Back in 2000, we took a trip down to the Keys. We hauled the boat down and stayed at a quaint older motel called the Seahorse Motel. It was reasonable and had a boat ramp and dockage.
We had a blast snorkeling Sombrero Reef and the kids did fantastic snorkeling in depths of 20 to 30 feet over a beautiful reef. The reef was loaded with colorful fish who soon learned that our boat leaked crumbs of food. We always seem to take Fried Chicken as the boat picnic food and this came in especially handy as we could feed breading and bits of chicken to the swarm of Sargent Majors and other reef fish that clustered around the boat. The kids were only 12, 10, and 8 at the time, but the clear blue water put them at ease and they even got used to the 4 foot long barracuda that hovered over us where ever we swam.
You are forgiven for thinking the above was the stupid part...'cause it ain't even close.
Barracuda are a regular thing when you dive or snorkel in the tropics and they almost never attack anybody. Really. It's so rare, I can only think of 2 or 3 recent news stories about barracudas attacking people and 2 of those cases happened to people in boats, not divers! Buddy, if a barracuda jumps out of the sea and latches on to you while you are sipping a drink in your boat...don't bother buying a lottery ticket.
Middle daughter Emma and I were snorkeling together and along the bottom came 2 nurse sharks. They were about 4 feet long and looked like big catfish as they slowly, sinuously swam along the bottom. I spotted them and pointed them out to Emma. We hovered and watched. They stopped, seemed to notice us, and began rising towards us.
Now my daughter has the biggest, most beautiful brown eyes you have ever seen, but on this day they outdid themselves. The closer the sharks came, the bigger her eyes got. I wasn't worried, I knew what the sharks wanted and it wasn't Emma.
The local divemasters fed the nurse sharks on Sombrero (A practice since made illegal I believe) and these nursies were just checking us out for tidbits. Besides, nurse sharks almost never bite anybody and when they do, it's usually because someone tugged on their tail or otherwise harassed 'em. Really, I can only think of one or two nurse shark attacks in the news recently. Curiously, in both cases the shark would not let go and actually went to the emergency room clamped onto the bitee.
Calmly watching 2 sharks approach your daughter might be stupid if they were great whites or bulls, but they were not, so this was not really stupid. Honest, it wasn't.
When they got too close we pushed our fins at them and they immediately descended and continued their search for handouts. Emma's eyes gradually squeezed back into their orbits. It was a great day and one I will always remember...Emma will too.
The stupid part happened later that day. We had left the boat moored at the motel and drove to Bahia Honda State Park to play on the beach. If you have never been to the Florida Keys, there are few beaches. The islands are rocky not sandy, but Bahia Honda and Long Key both have nice beaches.
It was late in the day, the water was warm, shallow, and very clear. The kids were having fun splashing and wrestling in the shallows, so I donned a mask and went out a little deeper. In about 8 feet of water, there were tiny coral patches, reef fish, and even lobsters (it wasn't lobster season).
As I floated, there was movement at the edge of my vision, and I turned to see a huge school of small baitfish moving my way. The school was nervous and the fish were milling into a tight ball. It was hard to see exactly how big this school was because it was just on the edge of the gloomy green where the late afternoon light met the deeper water. I hovered and watched as the school moved and flexed as if it were one organism. Then it happened...
The entire school shivered and bent to the left and a silvery tarpon zoomed out of the murk and through the school, then another and another, and they just kept attacking that school. It was incredible. Tarpon are huge fish, these guys were all about 4 feet long and so graceful.They would pass by so close you could feel the wash from their powerful tails. Pretty soon some smallish barracuda showed up and they too zipped in and out of the school. I waved to my wife and she snorkeled over. We both watched awestruck as the light faded and the school and it's attackers slowly moved down the beach.
Later, back on the beach as the sun set, we were still stoked and still talking about it. She said, "You know that probably wasn't too smart, hanging out in a feeding frenzy like that."
I nodded, " I know, the next thing that zoomed out of the gloom could have been a tiger shark. Actually, I'm surprised you went for it...you are usually the sensible one."
She looked at me...firmly, "We won't do that again."
This really was stupid. We broke two very important rules for avoiding bad shark encounters.
Never swim in a school of baitfish. You are asking for a mistaken identity bite from a feeding shark.
Never swim at dusk or dawn. Sharks move in close to shore for nocturnal hunting. We were in the water at one of the worst times of day.
Do as I say, not as I do.
Next installment: "Don't Worry, I Can Fix It...Whoa, I Just Cut My Finger Off"