Caution to the Wind

One Man's Story of Adventure

by

Jack Slack

 

                                                                   Chapter 1

Rulers of the Deep

To be brave is to behave bravely

When your heart is faint

So you can be really brave

Only when you really ain't.

(Piet Hein)


 
 
Facing a predator charging toward me that hadn't changed in 200 million years is horrifying.  It is a creature straight 
out of the Jurassic age.  Fear paralyzed my brain because it is the most dangerous species of shark, the White. This 
shark had just trashed my diving buddy's speargun then turned to attack me. To defend myself, I had only a camera 
in my hands. 
                                                 *** 

         My dive buddy Bissell and I dove in the water to film a school of Pilot Whales in the Gulfstream between Florida and the Bahamas. Visibility, at about 200 feet, allowed us to spot the shark deep below as soon as we entered the water.  The shark didn't concern us because he looked to be only about two feet long---a baby.  However, the clarity of the water deceived us, but when the monster spun around and came at us we got a closer view. We stared at an 8-foot White Shark with Its tail whipping in full attack mode, not the slow tail sweeping movement of an inquisitive shark, and we realized our situation had changed from onlookers to prey.  

                   Bissell, riding shotgun for me, did exactly the right thing --- he dove straight at the shark in an attempt to drive him off. Either the aggressive, threatening move would make the shark turn away, or he'd pull the trigger of the speargun with the shark's nose a few feet away. We'd done this before with a lot of sharks, but never a White.

         The shark never slowed and by the time Bissell finally pulled the trigger, the 5- foot long spear failed to clear the barrel before it stuck in the shark's snout. The beast started shaking its head wildly to throw off the spear and broke the barrel of the gun, causing an explosion of compressed air bubbles that unnerved the shark, causing it to spin around in a wide circle. This gave Bissell time to climb in the boat, but left me facing a pissed off White Shark with only a camera as a weapon.

***

         The cold dead look of the shark's eyes sent shivers to the depths of my being. Helpless with the boat not close enough to climb into, I did the only thing that could drive off a shark. I dove directly at it hoping the act would scare it off, but it did not, and it kept coming. The head-on view of a White Shark is frightening. People think of how big a shark is by the length of his body, but the diver who is facing the monster sees only how wide it is, and the front view of a shark is very wide. The monster attacking me consisted of all teeth. I felt a fear so deep that it paralyzed my emotional grip on reasoning. The triangular shaped teeth are large and deadly looking, and heading right toward me. Each tooth has the triangular shape of a surgeon's scalpel and is just as sharp. I had no other choice. I had to keep going.  It contradicted my gut reaction to flee, yet it remained the only chance at surviving this nightmare. Despite being against every fiber of my being, every nerve in my body, every emotion in my soul; I had to maintain a slim grip on reason that remained dominant, although barely. I braced for the hit and slammed my camera casing aggressively against his snout.

         Now came the moment of truth. The shark would either bite the camera out of my hands, or get rattled and swim off. Luck favored me. It made a wide circle, giving me time to climb into the boat which Bissell thankfully brought close.  Poetry  in motion describes my landing on the deck a split second after grabbing the gunwale.

"Jack, tell me you got my big moment?" Bissel said as I climbed aboard.

"No," I said, "I was scared shitless."

He looked at me as if I refused a place in the lifeboat for a crippled old lady.

"How often are we going to have a movie camera on board, fully loaded inside an underwater case when something like this happens?"

"About as often as I'm going to be attacked by a White shark without a speargun in my hands?" I responded sarcastically.  

         I knew he had done his job, and I had failed at mine. My job as cameraman for the whale filming consisted of a partnership with Bissell riding shotgun for me.  The whales represented no danger, but we knew the deep-water pelagic sharks that often accompanied them certainly represented a hazard. I'd had head-on meetings with attacking sharks before, but in previous contacts, I had a speargun in my hands, not a camera. Most of all, I had never faced a White shark, nor had I psychologically prepared myself to confront one. I had seen a few in passing and always kept them in sight until they disappeared. Deep-water sharks don't circle as much as reef sharks, maybe because their food supply isn't as abundant so it's a case of "get 'em while you can" aggressiveness.

