All right, one might call the title a click-bait. Then again, this is going to be about sharks to some extent, and I really did not get eaten by them.
Now, let’s get to the story itself. After I revealed a terrible secret to my wife and hurt her real bad in the process, she decided to banish me to faraway seas. Only in reality, it was a deal we’d had from before, the exact opposite of punishment.
I still consider that trip a great boon and an amazing act of courtesy from my wife. Not too long after finding out she’s pregnant, she told me to book myself on a Maldives adventure organised by a freediver friend of ours. She rightly supposed there wouldn’t be much bandwidth for such expeditions once the baby is born.
I would have loved her to come along but the cartilaginous fishes in the title are there for a reason. The trip was carefully planned to include at least one sharky site a day, and while these animals tend to inspire quite a lot of awe among most freedivers I know, they also do command a great deal of respect. Especially among pregnant women who are not big fans of large predatory creatures in general. So I packed up my gear and left alone one mid-winter morning. Or so I thought.
Already on the bus to the airport I knew I was about to meet some curious beasts way before dipping into the balmy waters of the Arabian Sea. The anxiety and depression first announced themselves with mild tension growing at the back of my head, both literally and metaphorically.
I tried to breathe and relax them away, but it was no use. In barely an hour they were with me in full force, eager to explore new mischief opportunities presented by the trip.
Most of the tedious journey from Ireland all the way to the equator, I was switching between vivid images of about a dozen different ways of dying. There were various flavours of plane crashes, few drownings in boat accidents, losing an arm to a curious tiger shark, getting a piece of thigh ripped out by an aggressive longimanus, you name it.
By that time, I’d been this mad long enough to know how to shake off those ideas before they could do any substantial damage. But it wasn’t exactly enjoyable all the same. And there were still new things that were actually not so terribly unlikely, which meant they freaked me out big time. Like when I learned that the Maldivian custom officers were supposed to be quite harsh about booze being smuggled into their godly Muslim country. Damn, I was telling myself, why did I have to stash those two hip flasks full of home-made fruit brandy into my check-in bag? I was sure I’d be transferred into a cockroach-infested jail straight from the arrivals hall.
A strange thing happened, though. None of the four planes en route to the southern reaches of the archipelago crashed. And if my hip flasks did show on the scanners, the cheerful custom guys didn’t seem to consider them a major threat to the decency of the country’s populace. So off to the liveaboard I went.
So far so good, but the first day of diving was a disaster. For the past few years, I’ve been having persistent sinus infections every now and then (maybe the immune system compromised by my mental afflictions is to blame). Normally it’s no bother at all. But once I have it, spending a full day locked up in a number of air-conditioned metal cylinders is sure to wreak havoc on the mucus membranes inside my head. And that’s no good for diving. Not at all.
After the first two quick dips to the bottom by the boat, my sinuses started to feel as if someone was hammering a nail into my forehead. That meant getting rather conservative about any underwater explorations I was so eager to dive into. The only good part were the bloody snots spouting from my nose after every foolish attempt to go deeper than three meters. It made quite a few blacktip and whitetip sharks curious about me and my French buddies.
Thrilling as those close encounters were, I couldn’t wait to get out of the water and crawl somewhere in the corner to whine about how unlucky I’d got. But I did no such thing, of course. I put on my well-worn cheerful mask instead and joined a modest welcome party where my hip flasks turned out to be much appreciated extra guests.
Once the last couple left to their cabin, though, I couldn’t hold the gloom off me any longer. Sleep was impossible. I was jet-lagged and despondent about leaving my troubled wife for a trip I’d probably spend sitting on the boat, mad with envy and rage for not being able to dive while the rest of the people are having the time of their lives.
The second day was no better than the first, and the night after followed the suit. For long hours, I tossed on the starry bed of a tanning mat I spread on the top deck like I’m used to on boats in warm seas. I listened to the ripples sloshing on the hull, numb fingers gripping my sweaty blanket that threatened to fly away in the steady breeze. I watched the clouds passing over the full moon, wishing my thoughts got blown away like them. When that didn’t work, I tried to think of nothing the way true breath-hold divers do when their head grows bothersome. But nothing worked. I kept sinking deeper and deeper into the ocean of my madness.
