Monday, October 17, 2011


I was five years old when cinema and everyone's feelings about being in the water were changed forever. Because of this.

I didn't actually see the movie until I was quite a bit older, but the poster alone was enough to make me, a budding mermaid, afraid of the neighborhood pool. The drains were eyes, the shadows fins, of a monstrous mythical being, and don't even get me started on how long I avoided lakes.  The ocean? *shudder*.

I don't like being afraid, however I recognize fear as useful. Courage, as they say, isn't the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. It was pretty easy growing up in Nebraska and then Tennessee to avoid even thinking about sharks, and I did outgrow the fear of at least the neighborhood pool. But the more I spread my damp, weak, lacey little wings, the more I realized that the world, well, it's 71% covered in water. And the stuff in it? Dude, wow. I wasn't about to let some ancient movie from when I was FIVE mess with that. And so, I set out facing fear the only way I know how (well, ok, other than that time honored tradition of avoidance). I embraced it. I learned how to scuba dive. I moved to Hawaii. I swam and dove with hammerheads. I read about sharks, watched movies about sharks. Jaws, Jaws 2, yes, even Jaws 3. 

And then came Midway. Technically part of the Hawaiian islands, the Midway atoll is one third of the way between Honolulu and Tokyo, and in 1999, two Hawaiian men who had taught me everything I knew about diving, told me we were going.

 Here's what I wrote when I returned.

Sharks. That's what I'm here for, and within 5 minutes of hitting the water I see my first one. It's small, about 3 feet long, a puppy dog of a Galapagos, but it gets up close and personal and I happily snap photos. I enjoy its closeness and willingness to share my space as I inspect it carefully, and I ponder the fact that without any divers in the frame, no one will be able to tell if it was 3 feet or 10 feet long anyway. Finally I turn away and continue gazing out into the blue with more and bigger sharks on the brain, as the Galapagos trails along on my fins.

I have come to the middle of the Pacific Ocean, to this speck of an island 1100 miles northwest of the main Hawaiian Islands, because somewhere along the line I became obsessed with sharks. What started out as a morbid fear, nurtured and fed by movies and bad journalism, at some point between seeing my first and third shark as a scuba diver became a crush of mythic teenage proportion. I buy books on sharks, I doodle sharks, I compose lists of species of sharks, I research places to visit to maximize the likelihood of seeing sharks, I sleep and shower with visions of shadows and outlines almost just beyond visibility and silhouettes of 15 foot striped predators dancing on the surface above me. Midway Atoll has drawn me here with its promise of sharks, and it does not disappoint.

The most remote coral atoll on the face of the earth, Midway was the site of a famous 1942 land and sea battle between the Japanese and the U.S as well as an important naval air facility during the Korean War, the Cold War and the Vietnam War. While designated a national wildlife refuge in 1988, it wasn't until the naval air facility closed in 1993 that oversight of the atoll was transferred from the U.S Navy to the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service. Official jurisdiction however would not be transferred until President Clinton signed an Executive Order declaring such in 1996. After years of cleanup, Midway was opened to the public in 1997 as a joint venture between the Fish and Wildlife service and the privately owned Midway Phoenix Corporation, which manages the public use program.

The refuge is known primarily for its huge population of Laysan Albatross, also affectionately known as gooney birds. Fledgling albatross numbering nearly a million blanket this speck of sand and rock, spilling over onto the runway, sidewalks, roads, beaches, and in every nook and cranny. Birdwatchers flock here, pun intended, to goggle at this largest of Albatross colonies as well as at the many other species of birds that inhabit the atoll. In a way, I too am here for the birds.

Fledgling goonies take some time figuring out how to fly. They're a riot to watch as they spend a few days just holding out their wings, apparently hoping for something magical to happen, then taking short hops into the air, and finally running and flapping maniacally as they briefly achieve airborne status. Towards the beginning of July, most of the adults have left their chicks and if they're going to eat, the goonies soon realize that they need to figure things out on their own, and quick. As they gain some confidence, they begin lining up on the beach and testing first flights. Fledgling goonies crash into the water like kids cannonballing into the lake in summertime, and the result is a tiger shark smorgasbord. From the boats carrying student researchers, birdwatchers, fishers, film crews, and scuba divers, a kind of split cheering section materializes as a thick dark shape is spotted slicing through the water towards a hapless gooney. I cheer for the sharks every time, unapologetic. It's not as unfair a fight as you might imagine. Either too sated by the abundance of gooney McNuggets, or confused by the clouds of feathers, even the successful strikes by the tigers usually take several tries. This seems to comfort those contemplating snorkeling later in the week....

