I crawled up the sand away from the other divers desperately clutching at my chest. My breaths shallow, useless, unable to satisfy my burning lungs. I rolled to my back, sand and saliva mixing grainy on my face. Trying desperately to fill my tightened lungs with air I gasp and swallow as I wrestle my wetsuit to my waist. I whispered to myself, ‘Moses is right; this may be all in your head.’
Moses and I rolled off the bow at Silk Cayes, three pronged sling spears in our hand. We signalled our descent and ducked below the white caps to the calmness of a slow ocean current. Normally an advocate of taking only memories and leaving only bubbles, today we were diving with a purpose. There was a predator on the loose. One that needed to be eradicated.
Lionfish are introduced in the Caribbean. According to local legend a resort’s fish tank broke so they threw the Lionfish into the ocean. From there, having no predators, the Lionfish have multiplied in numbers and are eating all the reef fish on the Belizean coral reef. They can consume thirty juvenile fish in a minute and can reduce certain species of fish by up to 80% in an area within a five day period. Against all other instincts, today I am a hunter.
The coral in the clear warm waters off Belize inspires an inner tranquillity. Angelfish and Parrotfish brighten the scene, Jackfish school in a twisting cloud that bends and reforms as we pass and a lazy Grouper watches on as we scour the gradient of the reef.
Lurking in the coral recesses, the Lionfish hang in suspended animation, rocking gently on the ebb and flow. Their beautifully striped red, cream and black colouration and elaborate fins a warning to their protruding venomous spines.
The Lionfish venom won’t kill a human, but it will make you wish you were dead. I keep a respectful distance as I line my shot.
At first I wasn’t very accurate and managed to “scare” more than I speared. But as we traversed the lower realms of the reef I got the hang of it and soon was dragging a couple of dozen in the bucket behind me.
I looked across to a Black Tipped Reef Shark trailing to my right. Black Tipped Reef Sharks are generally not aggressive. They are beautiful, timid and social. Since making my way to Belize to dive the Blue Hole I had many wonderful up close encounters with these curious sharks.
At six foot and over a hundred kilograms I was genuinely excited to see this shark moving in and out of my periphery. Black Tipped Reef Sharks are quite harmless…. except when you are dragging a bucket of dead fish behind you and then they are considered extremely dangerous.
As this dawns on me, I look behind me. Another shark emerged and another and above another. Four sharks, excited by the smell of the blood of the fish in the water. Casing us.
One by one, they came into sight and then disappeared into the blue. No longer objects to be marvelled at. They were now vicious and energetic hunters, their eyes beady and foreboding, focussing on Moses and I. The hunters had become the prey.
I tap the fins of Moses ahead, signal that something is wrong and raise my hand flat, sideways and vertical against my forehead. He points at his eyes and signals we move ahead. The sinister outline of their pointed snout and blackened dorsal prowling across our perimeter, skirting the margins then darting away.
We flee across the base of the reef, escaping the predation of a pack of menacing sharks. Through the watery depths, my heart racing, fins kicking double time. Sharks following frighteningly close.
I look again to my air supply. As this was my first spear fishing experience, I had failed to fully appreciate how quickly you can use the air in your tank as you exert yourself at depth.
I signalled to Moses again that something was wrong. This time signalling that I only had 25 bar left in my tank. I cursed myself for my stupidity. An advanced diver I knew better than to get myself in this situation. I looked up towards the surface as a figure casts an alarming shadow. 25 bar wasn’t enough to get me to the surface with an appropriate safety stop.
We signal to each other to head towards the surface and to stop at 5 metres. If we don’t wait there for 5 minutes we put ourself at great risk of decompression sickness.
Suspended in the blue we float, bubbles trailing to the surface. The sharks return, circling below us. I count five now. My tank is nearly exhausted, the sound of our strained breathing and my heartbeat in my ears the only sound.
As my tank empties I grab Moses’ emergency buddy regulator and we both pull the remaining air from the one tank for the rest of our safety stop, silently keeping a watching eye for the sharks. It was getting quite tough to pull the air through the regulator from Moses’ tank into my lungs when Moses signalled it was time to surface. Moses looks at his watch, gives me the OK and I start to ascend.
As we fin to the surface I look around, I cant see the sharks. There is only one thing worse than seeing a pack of frenzied sharks in your midst and that is not seeing them. Then Moses’ watch starts sounding. This was his dive watch telling him it was not safe to surface yet. We waited another minute but his dive watch was still going crazy. Moses signals for me to surface. I pause. We can’t ascend too quickly after diving so deep but there was no choice, we had no more air. I look down, still can’t see the sharks.
I sat on the back of the boat as we made our way to the nearest island. My chest tight, unable to take a full breath, lungs felt like they were burning. Moses sits next to me explaining he thinks his watch is broken, “we are ok, no problem, we are safe up.” I wasn’t so sure. “Its no problem Robbo, this…” he points at my labouring chest, ” this in your head.”
I lay on the beach, half in the water. The sun warming my tanned skin. The fire down the beach wafting grilling Lionfish and the flow of the wave gently rising to my navel. The clouds above stretch across the blue, interrupted by a palm fidgeting and rearranging its shadow. I roll my eyes closed, concentrating only on my breathing. Deep, slow, I breathed.
Eventually I return to the group, a plate of Lionfish awaiting me. The crew and some local islanders enjoying the merits of our excursion in a postcard perfect scene. I pull up a patch of driftwood near Moses. “You ok Robbo?” he enquires.
“I think so Moses, I just had to give myself a good talking to. I’m alright now”
“We will go down again then after lunch?” He queries, picking at the remains of his fish
“Absolutely mate, I wouldn’t miss it.”