When I was around 12, I made up my mind I was going to learn to SCUBA dive. Watching the old Sea Hunt episodes on TV served as the initial inspiration and a steady dose of Jacques Cousteau TV specials in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s served to cement my fascination with the sport. Being raised virtually surrounded by water on the east coast of Florida, I spent a great deal of time outdoors, swimming in pools, the ocean, the rivers and even abandoned limestone quarries that had filled with seepage from the fresh water aquifer that underpins much of the state. By the time I came to live in Ocala, in the north central part of the state, I added fresh water springs to my list of underwater places I simply had to explore.
I was 17 and my younger brother John was 15 when we managed to convince Mom to put us through the basic open water diver’s certification course. We knew SCUBA would come naturally to us. After all, we kids swam and snorkeled like fish; water skied in lakes, paddled canoes and kayaks with aplomb, and operated small gas engine boats with skill and caution. We had little fear of diving from a high fork of a water oak or swinging on dangerously slippery ropes into fast-running currents of the many rivers in central Florida. We were respectful, but not fearful of the alligators, snakes, snapping turtles and people floating in inner tubes that often thickly populated the many bodies of water we explored.
We believed that adding SCUBA diving to our outdoor skills was a given, and were egged on by visits to nearby Silver Springs, where we swam in the crystal clear waters of the main spring. Back in the early 1970s, locals could get onto the grounds of the attraction on a cheap “day swim” ticket. This gave us access to the breezeways between the ice cream shop and the souvenir shops, where framed publicity photos festooned the walls. We learned that many of the Sea Hunt episodes had been filmed at Silver Springs, as well as Tarzan movies and titles ranging from “The Yearling” to “Rebel Without A Cause”. Over the years the list has grown, from underwater sequences of James Bond films and National Geographic specials, sequences featured in Crocodile Hunter and Discovery Channel and too many commercials and documentaries to count. We just knew it would be SO cool to stay underwater and explore wrecks and caves and dodge sharks.
I gained my basic underwater certification in 1972, from the National Association of Scuba Diving Schools, now defunct. John couldn’t hack the math and never managed to pass the final written exam. No problem, we figured I could always rent gear for him on my card and we could still dive together, which we did on numerous occasions in the 1970s.
I did my open water checkout dive on Molasses Reef off Key Largo in the northern Florida Keys. Then, the reef was wonderfully alive, full of fish and massive brain coral, stag horn and elk horn corals. Captivated by the sensation of floating along, listening to the snaps and crackles of fish and shrimp, I had to constantly remind myself to check my bottom time, air and depth gauges to ensure I didn’t overstay my time or use too much air before returning to the boat.
The basic skills of SCUBA came as natural to me as breathing, and I quickly learned to fine-tune buoyancy by inhaling and exhaling while naturally orienting my body to the current and surge. I felt just like the fish, free in this watery world. I still remember floating just off the sandy bottom between reef heads, gazing upward at the shafts of light arrowing through the shallows, where soft corals waved back and forth in the surge. I had spent weeks studying books on marine species and silently named everything I could see, from southern sting rays and moray eels to Nassau groupers, yellow snappers, soft and hard corals. I learned to look in tiny crevices for snapping shrimp and kept my eye out for nudibranchs, as well as fish-cleaning stations – just like the ones I’d seen on one of those Jacques Cousteau specials!
Captivated, I continued my diving education in the cold springs and rivers in central Florida. Wearing a wet suit and diving in the 72 degree water of the springs wasn’t quite the thrill of diving on a fishy reef, but I learned to appreciate the unique aquatic environments that were close to home, and managed to get myself into a couple of close calls underwater that taught me valuable lessons about just how dangerous diving can be if you don’t keep your eyes peeled and pay close attention to where you are and what’s going on around you.
I found a diving buddy in my best friend’s husband. S was a good teacher, with almost a decade of diving under his belt. I felt safe in his company, even if I doubted my ability to successfully pull his 6 foot 4 inch frame out of a scrape. Thankfully I never had to save his bacon, but he had to come to my rescue on two occasions that still give me the willies today, remembering them.
S introduced me to diving in the rapid current of spring fed rivers. My first experience was on the Silver River, which flows from the headwaters at Silver Springs, running clear and cold until a few winding miles downriver, where it flows into the Ocklawaha River, which is a black water river, stained opaque by the tannin from the trees that line this natural waterway.
