Monday, August 01, 2011

Four Shark Stories

Ever since I was a young boy I can remember the men in my small world telling colorful stories about their fishing adventures, sometimes about the ones that got away but also the ones they caught. However, something in my undeveloped and na├»ve perceptive abilities told me these stories were untrue or at least exaggerated. It asks the question how was I able to tell these were “Fish stories” at that young age? Retrospectively I believe there is something basic, natural and instinctive in both the telling and the hearing of these stories, everyone knew it was more entertainment than integral reporting, maybe it’s something like some aboriginal tribe acting out the happenings of the day around the campfire with song, dance and story telling.

In my late teens and early twenties I was an enthusiastic diver and I spent my summers in Southern California in a diving school for a large number of other divers like myself; I was away from the harsh winters of upstate New York while attending the Eastman School of Music. It became clear very early on that this group of quasi Neptunites loved to tell shark stories with the same exuberance with the same clear proclivity to exaggeration that the old men showed when I was a boy, but the exaggeration regarding shark stories was developed to a much higher level and a greater sense of drama; still clearly fictitious.

This seems to be a strange introduction to the telling of my four shark encounters. The fact is I almost never tell these stories because; I get the feeling that even before the first word my listeners are thinking, “Ohoh, here comes another shark story”. Well, please believe me, the shark stories following are true; I was there!!

Story #1: This is a short story; it was summer 1957 and it was my second dive using SCUBA at Catalina, a beautiful island 26 miles of the cost from Los Angeles Harbor. The Sunday diving boat became a habit for the next few summers.

My partner on this dive was a much more experienced diver than I and quite simply I was just following on his dive. We were gliding `just above the flat sand bottom when he brushed away the sand from an irregular spot, the tail of something big was exposed and my friend immediately grabbed it and was suddenly was being pulled along the bottom by what was clearly a shark around 5 feet long. It had the shark form with the fins, the head and… the teeth. It also had what seemed to be beautiful wings. I was to find out later that this was an angel shark, a very tranquil shark. When my friend let go of the tail the shark settled back on the bottom and camouflaged itself again in the sand again.

Now it was my turn! I did as I was told by the underwater sign language of my friend; I grabbed the tail and enjoyed a very exciting 30-second ride. Unforgettable!

On that same dive I was presented my first taste of sashmi (raw fish). My friend opened a beautiful shell, cut out the meat with his knife, cut away the rim and cut the morsel in half, he took out his SCUBA mouthpiece and ate it.

For the second time in 10 minutes it was my turn again. I took the other piece of shellfish and ate it 60 feet under water; it was delicious, with just the right amount of salt. I learned back on the boat that it was a scallop; in Japan it’s called Hotate and is considered a delicacy.

That was a good day.

Story #2: During a day off from the New Hampshire Music Festival in 1960, I decided to go to the coast and take my first dive in the Atlantic. I was diving alone, which I was taught never to do but the mystic of the deep compromised my reason. My interest was to look at the many lobster traps in the area. At about 20 feet they were easy to find and each of the traps had two or three lobsters inside. I love lobster and my temptation was great but just as I was considering the ethics and logistics of stealing just one lobster I saw what was clearly a shark, it was over four feet and almost black. It just hovered above the traps and seemed motionless. Suddenly the moral question of stealing was clearly resolved and I quickly left the area.

To this day I question if the shark was real, robbing the trap would have been so easy that I wondered if the motionless shark was a decoy and placed there to discourage any divers from looking for a free dinner. If so, it worked very well.

Story #3: Back at Catalina on a weekend trip with a tuba playing friend who had 35 foot schooner, we planned on a weekend of spear fishing and abalone diving. After a night of sleeping in the boat we took an early morning dive without SCUBA. We were just swimming on the surface and were essentially nautical sightseers. The shark appeared instantly, it was about 6 feet long and seemed interested in what we were doing in its territory. I was amazed at its beauty, how could a beast be so perfect, perfection in “aqua-dynamics”.

My reaction was to freeze, to be suspended on the surface and to move absolutely as little as possible. I learned in diving school that there is nothing in the sea clumsier than a human being; the best defense was to be as motionless as possible.

The shark struck me as non-threatening, but still it had my full attention. Suddenly, for no visible reason the shark lurched, turned 180° and disappeared, all within a quarter second. I stayed in the motionless “hanging” position for another minute. Finally, I took my head out of the water and looked for my friend; I saw him on top of some very sharp rocks protruding out of the water and covered with barnacles. While my reaction was to freeze his reaction was to swim as fast as possible to a “Safe place”! When I got to the rock I could see that in his haste he just climbed straight up the rock as fast as possible without regard to the sharpness of the barnacles, his legs were badly cut and bleeding abundantly, not a good thing while avoiding a shark. Dan was not advantaged by diving school! We waited about an hour for scabs to form on his legs, then swam back to the boat and had lunch.

Story #4: Through the seventies I took an annual short vacation to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, with my daughter Melody. Each year there I would take a swim across the bay, it was my private proof of manhood task. It was a reasonable swim, probably 500 yards in warm and not too rough water, always a pleasant and quasi-spiritual experience. This particular year was a little different, ten minutes into the swim I found myself surrounded be what seemed to be a huge school of barracuda, to be honest I really don’t know if it was huge, I’d never swam in a school of barracuda before. They were swimming in a circle and the water appeared to be boiling from their movement. Quickly, I decided to end this annual proof of manhood and to go back to the shore.

With the Barracuda gone and the shore about 100 yards away, just when I was feeling safe the fin appeared! I thought, I hoped, it was a dolphin. It wasn’t, that was a shark fin and it was moving in circles around me;I had seen that same sequence several times in Movies, this time it was real. I’ll never know how long it stayed with me, even though I successfully maintained my cool I’m not sure if those circles lasted five minutes or a half hour---- it seemed a lot longer! There was nothing I could do, I just treaded water and kept my eyes following the fin. As I worked my way little by little toward the beach, the shark finally disappeared and when I was standing at the water’s edge on the beach there was a small group of people to welcome me plus three lifeguards.

I’m proud to have stayed cool but out of the water I began to realize the seriousness of the event and with what I’m sure was an accelerated heart beat I instinctively found my way to the bar located in the hotel swimming pool and enjoyed a couple of the specialties, coco locos.

So, a little break from the musical sphere, a little brag credit and a little dealing with that exciting part of my life that I miss sometimes.

August 1, 2011, Tokyo