***

         I am always intrigued by how new divers react to their first shark attack if they have been told by experienced divers that if they want to save their ass from being eaten, then their only option is to aggressively dive toward the shark. They invariably do the right thing.  You can't out swim a shark, so your life depends on suppressing the emotion to flee.  When an experienced diver talks to a neophyte about that beforehand, it sticks in his mind. Fight or flight is an instant critical decision.  It weighs emotion against reason.  I've seen divers do it properly who were otherwise quite timid souls. I suppose it is a testament to man's rational survival mechanism.

         According to the neurosurgeon Dr. Antonio Damasio, in his book "Decartes' Error" about the subject of emotions, reasoning, and the operations of the brain, good critical decision-making requires a roughly 50-50 mixture of emotion and reason.  The process offers a flexibility of response that takes place in an instant based on a person's particular history of facing danger. The reason part is a choice. Contrary to what most of us have been taught to believe, to remove emotion from a critical decision is not beneficial to the best immediate critical decision making.  However, I'm sure in the case of a person's first shark attack; reason has to be severely suppressed because flight, not fight, floods the brain.  The thing that tempers emotion and supplies the rational survival component of the decision-making, is having considered the situation beforehand. 

         The average person has never stopped to think about what he would do in a shark attack, and as a result would probably panic and resort to an attempt to flee, but lots of skindivers have considered it beforehand, so reason becomes a larger percentage of the  decision to fight or flee. The big advantage man enjoys in the animal world is the amazing ability to adjust to his environment faster than the rest of the world's species.  Once a diver has been told by other divers he respects that swimming toward an attacking shark is his only option, it remains in his mind, and he does it for his very first shark attack. I have witnessed this repeatedly with new divers.

***

         Being too young and too macho to heed common sense, we returned to the water to finish filming the whales.  It was a perfect day for filming, one of those calm tropical days with an effervescent ethereal blue sky completely absent of clouds. 

         We did not start the day to film whales; we were on our way to the Bahamas on a commercial spearfishing trip.  We had no plans to stop in the middle of the Gulf Stream for a sightseeing dive into the deep blue.  There's not much to see there, but when we spotted the school of Pilot whales we immediately grabbed the 16 MM Bell & Howell camera we had packed away, along with the Plexiglas underwater case we had made for it.

         The camera belonged to Bissell, but we both built the underwater case for it. The camera wasn't an integral part of our equipment, the important tools were our spearfishing gear, and we brought the camera in hopes of finding time to test the watertight integrity of the underwater case.  Bissell and I were overjoyed at the chance encounter with the whales.

***

         Bissell and I met in college.  Bissell is  skinny, with blonde hair and a crew cut. A student at that time, he had, and still has, a tendency toward wry, sarcastic humor. He had a wife and a newborn baby when we met.  He paid for college by working summers in the construction business in Illinois, but tried to switch to working at diving instead. Marilyn, his pretty wife, also blonde-haired, supported almost anything Biss wanted to do.  When we both finished college, we formed a spearfishing partnership, selling our catch to restaurants and seafood wholesalers. 

         He loved to party, and lamented that I wasn't the party type. He drank a lot and I drank an occasional beer.  I was an artist while Bissell said the only art he ever produced was taking advantage of a fortunate accident in rendering a layout in architecture.  Despite those differences, we got along well. Both of us loved diving, and we had the same circle of friends, all divers.

***

         As soon as we returned to the water, the shimmering deep blue ocean immediately became transparent, almost colorless, leaving us with a sensation of flying in clear pure air that supported our bodies as if by magic, enabling us to glide up or down at will. We wore weights for free diving so we could dive without fighting buoyancy, thereby allowing us to hold our breath longer.  We had neutral buoyancy from about 10 to 30 feet down. The deeper we dove after that, the less buoyant we became, but that aided the dive because we often stopped kicking to conserve oxygen in our lungs and continued to glide deeper.  The lack of physical effort enabled a longer dive time. The crystal clarity of the water was breathtaking. Being in water thousands of feet deep afforded us no view of the bottom, otherwise we might have been hesitant to let go of the boat for fear of falling to the ocean floor.      

