First came the stunning shock as two torpedoes exploded into the side of the heavy cruiser Indianapolis shortly before the end of World War II. Then came disbelief as the huge ship split, rolled and sank in less than 15 minutes. Then the surrealistic reality that of the 1,196 men aboard, about 300 went down with the ship. Then the muted agony as the roughly 880 survivors found themselves suddenly alone in the vast, hostile emptiness of the South Pacific.
Most were bobbing in the water without rafts, supported only by kapok life jackets or just treading water. And then came a series of horrible glitches in which the Navy failed to even look for them until days later. But something did find them, a mindless malevolence: sharks.
The men reported that the sharks began hitting the groups and individual swimmers the morning after the Indianapolis sank. And they hit … and hit … and hit. Guys huddled in tightly packed groups trying to stay warm in the night could hear the screams. They knew what it was because they’d seen buddies swimming or floating, talking or joking or praying one minute, and the next minute they were screaming and jerking, with blood spreading its fatal attraction and the sharks feasting. When rescue came, only about 320 were left.
Rescue efforts began after the crew of a routine patrol flight saw the men in the water. The alert went out, and a PBY Catalina seaplane, commanded by Lt. R. Adrian Marks, was dispatched to lend assistance and report. En route, he passed over the Cecil J. Doyle and gave it the word. That ship diverted to the scene, but the PBY arrived first. As Marks was circling and dropping survival equipment, he watched as men were attacked by sharks.
So horrific was the scene that he disregarded orders and landed his plane on the ocean, taxiing about the nightmarish sea, picking up survivors. He quickly had so many aboard that some had to be tied to the wings with parachute cord. The wings broke with the weight, disabling the hopelessly over-laden plane. Marks is attributed with saving 56 from a horrible fate. Some of those who died did so from exposure, dehydration, drinking salt water and injuries, but a large number died from sharks.
I don’t care what certain TV personalities say. I don’t care what a bunch of misguided, uninformed yuppie puppies say. I don’t care what the good folks at “save the this, that and the other” say. I don’t like sharks. And I’m not particularly fond of the voguish pretty folks who go around saying things like, “Oh, they’re wonderful, magnificent creatures of nature and really don’t want to eat us. It’s just a mistake when they do, and we shouldn’t have been there in the first place.” Or “Oh, it’s just one rogue shark that ate those people, and we’ll get it soon, and all the rest of the sharks are really good guys.” Or “They’re living their lives where they belong and we’re intruding on them.” Or “They’re just poor misunderstood creatures.” I could repeat a lot more stylish sayings, to all of which I say: a big resounding BS.
First of all, I “belong” in the ocean, too. I’m not intruding when I’m there, and I’m not doing any harm. Some do, I realize, but that doesn’t mean we all do, and sharks don’t really seem to give a damn. Secondly, this isn’t an issue of a shark’s malevolence or beneficence or innocent neutrality. It’s an issue of the fact that some shark species see me as food, and if they choose they can eat all or part of me very easily. And unlike the shark, I’m not going to be particularly enjoying the process and there isn’t a lot I can do to stop it once it’s begun.
I don’t hate sharks; that would be a waste of emotion. I simply don’t like them, and I don’t like it when misguided intelligentsia and poorly informed politically correct people on television overlook what sharks are: killing machines. And people are included in the target zone.
I wouldn’t go out of my way to hurt a shark, absent a very specific circumstance, such as survival. I think it’s wrong to kill them to put their fins in soup, and I’m saddened to see many of them needlessly killed in certain fishing industries. But I can’t help but note that most of those who indignantly cry out about this also eat fish, probably a lot of fish because it’s a politically correct food.
Some people are making money these days giving tourists an up-close and friendly swim — actually they usually hang out in a cage — with sharks, and some tourists actually pay money for this privilege. Some entrepreneurs even have people swimming “naturally” with sharks. These folks, especially the ones making the money, are fond of saying nice things about sharks, but there are fringe opinions on any subject.