We entered the Silver River from a short canal dredged from a public boat ramp. Locals know it as the Boat Basin. We hauled our gear along a muddy, root-filled path beside the canal to where it met the Silver River proper. S warned me that I would sink into the soft bottom at the edge of the river bank, so I carried my flippers and stepped into the water with my mask and regulator firmly in place. Good thing, because I sank up to my butt in that muck, weighed down as I was by the tank and weight belt. I wasn’t strong enough to pull myself out as S had, so he yanked me loose, and I tumbled into the current of the river, rolling on my back to quickly don my flippers, peering through the cloud made by the current washing the mud off my legs. I rolled back over and quickly finned toward the bottom to avoid the prop of any boat that might buzz by.
Technically, we were, um, breaking the law diving this section of the Silver River. S said it was dangerous, the narrow river flowing swiftly and boats zipping overhead. The river wasn’t very deep, maybe 40 feet in spots, but the branches from fallen trees could snare the unwary, and many lures, with rusty, nasty hooks hung down from these obstructions, some strung tightly enough to garrote a diver, some swinging in the current waiting to snatch a body part or equipment. So, yeah I guess this was a crazy idea but we figured if we stayed in the middle of the river, went with the flow, listened for boats and hugged the bottom when they came overhead, we should be fine. The visibility was astounding. I could see across to the either riverbank underwater. Or what I believed to be the banks. It was hard to tell through the forest of tree limbs and branches.
Believe me, the last thing on my mind was fear of ‘gators or snakes. I had my hands full, following the mass of bubbles created by the movement of S’s flippers, keeping my body oriented downstream to a current that kept trying to flip me ass over teakettle, watching for obstructions, and maintaining height over the bottom to avoid the deep eel grass that lay almost flat from the pressure of the current.
The eel grass fascinated me. I knew that large catfish, which the locals called “sucker fish” hung out in the grass. I had seen some as large as 4 feet in length swimming in the headwater of Silver Springs. I’m not sure why, but for some reason they creeped me out, far more than the thought of bumping into a ‘gator.
I must have been daydreaming about sucker fish, because the next thing I knew I felt something grabbing the base of my neck, which rapidly stopped my forward motion. The current immediately grabbed my lower body, levering my feet toward the surface from the force of the water. I couldn’t swim up, dive down or, worse, twist around to see what I was hung up on. As I fought off the panic and tried to feel between my shoulders I felt S push my butt toward the bottom and pat me on the shoulder. I was pretty freaked, but knowing he was there helped me to calm down. He jerked at stuff at the base of my neck, while masterfully keeping us together in the pull of the current. I could feel him tugging on the hose of my regulator and felt my hair being pulled out by the roots, which didn’t help the panic. I envisioned being tangled on a tree branch or limbs, and he must have pulled my hair, which was long and tied into a ponytail, out of a snarl.
As I recall, S pulled me gently up-current a few feet to clear what I could now see was the fork of two tree limbs festooned with densely packed branches. A clod of sand and mud kicked up from the bottom mostly obscured the scene, and we didn’t hang around to study the area. Holding my hand, S quickly tugged me along toward the center of the river. My brain was settling down from the panic, and I mulled over how stupid I was, thinking about those damned sucker fish, allowing myself to drift toward the river bank. I remember resolving to pay attention from now on. I had just had a personal lesson on just how hazardous this sport could be.
In the middle of the river S motioned for me to follow him to the surface. I lifted up my mask and removed my regulator to ask what the hell had happened, and he quickly told me to keep my mask on and regulator in my mouth and listen. He was holding onto me while we drifted down-current. No boats were in the area and we were well clear of the riverbanks.
S spoke fast, telling me I’d gotten hung up in a tree and he’d had to cut my hair where it had gotten entangled with branches that had caught the first stage of the regulator. Thank goodness he had a dive knife strapped to his leg. He apologized for chopping my hair, but went on to say we had to get down to the bottom before a boat came by and that he’d stay right beside me and let me know when we were close to the place where we were to get out.
Memory is a funny thing. I can recall a lot of that dive in great detail. I remember shaking from the cold and fear but feeling steadied by S’s calm, reassuring manner. I had no idea where I was, or where we were to get out to walk back to the car. I was completely dependent on S, which was a scary thing, if I think about it.