          With the White nowhere to be seen, we re-entered the water with a new loaded speargun. We used the same system of one of us riding shotgun for the other, but remembering that day, I wonder what motivated us to return to the water with that monster.  Usually after a shark attack, we sat in the boat and talked about whether we should continue the dive.  Maybe we did on that day too, but I do remember commenting to Bissell just before we dropped off the boat:

"Keep a bad eye out."

         I'm sure we felt that because we'd succeeded in driving off the shark once we could do so again should it still be around.  That being a gamble we automatically determined left the odds in our favor.  I recognize now that such a decision was decidedly chancy, but it's the kind of thing many of us do all of our lives.  A shark attack was not something unique in our diving experience; in fact it was almost common.  We had survived dozens of them. The uniqueness this time was the species of shark.  We had never experienced an attack by a Great White.

         Fortunately, with the shark gone, it enabled me to film the large grapefruit sized eye of a Pilot whale that, unlike that of the shark, moved in its socket to follow every move I made. It otherwise ignored me even when I touched its smooth hide. However, that expressive eye touched something deep within my soul.  Obviously, this giant creature examined me with the same curiosity I had for it.  No fear existed between us, just contact, deep and expressive as only the eyes can convey.

         I have the soul of a gambler, but I don't believe in betting on something unless I determine the odds are overwhelmingly in my favor.  That doesn't mean I don't take chances --- I merely make a distinction between gambling and taking a chance.  I admit it's an artificial distinction of my own creation. I love the thrill of winning after taking a chance, and I can pretend it was a daring act.

         The fly in the ointment is that it's just a guess when I determine that the odds are in my favor, sometimes they're not, and the consequences can be life threatening. With Sharks and skindiving, I've been lucky or I'd be dead, but it involved the flight or fight aspect of the animal world, something most animal species live with constantly. I take chances with my artistic decisions, but they are smaller because of a confidence in my abilities.  That translates into a strong desire to do what I love to do, more than to my talents; however, I believe one eventually leads to the other.  It confirms the adage that whether you think you can, or think you can't -- you're right.

 ***

         Those were the 1950s --- the early days of diving, within a dozen years or so after Cousteau invented the aqualung. We didn't yet have SCUBA gear and all our diving was without a breathing apparatus. We became experts in breath held dives and earned a hundred bucks or so each week spear fishing, and/or sponge diving, and any other kind of diving job that paid a few bucks.  The going wholesale market price for a gutted fish was .18 cents per pound gutted, and/or .50 cents per pound for just fillets, but only a few restaurants bought filleted fish. Most wanted the whole fish, as did the wholesalers.  The simple reason being that it's hard to tell what kind of fish they're buying from looking at a filet.

          It wasn't long before we added SCUBA gear to our equipment, but we seldom used it for spearfishing because it would have slowed us down in the speed of swimming underwater, not to mention climbing in and out of the dive boat.  We didn't hunt our prey by cruising along underwater.  We hunted from the surface using snorkels and dragging behind the boat. We seldom anchored the boat. After spotting the fish we were able to dive, spear the fish, and carry it back to the surface in just a few minutes, even in 50 to 70 feet of water.  Because of our methods, we were constantly in the water except for the trip out to the reef and the return home.  Good physical condition was a necessity, but we seldom gave it a thought.  It was just a fun way of making a living.

Our commercial spearfishing produced techniques honed by experience and market forces. We speared only the biggest fish because that is what the seafood wholesalers and restaurants wanted. This meant 50 pound groupers, give or take 10 pounds and snapper in the 15 to 20 pound range.  We worked in 3-man teams, two in the water at all times, and one driving the boat, which never stopped. Because we didn't anchor we were constantly moving slowly down the edge of a reef, with the two divers hanging on to a special bar installed at water level on the stern.

         When we learned to dive, we learned how to utilize the snorkel at the same time, but we had a few Florida friends who had been diving from childhood, before the snorkel ever existed, so they had never used them.  In fact, they poked fun at divers who did.  When we pointed out that the snorkel enabled us to both pursue and track a fish from the surface, while they had take their head out of the water to take a breath, which meant they had to take their eyes off the fish, they sarcastically responded that we should learn to hold a breath longer.  They used the same method of dragging behind the boat and although they persisted in avoiding the snorkel for a few years, they quietly started using snorkels when they finally realized the obvious advantage.  However, they did have a point, because they dove deep and stayed under a long time.

