Listen to the Locals
August 23, 2011
When I first arrived in Guam in the fall of 1999, I received a mandatory water safety briefing, which was required for all military personnel arriving on the island. We were told of the perils of certain ocean wildlife and wreck diving and how the ocean currents can be treacherous. Of course, I, being a young, strong swimmer and accomplished scuba diver, listened with a detached coolness to the stories of those unfortunate souls who had lost their lives or been injured. I thought nothing terrible like that could ever happen to me.
During my time on the island, I enjoyed the thrills of day and night scuba diving, jet skiing, jungle adventures, cave hunting and the wonderful island food. While all of this was well and good, I wanted something more adventurous. I'd seen breath-hold free-diving competitions on TV and thought that would be an exciting challenge. How great would it be to build up my ability to hold my breath for long periods, dive as deep as possible without worrying about decompression on the ascent and swim free like a dolphin without cumbersome scuba equipment to slow me down? Armed only with a mask, snorkel, weight belt and fins, I attacked this new challenge with enthusiasm and soon fell in love with the thrill of it.
As time went on and my confidence grew, I decided to add another challenge to test my free-diving skills " spear fishing. I had already fished on the reef with an apparatus called a Hawaiian sling, which is a simple device consisting of a 6-foot spear that has a loop of rubber attached to the opposite end. It is good for short ranges and small fish, but I wanted big fish. So, I bought a spear gun that uses very powerful rubber bands to launch a 6-foot steel spear into fish at more than 20 feet away. The spear is attached to the gun with a thin cable, and then the gun is attached by another line to a small buoy at the surface. If you get a really large fish that takes you on a wild ride, forcing you to let go of the spear gun, you can retrieve it and the fish after it tires itself out. This was right up my alley! Whenever I had a free moment, I was in the water hunting the "big ones."
Longing for bigger "game," I decided to set my sights on spearing a shark. I figured the best way to find them was to ask the locals where I could find the best shark fishing. The general consensus was the shallow reef just off the south end of the island was frequented by some decent sharks " not too big, but big enough to be fun. They also warned me the currents there could be tricky. They told me to ensure I stayed over the reef close to the shore, where the water is relatively shallow. Under no circumstances was I to go out past the reef, where it drops off abruptly into the Mariana Trench. That's where the huge Great White and hammerhead sharks cruise just off the reef. People who go out there don't come back, they warned.
A few days before a friend and I were to go shark hunting, a typhoon passed near the island, causing the surf to be unusually high and rough. Unbeknownst to us, there were very strong currents over the reef. When we slid into the water that day, we were blissfully ignorant of what was about to happen.
We snorkeled just a few yards away from the pier where we'd entered the water and promptly noticed we were moving very quickly over the reef. I signaled to my buddy that we should head back, and he replied with the OK sign. As we turned to head back, I realized we were not getting any closer to the pier. The current was taking us straight out to sea! The huge waves crashing on the jagged shoreline on either side of the rip current we were in made it suicidal to swim perpendicular to the shore like you are supposed to do. I felt a huge wave of despair as we were helplessly swept out past the protection of the reef and into the black void of the open ocean.
After two hours of fighting the current, we were both mentally and physically exhausted. One of us would have our head in the water searching for sharks while the other would watch for boats " the whole time wondering if we would ever see our loved ones again. As I prayed for a miracle, we drifted into a path of calm water. With renewed hope and the very last bit of our strength, we swam in that thin path all the way to the pier. Once there, we had to be helped out of the water due to utter exhaustion.
We were blessed that day. The wise decision would have been to wait for calm conditions and monitor the currents before jumping into the water. We also didn't leave ourselves an escape route. I learned many lessons that day I'll never forget. I'm thankful I survived and hope my story will prevent another thrill-seeker from making the same mistakes.