I remember just wanting the dive to end, and spent the next unrecalled period of time concentrating on staying right next to S, not floating higher, not sinking deeper. I kept sweeping my head left and right to try to see the river banks, but the river was getting wider, which meant the current was slowing down. There were fewer bends in the river now, but the water was also not a clear as earlier, and visibility was dropping rapidly. I guessed we were getting near the spot where the Silver River let into the Ocklawaha River, where S had said we would end the dive.
S motioned me to follow him to the surface. He broke the surface before me and, quickly ducking down again, he pushed my shoulder so I stopped rising. Then he turned his facemask directly to mine and I could see him grin around his regulator mouthpiece and wiggle his eyebrows, almost concealed beneath his wetsuit hood. He had some mischief in mind. I was in no mood for games but gave him the OK sign when he motioned for me to wait a second. I floated almost vertical about 4 feet from the surface and watched as he very slowly eased his head out of the water.
S motioned for me to surface and as I popped up next to him, he took the old-fashioned, single-stage regulator mouthpiece from his mouth and let it fall into the water, where it dangled around his neck, bubbles seeping up to the surface. He grinned and said “See down there?” He motioned with his head to the left bank of the river, which was about 80 feet away. Downriver, on a flat section of the bank, a woman was sitting on a bucket, cane-pole fishing. A small boy played in the shallows next to her. Neither of them had seen us yet. S said “Let’s have some fun. Stay next to me, float as low in the water as you can. Keep an eye on them and don’t be surprised when I push you back down fast. OK?”
I was puzzled but nodded. I let air out of my buoyancy compensator to lower myself so that my mouthpiece and chin were underwater and paddled to keep myself vertical, watching the boy and the woman. We quietly drifted downstream to almost directly across from them, but still neither had spotted us, probably because we were so low in the water, with a dark riverbank of trees behind us. Also, it had become cloudy and the wind was ruffling the surface of the river. S had on a black wetsuit hood and my dark hair probably didn’t stand out.
Suddenly, S took the mouthpiece out of his mouth and raised it above his head. The regulator let out a loud and sustained HISSSSS, which startled me as it echoed off the trees lining the river. I got a glimpse of the boy’s face as he lifted it, jumped straight up from a crouch and screamed at the top of his lungs “Mommy! Mommy!” while pointing frantically in our direction. The woman was twisted away from us on her bucket, fiddling with fish on a stringer. I saw her start and lift her head, and then the next thing I saw was a froth of bubbles as S shoved me, hard, below the surface. He was looking into my mask. His mouthpiece was back in place and he was laughing so hard that bubbles were pouring out all around his lips. I whooped into my regulator and almost lost my own mouthpiece. What a hoot!
Some minutes later I was still chuckling to myself, even as I was shivering from the cold, when S grabbed my hand, motioned “up” and led us to a broad section of the river bank under the old barge canal bridge that spans the Ocklawaha. I remember us clambering out of the river, laughing our asses off. My teeth were chattering, I was so cold, but I managed to get my flippers, tank and weight belt off. S was howling with glee. “Did you see that? Man, that kid is NEVER gonna be able to convince his momma that he saw a sea serpent or whatever the hell we looked like to him. You just KNOW she didn’t even see us. And that regulator hissing? That was brilliant! Too damn funny!” And so on.
I was freezing and drained from too many adrenaline rushes that day for it all to sink in. The story was much funnier in the retelling to his wife, which we did when we got to their house, toweled off, changed clothes and got some hot coffee in us.
As funny as that part was, the scary getting-stuck-on-a-tree thing gave me pause. Not to mention my mangled pony tail. I remember my mother being horrified when I walked into the house that evening. The first thing out of her mouth was “What happened to your HAIR?” I got into a bit of trouble for diving in the Silver River, which my step-father knew was a seething mass of obstructions. “Hell, I won’t even run my little boat that far down the river to avoid damaging the prop,” he admonished me. So I had to promise to never dive in the Silver River again or any other body of water where it was illegal to dive. I kept that promise. Well, more or less…
My SCUBA log book was starting to get pretty full, mostly with entries of dives in the fresh water springs and rivers around my home of Ocala, in north central Florida. Then, in the early 1970s, you could readily access spring heads for diving and snorkeling. Today, some of the places I dived are either on private property or are managed by the State of Florida and closed to diving. Then, the boat traffic was virtually non-existent except on holidays or summer weekends, compared to the rafts of boats crowding every navigable waterway and springhead in the state today. What used to be quiet, pristine and out-of-the-way spots have turned into a seething mass of humanity, with all the attendant dangers to manatees and pollution of the environment. And noise. But I won’t get on my soapbox about that at this juncture.