Recently there was a television program that featured bikini-clad women basking about under water with sharks, the point being that sharks are really nice guys. Usually the TV shark promoters have significant experience diving with sharks and take great precautions. But they also usually have a lot of people around looking out for them, ready to move in if needed, and the situation is staged, at least to some extent. Don’t forget that people are down there with cameras.
Then there is the “good shark, bad shark” racket. It’s certainly true that some species have a perceived record of hurting more people. We’re all familiar with stories about the great white, reef shark, whitetip, hammerhead and others. But that’s only part of the story. There are some places where people jump into the water with so called “nice” sharks, such as nurse sharks. Nurse sharks are relatively nice as sharks go. They like to laze around near the bottom, going after trash rather than coming after a livelier meal like me. But let one of them get your hand or leg in its mouth and “nice” is probably the last thing you’ll be thinking as you drown. And one particularly large nurse shark did come after me once. I don’t know why, but I know it happened, and I certainly wasn’t bothering it.
Speaking of tourism and nice vs. bad sharks, it always amazes me that when one or more people are killed or bitten while swimming at a beach it isn’t unusual for the local officials to declare that there’s a “rogue killer” out there and they’re going to take it out and everything will be OK. Like in the movie “Jaws.”
Sharks of a species look very much alike. And sharks of a species often are attracted to an area for one or more reasons. But generally the poor swimmers who lost a leg or a life aren’t in a position to identify the precise offender. Even if there are witnesses to the gory event, there are very seldom any witnesses available as to what the shark looked like, which was probably like all the other sharks around. And when the professional fisherman hauls in a big one and strings it up, no one knows whether that’s the shark — or one of the sharks — that had the good snacks off the beach. But the officials say “all’s well,” and the tourists happily wade back into the water until the next time.
One also frequently hears about the odds. “Considering the numerical odds, it’s extremely rare that a shark ever bites anybody.” And we’ve all seen the pictures of sharks among surfers and swimmers with nobody aware of it but the photographer. So maybe, in theory, there’s something to this numerical odds concept. Yeah, right. If you’re the one in the water rolling on your side with blood gushing out where your leg used to be, I don’t think the numerical odds are going to mean much.
I’ve been in and on the water a long time in many different areas. It’s my life. I’ve had enough experiences to convince me that numerical odds and politically correct platitudes don’t mean a thing if a shark wants a bite.
Once a friend and I were diving for fish and conch far off the beaten track in the lower Exumas. A big shark got very interested in us. We’d stupidly wandered far from our little dinghy. We had a couple of groupers in a bag — another highly stupid thing to do. We dropped the bag as soon as we saw the shark, hoping he’d be interested in the dead, bleeding fish inside. It certainly made sense to us. Not to the shark. He kept closing on us.
We swam to the dinghy on our backs, shoulder to shoulder, so that we could see the shark as we flipped into its face with our flippers. We swam for about 10 minutes, although it seemed like hours. The idea was that the frothing and direct contact from the flippers might discourage it and, if it didn’t and he took a bite, as long as it wasn’t too big a bite, he’d only get flippers and hopefully wouldn’t think they tasted very good. We finally got back to the dinghy, at which point we had to turn our backs to the shark and climb over the sides, a feat difficult in itself because the dinghy kept trying to turn over as we frantically wriggled aboard.
Don’t tell me we shouldn’t have been in the water in “his home” or that we were upsetting him or tweaking his curiosity because we were fishing. We have a right to eat seafood, too, and the way we were getting it was a lot more environmentally friendly than most any other way I can think of. Besides, sharks aren’t political. He wasn’t ticked because we were in “his world.” He didn’t have anything personal against us. He just wanted to eat us — or at least check us out with that as a possible goal, like looking at a menu posted outside a restaurant to see how good it’ll be inside. Yes, we had done two colossally stupid things: keeping the grouper in the bag and straying too far from the dinghy. We should have had the dinghy right with us and thrown the grouper in and left the scene as soon as we had gotten the first one to try our luck elsewhere.