All of a sudden, sharp tolling of the boat’s bell made me rise with a start. Voices were coming from the dive deck below.
Wait, I thought. That’s just where the crew had set up a searchlight in a naive hope of attracting enough krill for a whale shark to come and feed on it.
It wasn’t supposed to happen. In Maldives, these beautiful fishes retreat to deep waters in winter. It’s rare to encounter them on the surface, let alone on a full moon night when there’s plenty of “shallow” food for them anywhere. And yet it was happening by the sound of the commotion.
I stumbled down the gangway stairs, trying to wipe melancholy dreams from the slits of my eyes. Quick jump over to the smaller diving boat tethered to us, rummaging in the gear crate for the mask, thinking about the fins and suit, ditching the idea right away. There was no time to waste. Back I went and on to the dive deck astern.
The fish was gone. But not for long.
What happened on that late January night of the year 2018 became the basis for one of the most personal scenes in a book I sort of finished recently. Maybe it’s best just to give you bits of that scene now. I can’t describe it any better with my writing skills being where they are at the moment…
I tumble away from the edge of the deck, my breathing fast and shallow all of a sudden. I reach for the speargun. It calms me down a little. On my knees, I shuffle back, ready to smash the powerhead into the face of whatever is coming up. But there’s still nothing I can see.
Could this be some sort of a joke Seahorse pulled off to pay me back for all those teases about her imaginary friend? I’m ready to congratulate the boat on a nice prank when my mouth freezes in disbelief.
Vague outlines wax and wane just below the reach of our light. There is something monstrously large down there all right.
A square shadow of a huge head fades into focus, followed by pectorals nearly as big as our sail. It takes ages before the beast ponderously snakes far enough for me to see the sharp lobes of its tail. They’re like a plane’s rudder, both in shape and size. The bulk of the body tapers towards the tail, but I doubt I could lay my arms around the thing even at its thinnest.
I wonder what kind of animal could this be. A whale, perhaps? It’s sure big enough for that. The tail is vertical, though, and the body moves sideways. No whale then. A fish. But none could grow this big, could they?
And then I remember the last page I read in the Reef Life book before I dozed off. Of course.
I drop the gun and kneel. The animal is rising, slow but straight, the flat head facing me. I can already see the ridges running down on the streamlined body. The belly of the beast is white, the grey-brown skin on the back is covered with square patterns of brighter dots. Yes. I was right. It can’t be anything else.
Cold shivers trickle down my spine. Once again I can’t believe what I am seeing despite the truly massive and undeniable proof rising before me.
Two meters away, the creature tilts its head. A tiny eye looks at me, rolling in a thick roundish skin fold. I return its gaze, tears of awe making my vision all blurry.
When the giant all but breaks the surface, there’s a sucking sound. A whirl of bubbles rushes down through the water. The thing has opened its mouth.
The head suddenly doesn’t look that flat anymore. I could easily jump through the oval maw rimmed with fleshy white lips. The strong muscles that line the throat of the fish flex as it gulps on a barrel-full of those little shrimps.
‘Look at this hungry bugger,’ your father says. ‘What is it, another dead thing from your books?’
I clear my throat, then decide I’ll give my voice a bit of rest.
‘Yes,’ I say in mind-speak. ‘This is a whale shark. The biggest and most beautiful fish ever.’
I put the diving mask on my face, moving even slower than the shark. Then I push away all thoughts and slide into the sea. I have to make the most of such a living dream, just in case I’m ever going to wake up from all this.
The damn mask is flooding. That’s what happens when one rushes into something without much thinking. I tread water, seeing just blurs of blue and grey. So close to the graceful shark, I feel very clumsy and stupid. And also a little nervous about what else might be lurking in the deeper waters where the boat’s light doesn’t reach.