         Constantly holding ones breath for short periods all day long, causes a person to expel a lot of co2 from the lungs, thereby eliminating some of the natural trigger mechanisms that cause a person to breathe. It's a form of hyperventilation and enables a diver to hold his breath much longer.  Using a snorkel, a diver is breathing regularly.  The exception would be that in rough water a diver is constantly expelling water from the snorkel and as a result is hyperventilating and accomplishing a greater exhalation of co2 from the lungs.   

         Each side of the transom had a 6-inch PVC tube set at an angle and each tube contained half a dozen additional 5-foot long 5/16th inch cold rolled steel spears, sticking up within easy reach from the water. We made the spears ourselves from ten-foot lengths of cold rolled steel bar. We attached single swivel barbs. The PVC tubes full of spears enabled either of the divers to pull another spear as needed.  A diver released his grip on the towing bar to dive for a fish, and in doing so tapped his companion, who immediately dropped off with him in order to stand by to assist if needed. We always worked in the water as a two-man team because it was safer and more efficient.  The diver at the surface was always directly above the diver working the fish, thereby providing a marker for the boat driver to circle, and ready to help the diver below should he need an additional spear.

         We used multiple types of spearguns, depending on the job. The most primitive, yet highly useful one is the Hawaiian sling.  It consists of a piece of bamboo about 8 inches long, with a loop of surgical rubber tubing lashed firmly to the bamboo tube.  Essentially, it's a slingshot. The loop end of the surgical rubber contained the receptor for the spear.  It was a .38 gauge shell casing lashed in place.  The sling didn't have a great deal of range, and the occasional long shot of say, 15 feet, had to contain a lot of what shooters call, 'Kentucky windage,' the estimated distance one must aim ahead of the target. The trajectory of the spear is often an arc meeting the targeted fish at a predetermined spot.  This is instinctive shooting at its finest.

         We became excellent shots, and very often killed the fish with one shot to the head, either hitting the brain or severing the backbone, accomplishing that even with a moving fish, frequently at a distance of 15 feet, and sometimes 20 feet or so with a compressed air gun. We used free spears with no line attached because if it is not a kill shot, a second spear is needed, but not the entanglement of a line with a thrashing 50-pound fish at the end.  Our arsenal of spearguns also consisted of air pressure spearguns of the type that never lose their pressure because no air escapes on firing.  This is simply because the compressed air is used to push an "O" ring sealed valve, which in turn pushes the spear. No air escapes. Of course, that meant that after each shot, I had to cock the gun again by pushing the spear against the air pressure, compressing it even more, until the valve clicked in place for firing.

         That limited the amount of air that I pumped into the gun to my physical strength in cocking it.   I had a spear-point loading handle I carried dangling from a short string tied to my wrist. It was a small, T-shaped piece of plastic with a seat for the point of the spear. Cocking the gun consisted of using my hands and feet.  By placing the handle grip end of the gun on the top of my foot, then using the loading handle over the spear point, I pulled on the business end of the spear and drove the blunt end of the spear down into the barrel until the valve clicked in place. The gun is powerful and on a long-range shot had very little arc. It penetrates deeply or completely through the fish.

         We also used the more common conventional rubber powered speargun, but we didn't much like them because manufacturing the spears required grinding in grooves for the wishbone clips used for attaching the rubber tubing to the spear. That weakened the spear and complicated making them.  In addition, we changed the rubber to shorter lengths, thereby making the gun more powerful. However, we didn't like the fact that the grooves in the spear for the wishbones were a pain in the ass to make, and big fish trashed a lot of spears so we wanted them cheap and easy to make.  The rubber-powered spearguns were more for backup than regular use.

         Those wishbone clips were stainless steel and eventually, with heavy use, snapped suddenly, slapping sharply against the hand, foot, or whatever part of the diver's body it hit.  So we decided to use coat hanger wire, and although it rusts, it could always be counted on to last for one day without breaking or rusting.  At the end of the day, we dumped the wishbones and made new ones for the next day and we never had to worry about a wishbone breaking after that. Coat hangers were free and plentiful.

