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Adrenalin

Two marine park divers have a close encounter with a great white shark

The fifty-two-metre fishing trawler loomed high above us, its rust-ravaged hull already succumbing to the relentless invasion of barnacles and other parasitic sea life. Listing forty-odd degrees on its port side, it exposed its belly like a lazy dog hoping for a pat. It was a monolith. I felt tiny in its presence.

I chased the slowly ascending trail of bubbles around the leaning prow of the trawler. They were long, diagonal dashes of air, luminescent silver against the azure of the ocean from which they rose. Following the broken line to its source, my eyes fell once again on George in her tight purple wetsuit as she finned along the hull.

She manoeuvred into a vertical hover alongside the wreck, and I drifted in beside her, bumping gently against her.

George playfully whacked me on the bicep, the tap sounding almost metallic under the water. I protested my innocence with an exaggerated shrug, but she was having none of it. Shaking her head in mock admonishment, she turned off the camera and tucked it into a pouch on her black buoyancy-control vest.

Finished with our survey of the shipwreck, I secured my underwater writing slate in one of my own orange pouches. The unworldly rip of Velcro broke through the periodic percolations of the breath fizzing from my regulator. There was something eerie about the soundscape of a dive: the roaring silence, the enveloping echoes, the closeness.

Not for the first time during the dive, the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end. Knowing better than to ignore my sixth sense, I double-checked my equipment, paying particular attention to the depth and pressure gauges, and my remaining air. Everything was as it should be. Then I scanned the endless blue around us in slow, sweeping arcs. It was probably verging on paranoia, but long bitter experience had taught me to trust those little feelings of dread.

George’s fine dark brows were furrowed behind her yellow-rimmed face mask as she studied me. She hadn’t put a lot of stock in my military diving experience from a previous life, and my checking and re-checking rituals had become a source of great amusement for her. No doubt the ribbing I would receive back on dry land would be merciless. Still, none of the other rangers responsible for patrolling the Batemans Marine Park could keep up with her underwater, or topside for that matter. Consequently, we had formed a tight partnership over the last three months.

Holding both my thumbs up to her, I indicated that everything was okay. She paused a moment, then checked her own gauges before forming a circle with her thumb and forefinger, the other fingers extended to make the correct civilian ‘okay’ signal. I snorted a laugh, a short puff of bubbles hissing from my regulator. Despite the shit she would sling my way, George was still a professional. I knew she couldn’t help herself.

She took her regulator from her mouth and poked her tongue out at me. I gave her a rude gesture in returnas she bit back into her mouthpiece. George’s hands went straight to her hips, complete with a head tilt. Short blasts of air betrayed her amusement with our mimed banter, but then she quickly refocussed us on the task of returning to the shore.

A quick flurry of hand signals, and then George gracefully spun in the water as I finned in on her left. The towering wreck stood behind us. In front, the bed of dark boulders, rock gullies and vegetation, linked by increasing patches of sand, meandered back towards the beach a few hundred metres inside Guerilla Bay.

She set off first, and I made to follow, lifting my knee to kick my fin. I glanced over at her. A thick line of glowing bubbles lifted off from around her face, drawing a curtain of air across my view of the ocean beyond.

I thought I saw something in the distance, just before it was obscured by her exhalation.

Time stood still.

It was the ice-cold chill that shot down my spine that first confirmed the danger. Even before I knew what it was, the flood of adrenalin prepared me to face the threat.

My heartrate quickened. My vision tunnelled. What sound there was dissipated until there was nothing but a high-pitched ringing in my ears.

The bubbles cleared, leaving a clear view of the deep blue ocean beyond the purple horizon of George’s wetsuit.

The muted sunlight reflecting off the pectoral fins caught my attention first. Then my eyes focussed on the large illuminated area that ran all the way from its pointed nose up to its high dorsal fin. Its dark, menacing smile beneath was almost hypnotic. But it wasn’t until I made out the small black eyes on either side of its head, seemingly angled in an angry expression from my vantage point directly in front, that my brain finally processed the situation.

Shark.

A fucking huge one!

