On sharks and diving

It was 1970s.  I had moved to Tampa Fla, from Ohio/Penna., and was enjoying my first times in the south.  It was so inexpensive that my first year there, I must have gone to Grand Cayman 6 or 8 times.  I had been encouraged to develop my own film by a few people that I had faith in, but so far I had only tried black and white.  Black and white was easy, didn’t require a lot of equipment and was only a couple chemicals.  Color, on the other hand, seemed beyond my reach and intellect.  We were on the north shore of Grand Cayman and diving the wall there.  It was a long 4 day Thanksgiving vacation.  The same weekend in fact, where an identical DC3 travelling from Florida was forced down in Cuba and it cost $17,000.00 to get the dentist out of hoc.  We saw Cuban planes but were not forced down.   As it turned out, one day, the weather was so windy it was deemed unsafe to dive the wall and we were forced to dive in the sound which was protected by the island to the south and a barrier reef to the north.  The water was only about 30 ft deep but like always, crystal clear.  Carl…owner of the Voltwagen dealership in Tampa, and I were diving with out ladies and were around a large coral head looking at all the pretties when suddenly a shark went swimming by.  Now this normally causes one to breath a little deeper and heavier and we placed ourselves with the coral head between us and the shark.  It went on out of sight and we took the ladies back to the boat.  Both Carl and I were underwater photographers and we devised a plan to go back and photograph the shark.  We went back to the coral head and waited a short time, but no shark appeared.  We surfaced and knowing that sharks commonly patrol along a barrier reef, we swam across fully open sand out to the reef which comes almost completely to the water surface.  We waited a while and surfaced again, this time deciding to go half way back and stand back to back relatively unprotected.  We weren’t there very long when I got an elbow in the ribs and it was like…hold the camera out from my body…click, click, hold the shark away from me as I push it aside with the camera and lead it off past me to have it make about a 50 ft circle and do the same to Carl while we clicked and parried until we were both out of film.  We later determined it to be a bull shark about 5-6 ft long.  That weekend, I shot 25 rolls of film and when I turned them in to be developed into slides, I got 24 rolls back.  You can guess what was on that one roll of film, and you can guess who started developing his own slides since that time.  E6 is a fairly easy method of developing slide film and I have some wonderful images, and memories to prove it.