I draw a couple of slow breaths and relax. No way I call this off because of a leaking mask. I clear the thing and put it on my face the right way. The dream is back on.
The whale shark is not bothered by me floating right by its face. The long blades of the tail are moving somewhere down in the dark, ever so slowly to keep the immense body in place. Nothing can stop the creature from feeding on the dense cloud of krill that got drawn to Seahorse’s light.
My breathing adjusts to the rhythm of the beast’s giant gulps. I hold onto the bar of the diving ladder with one hand, my eyes lost among the dots and stripes on the shark’s back. After a minute I exhale and go for a shallow dive. I want to have a closer look at the pulsing gills.
Each of the five slits is longer than my forearm. Delicate sponges of reddish fibers show inside, full of the creature’s blood. When I hold my hand over the flaps of thick skin, a strong squirt of the shark’s breath pushes it away.
I go back to the surface for a proper breathe up. Getting the flow going is easier than ever. In less than a minute I remove the snorkel from my mouth and dive again, breaking the surface without as much as a ripple.
There is no annoying struggle against my own buoyancy this time. The nightly ocean welcomes me as a long lost friend. Could it be the shark’s presence, drawing me in that smooth? I must be moving, making strokes with my arms and legs, but there’s no sense of going anywhere.
Darkness sets in like a blue velvet veil sliding over my face. The whole surface world is just a memory, so hard to believe. I think about the speargun I’ve left back on the boat. It briefly makes me feel very naked indeed. But then I go one stroke deeper into the fluid twilight and relax. Why would I need any weapons here?
After I pass the vanishing outlines of the shark’s huge tail, my eyes are no use anymore. Am I falling or hanging in place? Doesn’t matter.
The beast is with me. I can’t tell how but I know it has stopped feeding and came to join me in the black void. I feel its slow moves the way fish are aware of unseen things, using their skin and other senses I can’t possibly have. Never mind. I keep moving through the darkness alive with the shark’s presence.
At some stage the massive fish gets so close its watery breath touches my face. The creature begs me to follow, deeper and further from the boat.
I do as it asks. I can’t imagine going anywhere else.
We dance through the empty night. An unlikely but well-matched couple, we tumble and dive, wheel and soar, in slow motion as if swimming in a liquid much thicker than mere water. Often we all but touch, only to bounce back out of sheer awe and respect.
It takes hours, at least that’s how it seems to me, until the shark heads up. I wish to dance some more but I know I can’t survive here, not alone. So I follow the beast again.
It’s a long swim through pitch black waters. Every muscle in my body burns by the time the shark leads me back to the ball of Seahorse’s light. And then we are where we started, hanging next to each other by the stern. Other than my loud breaths, it’s as if we never left.
Well, that’s it. The scene still doesn’t do justice to what I felt in the water that night, but it’s as close as I could manage.
My sinuses bled like crazy after I totally ignored the pain during the dive with the shark. I thought that was it, the end of diving for good. Funnily enough, however, the problems gradually ebbed away the next day, and the rest of the trip was pure magic. You can check for yourself in a 15-minute video made by a fellow freediver (who can quite obviously do much better shots than the one I picked from my own archive for this post’s feature image).
To conclude, the magic of the Maldives adventure didn’t cure my madness as it might seem. But it did give me one of the most precious things I ever got in my life. An inspiration with power unlike anything I’d experienced before.
I may be wrong, but I think this view started the whole thing:
A nondescript, nameless giri, but to me it was a most significant portent of the doom we’ve called upon us – a drowning islet, all but dead, the desiccated trees standing their hopeless guard over turquoise glitter of lands lost to the rising seas.
That image and the underwater beauty everywhere around, the beauty that may be gone so soon, those were the beginnings of the book that has kept me busy for almost two years. So busy I often felt nearly impossibly alive, which was quite a change after a long, long time.
The feature image and the giri picture is a video still and a photo, respectively, from my archive (both falling under the default CC BY-NC-SA license).