COCOS, CHAPTER 2: Tiger Sharks and Boobies

Divemaster Angelo began his briefing for the first dive: “As all of you have probably heard, there were some recent incidents at Manuelita. A diver and a divemaster surfaced away from the rest of the group. When the tiger appeared, the divemaster thought he was doing a good thing by kicking the tiger shark to scare it away. This only made it worse and the tiger attacked. Then, another diver surfaced completely alone and a tiger appeared again. This diver felt that he was in danger, he abandoned his gear, and he swam for Manuelita. The crew picked him up quickly, of course, and he was not attacked; but the point we want to make to you is this…do NOT surface alone. Do NOT separate from your dive group. We will all stay together as a group at all times. As soon as you drop in the water, descend quickly to where your divemaster tells you to meet him at. This is because the islands where we are diving around are nesting grounds for Boobies…” A few chuckles ensued. Angelo appeared confused by the chuckles as he tried to elaborate, “Birds…booby birds…you know what I’m talking about?” We nodded in unison. Angelo continued, “The tiger sharks circle close to these islands all day in search of baby boobies that fall from their nests into the water. That’s how lazy the tigers are. They wait for the easy meals. This is why you don’t want to be close to the islands where the tigers are circling. As soon as you hit the water, kick away from the island as you descend. Now, if for some reason you find yourself alone and a tiger approaches you within reaching distance, you have to take hold of its nose and push it away, okay? Like this…” Angelo motioned with his arms towards an imaginary tiger shark.

I thought about how difficult it would be to push a large tiger shark’s nose away while in mid-water or at the surface fully geared with nothing else to anchor myself on. I noticed the other divers grew quiet, possibly also plotting how they would accomplish such a feat. Angelo interrupted the silence, “Are there any questions?” My hand bolted up as I asked, “Can you drive us to where the tigers are feeding so we can film them catching the boobies?” He answered, “Of course, any other questions?” Brian asked, “Are there really no more night dives?” Captain Al answered, “You are correct. And, that’s not just for this boat, that’s for all of the liveaboard operators.” The divers released a collective sigh of disappointment. Angelo clapped his hands with excitement, “Let’s go diving!” The divers shuffled back down the ladders to the dive deck.

As I prepared my dive gear, I wondered…should we drop in water where the tigers were naturally feeding? We were all just big boobies after all. Then, I remembered the docile cow-like tiger shark grazing in the Fiji sand while the shark feeder stuffed fish heads into its mouth. Could it be possible the tigers of Cocos were different than the peaceful ones I met in Fiji and Hawaii? Could these ones be so aggressive to warrant such extreme dive measures and warnings? “Megan!” Hearing my name jolted me out of my thoughts and I peeked over the side of the boat to where Diego was preparing our dive tanks on the panga. “32!” Diego called out. I wandered over to the Nitrox log and marked down 32 percent oxygen. “Megan, yer up!” I grabbed my camera and climbed into the panga with Ed, Brian, Bogs, Henry, Robert, Annie, Pete, Emilia and Hans.

After a few minutes, the panga stopped in the same Chatham Bay where the mother ship was parked. I couldn’t be more relieved to have such an easy ride to the dive site. I back-rolled into the water and I descended to the reef. There were white-tipped reef sharks nestled in pretty much every hole and sand patch. I was having so much fun sidling up to an eagle ray when I noticed every diver suddenly kicking away from the reef into the open blue. I didn’t want to leave the reef, but I also didn’t want to get separated from the group. I kicked quickly after the other divers. While I chased them, I tried to imagine what it could be that was worth abandoning the beautiful reef for. The divers then pointed in all sorts of directions as though they could see something. I shrugged my shoulders at the diver next to me and gave him a ‘what-the-hell-are-we-chasing’ hand signal; he shrugged back. By this point, the divemaster signaled for a safety stop, and we ascended to 15 feet. Back on the panga, I questioned, “So, what was it that we were all chasing?” Bobbing on the surface, Emilia and her dad, Hans, smiled wide. Diego confirmed he saw a tiger shark on the surface and spoke to Captain Al, in Spanish. As Emilia climbed up the ladder, she exclaimed, “I turned around and a big tiger was following us. I couldn’t believe it!”   

On the second dive at Manuelita, I was on high alert for tiger sharks, so I descended very quickly. Once I reached the bottom, I kneeled on the sand with the other divers and surveyed the reef. As I looked around, the first thing that came to my mind was Hawaii. The clarity, the shallow hard corals, the warm temperature and zero current…all reminded me of common dive sites in Hawaii. Just then, a scalloped hammerhead glided by.

Then four more hammerheads hugged the reef and disappeared.

As I filmed a hammerhead in front of me, I looked over to my right and noticed a large tiger shark. As the tiger followed in a hammer’s wake, another hammerhead appeared to follow the tiger and then turned away.

I turned back to find the tiger’s shadow on the outer ring of the group. The tiger’s shadow circled the divers, and then the tiger reappeared to my right where I first spotted it. It looked like it was going to disappear into the deep, but then it turned and headed straight for us. It got closer than it had the first time, and particularly seemed interested in Bogs’ pink flamingo swim trunks, but then it turned again and disappeared. A short time later, I looked up to find the big belly of the tiger at the surface. It moved slowly around a diver’s bubbles, and then gradually disappeared into the shallows of Isla Manuelita.

