San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

The Nightmare Cry: ‘Shark! Everyone in the Boat!’

If you’ve ever been swimming or diving in the ocean, you’ve probably wondered if any big sharks were around. Sharks, of course, have been known to attack and eat people.

Just like pumas, lions, tigers, grizzlies, wild dogs, hyenas, crocodiles, alligators, giant pythons, leopards, big squid, leopard seals and polar bears. There is no reason to fear most sharks; only a few of the hundreds of shark species eat people. Just as you don’t worry too much about a Chihuahua, you don’t have to get worked up over Costa Rica’s Pacific whitetip and nurse sharks. But a few sharks command all your respect, as would a pit bull or a ridgeback.

The sharks to keep a wary eye on in Costa Rica come from two families: mako sharks and requiem sharks. Some of these species are legit monsters with only fish brains. They may eat first, and ask no questions later.

Their methodical, emotionless movements seem as cold as any giant reptile or robot. They are beautiful and deadly hunting and killing machines not known for spending time with the kids. The species are often not so easy to tell apart, especially if you are trying to casually bolt into the air.

During years of guiding scuba diving trips, I have never felt that my clients should leave the water because of a shark. But free diving, or breath-hold diving, offshore in the blue water is another story. Blue water in Costa Rica usually means depths of hundreds or thousands of meters, kilometers away from land. Offshore blue water is the clearest water in Costa Rica, and it is also the best place to see big, amazing animals, including species of sharks that you might not have seen after a decade of diving wellknown scuba locations – sharks you might not want to dive with anyway, such as oceanic whitetip and tiger sharks.

Part of the briefing free divers receive before hopping into offshore blue water is to be alert and aware of what’s around, just as you would on the African veldt or in North American bear country. Stay together, like a group of dolphins would. As with big cats, do not turn and flee. Stay near the boat. For most people, these things are instinctive. So is flying from the water into the boat like a professional gymnast when a big tiburón shows up.

One occasion on which I had to shout the terror-inspiring words of this story’s headline comes to mind. Go ahead; speak the words out loud, loud. Shout them if you will, and imagine: “Shark! Everyone in the boat!”

One fine day on a smooth Pacific, far out beyond Caño Island off southern Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula, we came across an old tire floating in the blue. One close look told us the tire had been adrift a long time, because thousands of fish were around in the transparent water. The algae covering the tire sheltered many tiny fish, so many they continually darted around the tire in a cloud.

They moved around so much because bigger fish had shown up to eat the small fish. Then even bigger fish had shown up, and they attracted even larger beasts, as they all tried to hide among each other. There was enough fish to fill your house to the roof with sashimi. Around one old tire.

We tied the tire to our boat, and there was our own personal reef of fantastic marine life. All the fish began to use our boat for shelter and protection. Ripples of fish began to fountain from the water around us. Bigger shapes moved below. The ocean was so calm and clear that we could see all the action from above the surface, standing in the boat.

I dropped into the water and held onto the boat. Then I began to swim around, staying close and marveling at the vista. A very large shape began to materialize into visibility, wide and flat – a giant manta.

Slowly she glided over with tiny, elegant flutters of her wings. She began a tight circle around the boat a few meters below the surface.

When I slowly dove down, she approached gently and we began to swim around the boat together. She flapped slowly right underneath me and I clumsily began to do the same with my arms. When I returned to the surface for a breath, she stayed with me, my shadow on her back.

The show continued for another halfhour, and everyone flew through clouds of fish and floated above the manta. Large wahoo cruised by. A school of people-sized tuna rocketed into a dense ball of little fish and then missiled away. Blue pilot fish began to swarm the area. Entranced, the swimmers began to stray off with animals, and I had to remind people to stay close to the boat. Then the science-fiction sounds of hunting dolphins filled the water, and they appeared, twirling, looping and diving by in extremely synchronized groups, picking off tasty fish bocas.

A big boat full of people arrived and they began to flop into the water with great splashes, scattering the densely packed cloud of marine life. The manta came back along with many fish, but the dorado, dolphins and wahoo did not return. Everyone swam with the curious manta and the schools of little fish. Then I heard and felt the pulse of dolphins echo-locating me from far away. By the sound I could tell they were coming in fast, right for me.

Dolphins began to streak into view, racing head-on toward me. Two veered off and grabbed fish from under the boat, but the rest of the pod kept racing by a few meters below us. If they were chasing something, I had missed whatever it was. As the last of the pod rocketed into view, I saw a different shape and movement behind the dolphins. The shape and side-to-side movement could mean only one thing: shark. A big dusky shark of the requiem family, potentially dangerous and moving very fast, directly toward our group. I lifted my head above the surface and shouted the words: “Shark! Everyone in the boat!”

I put my head back down in the water to see what was happening. The last dolphins were underneath me now, and the shark was still power-finning toward us, 10 meters below the surface. My view of the big fish improved as it approached, and then I noticed something peculiar. The shark was tired, maybe even exhausted. It seemed to be struggling to keep up the pace of the dolphins. His finning was sloppy, reminding me of being completely winded and still trying to run. The shark passed by underneath, apparently not even noticing us.

The last two pairs of dolphins looped back around like lightning and began to volley small bait balls of fish among them, eating a fish on each volley of the little, fleeing, morphing schools. The shark went right for them, but the dolphins were gone. Now they were over there, eating fish and playing sashimi volleyball. The shark bolted over in a jerky turn and the dolphins peeled away smoothly, not even seeming to notice the shark. The shark seemed to be gasping for oxygen, if this were possible.

The splashers in the other boat had evaporated out of the water immediately after the word “Shark!” but some of my people were still getting out, a few deciding they wanted a glimpse of the dreaded beast. I put my head up out of the water and someone asked, “How big is it?” I looked back underwater at the shark chasing the feasting dolphin teams like a poor puppy chasing a Frisbee tossed between serious throwers. The shark was bigger than the dolphins. I put my head up and replied, “Bigger than you, and he’s hungry.”

Everyone else got out of the water. I stayed in and got right next to the boat, with my hand on the gunnels and my body underwater up against the hull. The shark showed no interest in me, and the captain and a client got in the water to see. A bigger group of hunting dolphins sounded us and then zoomed into view, eating fish like hungry looters in a grocery store. The shark disappeared out of sight.

All sharks may disappear if we hunt them to extinction. While I think the seas were once a much more dangerous place because of sharks, this is no longer the case in many areas, including Costa Rica. Just as wolves or big cats in Europe and the United States are mostly gone, I think the same can be said for sharks. Most of them are gone because of overfishing. Certainly the biggest, most productive animals are long gone. Sharks have been around 10 times longer than us, but it remains to be seen whether they will survive the attack of wasteful, hungry humans.


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