Sharks in Paradise

By Jennifer Gacich, May 3, 2010

Diving with dolphins - photo by Jennifer Gacich

Diving with dolphins - photo by Jennifer Gacich

It’s a beautiful balmy morning in paradise and we’re about to plunge into the Pacific Ocean for a dive. Rangiroa, an enormous atoll in the Tuamotus, French Polynesia, is renowned for its spectacular diving, and for good reason.

The reef is teeming with marine life; large predators like sharks and barracuda abound while mantas, napoleon fish and turtles often pass you by. You can also see dolphins near the famous Tiputa pass and our diving instructor seems hopeful that we’ll see them again today. As luck would have it, our ‘diving party’ is small with just myself, my boyfriend Giorgio, a newlywed Canadian couple and a diving instructor.

Just before rolling back off our dinghy into the ocean, I notice the instructor fiddle with a plastic bag. To my horror, I see him pull out something resembling a fish carcass. Shark feeding in the open ocean where tiger sharks lurk was not mentioned in our pre-dive briefing and it certainly wasn’t on my ‘things to do before I die’ list! Eyes bulging and voice shaking, I feebly attempt to protest, but my fellow divers desert me and decide to go along with the instructor’s grand plan. Defeated and on edge, I splash into the ocean and hope for the best.

We start descending and reach about 15 meters below the surface when the instructor empties the contents of the plastic bag and ‘chums’ the water to attract some deep dwelling predators in the mood for a snack. Giorgio and I exchange nervous glances through our masks and I instinctively tighten my clasp of his arm. I figure the two of us would appear less appetizing than a lone diver amidst the bait. A few minutes go by as we wait, then I see two sharks circle their way up from the blue. They close in on us, inspecting the situation while trying to identify the source of the lingering fish scent. Other sharks appear and come a bit too close for comfort, but thankfully, after what seems like an eternity, they decide the show is over and descend back into the blue.

Diving with dolphins - photo by Jennifer Gacich

Diving with dolphins – photo by Jennifer Gacich

As tension subsides, I ease my grip on Giorgio’s arm and settle for the reassuring clasp of his hand. Our dive party regroups and we follow the instructor in pairs into the blue. At this point, I start questioning our instructor’s sanity as he heads deeper and deeper into the abyss. With no reference points other than lighter or darker shades of blue, the open ocean is a place that makes my stomach churn and my head spin. Fearing the onset of a panic attack, I convey my fears to Giorgio by pointing accusingly at the instructor then hitting myself repeatedly in the head with my index finger. Thank goodness Giorgio is Italian as my wild hand movements are understood immediately. When the instructor finally spots us above him, he too understands my gestures and comes back up to 20 meters.

All of a sudden, breaking the monotony of the blue, a joyous dolphin appears, swimming around us. I enthusiastically get my camera ready and start clicking away, when it vanishes as quickly as it had appeared. The elation of seeing the dolphin quickly fades as we approach what looks like a wall of murky green water. I get a flash of sitting by the pass the previous evening, watching dolphins perform acrobatic jumps in the surf of the bright green strip of ocean current that swept into the lagoon. The look of panic on our instructor’s face confirms my fears. Instead of going towards the reef, we had been swept away from shore and were heading straight into the turbulent out-going current from the lagoon into the ocean. He starts violently pumping his fist back and forth, signalling that we have to swim away from the current. I pull on Giorgio’s arm, trying desperately to get him to follow me, but he doesn’t understand what’s happening. I keep pulling and kicking as hard as I can, following our diver leader while looking back at Giorgio, but he keeps resisting. So I let go. He then clues in that something’s wrong and follows me, as do the Canadian couple. My legs start to tire, but I force myself to keep kicking my fins. Our instructor finally slows down and while the four of us regroup, he shoots up to the surface. To my horror, I see his arms move from side to side as his body jerks back and forth, clearly indicating that we’re lost. Another vision flashes before me. The headlines of the Canadian paper read: ‘newlyweds, Canadian woman, Italian man and French diving instructor lost in the Pacific and presumed dead’. The realization that your worst nightmares can come true is crushing and heartbreaking.

Diving with sharks - photo by Jennifer Gacich

Diving with sharks – photo by Jennifer Gacich

Just as I’m visualizing our gruesome death, floating away until we are picked off, one by one, by sharks, our dive leader signals us to surface. I’m the first one up as my survival instincts kick in and I see land far off in the distance. I turn in desperation to our instructor who is clearly in shock as he yells, “four divers were just killed because of the out-going current!” As I try to come to grips with nearly dying, the others surface and we see the dive boat come towards us. Our Polynesian ‘skipper’ helps us scramble back onto the boat and I start thanking him profusely for saving our lives. Giorgio, who’s pointing frantically at his dive watch and adamant about making the routine three minute safety stop at five meters, is the last to haul himself aboard, apparently oblivious to the danger had just been in. Our panic stricken instructor then explains what can happen if a diver gets caught in the out-going current: the turbulent waters drag you upwards and downwards as if you were in a washing machine until it eventually spits you out somewhere in the ocean. He says the divers who lost their lives had inflated their BCDs (buoyancy control devices) in a futile attempt to get to the surface, but the currents pushed them down. Apparently, they lost consciousness and their bodies revealed serious decompression related trauma as their inflated BCDs eventually caused them to shoot to the surface.

We are all in shock and disbelief and I’m in no mood to get back into the water, but we too run the risk of decompression illness. Having skipped the ‘safety stop’, which reduces the amount of residual nitrogen in the body, we run the risk of having nitrogen bubbles form. So, we get kitted up again as our skipper finds a sheltered area for our dive just off the reef. Once again, we roll back off the boat and start our decompression dive. The instructor tries to make up for his past folly by pointing out curiosities on the reef, when all of a sudden, someone is low on air. The next thing I know, I have our dive leader, reach for my secondary regulator. Our second ‘decompression’ dive ends as dramatically as the first.

Once back on dry land, the adrenaline rush from having survived the day carries us through the afternoon and well into the evening as we endlessly retell the story to anyone who will listen. Another day goes by, and we find ourselves in line at the airport, talking to a French couple we had seen at the dive centre. As we get talking, the woman ridicules my fear of shark feeding in the open ocean and considers adherence to safety stops inconsequential. We are left dumbfounded and ask ourselves who is truly at fault when accidents occur: is it the diving instructor who disregards safety issues; the insatiable tourist who wants extreme experiences; or is it a vicious circle which drives both to disregard simple common sense?

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