'I was totaly in denial and failed to fully comprehend that we were actually being circled by a tiger shark, who was eying us very acutely indeed'
You know how a dive sometimes stays with you in your mind for ages? Certain moments from extraordinary dives return to haunt me again and again. And my mind can play tricks as I process the experience. It’s as though I am still trying to make sense of a curious or disturbing incident.
Here’s an example – something mysterious happened during my trip last year to Cocos Island. When I wrote about the journey for DIVE, I skimmed over my first ever sightings of tiger sharks. The first one cruised casually past at a distance, when I was with a group of around ten divers. I stared at it the way one tends to do on a first sighting of a big beast – trying to match up the head, markings, fin shapes and other features from photos and drawings I’d seen.
Although I’d understood one needs to be wary of that particular species – at least somewhat more so than with other sharks – I didn’t feel threatened; I was just trying to work out if it really was a tiger. Yes, it had the idiosyncratic stripes, but could I be sure? Before that day I had been in the water with hundreds of sharks, including hammerheads, nurse sharks, reef sharks and even a great white – and I love to be with most of them. But I was both intrigued and fearful of meeting such an infamous creature as a tiger shark – hell, it would be like running into Donald Trump.
I was actually only sure that I’d seen my first tiger after we surfaced and I witnessed the excitement of others who’d also had their first encounter. So it really was the controversial big critter. Now my emotions turned to elation, even triumph. At lunch, we boasted to fellow divers who had not been so lucky. But after dinner, out came the tiger shark war-stories. ‘They’re very sneaky predators!’ muttered one veteran, who said he had photographed many. ‘You have to watch your back when they’re around, or they’ll sneak up behind you. Never take your eyes off them.’ I went to bed trying to imagine seeing them at close proximity, and how I would handle it. After what I’d heard that night, it didn’t exactly lead to happy dreams.
A couple of days later, I was on a photography dive when my buddy signalled that he was low on air. We left our group and ascended to 6m for our safety stop. Thirty seconds in, I glanced up from my wrist computer and noticed a very large shark approaching us. When it was just 7 or 8m away from us it started to circle. I had sighted quite a few other types of sharks during the dive already, so the part of my brain that should have realised it was a tiger shark and reacted accordingly, failed to kick in. Instead, I remember thinking: ‘That looks a bit like a tiger shark but no, that’s not really happening, NOT ON OUR SAFETY STOP!’
Now, as I write this, I am noticing that my heart is pounding, but it wasn’t at the time. No, I was totally in denial. People – this is hard to confess – I actually turned my back on it! Yes! I went back to the mundane task of focusing on my computer to maintain my depth.
Then I saw it circle into my vision on the side I was now facing, but I still failed to fully comprehend that we were actually being circled by a tiger shark, which was eyeing us very acutely indeed. I looked back to check my buddy, but – horror of horrors – he had very unwisely decided to take off after it to get a close shot. The tiger peeled off and the two of them disappeared.
So now I’m alone in shallow water, wondering if my buddy will survive unscathed from either the predator or his low-air situation, and also aware that the tiger could return without him and I would be totally alone. I searched for my buddy for the standard minute, then finally surfaced. Luckily, he was just reaching the surface himself, waving his GoPro in one hand and a safety sausage in the other. ‘What kind of shark was that?’ he shouted across the waves. ‘Er, might have been a tiger,’ I called back. ‘Could you stop splashing around like a wounded seal?’
By the time we were in the boat my mind had completely denied the sighting. I had mysteriously ‘forgotten’ all details. Now I was convinced it was a different shape, and much smaller – ‘probably a large grouper’, I told the boat driver.
If it had not been for the evidence of a slightly blurry shot of a very large shark with unmistakable tiger markings and all the characteristic features, I might have continued to disbelieve reality.
However, I quickly switched to smug triumphal mode as word got around …‘It really was a tiger... and so close. Wow! You lucky bastards!’
Pamela's column appears in the Autumn 2016 print edition of DIVE