The Ascension Diver


Sharing With Sharks


Dan Kovalchik

You find a small pocket in the rocks that's filled with baby angelfish. It's so astonishing to see a school of these miniature beauties that you and your partner watch them for minutes. When you finally turn to explore the other wonders of marine life, you find one you hadn't bargained for--an eight foot shark.
What do you do when you find yourself sharing space with a shark? The answer in the movies is simple; you die. During my first encounter with the undisputed underwater King of the Beasts, I prayed that reality was different. In this case, it was; the prowler kept its distance, gliding in and out of the gloomy limit of our visibility before quietly disappearing for good.
Thus, I had survived my first shark encounter, but there were to be many more; my job had taken me to a tiny, mid-Atlantic rock called Ascension Island. The combination of Ascension's equatorial location and the near absence of environmentally-uncouth humans in the area made Ascension waters a luxuriant haven for fish.
When I first arrived on Ascension, I could name only a handful of undersea creatures but could recite dozens of tales of death and dismemberment caused by the denizens of the deep. Fortunately, Mike, a bona fide "island boy" imported from Saint Helena, taught me which critters I could enjoy and which I should respect from a distance. But when I asked him about sharks, I wasn't satisfied with his answer.
"Don't mess with them," he replied.
"I don't intend to, Mike. But what if they want to mess with me? What should I do?"
"I don't know. I've never seen them do anything except swim past me a couple times and then disappear."
I had seen too many movies to think that sharks would continue to leave me alone. I knew the clumsy beating of my flippers would sound like a dinner bell to some cruising brute.
The available diving literature was not particularly helpful, either. One magazine article, "Diving with Sharks", assured readers that they need not worry about sharks because. . . they would probably never see one! Not a word was dedicated to the wisest course of action a diver should take upon realizing he was "Diving with Sharks." Imagine a flight attendant handling the in-flight safety demonstration by simply telling the passengers, "In case of an emergency, don't worry. Statistics show most airplanes don't crash. Now, who needs a drink? Wow! That many?"
Mike and I dove or snorkeled the warm Ascension waters at least three times a week, and my nemeses developed the annoying habit of arriving ten minutes into each dive. I didn't like it, but I wouldn't consider giving up on diving; instead, I slowly learned to share the ocean.
Of course, this didn't mean I started taking buckets of chum with me. I wanted to share the ocean, not my appendages.
One sunny afternoon, Mike and I donned our tanks and entered the water by jumping off a rock ledge. We swam for only a few minutes before something blotted out the sun. After a small eternity, my eyes adjusted to the dimness and I saw the cause of the blackout; hundreds of thousands of small herring were racing over, under, and around us.
I was beginning to enjoy the feeling of being in the middle of such a spectacle when the thought occurred to me that these fish were running for a reason. Swimming against this living tide, Mike and I were heading directly into the jaws of whatever was chasing it.
We headed for the rocks. At thirty feet below the surface and only ten feet under the herring, I watched the river of fish and thought, "They're running from dolphins. Not sharks. . . dolphins. Please let it be dolphins."
It was sharks. Only sharks. A hundred reef sharks, Bull sharks, and who-knows-what sharks.
Back-to-back, Mike and I waited on the bottom, generating a great pillar of bubbles to mark our spot. The sharks, however, were only intent on following the herd, grabbing mouthfuls of herring. Ten minutes later, the last of the herring had gone by, but sharks still emerged from the now-murky water, looking for the catch of the day.
Thinking these stragglers just might be angry enough at missing the chow call to take a random bite out of anything in the vicinity, we made our way to shore, flinching at every movement we detected in the water.
It took me three days to drain the adrenaline from my body. I still prefer to swim exclusively with fish whose mouths are smaller than mine, but I know that's impossible. I'm still sharing the ocean.


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