Another unusual shark story was when I was in med school and a member of The Philadelphia Seahorses…one of the first dive clubs in the USA.  We were all seriously into spearfishing then.  Nobody had or could afford underwater cameras.  We were diving on a “Collier”…a coal carrying ship only 3 miles off Atlantic City.  I learned then that it was sunk by the Germans in the war, and was shocked to realize how close they actually were to our coast.  It was 80 ft down to the top of the wreck but the water was so clear that day that one could see it from the surface but not all of it.  Normally, a wreck is an unimaginable place to experience fish.  Frequently on approaching a wreck from the side near the bottom, one can’t even see the wreck for the vast cloud of fish.  Surrounding this are larger fish that dart in and grab a meal and back out.  Inside this, even larger fish live within the wreck or in underhangs and cover, where they too can feed on the smaller fish.  This day, we were astounded to see absolutely zero fish.  I mean seriously astounded and a bit put off because that’s why we were there in the first place.  The ship had sunk settling straight down on an even keel before tilting to its starboard side.  The links in the anchor chain were over a foot long…the largest I had seen up to that time, and though the ship was metal the deck was wooden over metal braces.  I was on the foredeck and pushed off to glide up over a bulkhead when I came face to face with the largest fish I had seen to date.  A shark….with a Lot of teeth in its mouth.  It was barely 15 feet away, an was moving from right to left in front of me with no evidence of moving it’s fins, like just drifting.  It saw me, as one can definitely tell when he is being looked over by that eye, but make no agressive motions and continued to glide off into the gloom.  I went back to the stern and discovered that with long fins on, if I stood tiptoe (fin tip) to the center hub, I could barely reach the edge of one blade of the propeller.  Hard to imagine that much brass.  I wonder if it’s ever been salvaged.  When I got back on board the dive boat, everybody was talking about seeing the shark and about no fish for spearing.  One little guy had not made the first dive and asked to go with me on my second tank.  I was still looking for fish to spear and with him behind me, I was swimming with my chest on the port deck and a solid railing to my left elbow.  When you’re properly balanced in the water, you take a breath in and you go up a foot or so vertically, and you leave it out and you go down.  I was looking for fish down thru holes in the deck and happened to take a deep enough breath to lift me above the rail to my left.  I almost died when I see that shark…following my bubbles right on the other side of that rail.  I could have reached over and poked it in the eye….and yes, it was looking at me.  Not much further forward, the railing was gone and I grabbed my buddy and we hightailed it over the rail as the shark made a right turn to cross over the deck and out into the gloom.  My buddys eyes were like saucers and bubbles flowed heavily.  We were like 2 Kilroys was here hanging on that rail watching the shark disappear.  Just then, a flounder the size of a doormat, the largest flounder I’ve ever seen, swam up over the port side of the ship and headed across the deck.  It was dragging a very large sinker and the line was broken.  That sinker got fouled in junk on the deck about mid deck and I thought this was going to be my big win in the fishing contest.  I swam towards the flounder which was frantically thrashing in a wide circle held by the sinker line but as I was heading towards the flounder, so was that shark.  It came out of the gloom right at, first the flounder as it stopped momentarily and looked at it, then at me.  Foolishly I turned and fled back over the rail next to my buddy.  That shark came right at me head high…opening and closing its mouth as if chewing on something (me?).  Seriously I could have put my hand in it’s mouth.  My tiny 2 rubber arboletta (SP) spear gun, was no match for this beast.  After what seemed an eternity, the shark suddenly veered off and headed upwards.  We looked up and here was The Hathaway man…we called him because he wore a patch over his eye when not in the water.  He had the most powerful speargun among us..with a combination springload and then a large lever to cock back and add a very big pump of compressed air.  It could put a spear thru a two inch board.  The shark started circling him so close it almost touched him…he was almost at the surface….and his spear was Out of the gun with a tiny 10-12 inch fish impaled on it.  He saw the shark and frantically tore the fish off the spear and loaded the gun which, because it was big, took some time.  I wonder if he breathed during that time.  He kicked to be above the shark and shot downwards, hitting it right where the brain would be.  As soon as he fired, he started for the surface.  The spear…bounced off the sharks head, knocking it out, literally, and I didn’t even know this was possible.  The shark, in something like convulsions sank about 50 ft down to the deck of the wreck.  The spearman quickly reloaded and swam down, aimed for the gut and pulled the trigger, heading for the surface the moment the spear left the gun.  This time the spear didn’t go in past the barb.  The shark is now starting to convulse less actively as the guy frantically reloaded once more.  I have no idea whatsoever what made me do this, but I swam over to the shark and using my speargun like a board, held the shark down onto the deck.  This could have ended badly but I was obviously pretty stupid at least once in my life.  The spearman loaded again, came down and manually jammed the spear into its gills and then pulled the trigger.  It was a Sand tiger shark, seven feet three inches and 125 pounds.  I live to dive another day.

Sand Tiger Shark

It was killed in defense

I have been in the water with other sharks since that time, but these two incidents really stand out.

Another fond diving memory is definitely macho.  While a member of the Philadelphia Seahorses, we joined the Polar Bear Club by swimming in the Delaware River on New Years Day, but one winter we elected to travel out towards Baltimore to a quarry.  Putting on our wet suits (3/16th neopreme) and this was before zippers were put in them so that we had to rub them down good with chalk to make them slippery enough to get into easily.  Of course I had tested the wetsuit in cold water (with ice) compliments of my disbelieving roommate John Hentosh.  I had been a waterfront director at boys camps while in college and highschool, and had bought probably one of the very first wetsuits on the east coast of the U.S.. I bought it and an Hawaiian sling at New England Divers Supply which at that time was a shed in a guys back yard.

Wetsuit Test

Wetsuit test, notice no zippers.

Wetsuit Test

Wetsuit test in ice water

We cut a hole in the ice big enough for a couple divers to fit easily.  Then one of the older guys brought tired painted white and threw it into the hole.  He handed me a clothesline rope and told me to take it down and tie it onto that tire to prove I had made a dive to 100 ft.  This was definitely the deepest dive I had made to date.  The shock of the water wasn’t as bad as I expected.  Before I was down many feet I could easily make out the white tire on the bottom.  I swam down and discovered somewhat to my amusement, that my fingers didn’t work and the real chore was tying a knot in that rope.  When I got back to the surface, giggling to try to explain about the knot difficulty, I discovered that my jaw muscles were so cold and clamped down so hard that I couldn’t take the regulator out of my mouth right away.  This was back before single hose regulators.


