on the boat, the atmosphere was electric. Such sightings were what everyone had come for, and that first morning, Bob guessed, we had seen more hammerheads than he had seen during his whole last trip. Several divers had video cameras, and between dives we looked at their tapes. I tried to count the hammerheads schooling in a single shot. Impossible. More than a hundred. One shark had come so close to Bob's camera that its eyeball nearly filled the screen. Another's tail slapped the camera of another dive master, Hugo Leiva, as the shark turned suddenly and fled.
The most unnerving angle from which to view a hammerhead is head-on, when it swims directly toward you. The broad head becomes a thin white cusp with a black eye at either end. Very strange stuff. There are several plausible evolutionary explanations for the shape of the shark's head. Many specialists believe it serves as a rudder, increasing the shark's maneuverability. Certainly the movement of the head gives the shark great peripheral vision. But because sharks ordinarily do not have exceptional eyesight, they rely on smell to detect prey—the Greeks called them "hounds of the sea." The hammerhead has a nostril at either end of its hammer, and when it swims, swaying its head from side to side, the wide are gives it a greater range of smells.
Lastly, a hammerhead's head is armed with sensors called ampullae of Lorenzini. These are extremely sensitive receptors able to detect the electronic impulses of, say, a marble ray sleeping in the sand. (Rays are one of the staples of the hammerhead's diet.) These ampullae were doubtless what enabled Old Hitler and his ilk to locate those hooked and panicked tarpons, whose electronic impulses must have carried through the water for miles. All things considered, that horrible head is a terribly efficient device.
Surprisingly, though, in seven days of diving none of us saw a hammerhead take another fish. Despite the presence of thousands of amberjacks, marble rays and bottom fish, which are all on the hammerheads' menu, these great predators did not appear to have migrated to Cocos to feed. Nor did the smaller fish show any fear of the cruising schools of sharks. It was live and let live—at least when we divers were around. One of the strangest sights I saw was two whitetip reef sharks and a marble ray sleeping together on a ledge, with the ray's tail draped over the sharks' backs. They looked like three kids sleeping in a tent.
We dived three times a day—7:30 a.m., 11 a.m. and 3:30 p.m.—and there was a night dive at 7:30. On occasion a dinghy would go ashore after lunch to visit a couple of Cocos Island's spectacular waterfalls. There are dozens of them, tumbling as far as 300 feet down sheer lava cliffs. It was fresh water that first attracted sailors and pirates to Cocos, which is essentially a rain forest. Wild pigs and deer lived on the island, introduced by sailors as a source of fresh meat. Yet Cocos has never been settled, except for brief occupation by the occasional treasure hunter.
According to legend, troves of pirate treasure were buried on Cocos between 1684 and 1821. Little of it has ever been found, at least little that has been documented. In 1856 a chest of doubloons was discovered hanging from an anchor chain in the cave at the north end of Manuelita, which is north of Cocos. But this represents just a tiny portion of the $1 billion in booty that's thought to have been cached by pirates.
The legend fits the character of the place. Pirates, buried treasure, deserted tropical islands and sharks go together in my book like Mom and apple pie. Add dangerous undersea currents, and you have the essence of the Cocos experience.
It was stressful diving, even for the experienced. Adventurer William Beebe, who explored the waters off Cocos in 1925 in one of the old diving suits, wrote in The Arcturus Adventure, "Never, even in the high Himalayas, have I ever breasted so stiff a wind as the push of this current which swept past [Manuelita]. At times I was lifted clear off my feet and carried back.... So I went down on my knees and with fingers and toes clung to every step which I gained."
So it was for us. The dive sites we frequented, invariably half a mile or more off the Cocos coast, were near exposed rocks, small islands or undersea pinnacles. The currents, which tended to get stronger later in the day, swirled around these rocky outcroppings in unpredictable ways. It was usually fruitless and always exhausting to fight them, and we spent much of our time clinging to rocks, looking like windblown shirts hanging from a clothesline. The currents ripped at our masks and threatened to spin us in circles. Small fish rounding corners might suddenly be flipped upside down. Once, at 60 feet, the current tore off one of my fins, which fortunately was retrieved by the ubiquitous Mario. We ripped our diving gloves as we hauled ourselves forward by our fingertips, which was often the only way to keep the currents from sweeping us back whence we'd come. "Let's go on another underwater climb," German photographer Peter Lindecke would joke before each dive.