I blinked away the terror and immediately felt my heart start beating again in my chest. With it came a flood of other senses. An ocean of blue poured into my dilated pupils, instantly making me aware of everything around me. I could hear each individual bubble that was expelled from my regulator. I flushed with heat, my limbs alive and poised for action.

I lunged for George, grabbing her left knee. She twisted with a start, staring back at me. Holding my hand flat, with my fingers vertical and my thumb against my forehead, I signalled that I had seen a shark. I then gave the gesture for danger by pointing a clenched fist in the direction of the threat. She spun around to look for it, but turned back, giving me a big shrug, with her palms held upwards. She couldn’t see it.

We didn’t have time for this shit.

I snatched at her fluorescent-yellow weight belt. Wrenching her back across me, I kicked hard, propelling us both backwards in the water. I instinctively wanted the protection of the shipwreck at our rear, keeping the threat limited to our front, where we could keep our eyes on it.

Our air tanks clanged loudly against the hull. The groaning collision emitted two frightening gongs that reverberated ominously through my body. I couldn’t help but wince, clenching my head down between my shoulders like a turtle and clamping my eyes shut. The shock of it nearly made me bite through the plugs in my mouthpiece.

Again, I snapped myself out of the tail-spinning fear. It would do us no good to simply curl up into a little ball and hope the big bad fish would go away. The reality, of course, was that there was little alternative. But if there was the slightest chance I could improve our prospects, even the smallest glimmer of hope, I would do whatever I could to grab it.

My eyes shot open and locked immediately on the shark. It was maybe twenty-five metres away, a third of the way down the length of the wreck. Gliding effortlessly towards us, I couldn’t perceive any movement in its enormous, streamlined body. It just seemed to magically grow larger– closer - in the water.

I shoved George roughly along the hull, kicking furiously. My fins were a blur, the opaque blades bending and straining off the orange toes of my boots. We were close to the bow, and I suddenly thought we might have a chance if I could just get us around the stem.

George’s bright-yellow tank bounced and screeched horrifically against the rusted steel, loosening a hailstorm of barnacles and rust fragments from the trawler. The debris peppered me as we scraped back along the hull. Clouds of air bubbles tickled at my ears and neck while she clawed at me, trying to grab a hold.

The shark was only twenty metres away.

We jolted to a stop with a deafening clang that echoed through the water. My attention torn from the oncoming threat, I whipped my head around to see what had halted our progress. Some collapsed rigging, already caking over with coral, had formed a large rib down the side of the wreck. Past it, the trawler’s prow was too far. We weren’t going to make it.

George’s nails dug painfully into my arm. I could tell by the way her body stiffened even before I saw her deep blue eyes, wide with terror, that she had finally seen the approaching shark.

It had closed to fifteen metres.

The large, jagged triangular teeth grinned at me as it approached. There was no mistaking it. It was a great white.

Our only chance, if it attacked, was to fight back. Slipping my knife from the sheath strapped to my right thigh, I brought it up over my shoulder in a two-handed stabbing hold. I was poised - armed and ready to defend ourselves. I really didn’t want to injure it, but that was up to the shark.

Ten metres.

I knew it was a myth that it could smell our fear. Whatever adrenalin we were secreting into the water had not yet travelled the ever-closing distance to the shark’s nose. But what it could sense were the electrical impulses from our excited heartbeats.

Drawing on my special forces training to calm myself down, I took long, slow breaths deep into my lungs. I squeezed as much tension as I could into the handle of my knife as I inhaled, then relaxed the pressure as I imagined it all flowing out my fingertips and toes on the exhale. It was a well-practiced sniper’s technique for steadying the nerves before taking the long shot. Like so many times before, I felt my anxiety drain away.

Five.

My whole world became that great white shark. Suspended in the bright blue ocean and framed by the reddish-brown hull on my right, it cruised towards us, swallowing up the last few metres of water between us in no time at all. I locked my focus on its left eye and willed it to swim on, my knuckles glowing white around the handle of my knife.

Its cold, lifeless eye glared into mine. I could see it twitching as the shark adjusted its focus. The thought of such an awesome predator keeping its gaze fixed on me was chilling. Worse still, I could gauge no measure of emotion or intent in its eye, just a soulless black abyss staring back at me.