The divemaster made us kick as far away from Isla Manuelita as possible during the safety stop. Once we reached the open blue, I couldn’t help but spin slowly 365 degrees to keep watch for the tiger. Even at the surface, I kept my face in the water as I removed my fins. Diego said the tiger was a 14-footer. As much as I enjoyed seeing the female tiger underwater, I did not want to meet her in my most vulnerable position at mid-water or at the surface. She got close enough in my opinion to where I definitely got the feeling that we were in her territory.

For the second dive at Manuelita, the same female tiger grew even more comfortable with us. She appeared almost as soon as we descended and remained with us the entire dive. She got so close to us at times that I saw her eyes roll back when Bogs’ camera flashed in her face. She turned away as soon as it flashed, but it didn’t scare her. She continued circling around and above us.

Two jack fish even joined her and took turns brushing their silvered bodies against her back. When she approached each diver, she made eye contact with each and every one of us. In fact, she never took her eyes off of us. When she looked into me, I got the feeling that she was very intelligent. It was the same feeling I had when the giant oceanic manta rays at Islas Revillagigedo looked into me, curious and also unafraid. I didn’t have the feeling at all that I was in danger; if anything, the tiger was our escort. 

By the time we kicked away from the island to complete the safety stop, the tiger shark vanished. When we surfaced and boarded the panga, Diego drove us right up to the edge of Isla Manuelita, where, sure enough, the same tattered dorsal fin broke the surface. As if he read my mind, Diego answered, “I keep watch on them and where they are when you are diving.” I asked him, “How many are there?” Diego said, “We’ve logged 15 so far.” I exclaimed, “15! I’m pretty sure we keep seeing the same one.” He nodded, “That’s one of the biggest. There’s a smaller one near the other panga.” 

Back on the mother ship, I climbed up to my room to change for dinner and found Sofia. I exclaimed “Did you see the tiger shark?” She huffed with wide eyes and her skin turned pale as she answered, “¿Vi el tiburón tigre?” I asked, “Are you okay?” She sighed, “Noooo.” She motioned with her hands to her feet and breathed, “Martin!” Martin was her dive buddy. I made a mental note to talk to him at dinner.

In the dining room, divers watched the Spanish version of “The Italian Job” movie. Carlos, our waiter, only spoke Spanish as well. When he brought me fish, I couldn’t figure how to politely say I couldn’t eat it. Bogs figured out my dilemma and spoke perfect Spanish to Carlos who promptly brought me chicken instead. Carlos then brought Bogs a packaged macaroni and cheese all heated up and ready to eat. I laughed, “Wow, VIP over here. I clearly have much to learn from you. And, how do you know Spanish so well?” Bogs answered, “I’m an ex CIA agent.” I laughed. He didn’t laugh. I stopped smiling, “Wait, isn’t that something you aren’t supposed to just openly share with a bunch of strangers?” He stated, “It’s been 10 years and my work is declassified now. You can ask me anything.” I paused and whispered, “I only want to know if aliens exist.” He smiled, “That’s your question?” I continued, “So, you’re not going to answer?” He continued smiling. I sighed, “I’m going to assume that’s a ‘yes’.” He said, “I didn’t answer.” I changed the subject, “How many confirmed kills do you have?” He smiled in silence. I continued, “You said I could ask you anything.” He elaborated, “I said you could ask. I didn’t say I was going to answer.” I pressed, “Come on!” He revealed, “Let me put it this way…when I got the call, I pointed at the computer screen and I said ‘make it go away’ and then it was gone.” I laughed, “Remind me never to piss you off.” 

Just then, Sofia and Martin sat down next to me. I turned to Martin and asked him, “What happened to Sofia today?” Martin spoke to Sofia in Spanish and then turned back to me, “Okay, I’m going to translate to you what she says.” Sofia spoke hurriedly as Martin translated for her, “I was already nervous for the first dive. My tank was too high and bumping against my head. I kept clearing my mask because it kept fogging up and then on the safety stop, a tiger shark kept circling and circling us. Then, on the second dive, I told Martin to keep watch on the safety stop. I felt a tug on my hair from Martin. I looked down and ‘wham!’ another tiger shark below my fins. On the third dive, I saw its shadow again, and I was so scared. It’s just too much for one day.” Sofia searched through her phone, held it up to me, and flipped through the photos as I gasped at how close the tiger shark was to her fins. I recognized the same mouth scar and tattered dorsal fin. Martin added, “We had to push the tiger away as Sofia climbed back on the panga.”

I couldn’t believe it. How could my bunkmate and I have two totally different experiences with this same tiger shark? There was so much fear in Sofia’s eyes. I thought more about Bogs’ pink flamingo trunks, and Sofia’s gear troubles and bright white fins. Maybe the Fijian divemasters were right about bright colors and contrast. And, the Cocos divemasters were right about being vigilant near the surface. The divers began to debate about choosing dive buddies based on weaknesses rather than strengths. As I got up from the dining table to head to bed, I overheard Ed’s response: “No, you want the worst dive buddy. You just have to be stronger than the diver next to you and then you can get away.” I heard the divers’ laughter echo from the dining room as I climbed the ladder to my room. 

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I create original abstract paintings inspired by my undersea adventures.

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