Some years ago our family was in the water in the Bahamas, after a grouper under a ledge. Our 12-foot aluminum dinghy was close by. Mel tapped me on the shoulder and pointed over hers. There between the dinghy and us, including our two young daughters, was a huge hammerhead, far longer than the dinghy. I’d say it was about 15 feet, as compared to the dinghy. Fortunately it glided on. It could have had us if it wanted to. We glided back to the dinghy and didn’t do any more diving in that spot for a long while. And, yes, we had every right to be fishing for our dinner. We all had a right to be there. The only difference is that there’s no way I could have bitten a chunk out of that shark, although he would have had no trouble doing that to me.
On another occasion a large hammerhead was spotted in Elizabeth Harbour off George Town on Great Exuma. This was well before our time in the Bahamas, but very reliable friends who were there witnessed the following. A large dead pig floating in the harbor washed up on the beach of Stocking Island at high tide. At low tide there were several feet between the pig’s body and the shallow water’s edge. Because of the gradual slope of the shore, the shallow water, only a few inches deep, extended well out from the beach.
The hammerhead sensed the dead hog and began wriggling up into the shallow water. It continued wriggling until the forward part of its body was on dry land. It proceeded up the beach, grabbed the hog in its mouth and wriggled back into the water with it. So much for “Oh, we shouldn’t be in its ocean.”
The power and endurance of sharks is amazing. Once, in that same harbor, when we were visiting in Chez Nous, a hammerhead was seen repeatedly in the waters where people were swimming. It had reportedly closed on people several times, fortunately with no outright attacks. Folks on a large, heavy trawler decided to try to catch the shark. They trolled for hours and finally hooked it. This was not the end of the show. They couldn’t get the shark aboard or kill it, so they just decided to let it drag them around for a while. It did, for more than 12 hours before it finally expired.
We witnessed something similar to the pig retrieval much later in another harbor. We were moored near a large area of mangrove shallows. The mangrove — warm waters and very soft sand, almost muddy it was so soft — was a great place for rays to hide, buried but for their eyes under the deceiving white bottom. A ray, in the right circumstances, can make a great meal for a shark. We’ve seen hammerheads attack rays. Our children, until we learned better, had a great time wading and playing in the mangrove swamp at low tide. Until we learned better.
One afternoon we heard a furious thrashing in the mangroves. We saw a huge hammerhead foraging in the shallow water. This water was only a few inches deep. At least 90 percent of the shark’s body was out of the water, but it was totally in control, seemingly unhampered as it looked for food, moving with great speed and power. It would have had no difficulty whatsoever latching on to the leg of a human and pulling him to deep water.
A sea of sharks
I’ll never forget that night when we were well off the U.S. East Coast, making a passage north one spring. It’s good to do it that way if the weather is right because you just head north instead of following the curve of the coast or dealing with all of the ICW twists and turns in Georgia and South Carolina.
I don’t remember which of those states we were off; it doesn’t seem like much difference out there, and we were very far out of sight of land. As is typical for that time of year, twilight was long and night came gently. The evening sea breeze died down and the light chop disappeared from the top of the gentle swell. You could look down into the ocean in the last of the light. We love to do that, but sometimes we don’t like what we see.
This evening, even before we looked down, we saw what was there just by looking out to the east and then all around us. There were fins. Not just one or two and not just here or there but everywhere, surrounding us as far as we could see. There were hundreds of fins. It wasn’t about a cute song or anything nice. There was no cute character singing “Under the Sea,” like in “The Little Mermaid.” It was about being in the midst of a huge crowd of sharks as darkness was coming on. They weren’t porpoises or tips of ray fins or anything else that one would want to think in denial. We could see down into the water to watch the ones close in, and they were sharks.
I’ll never forget the feeling as we moved along, my two young daughters and wife and me, Chez Nous being the only thing between us and all those predators. The first thing I did was run down and check the bilge, just to see. Just to make myself feel better. Not that there’s any good time to sink, but this would have been a particularly bad time. I continued to check the bilge about every half-hour for the rest of the night. As darkness finally engulfed our part of the ocean, we still saw those fins — everywhere.
I don’t know why there were so many, and I’m not sure what kind of sharks they were. I’ve spoken to a few “shark scientists” — yes, there are indeed people like that — and the best they could tell me was that they hadn’t heard of any gathering in those numbers before, but that there probably was some sort of mating thing going on. It didn’t really make me feel any better about possibly being in a shark mating orgy rather than a feeding frenzy. I wouldn’t have liked to be the bait in an experiment to find out whether, to a shark, good sex is better than a good meal.
You might be saying, “Well, none of those sharks ate you, so back off.” True, but I still don’t think that. Consider the nice outing in August 2010, when some gentlemen from Nassau were fishing. It’s reported that they were about 35 miles south of New Providence, down toward the Exumas. They’d been trying to avoid sharks because if you hook a fish the shark is likely to “land it” before you do.
They got a grouper on the line, but something else was there, too. It was a shark that wasn’t letting go. In fact, they hooked the shark three times, and on the third encounter one of the fishermen shot it in the head. They pulled it aboard, at which time it coughed up a foot attached to a lower leg. They called the Royal Bahamas Defence Force, and further investigation of the shark’s contents revealed the other leg, two severed arms and a severed torso.
The remains, reported to have been identified by fingerprints, were believed to be those of a fisherman who had been on a boat that had engine failure. It was reported that he had jumped over to try to swim it in. He wasn’t seen again; neither was another friend who jumped over with him. The reports I read conjectured (hoped) that the gentleman may have drowned before being eaten.
This and many other experiences have led me to adopt certain practices. One was to build an aluminum dinghy (tough and not very tasty) that was wide enough for two or more people to quickly flip over the side from deep water without flipping the dink. When you’re in the water and a shark is closing, you need to get into the dinghy very quickly, hopefully without taking turns and without having to swim around to the other side to coordinate a double entry.
Other practices were to never venture far from the dinghy and to not stay in one area very long when spear-fishing. Even if you don’t shoot a fish, they can put out vibrations or other signals that may attract the attention of a shark. (We fish with a Hawaiian sling, giving the fish a huge advantage and allowing us to take only what we’re going to eat without injuring anything else.)
Another is to always have a dive knife. I’ve heard from very experienced people that if a shark is nosing into you, it may be checking you out to see whether you’re tasty. If you can poke him in the nose with the end of the knife he may get the idea that this is what you taste and feel like and would rather go find something softer and juicier to chomp on. I don’t know if this is true, and I’ve never been entirely comfortable with poking a shark coming after me in the nose, although it’s better than some of the alternatives. I prefer flippers in the shark’s face. They’ve worked for me, but nevertheless I don’t dive for fish or for any other reason without a dive knife.
Also, we avoid diving or swimming at dawn or dusk. One island saying is that dusk is shark dinner time, and at dawn they’re coming up to find some good food in the light. When we’re diving we spiral around as we surface, checking the underwater horizon for any signs of sharks, and when we’re down we always keep a watch. Importantly, I don’t assume they’re not there because I don’t see any. I was talking with a Bahamian friend once who was amazed and horrified that I swam in the muddy waters of the Chesapeake.
“But you can’t see the sharks,” he said. I’d never thought of it that way, but he was right. They’re there. In the clear waters of the Bahamas and other areas you can see them rather well. In the muddy waters along the East Coast, you can’t. But that’s no reason for thinking they’re not there.
As much as some would like for it to be so, the world is not a Disneyland. And many parts of “beautiful nature” are wild and dangerous. The ocean is exceptionally wild and awesomely powerful. I love it; I love it deeply. I also fear it. And I don’t love its sharks.
Tom Neale is technical editor for Soundings and lives aboard a Gulfstar 53 motorsailer. You can buy his book, “All in the Same Boat,” and his two-disc DVD, “Cruising the East Coast With Tom Neale,” at www.tomneale.com.
This article originally appeared in the April 2012 issue.