It was almost time….
Beads of sweat roll down my black wetsuit and amalgamate into the puddle of saline water around my trembling feet. Apprehensively, I look around the boat, to see a few amateur divers like myself, sick and puking into the turquoise and turbulent waters, leaving behind a trail of chartreuse vomit. Briskly, looking away, I see a crowd of engrossed trainers, occupying the left deck of the boat, helping disquieted divers enter the iron-barred cage. My father, stands beside me, calmly composed. Seeing him in the same scuba suit, induced the feeling of familiarity but knowing this wasn’t his first time, it failed to be comforting.
A gust of salty air diverts my vision to the stern of the boat. Clasping the cold metal railing, the sound of foaming froth glistening under the sun along with the pristine waters lashing against the hull calms me. I search for my camera. ‘Click’. Overhead, I hear the wails of the seagulls, frenetically flying towards the pungent odour of tuna, wafting from the bait used to allure the sharks. Ironically enough, I was just as enraptured as the seagulls when I heard the trainee emphatically call out “Ms Milee and Mr Jain up next!”. At the exact moment, I felt a profusion of emotions drown me. The euphoric adrenaline rush, the same nervousness before a calculus paper and even the abhorrent feeling of unpredictability and loss of control over the upcoming events. As I push away those feelings, I stumble to the deck in my large blue flippers.
“Here, put this over your head and clasp it tight”, our guide says, handing over unpleasant, besmirched headsets with a cloudy mouthpiece. I pulled down my goggles, only to have my vision blurred with the dilapidated, stained glass and the straps tightly squeezing my head. I thrust the snorkel into my mouth, with the rubber cutting into my cheeks as I tasted the salty dampness. I moved a few steps back as an awed couple stepped out of the rusted cage and onto the deck.
The boat rocked. It was time to go in. “Come on, you first” my dad teased. Slowly but valorously, I stepped into the cage. Behind those rusted iron bars, I was trapped quite literally and the thought of escape seemed tantalising. One part of me said, ‘This is it; this is what you have been waiting for!’ while the other suggested this would be a life changing experience. Good? Or bad? Before I could ponder on this thought, my dad stepped in and I heard a sharp clang, the guide locked the cage with ghastly black chains.
Next to me, he whispered, removing his snorkel, “Keep still and observe, this is a piece of cake, really”. “We’ll see about that” I mumbled under my breath. Sighing and nauseated, we were slowly lowered into ocean, I felt the icy water biting my exposed skin, as we went deeper and deeper into the brine. I repositioned the mouthpiece, ready to go under the water and took a deep breath. With a reassuring look from my dad, I went in. The water felt like needles prickling my scalp and as I opened my tightly clasped eyes, a murky blue undertone surrounded me, followed by ebony cylindrical bars. It was uncannily silent.
All of a sudden, I heard a thunderous splash and bubbles broke in front of me and rose like million tiny sardines rising to the surface. Adjusting my focus, I squint to see tails and fins thrashing the water, as giant, ravenous sharks drew closer to me, leaping and gulping down bloody shreds of fish bait. One of the sharks, held a large piece between its long, jagged teeth, trying to rip apart the string and gnaw the carcass down. In this bestial furore, it spotted the cage and swam closer as my heart thumped louder in my chest. Water spiralled. Tails lashed. The cage rocked.
Overwhelmed, I tried to anchor myself as my dad screamed, “keep steady!”. Nauseated, I felt the bitter taste of saltwater sloshing down my throat. Coughing and ripping my snorkel apart, I rose to the surface, to find the eerie silence and steadiness back from when we started. Only, a humongous azure creature emerged from the shadows. Cerulean leather blotched over its opal-coloured skin, like ripples near its mouth. It’s teeth, like small white daggers fitted into the massive jaw, sent a piercing sensation down my spine. Grabbing my camera, I looked into the shark’s diminutive beady black eyes, as I realised the innocence it withheld. ‘Click’. A sudden rush of guilt, realisation and comfort washed over me as the silence rang louder. I moved to the right of the cage to scrutinise him better, but the amused little beast followed my movement. Left, right. Up, down. “It’s playing with you!” my dad says, bemused but enthralled.
“Last one minute!” the guide shouts.
It was the last 60 seconds. My heart raced. The water numbingly felt colder but the shark seemingly looked unsullied. The diffused rays of sunlight reflected its obsidian eyes and I took one last picture, ‘click’. The cage was lifted.
Shivering, I stumble out, water dripping from the tips of my nose and fingers. I pulled apart my snorkel and googles, running over the deep impressions from the rubber on my cheeks. As my father hands me the thick, sodden towel, I sit on one of the flaxen deck chairs, patting myself dry. The guide handed over a flimsy tin box with fetid frozen lasagna as if the rocking boat and obnoxious odor of the tuna flesh wasn’t enough to induce the nausea. Attempting to distract me from the vexed expression on my face, my dad asks, “So, how was the experience of befriending your worst terrors?” chuckling, with a smirk smeared across his face.
Before answering, I think to myself about the distorted perception humans have of others they don’t even know. Appearances are judged and preconceived-notions are made. Sharks, an endangered species, are one of the most harmless animals to humans, and yet are quoted as the deadliest. Empathising with these creatures is easy for me, I’ve been in their shoes, rather fins, previously, labelled as something I never was. “I want to protect these sharks and I know what to do” I replied, with a far-fetched idea in mind….
(15 years later)
An Excerpt from New York Times, 23rd May, 2037
“A recently opened shark sanctuary in San Francisco, allows you to experience magnificent tiger sharks in their natural habitat, but through the bars. ‘Intimidating, yet gorgeous creatures, they are, shrouded in a veil of terror and blood, the sanctuary’s founder, Milee Jain says. The sanctuary has secured more than 456 sharks from 13 different endangered species. This unique method of watching the sharks, yourself in the cage, attracts more visitors, with more incoming money to save these sharks. Upon asking Ms Jain what influenced her to start this journey was, she replied with ‘Shark cage diving, when I was just 15, it was an experience waiting for me to set my course in life regarding marine animals.”
Featured Image Courtesy : Civitatis