The moral to this little tale of lost-woman-in-an-underwater-cave-at-night is: oh gee, pick one. Don’t cave dive if you aren’t a certified cave diver? Or how about: familiarize yourself with the intended night dive location during the day before you embark on your FIRST ever night dive? Or: bring your very OWN waterproof flashlight?
Well, I was actually quite familiar, I thought, with the main spring at Crystal River. This has hosted likely thousands of neophyte SCUBA divers through the years as a popular spot for “open water” checkout dives, mostly for those who can’t afford the time or expense of a trip to a tropical marine environment to complete their basic certification. What, me worry?
My mom and step-father had a little condo with a boat slip on King’s Bay, an offshoot of Crystal River located just a couple of minutes by boat from the main spring. They had both a small boat (either a 16 foot Jon boat or a 16 Boston Whaler, depending on the year) as well as a larger boat that they took down river into the Gulf of Mexico. We kids would spend weekends with our folks, typically out on the big boat, fishing in the Gulf. Over several years we became quite familiar with Crystal River and its byways, creeks and spring heads. Plus, our step-father had been boating out of Crystal River for over many years, and knew this section of the coast intimately from Yankeetown to Homosassa.
I had dived the main spring at Crystal River several times, always during the day. Technically, it is considered a cavern, not a cave, in that there is no truly enclosed cave portion. But that doesn’t mean a diver can’t get disoriented (like, um, at night, with no flashlight?) and manage to (stupidly) swim up into a chimney-like formation, get jammed, be unable to reach down to the knife strapped to the inside of her leg and bang on her tank to call for help.
I was stuck up in that chimney like a sausage. Couldn’t go up. Couldn’t go down. (Which was up anyway?) I could twist at little, but kept banging my head and tank on rock. Wondered at what point my still-youthful life was going to go flashing by my mind’s eye. Tried to figure out how I’d gotten in here in the first damn place. Tried not to breathe so damn fast- couldn’t afford to hyper-ventilate at this point.
I remembered some story about how people lost in a (dry) cave, without flashlights, had managed to get out by keeping one hand on a side wall and just kept walking. I was reaching out to try to figure out which part of my prison was a side when I felt a hand clamp on my calf. My dive buddy, S, to the rescue. Of course it was him. After all, we were the only two humans in the spring head that weekday night in the month of November. The only two people who had anchored the Jon boat at the grassy edge of the spring, about 9:00 pm: who had flipped overboard backwards from opposite sides of the boat and finned over the eel grass to the black edge of the gaping spring, demarked by the force of the water from below pushing against our facemasks and regulator mouthpieces.
I forgot the shock of the first rush of cold water pouring into my wetsuit as we floated about 20 feet below the surface of the spring. S had turned off the only underwater flashlight we had between us, letting our eyes become accustomed to the starlight which, in the gin-clear water, illuminated the limestone walls of the spring for 20 or more feet down. We floated for a few more minutes and I remember being awed by the sensation of being suspended between the water and the stars. When I rolled on my back, held my breath and gazed upward, there was absolutely no indication of where the surface of the water ended and the air began. It was a feeling somewhere between falling and rising, but I wasn’t disoriented or dizzy. Just amazed.
S turned on his flashlight and we floated down some 45 feet to the sand and began to slowly swim around the walls of the spring, ducking in and around broken columns of limestone, always ending back in the center of the spring, floating. We had all the bottom time in the world, as we wouldn’t even reach 60 feet of depth on this dive, so we turned summersaults in mid-water and played with the glow sticks that S had brought along.
