“Swim after me.”
Those were our Captain’s last words. I think about them often. Did he know what was coming? Obviously he couldn’t. Not really. But did any piece of him feel like this would be the last time his lips moved to form a sentence? A fleeting feeling, maybe, an instinct buried inside and pushed away like some awkward cousin to deja vu. Do we get that chance? However small – does the universe ever offer any opportunity to walk away from death? Or does it just happen, and we’re gone, as quick as turning off a light?
John certainly looked confident as he tied the life preserver firmly around my waist. The strap dug into my chest, and it was uncomfortable around my head, but he showed me a way to loosen the string and stick the slack into a loop. He gestured to my wife next, indicating that hers needed to be tightened with both hands. I moved over to help her, and without another word, John hopped over the rail of the boat and into the cool blue ocean behind us.
An enormous splash erupted in his wake.
The plan was pretty simple. Anna and I were on our honeymoon. We paid Captain John’s touring service for breakfast and drinks on the beach of a remote island. It wasn’t cheap. We had spent five days in this tropical paradise. We wanted to make the last one special.
John disappeared for a moment and then quickly resurfaced. He smiled in our direction, shook loose a thread of soaked hair tentacles, and thumbed up over his shoulder, as if to say the water’s fine, before turning inland to swim towards the island.
After a moment of fiddling, we both jumped in after him.
I can remember the water feeling cold. That was the first thing that hit me, like a punch right in between the eyes. Why the fuck was it so cold? It was summer. We were miles from the equator. And yet my feet felt like two solid icicles floating beneath me. I moved my body perpendicularly to the ocean floor and felt my toes warm up. Captain John raised his arm up in the distance. He started to swim. We followed.
The second odd thing was the color of the water. Now, I grew up in Jersey. In our neck of the woods you would be lucky to see a foot into the ocean. But in this part of the world, we were used to seeing six of seven feet below. That wasn’t possible where we were swimming. Everything below us looked like darkness.
I didn’t like that. I kept feeling like something could be below me.
The waves kicked up as we got closer to the head of the beach. The current took me under a couple times. I took in several mouthfuls of salty water along the way. Sometime after my second or third coughing spree, I looked up to find John, and realized that I couldn’t see him. Anna was still beside me. She coughed and kicked on her own personal mission. I could tell that we were going in the right direction… but John was gone.
I stopped swimming.
“Hey, where did…”
The scream that interrupted my sentence only lasted a few seconds.
Look, I know how these things are portrayed in Hollywood. The blood squirts out as if from a yogurt tube. The victim shouts “shark!” as they heroically battle the beast several times their own size. He punches it’s eye. The victim escapes. Everyone’s home in time for beers at the local shoreside dive bar. But my reality was much quieter.
First John was there, then John wasn’t, and then he screamed.
But the sound didn’t last.
It was like when you change the channel on TV quickly and only catch a bit of a conversation. John’s scream erupted at full volume. Then it muted itself. Shortly after… The water around me started to turn red.
Then came the panic.
“SWIM,” I screamed. I don’t know how many times I yelled it. Over and over again. Swim. Swim. Swim. To the island. To land. Land meant safety. Swim. Swim. Swim. Get the fuck out of here.
The riptide by the beach was almost impossible to get through. We went with the direction of the water until we couldn’t anymore. Exhausted, I half dragged my wife through the shallow water, listening to my heartbeat thump through my chest like an anvil until we finally felt the relief of dry sand under our feet.
I looked around.
We were alone.
It took a while for the shock to wear off. Everyone responds to it differently. Annie sat down on the beach and cried. I put myself into action. Action and ideas kept away the bad thoughts.
I ran up and down the beach to get a better idea of our surroundings. It was shorter than a mile long and probably thinner than a quarter mile wide. Nearly the entire surface area of the Island was consumed by the beach. A few trees were gathered in the center. I checked everywhere, but unfortunately, there was no fresh water.
John had been carrying our lunch in his pack.
I started to poke through the woods. A plan worked itself together in my head. We needed to reach the boat. I was confident that once we reached it, we could follow the direction the sun set, and drive ourselves home. Captain John had anchored us only a couple dozen feet from the shore. The problem, obviously, was going back the way we came.
I got it in my head that we needed a small raft. Something that would offer some level of protection to the things that waited below. I pulled together a few loose tree limbs. I cut them at the end with my pocket knife to even them out. I wandered around looking for some sort of string to hold the branches together. I found a fairly thick vine, and though I knew it wouldn’t last, it was something. The entire operation took a few hours, and I made sure to check on Annie several times in between, just to make sure she hadn’t completely lost it yet.
She was getting there.
The plan started to make me feel better. I could feel the panic moving away from the center of my brain to somewhere in the back. A task kept me occupied, I guess, you know? It didn’t give me time to think about how shitty our chances actually seemed. I had a list of steps put together in my head and I followed them. No more, no less.
I had just finished tying the front end of my raft when Anna screamed.
My feet hit the hot sand in a full sprint. Unsolicited images filled my head. Annie in the shark’s mouth. Annie trying to swim away. Annie slowly slipping under the surface as a fresh pool of red surrounds her mangled body…
I arrived at the beach-head to find her intact. No blood, no injuries. She pointed to something in the distance. It took me a minute to catch my breath, figure out what she was talking about, and squint into the distance. But when I did… that’s when I saw the arm.
It floated lazily in the current. It almost could have been a piece of seaweed or other debris. But even from this distance I could see the outline of a four leaf clover tattoo. Anna said she could see his wedding ring, but her eyes were always better than mine.
I thought that meant the shark was gone. I don’t know why. I guess maybe I thought he was full and had enough human for one day. But a moment later, a fin appeared, and the arm lazily dropped underwater.
Then another fin came.
