The Great Barrier Reef: My first encounter with sharks
January 1, 1970
by Joe Pye
The calm before the storm
The day had started by boarding a boat in Cairns, Australia. After dinner in the dining room of the live aboard boat we were staying on, I was in my room, relaxing and preparing for the final dive of the day, a night dive. It would be my second ever night dive and after a fairly uneventful first experience, I wasn’t expecting anything spectacular. Twiddling my thumbs and staring at the floor, the call was finally made for all passengers taking part to go and get into their wetsuits. I felt the familiar rush of excitement I always get just before a dive. I made my way onto the second deck of the boat and got into my wetsuit, still slightly damp from a dive earlier in the day. There must have been around fifteen people preparing for the dive but not a single word was said, perfect tranquility filled the air. My travel companion, Lois, and I were approached by our guide, who was wearing a smug grin as he asked “how do you guys feel about sharks?”. I’ll never forget that cheeky smile. I looked over the edge of the deck where the boat’s floodlights penetrated the waves, and immediately saw it. The silhouette of a magnificent reef shark as it passed by gracefully. This was shortly followed by another, and then another, and it became suddenly very obvious to me that my goal of diving with a shark before I went home was going to be completed.
I’m telling you now, if I had tried to get into that wetsuit any faster, there would have been an injury. I must have tripped six or seven times before I pulled my mask around my neck and ran down to the dive platform to get geared up. BWRAF: Buoyancy – “check”, Weights – “check”, Releases – “check”, Air – “check”, Final check – “mask, snorkel, fins, check”. “Get me in that water right now.” I thought. I am not exaggerating when I say that I had to be careful not to step onto a shark as I took my giant stride into the water. I immediately looked down and caught my first glimpse of one of these majestic creatures in their home territory. It was absolutely beautiful. The beams from the boat’s floodlights caused the shark to be perfectly visible, despite the unspoiled total darkness of the sea bed below. I knew this would be a night to remember.
As we descended, I had a lump in my throat. I just couldn’t believe that a few weeks before that I had been considering not coming on this trip and now I was diving the great barrier reef in total darkness, with only a flashlight (and a dive guide) to guide the way. We reached the bottom to find more sharks than I could ever have imagined. Everywhere I turned there was either a white tip, black tip or grey swimming by.
It also quickly became apparent that the reef sharks weren’t the only big guys down there, as everywhere I pointed my torch a giant trevally seemed to dart into view. I had been warned before we jumped in that these very large and leathery looking fish had very little respect for personal space and after a few close encounters I can confirm this. When you’re ten metres deep in total darkness and a two foot long behemoth of a fish rockets over your shoulder, just inches from your face at high speed, I don’t even need to tell you that it can give you quite a fright. One of these guys actually cut our dive guide’s hand as it shot past, chasing after an innocent fish that we had accidentally illuminated with our torches (It’s quite easy to interfere with the ecosystem when you’re diving with a bright artificial light source.)
The sharks never frightened me though. They moved so gently and smoothly, and not once did I ever see one swimming directly towards me. They always just seemed to be passing by and keeping an eye on us, monitoring us. They did, however, make me feel very aware of the fact that I was somewhere that I didn’t belong, that I was out of place and not particularly a very welcome visitor.
Another amazing sight from the night dive was a parrotfish in its mucus sac. These beautiful turquoise fish can be traced by predators from a trail of chemicals that they leave, so at night time when they are asleep and not moving they blow a little bubble around their bodies to stop any of their smell escaping, protecting them from predators. It’s extremely cool.
Once I had appreciated the parrotfish for a little while, I inspected some of the rocks. The amount of activity you can see at night underneath coral and in little cracks in the reef is absolutely stunning. Tiny crustaceans and other small marine animals give the feeling that the whole reef is alive, even in the middle of the night. When this feeling is combined with being constantly surrounded by several sharks, the result is nothing short of breathtaking (although you have to remember to breathe while diving, even in such situations).
Eventually the time came to ascend, and as the sea bed faded away into the darkness, I felt a sinking in my stomach. I truly didn’t want the experience to end, but as the lights from the boat got brighter and brighter, and the reef disappeared completely, I accepted that I was back to the “real world” above the waves. “Until we meet again”, I thought to myself.
Back to reality
I didn’t speak a word when I got back onto the boat. I scribbled my initials on a sign-in sheet to confirm that I hadn’t been left on the reef (in some ways I wished I could have been) and I made my way back to my room. I stood in the shower and felt the salt washing away, the last trace of that dive fading from my skin, and I shed a tear. Then, remembering that I was a brave adventurer and that I wasn’t allowed to cry, I walked up to the top deck of the boat and looked down where the floodlights were shining. They were still there, glistening beneath the surface. I stared out to the horizon and took a deep breath, savoring the crisp ocean air.
Nine thousand miles from my home town, at the bottom of the sea and in complete darkness, surrounded by sharks, I had found somewhere where I had felt truly at home.
Check out some of the GoPro footage from the dive: