Sound Bites

By Tom Neale, 12/2/2004

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The shark was longer than our dinghy by at least 3 feet. And our dinghy was 12 feet long. It was hard to tell exactly how much longer the shark was, because we couldn’t see our dinghy well. The shark was between us and the dinghy. It wasn’t just your everyday reef or sand or tiger shark; it was a hammerhead. We’d been working a really big Nassau grouper up under a ledge in the Exumas. The grouper was deep inside a hole, but we knew he was there. We knew because we’d seen him and heard him.

When you’re diving for fish and peer into a hole, at first you don’t see anything but wavering nothingness. But as your eyes adjust, shapes begin to form and then become distinct and then sort themselves out in the distance—some close and some far. When we’re after fish, we only free dive; we never use scuba equipment. So by the time our eyes adjust, it’s near time to go up. Lungs do some great things, but they only hold so much air. If “up” is very far (as in, maybe 25 to 30 feet) you need to start heading in that direction when you’ve still got enough oxygen left in your lungs.

The Nassau, I think, knows all this about us. He is a brilliant master at camouflage. At first you don’t see him at all when you peer inside. Then, as the shapes materialize, he looks just like contours of reef. Only gradually, to the practiced eye, does he reveal himself. This day, each time we went down and peered in, the camouflaged shape slowly ghosted into view. The Nassau is also brilliant about a lot of other things. He thinks and he psyches out his hunter. I guess the grouper scientists in all the universities and government funded grouper research centers will laugh at this, but I don’t care. I believe it’s true. Too many of these fish have out psyched me.

I hunted one grouper for over a month. He had a perfect hole under a shallow flat rock ledge and this guy knew what I had to do before I could release my spear from my Hawaiian sling. He knew that if I approached him down current I would over shoot, because it was usually running at least a knot and the rock that he hung behind kept me from shooting soon enough. If I swam up current, he saw me coming and had plenty of time to duck inside as I struggled to stay in place and pull back on the sling. Swimming across all that current was out of the question. There was NO WAY I could hold in place and shoot from the side. The only time I had a chance was slack water high tide. Low slack would leave me in the coral. I don’t touch coral for lots of reasons, including that this patch had some fire coral. So slack water high tide it was, and since that left only a few minutes each day, he had plenty of time to gulp up fish drifting by before he amused himself with me. And some days he knew I wasn’t even going to bother, because he had figured out that I had figured out that it wasn’t good to do this sort of thing in the low light of morning or the low light of evening. The islanders say that the shark likes to eat then—in the morning because he’s hungry from the night, and the evening because light is going and “he likes to fill ‘is belly, mon.” Don’t know if it’s true, but it’s good enough for me, and it’s consistent with what I’ve seen. And chances with sharks is not something that I’m interested in taking. Yeah, I know some people pay to have a wonderful time by jumping into the water with them. To each his own. Of course, you notice that the people in the business get paid in advance.

Leave the Cartoon Images Ashore

In case you’re wondering about the photo: That’s our daughters and a hammerhead. The time was many years ago. The place was a beach in the Bahamas. The story was that the shark had been frequenting a harbour where many people also swam. It was caught, with great effort, by some guys on a large heavy trawler. When hooked, it pulled that trawler around the harbour much of the night. And yes, it was very dead when our daughters approached it on the beach. We had checked it out. Creatures from the sea can fool you in many ways, and much is being said today that, perhaps unwittingly, results in people being insufficiently aware.

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This grouper—the one that had our family looking at the hammerhead—was down island from the one I’d hunted so long. He was maybe a cousin or friend of the guy up island, but not the same one. But he also knew his stuff. Nassau groupers, you see, “group.” When they’re up in a hole and alarmed, they make a deep noise that sounds to me like a big bass “group group group.” You can hear it very distinctly, and you can feel it vibrating in your chest. The first year or so that I heard this, I thought with my typical human hubris, that this was just another stupid fish. If he had any sense at all he’d keep quiet. He was letting me know that he was still there. It was only after the passage of years that I began to loose some of that smugness. This humbling came to me slowly, like a piece of seaweed tumbling slowly through the murk as, time after time, the grouping noise preceded the arrival of other creatures. I’m told by smarter people than me that the groupers aren’t deliberately trying to set me up, that they’re just alarmed, but I’m not so sure. Anyway, the result is the same. When I’m peering into a hole trying to see the grouper to get a shot and I turn around and see a 4 foot barracuda, I have a tendency to get the hell out of the water as fast as I can and go peer into the freezer aboard and pull a chicken out for dinner. Some experts also say that barracuda are just fine swimming buddies unless there’s blood in the water. I’ve seen enough barrie bites to, once again, have a problem with what the experts say.

Of course, there have been some times when no barracuda came. These were usually the times when shark came. The experts will say that the vibration set off in the water by the grouper’s distress noise attracts them—I guess they’re after a grouper dinner too. But a barrie or shark is going to be hard pressed to get a big grouper far up in a small hole. So my imagination leads me to the conclusion that Brother Grouper is just calling in the cavalry to get rid of another pesky great hunter. This uneducated theory works for me. And it’s worked for every grouper who’s tried it on me.

So here we were, my wife and I and our two young daughters (around 8 and 10) with a loudly protesting grouper in a hole behind us and a large hammerhead cruising between us and the dinghy. When you see a shark approaching under water, it’s not always like the clear footage you see on nature programs on TV. We watch for them whenever we’re down. Our favorite method is to slowly spin as we ascend, sweeping the underwater horizon. Unless there’s blood or a lot of excitement in the water, they seem to hang back at first, checking you out. They seem to know how far you can see, and don’t check you out from a close enough distance that you’re likely to be able to check them out. More so called “dumb creatures.”

This hammerhead was so big there wasn’t any peek-a-boo game going on. He was there and we knew it. We always dive close to where we anchor the dinghy, for reasons just such as this. But Brother Grouper had attracted us a bit farther away from it than usual. If we’d anchored the dinghy any closer to the reef, the surge and current might have set it onto the sharp rock. As I judged our distance away from the dinghy, the concept of seafood dinner suddenly took on an entirely different meaning.

We remained still in the water. Panicked, yes, but very still, facing the shark. He moved slowly. We knew he would probably turn—whether toward the sounds and us, or away, we didn’t know. As his tail glided past the bow of the dinghy, he seemed to veer slightly in our direction. If you’re free diving in the water and a shark decides that he really really wants you, odds are that he’s going to have you. We all swam slowly toward the dinghy, still much too far away from it if this great creature decided to go for us.

Then something changed. I didn’t realize what it was at first, and then it dawned on me. The grouper had stopped. No more noise. No more vibration. The experts might say that he was afraid of being eaten too. Or maybe that he just decided he wasn’t up tight or alarmed anymore. Who cares. I’m not an expert and I don’t wanna be. All I know is that the shark did turn away when the Nassau stopped grouping. I think Brother Grouper was just playing with us—teaching us a lesson. I’d like to think that there’s a treaty among sea creatures—maybe not written out with water proof ink and notarized, but still pretty effective. They have their way of taking care of each other, even when they’re on different levels of the food chain. And when we hot shots in boats get in the water, it helps to be humble. I eat a lot less grouper these days.

Copyright 2004-2008 Tom Neale