We surfaced to decide if we were ready to leave or stay a bit longer, and noticed it had started to sprinkle rain. I asked if we could do one more circle of the spring and S agreed. His flashlight provided ample illumination for me to clearly see S’s shape just ahead of me, and because we hadn’t kicked up sand from the spring bottom, the water was still very clear. I must have been lulled into a false sense of security or else the cold was seeping into my brain, because I deliberately hung back from S as he swam from behind a limestone column. I recall turning left, going up and following what I thought was a slightly different route to go around the same column. Next thing I knew I was in the dark, alone, banging my head and tank and in a jam. Literally.
I was sure my heart was going to quit working, it was thumping so hard. It didn’t slow down a bit when S patted my calf with what I interpreted as a “relax, I’m here” gesture. I remember feeling the water move around me and then, of all things, there was his face mask glinting a few inches from mine. He shined his flashlight under his mask to light his face and gave me the OK sign, which I returned quickly, banging my elbow painfully on rock. He craned his neck forward and peered into my face, cocked his head sideways and I saw his other hand come up in a “so-so” gesture. Leave it to S to tease me at a moment like this. I just hung there in the water, giving him an emphatic OK sign. I wanted to scream at him to quit messing around to get me the hell out of here. Which he promptly did, by placing a hand on each of my shoulders and shoving me straight down – apparently with enough force that I missed the walls and came squirting backwards out into the open spring, easily clearing the side wall of limestone. I let my body complete the somersault motion, and I remember floating there, limp, trying to get my heart rate down.
S finned up to me and, shining the flashlight between us so that neither of us was blinded, he looked into my mask again, as if to say “Well, are you OK or what?” I gave the OK sign and shakily rubbed the top of his wetsuit hood as if to say “Good Boy”.
We ended the dive by breaking open a couple of glow sticks, watching the little green firefly-like lights spread out in a random pattern between us and the stars and the surface of the water, which I could clearly discern because of the pattern that the rain was making on the water’s surface.
So ended my first, and last, night dive in anything that can confine. I decided that I would limit my night diving to open water. No caves, no caverns, no wrecks, no swim-throughs. Nothing overhead! But of course I couldn’t have known then that I might, just, be tempted to ratchet up my now well-developed and hard-won claustrophobia with a daring night dive. But that was a few years in the offing. First, I had to experience a few more heart-racing moments underwater, like a case of the bends and life-threatening panic at 75 feet in a roaring current.
[Photos L to R: Crystal River main spring dive prep. Rainbow River with the Red Bomb, unbeknownst to me, a totally illegal and dangerous tank. S took the pic. Both circa early 1970s.]
In SCUBA class, we had to study all sorts of esoteric stuff designed to help us grasp that our human bodies are A) not designed with gills, and thus B) our bodies are subject to, well, all sorts of esoteric stuff when we SCUBA. Like Henry’s Law. I got that one on the test, no problem: If inert gas is forced to come out of solution too quickly, bubbles form inside the body and are unable to leave through the lungs causing the signs and symptoms of the “bends” which can be itching skin and rashes, joint pain, and sensory system failure.
Some people struck by the bends can be partially paralyzed. Some people have been completely paralyzed. Some have died. And some, like me, got really, really lucky.
I was 25, in great shape and an experienced (I thought!) diver, and decided to visit West Palm Beach in Florida for some wreck diving. Near the end of a fairly stressful dive in barely manageable current to 80 feet on an old freighter, I found myself abandoned by my buddy-of-the-moment. Most of our little group had already headed for the surface, so I made my way alone to the anchor line and began to gently move hand over hand along the line, maintaining my 1 foot per second rate of ascent, like a good girl. Rising at this rate is designed to allow those nasty gasses to stay where they are and not form a bubble in an inconvenient place, like at a joint, or along the spine. Of course, it didn’t help that the current was trying to pry me off a line that would go from almost slack to a snapping tautness as the boat, far above, rode 5 foot waves.
I was kinda freaked in the turbid water. I couldn’t see the surface, I couldn’t see the bottom and so at one point I cupped the line in one hand and the next thing I know I was snatched up along the line like a leaf blowing in the wind.
When I saw the bottom of the dive boat crashing into the waves above me, I braked on the line and thought “Hmm, I wonder if I’ve come up too fast?” No time to dither, I needed to get aboard, someone was hanging onto the tag line off the stern of the boat waving at me to hurry up.