         Since the second diver who dropped off when tapped was there immediately to deliver the second shot, if needed, it allowed him to seek another fish while the first diver grabbed another spear from the stern of the boat. Meanwhile, the driver kept the boat close to keep additional spears within reach and to take the speared fish from the diver's hands.  Our fish were shot in the head because a fish that was shot in the gut was not marketable. It bloodied the filet. We didn't aim along the barrel, instead pointed the gun at chest level.   All of our shots were to the head, and most were kill shots.  When one of us inadvertently shot a fish in the gut, the other would make a wry comment.

 "Gonna' eat a lot of fish this week buddy?"  We literally had to eat our mistakes.

         A head shot didn't guarantee a kill shot, and failing to get a kill shot meant a delay because the fish holed up immediately in a cave and we had to go in after it to deliver the kill shot, and then haul the fish out.  With the first spear still sticking in its head, the fish usually looked like it was tangled in spaghetti due to thrashing about in the cave and bending that cold rolled steel into a mess. In the course of a day we typically destroyed a few spears. 

         Getting a big fish out of a cave --- even a dead one --- delayed us because the mangled spear caught on everything, and a thrashing 50-pound fish added to the hassle.  Sometimes we had to get a gaff hook from the boat, hook the fish in the lower jaw, and brace against the reef with both feet to pull him out.  Doing this at a depth of 50 or 60 feet, required a long breath-held dive and a cooperative effort.  While the diver was working to get the fish out of the cave, the other diver started down to be at the cave entrance to take the fish, allowing the first diver, who by now was in need of air, to head for the surface quickly without the drag of pulling a big fish.

         If the fish still had some fight left,  the second diver would have to expend so much energy on the trip to the surface due to the drag of the fish, that the first diver would take a quick gulp of air, and head down to relieve him of the fish. So passing a fish back and forth on the trip to the surface was common.  A decent day's catch would consist of 300 to 400 pounds of fish, and a spectacular day would be 1,500 pounds.  If weather permitted, we worked 7 days, but mostly averaged 4 or 5 days each week, and we were in superb physical condition.

         Being always on the move and trailing blood behind us, by afternoon we usually had a pack of sharks following us. That meant either calling it a day or diving with the sharks circling. Sometimes we decided to dive with the sharks, which meant changing our procedure to both divers heading down together.  It depended on the number of sharks, how aggressive they were, and whether the wounded fish to recover was a big one. One diver was to kill the wounded fish and drag him out, the other's job was to ride shotgun for him and drive off the sharks.  It was always scary.

         We never managed to get a kill shot with a shark. This is probably because the shark brain is small relative to its body size and it is a Y shaped organ, making it that much harder to hit.  Driving off a shark can leave both divers without another spear for a second shark, and swimming up with a bloody fish usually meant a face-off with another shark from the pack.  Poking an empty speargun into a second attacking shark's nose to drive him off is the only remaining option, then jumping in the boat and holding a conference about quitting for the day.  A conference usually involved a lot of nervous laughter.

"You up for some shark roulette?"

"Only if we get rid of that bull shark, he looks like a mean son-of-a-bitch."

"Screw it; we've got nothing invested on the bottom. Let's call it a day."

         We tried never to leave a wounded fish.  Aside from the cruelty, we had an investment of spears sticking in him, an unacceptable waste because the fish represented our paycheck.  This often meant dealing with a school of hungry sharks circling the cave containing the fish and fending off several sharks determined to eat either the fish or us.  In the course of a few years doing this, we soon lost count of the number of shark encounters. It was almost an every day event.  We never became complacent. Every attack was hair-raising and most involved contact with a shark.  We were young, foolish, and macho, but we respected those demons and were damned scared of them.

         Thoughts of mortality are not uppermost in a young man's mind. Incredibly, even close encounters with it don't spark such contemplation.  After a certain number of years in the game, we started losing contemporaries who died underwater from various accidents, encounters, or bad judgment. Even then, we continued the youthful mind-set of immortality.  When a person reaches an age that it becomes something to think about, he reacts by becoming religious, a health nut, a fountain-of-youth seeker, or a pragmatist --- but he doesn't remain macho.  As pilots have said for decades, "There are old pilots and bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots."

