By Tom Demerly.
There has been a surplus of shark stories
lately, most with terrifying endings. Fear of the open water
usually starts with these tales. They are often sensationalized
accounts of rare instances when shark and man tangle and the
results are frightening. These stories are the overwhelming,
albeit creepy, exception to our relationship with the ocean.
In an effort to provide some balance I’m sharing this
story from our trip to the recent Ironman 70.3 Triathlon in
St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands. I hope it inspires a sense of
reverence, awe and respect for the open water environment and
peels away some of the fear.
Buck Island is a deserted coral outcrop three
miles off St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands. National
Geographic called it one of the “10 Most Beautiful
Beaches in the World”. It is a popular day sail for people
visiting the Virgin Islands for the Ironman 70.3 St. Croix Triathlon.
And that is what we were doing there.
Tourists pile aboard chartered white fiberglass
catamarans like a bunch of well-heeled, sun burned Haitian refugees
for the one hour cruise to Buck Island. Once at the island we
jump off the boat for snorkeling, sight seeing and a picnic
on the beach.
The island is small, most desert islands are,
and ringed by coral. Between the powder sugar beach and the
outer reef is an incredible natural observatory of marine life,
the Buck Island Reef National Monument. In this water there
are beautiful tropical fish, colorful coral and… sharks.
We toured the underwater snorkeling trail and
climbed aboard our catamaran to sail to the east end of the
island where the beach is. It is, as the fellows at National
Geographic wrote, breathtaking in its perfection. Idyllic.
White, soft, clean and pure. The breeze blows lightly and the
sun feels warm. For all we endure in life if this is where we
go when we die that would be fine.
We jumped off the catamaran and waded to shore,
day packs and coolers held overhead. My wife, Sarah, shares
my appetite for pulse-pounding adventure and a voracious curiosity
about wild things. She was easily convinced to strike out on
a mini-adventure away from the beach and our group to the less
picturesque, cactus strewn coastline to the south. No one was
going there. That must be where the wild things are.
There were pelicans and odd looking, hard brown
coral above the surface of the shallow lagoon between the island
and the outer reef. It was less postcard-like and more like
a scene from a desperate story of pirates and castaways. Just
what we were looking for. To our delight the pelicans ignored
us allowing for close and careful observation. They stood on
the coral and took to the wing then dove like missiles into
the water skewering through schools of silver fish. I tried
a trail that led inland but it was thick with angry bees so
I satisfied myself by peeing on a cactus and heading back to
the water. Crabs darted across the sand between the coral outcrops.
They did not like it when we tried to pick them up.
Looking into the water something sliced the mirror
surface in a beautiful, fast arc. What was that? The gash in
the water was like something a master swordsman would make;
precise and symmetrical. Just as quickly it healed to the glassy
surface. What could do that?
I told Sarah, “I think there is a shark
I always think there is a shark there. I look
out at the ocean hoping to see them leap into the air. I’m
constantly seeing non-existent dorsal fins tracing the surface.
I go SCUBA diving hoping to see schools of 200 hammerheads.
I read books about them, watch documentaries about them, dream
about them, wonder about them. On the flight down to St. Croix
I was devouring Susan Casey’s “The Devil’s
Teeth”, a story about white sharks near the Farallon Islands
in California. She painted a picture of dark, cold, deep water
filled with monstrous sharks and brave men. I follow the dates
of the full moon at Gladden Spit, Belize where the 35-foot whale
sharks gather to feed on the plankton that school in sync with
the lunar cycle. I’m fascinated by sharks. Have been since
I was a kid. As a triathlete I take guilty amusement by reveling
in the embellished allure that we swim in shark infested
waters, throwing caution to the wind in courageous pursuit of
our sport. It’s all very romantic, exotic, exciting and
wild. It’s also resides mostly in my imagination.
In hundreds of days in the ocean I have only seen sharks four
What made that shape in the water?
I put on a SCUBA mask and waded in for a look
see. There was a frantic school of silver fish whirring and
swooping underwater, changing direction in a frantic unison
that belied terror over… something. Perhaps the pelicans.
No shark though.
I waded back up to the narrow beach and put on
my polarized Oakleys to cut through the glare of the surface.
They peeled away the reflected sunlight and…
Shark! Black tipped fins- five feet long- cruising
just beneath the surface away from us. Shark! And another! And
a third! Three sharks!
Over and over I asked Sarah if she could see them
and she kept saying she could! She saw them too! I needed another
person to confirm what I was watching.
“Can you see the sharks!?! Can you see them!
Look, look! Three of them!”
At first she was amused by my excitement but then
she saw them too and joined in the fascination. I needed my
We ran back to the boat, promising between ourselves
to say nothing in case the captain wouldn’t let us go
back or in case the others on the boat wanted to crowd over
there and scare them away. It was our secret. We grabbed fins
and our underwater camera. A graying European man with a heavy
accent and a wetsuit carrying his snorkeling gear asked us,
“Dit you find zem? Dit you find
“Yes,” I told him. “They are
inside the reef. Come with us. We’ll show you…”
He followed us and we were joined by another young
man, a wild looking tan lad with blown blonde hair and a failing
pair of bathing trunks barely grasping his skinny hips.
We hurried. They may leave.
Back at the shallow reef we looked and looked.
At first we could not find them. But then a dark blade skimmed
under the water.
