Swimming with Whitetip Reef Sharks
by Peter Tyson
October 7, 1998
"Listen to them whine about a simple night dive," said Bob Cranston of his
fellow divers, who were kvetching last night about having to dive after such
a nice dinner of barbecued pork chops and vanilla ice cream with chocolate
sauce. Howard Hall wanted to shoot yellow cup corals off Manuelita.
"Howard," Cranston continued, "I think you should fire them all at the end of this
"I plan to," Hall said, not missing a beat. "Adios, you blood-sucking
It was easy for them to joke. If you include the Undersea Hunter's owner
and divemaster, both of whom have been assisting the film crew, they have 191
years of scuba diving experience among them. Some of them were doing night
dives while I was sleeping off another day at elementary school in the late
1960's. I, by contrast, had made precisely one night dive. It took place in
Boston Harbor a month ago, in 20 feet of murky water that we walked into off
a beach. It was so tame it might as well have been in a swimming pool.
As we pulled on our wet suits, I thought with a twinge of despair, I'll
probably win the Scuba Tuba Award tonight. The award is named for a balloon-
like safety device we all carry with us; if you get swept out to sea while
diving, you add air from your tank to the Scuba Tuba, which blows up to six
feet tall so someone can see you and come get you. You don't get the Scuba
Tuba for doing something stupid, Hall informed me, but for getting caught
doing something stupid. Cranston is the current trophy holder, having come
up just too far off the Halls' dive boat in a ripping current while filming in
British Columbia that he had to be picked up.
Being plucked out of the water by a skiff is de rigueur for your average
sport diver, but for professional divers like these, who pride themselves on
191 years of experience, it's akin to being caught with your pants down. So
fearful are the members of Hall's crew of earning this dubious distinction,
Hall says, that on more than one occasion he's found himself relaxing on the
dive platform sipping a beer while one of his returning divers swims against
a vicious current a few feet from the stern, finning for all he's worth and
puffing through his snorkel as if hyperventilating. "All he has to do is
hold up his hand, and I'll throw him a rope," Hall laughs. Not a chance. The
story reminded me of that Roy Lichtenstein cartoon in which a young woman treading
water with her ship sinking the distance cries out, "I'd rather drown than
call Brad for help!"
Diver Mark Conlin . . . takes the plunge.
As everyone began stowing their gear on the two pangas, I tried to interest
someone in my inexperience. "This will only be my second night dive," I
said, but no one seemed to care. Then I saw Peter Kragh, the Undersea Hunter's
divemaster and my diving mentor on this trip. Ah, he'll listen, I thought.
And besides, he'll be at my side as usual. But why wasn't he suiting up?
"I'm not going," he said cheerfully. "I'll sit this one out."
Not going? Who was I to buddy with?
"Just go on down, you don't need a buddy."
What? No buddy? Then I remembered Michele Hall's comment that, for these
guys, you're buddy-diving when you're in the same ocean.
It was just another cardinal rule of sport diving being broken with
impunity. Always dive with a buddy. Another is: Never hold your breath. Why? Because
as you ascend, the air in your lungs expands; if you hold it in, you can do
serious damage. But I wasn't with sport divers, was I? No; it turns out
these guys hold their breath all the time. They don't teach you this in beginner
diving, but you can hold your breath just fine if you remain at any one
depth, even if it's 100 feet. In fact, Kragh told me he'll regularly hold his
breath and ascend from, say, 100 to 70 feet while chasing hammerheads that he
doesn't want to scare away with his bubbles. (Don't try that at home.) As we
gathered up our gear, Mark Conlin told me, to a general guffaw from his Übermensch
pals, "We're the last people to stick to those rules you learned in your
scuba certification class."
That was reassuring. I thought again of those four divers who were carried
out to sea last year while diving the very site we were about to dive—Manuelita—only to be found five hours later five miles out to sea. They
were fine, but that was during the day. (Fortunately, Hall didn't tell me
till this morning the story of six Japanese divers swept out to sea in Palau
while he was doing a shoot there not long ago; they weren't found for four or five
days, and all had died from exposure.) An arm of the Humboldt Current swings
right past Cocos, sideswiping Manuelita, to end up ultimately in Hawaii.
Would I be on my way to Honolulu within the hour, blowing up a Scuba Tuba that
nobody could see in the dark anyway? As I made my way to the panga past wet
suits dangling from hangers like the bodies of hanged men, I felt like I was
being sucked into a black hole, and no one could even be bothered to notice.
We motored only 50 feet away from the Undersea Hunter before
stopping. The film crew quickly dispersed beneath the black waves. I sat on
the edge of the boat, checking my gear.With Reiner the panga driver beaming
in the harsh light of a bare bulb swinging from the boat's canopy, I turned
on my dive light, held my mask, and flipped backwards into the night. At first the
water looked as murky as it had in Boston Harbor, only it was green rather
than brown (and there were no old tires or rusted beer cans). Soon, however,
I could see the powerful movie-camera lights of the film crew through the
gloom. Half-wondering if I'd get snatched away by an errant current, I made a
beeline for those lights. A minute later, I was on the bottom, 50 feet down, with
the surrounding coral reef lit up by Halls' lights like a night game at the
A moray at Manuelita.
Anxiety was replaced by wonder. All around me, whitetip reef sharks glided
sinuously over the reef, drawn in by the spectacle of lights, camera,
action. With their feline eyes giving off a silvery eyeshine, they approached me
from beneath, from the side, from head-on, veering from my dive light only at the
last second to fin off into the night. Whitetips are so common here at Cocos
that we had become blasé in their presence; they were like so many dogs in
the park. I wanted them to pause so I could stroke their smooth skin, run my
gloved hand over their white-tipped dorsal fins. Then I remembered Holdson's
anthropomorphic comment about them—"Yeah, we're predators, we're bad"—and I realized that it might be best to keep my arms at my side.
There were other creatures as well, of course. As with a big city, a whole
new set of dwellers comes out at night. The sea urchins were out in force;
you had to be mindful where you put your hand. Bright red squirrelfish swam
about unconcerned, while other fish hid in coral crannies too small for the sharks
to penetrate with their broad snouts. I watched two or three moray eels,
including a brown-and-white-striped zebra moray, slink between coralline
boulders like snakes. Every now and then I swam closer to Hall to watch him
and his team park the giant IMAX camera on a tripod in front of a tiny
yellow cup coral. At night, these delicate animals blossom like flowers to feed on
plankton in the passing current.
But it was the ever-circling whitetips that held me spellbound. It was as
if we had dropped down into a nest of piscine vipers. ("The place was swarming
with them," Mark Thurlow said later.) Some of the sharks were shorter than
my forearm, others outsized me. Hovering on the edge of the light spilling
forth from Hall's lamps, I periodically shut off my own light—and held my
breath, by God—in order to encourage these sleek, awe-inspiring animals to accept
me to a slightly greater degree into their alien world, to feel slightly
less a stranger in a strange land.
Billy Holdson, who'd agreed to be my buddy at the last moment, came over at
one point and signaled that he was heading up—did I want to come? Not a chance.
I hung out down there for nigh on an hour, till
my air ran low. All I could think was, I can hardly wait to do this again. I
mean, why whine about a simple night dive?