         The pragmatist is sometimes an atheist and has the easier trip because he accepts the inevitability of death, but sees no point in agonizing over something he has no control over.  He dismisses a consideration of an afterlife by deciding that its existence is improbable, and its non-existence means that nothingness follows.  The pragmatist finds nothingness an acceptable notion because nothingness, while it might not be a clear prospect to think about, has the supreme advantage of being painless, free of worry, and by definition neither a positive nor a negative outcome!  He would say, "Why should I waste time thinking about nothingness? I won't be there."

***    

         Because of our frequent shark experience, we were often approached by news photographers, marine biologists, and speargun manufacturers to participate in research or news articles.  Several of our diving partners later became well known marine biologists. One noted shark researcher, Dr. Don Nelson of The Scripps institute, was a long time diving companion when we attended college together. 

         As a strictly PR stunt, several speargun manufacturers arranged with an independent news photographer to hire two of us to test the effectiveness of their guns on sharks. That summer we shot some two dozen sharks of multiple species, all at close range, meaning at a range of one or two feet, all good head shots directly between the eyes on the top of the head. It was a vain attempt to find a kill shot.  We did not find the sweet spot and we lost many spears, but the photographer got some great photos. We learned a lot about shark behavior, but mostly we learned that sharks are damn hard to kill.

         The technique we used for the filming involved gut shooting a snapper so that its thrashing on the bottom attracted a shark.  As the shark came in to take a bite of the snapper, we yanked the speared fish away from his snout, replacing it with the front end of the speargun, and placing a precise shot in the shark's snout.  This pissed off the sharks, but most of them took off looking like a unicorn with a 5-foot spear sticking out of the top of their heads. 

         Except for those damn Hammerheads! 

         After the first shot, a Hammerhead would always turn away, but then, unlike most other sharks, would return after making a tight circle and come right back with the spear sticking out of its head, to attack the diver holding the wounded fish.   Apropos of the scary wide head of a shark, the view of a Hammerhead's wide front was unnerving and we changed the technique for them. Either a second diver was ready for the turn around, or we carried a bang stick for it.  We made our own bang sticks using galvanized pipe fitted with a 12 gauge shot gun shell at one end. We stabbed the shark with that end. 

                   The bang stick consists of a threaded pipe-end, soldered on backwards to the end of a short 3-foot length of galvanized pipe. It contains a brass soldered-on firing pin. We inserted the shell into a piece of pipe we cut just a bit shorter than the length of the  shell. Since the short piece was threaded at one end to fit the pipe-end, it could easily be screwed it into that pipe-end containing the firing pin, leaving the shell sticking out the front end. We coated the shells with lacquer in order to waterproof them.  If you stabbed the shark anywhere within the vicinity of the head, it was a kill shot. The diver "banged" the shark thereby setting off the shell.  We got the idea from a treasure diver named Art McGee. It would have been handy to have one for that shoot, but we didn't. Some years later, these devices were manufactured commercially in stainless steel, some with magnum loads, but in those days we made a lot of our own gear, and customized a lot of commercial diving gear to suit our needs.

         While filming to attract sharks and shoot them, Bissell seemed to forget our Hammerhead protocol, and pulled a snapper away from the jaws of a Hammerhead, placing a damned good shot in the top of the shark's head, dead in the center.  Maybe being too absorbed in the job of nailing the umpteenth shark that day, Bissell got careless, but hovering at the surface watching the action, I started down immediately when I saw the Hammerhead coming for the snapper. Bissell didn't wait for me to get in position and fired into the shark as he pulled the snapper away, then headed for the surface. The monster did his usual pirouette and headed straight up following Bissell, who kicked seriously for the surface.  I passed Bissell going down to intercept the shark as he headed up for the surface with the Hammerhead heading for his feet. I got between them and firing at about 5 feet, I got a fair hit that was only inches from where Bissell's spear was sticking out.  The Hammerhead took off in a lighting quick move and I felt the redemption I sorely needed to assuage my feelings of failure over the White shark incident.

         Slowly over the years, my education as an ecologist began to make me feel guilty about commercial spearfishing and I quit.  I switched to catching tropical fish for aquariums, sponge diving, and harvesting shells, but I soon learned that facing sharks underwater had a lot in common with facing man-sharks above water.  I had never been exposed to a person who might be planning to murder me, but that was about to change.               

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