Peril in Paradise

By Tom Neale, 1/21/2010


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The long white beach sparkled in the sunlight and the waves were perfect. My daughters, then still very young, and I were the only ones on the beach. We were far out in the Bahamas, on an island in the Exuma chain. I love to body surf. They do too. We were having an incredibly good time, getting some incredibly good waves. Many years before, a small plane had crashed nearby.

Fire Coral

It was probably a “drug” plane. Some years before this beautiful day, planes like that had done some deliveries in the area and, things being what they were, in the trade in the islands, quite a few crashed. This one had apparently made it to that beach and had been covered and uncovered by the sand over the years. A storm would come and the plane would come. Another storm would come and the plane would go. This day there was little left of it, mostly aluminum scrap. Some of this was jagged and sharp like a knife. The remains of the plane were scattered about like evil skeletal reminders of drugs and death.

As luck and the sea would have it, the sand flowed away from the grave of one of the plane’s sections. This happened not in a storm, but on this beautiful day. There had been a big storm a few days earlier. I didn’t notice the shards of twisted aluminum emerging from the sand, just inside from the wave break. I didn’t notice it until the end of one of those perfect rides. I had surfed in, riding the crest on my belly, and then racing up to the water’s edge on the lifting fast flowing sheet of foam. I came to rest on the sand, the warm water flowing out past my body. “Incredible,” I thought, hearing the fun laughter of my daughters, getting rides like mine, just down the beach to my right. And then, hearing a slightly unusual gurgle from the receding wave, I looked to my left.

I saw the piece of aluminum frame, it’s pointed forked blade like that of a serrated knife, in just the right position and place to have completely gutted me if I’d come in on that wave a few feet to my left. Completely and quickly gutted me. On this beautiful perfect white beach. Far far removed from any help whatsoever. In front of my two daughters. We walked somberly over the ridge of the island, back to “Chez Nous” on the other side, each of us laden with the thought of how lucky we’d been.


So I was being very careful as I poked my spear into the cave, peering into the gloom, hoping to “tickle” the lobster out or at least so he’d present me with a sidewise shot. I was being so careful that I didn’t see the small growth of fire coral near the cave entrance, near my neck, which brushed against the fire coral. It was just a brushing, but the pain was immediate and immense. I shot to the surface, gasping for breath and, as they say, “under extreme duress.” I got back into the dinghy and we sped back to “Chez Nous,” at anchor nearby.

Tom’s Tips About Emergencies in Paradise

1. If you plan to travel to remote areas, you can buy insurance to cover emergency medical evacuations. Google “Medevac insurance” and similar terms to start checking out what’s there. But read the provisions very carefully. Be sure you understand what you’re getting and what you’re not getting. Also call and speak to a live person to further evaluate the service.

Click Here for More Tips

The pain continued, and something else began. My neck began to swell, as did my air passages. I was beginning to have difficulty breathing, and it was getting more and more difficult. There was no 911 out there. There were no medical facilities nearby, and even the ones a distance away would not have been equipped to handle this sort of an emergency. Sometimes when you have a medical problem far out at sea or in a beautiful but isolated anchorage in paradise, you can get on the VHF and ask if there’s a doctor around. And sometimes there is, or a nurse, on another boat, and they’ll help. I’ve seen many kind and unselfish acts by people like this, who were out there to “get away from it all.” We called, but there were no other boats around, not to mention medical personnel. I lay down, panic beginning to creep into my psyche. Panic is a powerful thing. It’s not only terrifying, it can be very counterproductive as it makes you want to breath faster and do other things not good under the circumstances. I tried to keep control of the panic, stay still, and breathe slowly. Mel gave me some Benedryl. We keep medicines like this aboard. Slowly, as the night darkened, the drug began to kick in and breathing very gradually became easier. Next morning I was still in a lot of discomfort, but we knew we’d pulled through OK.


On one of our first trips to the Bahamas, we did something we’ve never done again. We were anchored of a small island town and there was a festival in progress. One of the restaurants was serving “Grouper Casserole.” Translate: Potential Poison. When you eat something like this, you see the chunks of fish, but you really don’t know what they are. Or how old they are. I shared some of my fish with our daughter Carolyn; Mel shared some of hers with our daughter Melanie. That night, Mel began to experience weird things. Hot felt cold. Cold felt hot. Light bothered her greatly. Joints started aching. And a lot more. Then Melanie began having problems. We looked up the symptoms in our medical books and it was clear that they were suffering from Ciguatera poisoning. You get it from certain fish. It attacks your central nervous system and can be very dangerous. One year we listened on the SSB radio as the entire crew of a small island freighter was lifted off, all suffering from Ciguatera poisoning which they’d gotten from eating a large barracuda. I’ll never forget standing at the SSB around 10:30 that night, the mic in my hand, getting ready to make a high seas phone call to hire a medevac helo to come out from the states to take them to where we could be sure of good treatment. It would have cost around $10,000.00. But I was ready to do it without hesitation. Then Mel told me she was doing better, and Melanie began to sleep peacefully. I decided to watch all night; wait and see. They came through all right, but it took months for the symptoms to go away.


I could tell many more true stories like the above, both from our experiences and those of others. The point is that paradise can kill, sometimes when you least expect it. Many of us get careless when we go cruising. It’s hard to believe that things can get very bad very quickly when we’re having such a wonderful time in such beautiful surroundings. Even when we’re being very careful, bad things happen. We’re in a foreign world—not in the sense of being in another country, but in the sense of being in an environment in which we were not developed or trained to live. And when paradise bites, there often is no help from the medical and rescue infrastructure to which we’re so accustomed, and upon which we rely so heavily in the US. To have the extra good times, we must learn about the unexpected dangers.

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