At the time, I was married to Toni and we were on a medical convention trip to California.  We had a room at the Century Plaze but I wanted to dive.  We found a dive shop on the beach drive and I went in.  It took a LOT of persuading but I finally talked them into taking us on a dive.  We left the harbor on a Friday evening and we slept below deck on wooden beds with thin mattresses.   I carried a Nikonos III with no strobe.  We were aroused the next morning off shore of St. Nicholas Island…the third island out from Santa Catalina.  It was a nice day, maybe about 10 a.m. when we finally got into the water.  We had a light breakfast first which I have no recall at all.  We were several hundred yards off sure and all suiting up excitedly.  We had to rent wet suits and they were so very different from the ones we used in Florida.  After putting them on, you couldn’t put your arms down to your side…the 3/8 inch neopreme rubber would make your arms fly up and forward.  There was long low swells but nothing near enough to get even slightly seasick.  I was told to wear my dive knife on the inside of my lower leg, instead of the outside as I have always done.  Logically, it was to prevent our knives to get caught on kelp.  Out in  front of the boat about 100 yards we saw sea lions playing in the water.  I’ve known for a long time that the first one in the water usually gets to see something special.  I was so Right!  Toni and I were dropped into the water with 2 other divers, and then the boat would go down the line of the beach a hundred yards and drop off 4 to 6 more and so on until everybody was in the water.  Logically, one would think the boat would then come back to the first of the line and get these divers as they were first in the water and obviously first out of air.  We went down, maybe 50 ft into dark green water with visibility of barely 40 ft.  We swam towards shore as everybody was hip to get abalone  to eat.  I was swimming along sand bottom when I saw this line of kelp…sprouts about 2-3 ft apart and it was moving fairly quickly at 90 degrees to me.  Confusing, but I quickly discovered it was the swells of the ocean and it was me moving, not the kelp.  I could envision getting a knife caught in that and being hooked up.  Not long after that, I saw a large bass that would have definitely been fair game if I was carrying a speargun.  I’d guess it at over 50 pounds.   Then, like magic, out of nowhere came the sealion.  Awesome!!  Diving ans spinning around us.  Showing off or playing, holding its mouth open like blowing bubbles.  I got 2 photos before it took off and left us.  The rest of the dive was very non-climactic.  We ran out of air and ascended not far from the other couple who went in with us.  Thank heavens we had BCs (boyancy compensators) with us.  We inflated them and we hung there…we hung there for over an Hour!!  The dang boat that dropped us off…stayed with the last group and picked them up first before coming back up the line to get us last.  I was a little peeved.  The water was 52 degrees but the suits kept us warm enough.  When we got back on the boat everybody was debriefing as we always do excitedly after a dive.  Someone set up a charcoal grill and I had my first ever REally good abalone.  It was quite some time later…months…years maybe…that I saw the area where we were diving…was a favorite haunt for Great White Sharks.  A learning experience!  A good memory and a photo to go with it.

The only sealion I ever dove with about 1972


4/12/12  It was a bad time in my life and I chose to take January alone, away from Toni, on a dive trip to St. Thomas BVI.  January was old enough to swim and snorkle alone with minimal close guarding. She went out with the dive boat and snorkeled while I went with the others on tank dives.  She was marvelous to watch in the water and I hurt that I don’t have many pix of her at that age.  There was a nurse who’s mother lived on St. Thomas.  The nurse had twins and I was privileged to photograph her shortly before they were born.  I had taken the slides to St. Thomas to show her mother and her grand-mother the photos.  I have been privileged to shoot several pregnant nudes and it’s always unique.  She was the only twin pregnancy I ever photographed and like I’ve always felt…a pregnancy is the most abstract thing a human being experiences.  Less than 50 percent of the population experience it, and it is certainly outstanding!  The nurse took January and me in my rented car, to a place they called Sunset Rocks on the northwest side of the island to watch the sun set.  The rocks were covered with sea snails and January was scrambling all over the rocks with a big paper cup collecting snails.  A lady that was there kept yelling at her to not do that, but I saw no harm so I said nothing.  We then went back to the hotel for our last night on St. Thomas.  The next morning, I got into the car to return it to the dealer.  January had forgotten her big cup of snails in the car and there were slime tracks ALL OVER the inside of that car.  On the seats and the ceiling and windows (all of them) and even the steering wheel.  Oi! I dropped it off and hastily beat it back to the waiting bus.  Wish I had taken that picture as it would be one of a kind!

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