The first day of diving we see no tiger sharks, but our appetites are whetted by the stories of others. Our first dive is done at a spot called Phoenix. I'm with the first group in the water, and after my initial fascination with the aforementioned Galapagos shark, I notice our leader Dan is pointing out a variety of rare and fabulous fish. Whiskered boarfish, Hawaiian morwongs and the incredibly lovely and rare masked angelfish are some of the highlights. Large hapu'u, or grouper, kiss our cameras and ogle us through our masks. Then we're visited by more Galapagos sharks and I forget about looking down. This is to become a recurrent theme. We see an eagle ray at the next site, and I am astounded by its size. Black jacks cruise under a ledge and there are more Galapagos sharks, as there will be on 16 of our 17 dives. I notice that there are larger Galapagos cruising further away. We will see several more in the next week in the 5-8 foot range, but unlike the 3-4 foot sharks, the big ones keep their distance.

The next morning we eagerly board the Sea Angel. A beautiful 48-foot boat with a head and plenty of room for our group of 14 divers, the Sea Angel is quite comfortable even when we experienced less than ideal conditions. We spot several tiger sharks from the boat, hunting for gooney goodies, and the mood soars. Our two morning dives are some of the best we'll have all week, at spots called Chromis Corridor and Fish Hole. There are clouds of fish, Galapagos circle above and around us, we see spotted and barred knifejaws, two spotted snake eels, another eagle ray, more masked angels, and Dan points out a rare orange cod in a crack. The underwater topography is out of a fantasy novel with canyons, arches, holes and small caves and caverns. We break for lunch and are back out on the boat again, and on this dive, I will spot my first tiger shark of the week underwater. He is gone almost as fast as I register his presence, and the divers behind me are oblivious to my underwater hoots, fascinated by a huge school of feeding chubs. I'm dejected by their obvious skepticism when I tell them, and the experience loses some of its luster for me when I fail to arouse any camaraderie from them. I resolve to celebrate with each diver who spots his own tiger shark even if I don't see it. I console myself knowing that I'll replay this moment when I close my eyes that night, which I do, and fall asleep with a smile on my face.

Our group dives three times each day, and the diving is more difficult than we had expected. The sites are rife with current, and the water is often very cold, dipping into the low 70s and even below on occasion. Unfortunately the diving is done from moorings, which means that either on the way out or back you're kicking into a nasty current much of the time. Air goes faster here than most of us are accustomed to. We all dream of drift dives in this current and when we finally convince them to do one, it's on the condition that we'll be dropped outside the channel and then the boat will go ahead of us to an existing mooring. As a result, if the current is running against us, we'll be doing a "drift" right into it. And that's exactly what happens.

Throughout the week there continue to be sightings of tiger sharks, frequently from the boat, including a very large one that passes right under us. Each day at least a few members of the group spot a tiger while diving, usually at our safety stop. I cheer for each diver who swims by and flashes a T sign, eyes as big as their dive lights. I often happily hang on the line for 10 or 15 minutes, even though we will do no decompression diving all week, hoping for another sighting. Once we see a sun-dappled tiger sinuously swimming on the surface 20 feet above us as I sway on the line, and I silently cheer when I get a glimpse of stripes. Diving the channel beside the wreck of the Macaw, we spot two gigantic manta rays, which grace lucky divers, including me, with encounters just inches away. We do our only drift dive at this same spot later in the week and we'll see another manta ray and two divers will spot a "huge" tiger shark. The channel stands out as a top site, but with often-heavy current and surge, it is a difficult dive.

Most of the divers in our group move quickly through their "kill" lists; Japanese angels swarming on the wings of a downed Corsair in 110 feet of water, large gray reef sharks moving in-between packs of bullying Galapagos, bandit angelfish, giant ulua (treavally), swarming kahala (amberjack) eyeballing our cameras, Thompson's anthias, whitemargin eels, octopus under nearly every rock, and huge schools of chubs accompanied by sometimes dozens of the glorious yellow queen nenue. Tuna come by as do amazingly large and curious uku (snapper). The fish are larger and more curious than any I have encountered and the used rolls of film and videotape accumulate faster than the salt crust in our hair.
We spot none of the atoll's famed colony of monk seals underwater, although they are visible resting on the beaches and occasionally in the water from shore. We see members of the resident spinner dolphins from the boat, and hear them on a few dives, but as with the seals, sighting them underwater is rare. You will hear no complaints. Even the less experienced divers in the group show up early and enthusiastically as the week wears on and the nitrogen accumulates. Half the group adds two extra dives at the end of the week and many of us spend each day angling for more. Night dives, shore dives, we can't get enough. But the Midway dive staff rebuffs our attempts, and at the end of the week we all leave wishing we had more time, and plotting our return in September.

I never did return to Midway. Shortly after our dive there, the atoll became closed to most dive and ecotour groups. Some limited ecotourism was started again in 2008, but scuba diving is now available only to researchers working on the island.

I have since moved steadily through my shark to-do list. The photo above was taken last month by Z when we were in Moorea, Tahiti. I've swam with gray sharks and bull sharks in Honduras, silver-,and white-tips, hunted for raggies off Kwazulu-Natal, and the Holy Grail, dove with great whites in South Africa. But it will still always be the tiger who most captures my imagination, her stripes now a part of my dreams instead of my nightmares.

And the fear thing? I've so got this. Just don't talk to me about bungee jumping.

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