Adding to the challenge, the accursed sea urchins were everywhere, their venomous spines poised to skewer a misplaced hand or foot. They worked in devilish concert with the currents. Buffeted about while seeking a handhold, I took five spines in my right foot the second day and four more in my right hand the sixth day. The stings were similar to multiple wasp stings—hot needles of pain that eventually gave way to a dull throb. The ache and swelling was generally gone in 24 hours, unless you happened to take a quill in a joint. Then, for some reason that has my ring finger feeling arthritic, the pain might last for months.
Bud Goodwin of Seattle was the unchallenged sea urchin king of our trip, pierced 85 times. He earned the nickname Vinegar Man, since he believes (and he should know) that vinegar is the best remedy for the swelling. His hands, feet, legs, arms were all impaled—he was a walking voodoo doll. He was even stabbed in the stomach after being caught in a downdraft that whisked him from 50 feet to 90 in four seconds, then hurled him belly-first into an urchin-covered wall. As he breathed, his bubbles flowed straight down.
The most dangerous currents, though, were the updrafts, which might shoot you to the surface so quickly that you could suffer lung overexpansion or decompression sickness—the bends. The three-minute safety stops we made at 15 feet to ensure against decompression sickness became an endless adventure. It was not uncommon to see a fellow diver battered by the currents, hanging upside down like a bat in a cave, fighting an updraft by clinging to a rock with one hand.
"If you can dive here, you can dive anywhere," Mario asserted. If you happened to get caught in the wrong current while surfacing, you could forget fighting your way back to the dive site. Next stop, South America. So most of us carried inflatable nine-foot "sausages" in our wet suits to signal the dinghies in an emergency, and several times these sausages—and their owners—were spotted a mile or more away, moving swiftly out to sea.
But the Cocos currents had a flip side, one that I better appreciated as I gained confidence. (Not a brimming, I-can-do-anything-you-can-do confidence. No, no. I was still timid, the guy the others teased for clinging to the rocks like an octopus whenever a school of hammerheads came around. The guy photographers avoided like the plague, knowing I would huff and puff like the Big Bad Wolf when the hammers moved in too close.) After the first few days I began to believe I might not, after all, drown. Or be eaten. Or have to be saved. I no longer fell thoroughly incompetent. Which allowed me to enjoy the sweet surrender of riding a current we nicknamed the Manuelita Moonwalk.
You picked it up on the west side of Manuelita, at a depth of about 60 feet. To the right was the sheer lava face of the island. To the left, the endless blue of the Pacific. Once in the current, you had only to spread your arms and relax to feel the weightless sensation of flying.
The first time I caught the current, I felt like part of some intricately choreographed amusement-park ride. Strange, small shapes suspended in the water grew larger as I approached. And larger still. Fish? Sharks? Divers? That first shape was a sea turtle hanging in the current. I tried to stop before hurtling past it, tried to make a U-turn, and I managed to swim beside the turtle for a few seconds before it banked effortlessly away. I turned and was swept back into the current.
Hugo, the dive master, was hanging by one hand on the lava wall ahead, and he waved bye-bye to me as I shot past. Ahead, a patch of water appeared wavy, shimmering, like the air above a scorching stretch of highway. It was a thermocline, a cold pocket of water. Beyond the thermocline I could see bigger shapes, hazy ones, holding their positions to see what the current would bring to them next. Sharks? Almost certainly. I felt like a bonbon on a conveyor belt, and my heart leaped with the realization that I was the first diver to be coming through.
The chill of the thermocline took my breath away and brought with it a cold bolt of panic. The large darting shapes were now very close, just beyond the thermocline, but the water was so turbid that I still could not identify them. Galàpagos sharks? I prayed not, remembering Cousteau's advice: Avoid swimming in dirty water, where visibility is very poor.
That voice again: tranquilo. The current carried me through the thermocline and back into the warm water, where I was suddenly in the company of several dozen whitetip sharks. They were docile fish, I knew, but they had evil-looking eyes, narrow and squinty. As I Hew through them, they were slashing left and right, zigzagging in the fierce current in order to hold their places. One shark's snout was pointed directly at my groin, and I put my hands down at the last instant in case I had to fend it off. We missed each other by inches.
Just as suddenly, I was past them. More shapes ahead. A big blue spotted jack drifted in front of my face and looked as if it might take a bite. Then it drifted off and was gone. A silver mullet came past. Directly below me was the dark-gray back of a cruising hammerhead, and I felt my stomach muscles tighten.
To my left, standing out against the blue of the deep, no other colors around him, no textures, no shapes, was Gamba. He looked like a spacewalker. Farther out, just above him, I could barely make out a huge school of hammerheads. Gamba signaled for me to join him, to chase them, but I declined.
Too much endless blue out there. Too many currents. Old Shark Bait, I'm afraid, could take only so much fun at once.