The group enjoyed a short surface interval (well within the safe limits, for all you divers out there), then popped overboard for a short dive on a shallow reef. An hour or so later, I was back in the NoTell Motel room, sitting down for a sandwich, when I was suddenly struck with nausea, dizziness, slurred speech and a narrowing of my peripheral vision. When I registered numbness in my fingers and toes, I suspected I might have a problem. Luckily I had a (non-diving) friend with me, and I managed to mumble instructions to call the nearest recompression chamber, which I knew was just a few miles up the road. We were told to get there fast, to be met by a dive physician and a recompression team. What an ordeal! I was immediately given oxygen to breathe (in-between bouts of tossing my cookies into a convenient bucket) and given some sort of blood thinner shot while the physician carefully questioned me about my dive profile. How deep? How long? Did I come up too quickly? (uh, well, I think so, yessss…) Another dive? How deep? How long? The oxygen helped clear my head but let me tell you that shot did some weird things to, um, all of my mucus membranes. They were- all of them mind you – stinging like a hoard of bees, which was another unwelcome distraction.
I was muzzy-headed as the team worked out a recompression profile and popped me into the chamber, which I idly observed looked just like they do in the movies and on TV. Big. Tubular steel. Cold. Daunting.
A diver attendant was locked in with me and the pressure was on. Literally. I was told to lie down on a cot squeezed into that tiny space and the attendant gave me a heavy telephone handset which I barely managed to keep to my ear. All I wanted to do was sleep but the weirdly echoing voice in the headset kept hectoring me to stay awake and answer questions ranging from what my name was to who the president of the U.S. was at the moment. I remember looking through a small, thick glass porthole at a blurry face and thinking “What the hell is this, civics class?”
Meanwhile, my poor recompression buddy was in a great deal of pain- he had a head cold and was having a real struggle to equalize his ears. After a few minutes the pressure was raised, he was locked out and I was left alone to go back to listening to the banging and hissing of the chamber being pressurized to different depths. I breathed oxygen, yakked on the phone and fought off sleep with silly answers to questions.
My apparent sense of humor was reassuring to the team, so after an hour or so when I complained of being hungry, they raised the pressure, brought in a tray of something yummy that I don’t recall, then it was back to the depths. Somehow I managed to eat, take tokes from an oxygen mask, yak on the phone, and keep my face near the porthole so they could see me if I passed out or worse.
Four hours later, when I was finishing up the paperwork for services rendered, I listened closely as the dive physician explained that although I was well within the safe limits for depth, time and so forth, my little ride up the anchor line had likely caused a bubble to emerge somewhere near the base of my neck. Wow. Close call. That could have meant paralysis from the neck down. But, I was lucky enough to be recompressed quickly and to receive what I fully appreciated was the very best medical care. I was pronounced hale and hearty and sent on my way, to fall exhausted into a 12 hour sleep.
The best advice I got that evening was to limit myself to dives to 60 feet or less. After all, a diver can travel the world and see many things within the sport diver limit of 60 feet. I was reminded that the dive tables were developed for Navy SEALs, strapping big guys, and not for people of my smaller frame (I was 5’5”, 120 lbs at the time), and I would be safer to just avoid such depths- and perhaps to avoid diving in high currents. Sound advice, which I have strived to follow ever since.
A side note: Diver’s Alert Network (DAN) is a terrific service for divers. I had my DAN card with me that evening, and my insurance paid 100% for all medical expenses incurred in conjunction with my little run-in with the bends. That was then, I have no idea what their coverage may be today but kudos to DAN and, again, my profound thanks for being there when I needed them most!
[Photos: Both above taken that fateful day. Circa 1977] More Pix Here
- It was a hot August Sunday. Mom and Harry were out on the Gulf of Mexico, grouper fishing in their new Bayliner. Brother John was off with friends in the nearby Ocala National Forest, water skiing on one of the larger lakes in the area. I was slated to SCUBA dive the Silver River with S____, my dive buddy and best friend’s hubby.Fast-forward to early evening, everyone’s arriving at the house simultaneously. Mom and Harry are acting strange. The station wagon doors and rear gate are propped open, a carload of fishing and boating gear abandoned. I enter the kitchen and there they are chattering loudly and a bit frantically as they mix cocktails with shaking hands.I tried to get a word in edgewise to tell them of my near-death SCUBA experience (see earlier blog entry) and I’m floored into silence as I catch something to the effect of a Great White shark menacing the Bayliner. “What?” Amazed, I stood transfixed, my chopped off hair standing almost straight out, as I listened to their tale.There they were, 20 or so miles out in the Gulf, a glassy, hot day and no fish biting when Mom idly glanced over the side and spotted what she thought was a whale shark swimming slowly alongside the boat.