Then it was there, right on top of us.

I lost all concept of time and space. My universe became an impossible slow-motion, each nanosecond an eternity.

The shark’s pointed nose inched past my face, the huge nostrils undoubtedly inhaling the slick of adrenalin gushing from every pore. Its tapered head filled my field of vision. Ripples of silver shimmered across its skin from the shafts of sunlight glimmering through the gentle swell on the surface. Below, row after row of razor-sharp teeth sawed through the water, and my consciousness.

And that eye: a cold, inky porthole into an endless terror.

Twisting my torso to the left, I kept my knife trained on the big black bullseye as it sailed past. Its eye continued to twitch, rolling farther back in its head to stay locked on me. Then, all of a sudden, the giant black lens flicked forward. In an instant, the great white shark looked away.

I sighed, an overwhelming wave of relief crashing over me. An explosion of bubbles roared from my regulator, and the burn in my lungs was extinguished. It was then that I realised I had been holding my breath.

The shark was a massive grey wall. There was nothing else. The dark vertical lines of its gills strobed past me from right to left. Then a fin the size of an aeroplane wing glided by within mere inches. Looking to my right towards its tail, unbelievably, there was just as much of it again still to swim past.

There was no room between the great white and the trawler’s hull. It felt like being stuck between two trains. I could have reached out and touched it. Thankfully, I managed to fight back the impulse. But at the same time, something inside me regretted not making contact with the impressive animal.

With frightening speed, the shark twisted in the water. It seemed to almost bend in half as its powerful tail cocked, before launching it in a new direction with a single sweeping lash. The wash from its wild manoeuvre buffeted me against George, causing our tanks to clink and scrape against the hull.

It shot away from us in a tight turn, heading back out to sea in almost the same direction it had approached. It swept its tail back and forth as it swam, moving fast. Whatever it had thought of us, it was no longer interested. It kept going until eventually it faded into the deep blue infinity.

I don’t know how long I waited, watching the open ocean in case it returned. It wasn’t until I felt George moving behind me that I snapped back into the moment. Realising that I was still clutching my knife with both hands under my chin, I sheathed it and spun in the water to face her.

George stared back at me, her eyes ablaze in her yellow face mask. Her chest rose and fell in deep breaths, enormous clouds of bubbles blasting from her regulator. I flashed her a thumbs-up, half letting her know I was all right, and half asking if she was too. She gave me an okay signal in return, along with a rapid nod of her head.

More gauge checks and hand signals, and then George led us back towards the shore. We stayed close to the bottom, gently ascending with the seabed. I stuck to her, much closer than I usually did, making sure she was within reach. My protective instincts on overdrive, I turned around every few seconds to scan the ocean behind us.

We eventually made our way past the rocky outcrop of Burrewarra Point, which stood guard on the southern end of Guerilla Bay. Crossing the mouth, we fought the current towards the smaller beach to the north. George was aiming for the sunken rowing boat between the northern heads and a rocky islet twenty metres off the cliffs. It was quite a challenge, given the visibility inside the bay had fallen to about eleven metres. But she nailed it, of course.

The swell rolled in above us, looking like molten glass from beneath. The waves growled and wheezed in the shallow inlet, pushing and pulling at us as we swam. We stayed as deep as we could, threading the relatively unaffected waters in the gully that led to the shore. Finally, we breached the surface amongst the breaking waves and body-surfed the last few metres onto the beach.

Crawling and clambering up the slope, weighed down by our dive gear, we plonked ourselves down in the wet sand. The surf lapped at us, rhythmically surrounding us in white foam, occasionally up to our armpits. On our left, the northern bluffs towered some thirty metres above, while on the right, the beach stretched into a salient that extended around to the rocky islet a hundred metres or so in front of us.

“Oh, my God!” George beamed, pulling her face mask and snorkel down over her face, leaving them to dangle from her neck. “Did you see that!”

“You mean the huge fuckin’ shark?” I laughed over the roar of the surf, amazed that she had even asked. “Yeah, George, I saw it.”

She gave me a sheepish grin, momentarily embarrassed by such a silly question. