The water is around 80F, cobalt blue, darker in places, and the visibility is about 25 ft. We are seven divers, 90 ft (about 6 stories) deep down in the Carribbean sea, of the coast of Belize, on the second bigest barrier reef in the world, near San Pedro (Ambergris Caye) where we’re enjoying a fasntrastic holidasy.
The main pack of divers is in sight, but swimming about 15 foot away from me, some flailing enough to frighten away the fish. It’s my 50th dive, and I’m finning smoothly, trying to disturb the water as much as possible. Then it happens – something with fins of its own emerges from the gloom.
It’s a shark. Or should I say, sh-sh-sh-shaaaark!, as they say in Jaws. About 6ft long, with a large dorsal fin as well as a smaller one, and looks like the most confident animal in the water. Ignoring me, it either cares not a jot or is sizing me up. Its posture isn’t intimidating but – with a perfect design that, fundamentally, has barely changed since the dinosaur era – that could change all too easily. With wild animals, I have an observe but don’t touch policy – I wonderwhat code of conduct the shark has?
Its a real wonder to watch it its environment. Perfectly adapted, its long tail sways side to side rythmically, effortlessly moving the fish through the water. A quick flick turns it on a dime, and it powers off into the darkess, leaving me far beind in seconds. No-one else sees it. It disappears.
Then it comes back for another run, coming closer to me, and disappears again. Finally, the rest of the dive group sees what’s going on, and fin over to join me in witnessingn this graceful predator in motion…but then it disappears into the darkness. We’re just about to head back on course when it reappears. And it has brought a friend.
This time, the shark swims right at me. We’re on a chicken course, swiming at each other, me as hydro-dynamic as a Xmas tree, the shark like a torpedo. We’re practically nose-to-nose when we split. It’s either not bothered or its trying to suss me out – friend or foe. What’s shark for ‘friend’?
Fortunately, these guys are nurse sharks – harmless to humans. Unless you wiggle your fingers, that is, which they might mistake for squid, their favourite meal. As it goes, almost all sharks will only eat what they can fit in their mouth, and attacks on humans are infesstimally rare. Of course any attack is reported wih disproportionate drama thanks to Jaws, which has in turn made it socially acceptable to slaughter these magnificent creatures to the point of extinction.
Even these docile sharks give us a shiver, though – they just look sharky. Sharks are often bigger than other fish you see – and sharing the same water in such close proximity with such big creatures is a rare pleasure. Before long, we’re seeing more and more.
Where there’s big sharks, there’s big fish
Where there are sharks, there tend to be other big fish. We see the biggest reef fish in these waters, the goliath grouper. At about 6-7ft long, and really chunky, they are massive. Images of fish and chips keep flashing into mind – they also look tasty. There’s a big turtle having varous diseases removed by cleaner fish, and giant moray eels, one of which ugly animals comes righy up to my face, inches away, as if for a twisted kissing experiment. I feel like I’m being stalked by a 10-pinter in a regional nightclub.
The dive ended on an even bigger high. In additon the to huge fish and large schools of smaller ones swirling around this mother of all aquariums, more and more gentle nurse sharks appeared. Big and small, there were about 15 in total, some swimming in a school, others all alone, each one masters of their domain. Everyone is capivated, non-one terrified, in spite of the shouty propoganda.
Back on the boat, speeding away from San Pedro Canyon and Esmerelda dive sites on a twin 200 engine speed boat (fast), the group is buzzed. Munching on fresh pineapple and gulping down water, it’s all shark tales from the from the group that lived to spin the yarn. For my 50th dive, it couldn’t have been much better.