Harry had just set the anchor and settled down to fish from the bow when Mom said something to him about a whale shark sniffing around, and he laughingly asked her how many gill slits it had. The water was clear and she had no problem counting five, and reported the same. “Right number of gills, does it have spots?” Harry asked, still concentrating on his fishing.
“Honey, um, I don’t see any spots and this thing is really big”, Mom reported. Harry said he could tell she was no longer fascinated. In fact, she was nervous.
“You need to come back here and see this thing,” she called out and as Harry made his way aft he spotted the dorsal and upper caudal and tail fins of what he immediately recognized as a shark– a really big shark.
Turns out the dang critter was indeed a Great White, painstakingly identified by both fisher folk, as they had plenty of time to study the fish while it described figure eights just off the transom.
“It’s the live well,” Harry said. “It smells the bait.” No reply from Mom. She watched, transfixed, as the fish swam close by the side of the boat. Mom reported that when it rolled slightly and “glared” at her through that black eye, her bones went cold. When she computed that the shark was a bit longer than their 24 foot boat, that’s when she hit the panic button.
The finer points of their stories diverged at that point, but they agreed that a sudden urge to leave the area hit them both simultaneously. They burst into action, Mom taking the helm while Harry scrambled onto the bow to fetch the anchor. The damned engine refused to turn over and Harry decided to snatch the anchor line aboard rather than drive up to it, the more reasonable and efficient approach.
Mom said Harry must have snatched a good 50 or more feet of line aboard in one pull. Then he cussed a blue streak at the engine refusing to turn over, while Mom stood exactly amidships, behind her co-pilot’s seat, keeping as much distance between her and the shark as possible.
When the engine caught, Mom said Harry snatched the thing into forward and she fell backward, luckily into the rear bench seat rather than overboard. They both said they didn’t slow down until they hit the mouth of Crystal River, over 20 miles to the east.
I was still trying to take it all in when Mom cried “What happened to your HAIR?” I launched into a soft-pedaled version of my getting-stuck-in-a-tree-underwater story when my brother John tumbled through the garage door and said “Holy Cow, wait until I tell you what happened to me today!”
Another round of babble ensued as we all talked at once, until Mom held up her hands and said something like “Let’s take turns so we can all hear”. We laughed and in the lull, John told a brief but harrowing tale of getting caught in a waterspout on the lake in the forest.
Apparently, threatening weather didn’t put the three boys off water skiing and they left it too late when the wind whipped the lake into whitecaps. They raced the boat back to the dock and were trying to tie down the bucking bronco when one of them looked over his shoulder, pointed, yelled something unintelligible in the wind and rain, and the next thing John knew his two friends bolted up the dock, running full tilt toward their house on the hill. John had the stern line pulled from his hand and the next moment he was snatched up and flung head-first into 3 feet of shallows, churned in a washing-machine of sand and lake water.
Now, my brother has been given to slight exaggeration in his story-telling but I was immediately convinced of his veracity by the lacerations on his face, neck and the exposed skin of his chest, back, arms, legs and feet. He’d been wearing only a pair of shorts while skiing and you could clearly see the line at the shorts where the sand-scrubbing left off and protected skin began. He was still digging sand out of his eyes, nose and ears and, apparently, other orifices we didn’t press him about.
Turns out that twister rammed the boat into the dock, destroying the dock and totaling the boat. Only the engine was salvageable. Apparently, the boys and their parents watched from the screen porch as John disappeared behind a “brown, muddy” wall of water before the family ran inside the house. Several huge old water oaks on the property were toppled by the water spout, leaving deep holes and massive root systems exposed.
At some point we all calmed down, unpacked the car, took our showers, shared a meal and decided that nobody’s story was the “best”. It was another One Of Those Days, with a weird kind of synergistic coincidence, resulting in tales too strange to concoct!