“Have you heard of Ferrari and Lamborghini?” Antonio asked, as his machete sank into the half-frozen tuna carcass.
“That’s where I’m from. Modena. My family makes balsamic vinegar.”
The thought of balsamic vinegar drizzled on cherry-tomato bruschetta temporarily lulled me away from the smell of decomposing fish guts. I had eaten nothing but chicken Pad Thai for a week straight.
“May I try?”
Antonio handed me his machete. I swung it down on the tuna’s head as hard as I could and I barely made a dent. He laughed. I continued to hack away at the carcass until the head finally separated. I was surprisingly out of breath.
“I had to use both hands while you did it with only one.”
“I can’t use my other hand.”
He held his palm out and I noticed a long scar.
“A shark. I can’t even feel these two fingers. But, you know. I did a test one time during a feeding. I took out my knife and I cut my arm from here up to here. You know what happened?”
My eyes must have grown wide enough for him to respond.
“That was…kind of risky.”
“They ignored me and kept going for the fish. That was my proof.”
I glanced over at Leonardo, also from Modena, as he obsessively wrapped tape between each finger over his chain mail while muttering about “those damned nurse sharks.”
I realized I had entered a unique culture in a unique environment…shark feeders who regularly got bit by sharks and continued to feed them anyway.
“It just comes with the job.”
The breeze changed and the smell of fishy death hit me until I gagged. I climbed up the ladder and planted myself next to the captain.
“How can you…erp. There’s so much..” I exhaled. “Blood…” I stood on my tip toes as if I could rise above the smell, but I continued to gag.
Captain Chris smiled, “You get used to it.”
“I’m just going to hold my breath until we get there.”
“You know what hammerheads really love?”
“Eagle rays. They LOVE them. But, they are too cute to cut up on deck in front of the guests. My question is…what’s the difference? A life is still life. Why is an eagle ray more important than a tuna?”
“I say let’s chop up some eagle rays and make some hammers happy.”
“Seriously, though. You should see Bimini in the summer. There are so many eagle rays…thousands…the boat parts them. You can’t even see the bottom.”
As if on cue, an eagle ray burst out from the surface, it’s spotted black body hovered in the sunlight, and then gravity grabbed a hold of it’s long tail and hauled it back under the sea. A few other eagle rays attempted to also escape from the sea, but they each crashed and belly-flopped.
“How did you do that?” I questioned the captain.
“I told you. That’s why the hammers are here.”
I climbed back down the ladder as Antonio disappeared under the surface to set up the chum boxes. Krishna methodically stuffed fish heads into Excalibur, the device used to attract (or distract) the sharks. It was called Excalibur because the shark feeders continuously pulled the sword up and down through a metal tube in order to grind up the bones of the fish, and it was impossible to pull the sword completely out. Obviously, a man invented it because when a shark feeder used Excalibur (especially when his back was turned), it appeared as though he was pleasuring himself. This would go on for the hours that we spent underwater each day. Having strong forearms was a long-running joke throughout the week.
When I saw the first great hammerhead, I was confused. She approached Antonio at such a hard angle, that her long dorsal fin appeared to be her pectoral fin. That sideways position was exactly how the great hammerheads emerged from the current each and every time. Antonio said it was because it was easier for them to swim that way, to cut through the current with the giant dorsal fin utilized as a pectoral fin. Since I was so used to swimming with the extremely shy scalloped hammerhead, I was worried my eye contact might frighten the similar species; however, they were not at all like the scalloped. Despite my continuous eye contact, the great hammerheads swam straight up to me to the point that I had to pull a Neo from the Matrix and back bend out of their way.
This is why I practice yoga.
On one dive, a 14-foot-long female hammerhead missed the fish handout and instead grabbed Antonio’s fin. She shook her head until his fin came off of his foot, and then she swallowed it. Almost immediately, she regurgitated the fin. Antonio awkwardly kicked over and slid his fin back on his foot. He simply looked over at us and shrugged his shoulders as if to say matter-of-factly, “It’s just part of the job.”
Every time I looked behind me, there was a bull shark on the outskirts of the feeding arena; however, they never entered the arena. I saw the tiger and bulls on the night dive, but it was only ever the nurse sharks and the great hammerheads that approached the feeders. The great hammerheads even chomped the nurse sharks for getting in their way en route to a fish handout. Even Antonio swore that the bull sharks never approached the divers.
And, yet, I remembered the bull sharks from Fiji. The ones that required divemasters to guard our backs with large metal hooks. There was no such protection in the shallow, unobstructed, sandy bottom of Bimini.
On my final day of diving, it was immediately a different atmosphere when I dropped down to the shark arena. The great hammerheads were faster and bolder than usual. I analyzed the heap of nurse sharks for a clue, then I spotted them…four massive bull sharks. At first, it was interesting to watch the shark hierarchy. The bulls seemed to agitate the hammerheads, and the hammerheads swam so close to my head that I could floss their teeth. I enjoyed being closer to the hammerheads than ever before…until, I had to turn my back to them in order to keep my eyes on the bull sharks that crept ever closer to my back.
Two of the bull sharks broke from the pack and swam vertically towards the weights dangled at the safety stop. The bulls circled the weights and took turns bopping them with their noses. Another bull shark approached Leonardo directly and accepted a fish handout. It was becoming too much for me to keep my eyes on both my front and my back, so I motioned to the other two divers. We sidled up next to each other and kneeled back-to-back. While the bulls continued to shoot from the bottom to the surface, I grew especially nervous about how to get back to the boat.
Since the shark feeders were still busy feeding the hammerheads, I signed to the other two divers, and we agreed to abort the dive. We slowly ascended back-to-back. I continued to watch the shark feeders until I caught Leonardo’s eye. He made a sign to Krishna, who dumped the rest of the chum, and they both joined us near the surface. I continued to watch the bull shark feeding frenzy until we made it to the boat.