Then ten more.
It wasn’t long until we sat witness to an entire feeding frenzy.
There must have been dozens. White sharks, bull sharks, you name it. We could only see their fins and faces when they surfaced. Their bodies thrashed about in the current. Waves listed around them. The deep shade of red from John’s blood had almost completely faded. There was nothing left for all of them to eat… but they waited around anyway. It was as if they could see us stranded on the beach. I know it sounds absurd, but it felt that way.
So we waited too.
Our first night on the beach was uneventful. It rained for a bit. Anna found a good spot under a jutting rock and tried to get some sleep. I continued fiddling with my raft. I strengthened the ties with a couple more pieces of vine. I added a couple boards to make it longer. I even gave it a test drive in about six inches of water by the beach. I made sure Annie was awake to watch me for that part.
I knew we had to make the journey before dehydration set in. The sun would be hot in the morning. I could already the dryness pickling the back of my throat. Those gulps of salt water on the way in had definitely sped up my thirst. You can last for weeks without food, but only a couple days without water. I knew that we wouldn’t have many chances.
I went to sleep for an hour, with a plan to build my strength for one last hurrah.
I woke up to an impossibly bright sun. Annie was standing over the raft. I knew she was still scared. But she looked determined. That gave me the confidence I needed.
“Time to go?” She asked.
“Time to go,” I confirmed.
The water seemed calm as we pushed the raft over the shallow parts. Any signs of last night’s feeding frenzy had evaporated. Clear blue sea surrounded us as tiny little minnows darted around our feet. I kept my eyes fixated on the dark water in the distance. I got it into my head that if I saw the shark, I could do something about it, which was stupid. We were already too far from the beach to escape. No one can outswim a killing machine. We would be dead. But control of the situation gave me confidence in the situation. So I went with it.
At the edge of the dark water, I lifted Annie onto the top of the raft. The tree limbs buckled and moved around nervously, but my craftsmanship held up. I jumped onboard beside her. And just like that, Annie dug my makeshift oar into the seabed, and pushed us off into the abyss.
We were about 50 feet from Captain John’s boat when we spotted the first fin.
It was in the distance, probably a couple hundred yards away, and that gave us hope. Maybe the fish moved on. Maybe we would be okay. Annie even laughed and gave me a bit of a thumbs up as I pulled the oar from her hand and pushed it a little faster.
There was no warning. One moment we were paddling towards salvation, smiles on our faces, and the next… we were in the dark water.
I felt something scaly brush against my leg. It must have cut me because I could feel salt water mixing into my scrape. I knew I was bleeding before I saw it.
That’s when I knew we were fucked.
Panic took hold once again.
“Swim!” I screamed. “Swim, swim, swim!” I kept waiting for the thing to hit me. I thought, since I was the one bleeding, the shark would spare Anna and kill me. And I was alright with that. As absurd as it sounds. I couldn’t stand the thought of losing my wife. But if death is as simple as turning off a light, well, then maybe that would be better.
The shark hit me on my left ankle. I wasn’t going to go down that easy. I kicked it with the right. Over and over again, like they tell you in the movies, I aimed for its face. Nothing worked. Soon we were in a barrel roll. My head dipped underwater. Salt water filled my lungs. I was more than ready for this to be the end. I accepted it. Annie had escaped. Like the TV channels flipping in and out, I could hear her climbing out of the water, she was going to make it. Everything else would be okay.
The lights of the horizon started to go out.
But just before they did – a large SLAP erupted right by my face. The water shook from the vibration. I couldn’t figure out what the fuck just happened, but, the shark let go of my ankle.
I swam deliriously. To my left a slap echoed by my shoulder. Fins surrounded me now. Each time they hit the water the sound kicked me into another gear.
I couldn’t figure out what was going on. There had to be twenty fins around me all slapping their fins like twenty-somethings at a Phish concert. Annie was screaming something. But I couldn’t hear her.
I dug both hands into the current and pulled myself towards her voice with every ounce of strength left in my body. The fins continued to surround me. Every five seconds or so they’d slap the water an inch from my face. They seemed awfully careful not to hit me. When I was about ten feet from the boat, I could see Annie laughing, and that really threw me. Here I am, inches from death, fighting for life… and she’s laughing?
She cuffed her hands and repeated the thing she’d been shouting.
I looked to my left. A fish longer than me matched my pace stroke for stroke. When it reached up to slap the water again, I finally realized what was happening. They were protecting me.
I swam faster. More than anything, the dolphins gave me hope. Two of them matched my pace all the way in. They felt like my body guards. Annie tossed down a life jacket. I grabbed it.
She pulled me the rest of the way to the boat.
As she was helping me onboard the boat, I looked down to check out my ankle, which was no more than a pile of hamburger meat. Underneath it was a massive shadow.
I didn’t have to see it up close to know it was a White shark.
My foot was a bloody stump, but adrenaline kept me moving. I wrapped my leg in one of my spare tee shirts. I helped Annie turn over the engine. I pointed in the direction of the rising sun and said,
“Let’s go home.”
Sometime after that, I passed out.
It took forty-five staples and countless stitches to put my foot back together.
Annie had to be hospitalized due to dehydration. There were some scary moments the first couple days after our recovery. But we were okay. We lived. And for that I am more than thankful.
They never found John’s body. I suppose there would not have been much left to find of it anyway.
It has been years since this happened. My wife and I have moved on to a happy life, with happy kids, and much happier memories than this one… but I’ll still never be able to forget it. I still have nightmares to this day. I’ll never forget how close I came to having the lights going out. I’ll never forget the happy look in John’s eyes as he thumbed over his shoulder for us to follow. Like a fish in the sea… completely unaware of the chaos that awaited him.
To this day, I will never swim in dark water again.