I waded in with my camera ready, looking over
my shoulder as I got waste deep. I remembered reading: “Most
shark attacks occur in shallow water.” It was important
to be sure none of the sharks got behind me. I submerged. The
school of silver fish flashed by. They swirled around me, swimming
for their lives. Their little black eyes peeled open in terror.
Safety in numbers. I looked back toward the beach. I was alone.
The tan boy, the European and Sarah stood on the beach.
I stood up and as I did it glided from behind
without movement of its body or swimming. It did not move- it
just propelled itself forward as if on some infinite momentum.
The shark had got behind me. It progressed without
movement toward me. Gliding. Still. It was like a jet before
you hear the sound.
I ran out of the water.
“Did you see it?! It swam behind me!”
We watched and gradually figured a strategy to
wade, then crouch down and swim with a coral head to our backs
in four or five feet of water. Our vulnerable rear area was
protected. It worked perfectly.
In an instant they returned, pursuing the fish
somewhat casually. The little fish took it very seriously. For
the sharks it may have been practice or amusement. The little
fish were swimming for their lives. Predators can afford the
luxury of practice. Prey cannot.
The sharks came inches from me. Five feet long,
shorter than me but not much. Reef sharks perhaps, since the
fins had black tips, but a low dorsal fin so… maybe the
lemon shark. Our guide books later confirmed them as Negaprion
acutidens the Sickle-fin Lemon Shark, a medium sized requiem
shark. This was not a petting zoo shark. Although not a tiger
or a great white, it packed a toothy wallop if pissed and had
a nervous disposition.
One of them approached me and I prepared to give
it a shove with my camera. It veered away at the last instant.
Another shot just beneath my knees. I took a photo, so close
its head filled the frame of my camera.
By now the European, the wind blown boy in the
failing trunks and Sarah had joined in. Sarah climbed on my
back underwater, not wanting her bare feet to land on sharp
coral or urchins.
We watched them cruise and dart and chase. The
sharks did not eat a single fish. They merely swam about with
a graceful urgency that contrasted with the terrified little
silver fish that wheeled to and fro in an absolute panic. It
seemed leisurely to the sharks.
They were beautiful and perfect. The texture of
their hide a deep, luxurious matt gray, uniform in color and
effective in stealth. They swam with the lack of movement a
shark is known for, levitating, moving without effort at a speed
just a tick faster than I was comfortable with. The black tips
of their fins looked like sinister insignia. One would come
into view and then leave, then another, and the third inbound
from the opposite direction. Their eyes were miniature and seemed
to perform no function.
Sharks do not think. Their systems are managed
by the most primitive firmware with only three agendas: Eat,
do not be eaten, and make more sharks. As such we were bearing
witness to three living projectiles. The attraction of the shark
transcends the allure and danger and resides in their incredible
elegance. They are everything they need to be, nothing extraneous.
We watched them as long as we could and then it
was time for our boat to leave. We waded out of the water and
I kept trying to see them, to catch a glimpse. It was so rare,
We walked around the island to the wide, white
sand beach where people were gathering towels and blankets and
wading out to the catamaran with their coolers and backpacks.
Swimming out to the back of the sail boat we climbed up the
ladder, grinning and giddy from adrenaline.
As the sails filled for the downwind jaunt back
to St. Croix the deck was awash with our tales, told and retold,
hand gestures representing the sharks and their movement. I
tried to shield the display of my digital camera to see the
photos in the sunny glare- the shark so close you could touch
it- from the side, from the back, from above. I shot many photos,
some quite good.
Sitting on the deck of the catamaran I realized
this was one of those rare days I would never forget- a day
that would stay with me for the rest of my life as a treasured
memory. I couldn’t wait to sit down and write about it,
preserving it so every detail would remain even as I got older
and then, when I was finally gone, perhaps a friend or acquaintance
would find this little story and read it. Hopefully they would
be inspired and entertained. Hopefully they would strike out
on the wild sea to find their own little adventures.
I often look at websites that offer shark diving
tours where you can see tiger sharks, great whites, bull sharks
and whale sharks. One day we’ll take a trip like that
to see the 15 foot “man-eaters” attracted to our
dive boat by bait for our own personal viewing. We’ll
swim with the gentle 35 foot whale sharks that feed on miniature
shrimp. It may be a perversion of the natural order, it may
be touristy, but I want to know what it feels like to be in
the water with the really big sharks even if it is somewhat
staged. Our discovery today wasn’t 15 foot sharks, but
it wasn’t staged either. We didn’t attract them.
Had we looked the other way at the instant we spotted the fin
slicing the surface we likely would have missed the three lemon
sharks. We got lucky and were treated to a beautiful show in
the natural order. During the day back here in Michigan, sitting
at my desk with four phone lines ringing, checks to be written
and three writing projects overdue and two bike fits waiting
I sometimes briefly picture that inland reef and wonder if the
lemon sharks are there right this instant, chasing the silver
fish under the bright Caribbean sun.
That day in St. Croix was a treasure of discovery
and adventure. It was a day of mystery revealed and wonderful
gifts granted by the sea and nature. This was a rare day, one
of those bejeweled days granted by our sport and by the things
it shows us.
I often hear people express their fear of the
water, the fear of sharks. I know that had they been with us
on that day to see the lemon sharks in the shallows of the desert
island that they could embrace their elegance and excitement
and wild nature. The distance would begin to close, the fear
changing to respect and admiration.
It just takes one of these magical days and a
shark story of your own to understand the sea is a place of
wonder, not a menacing place to fear.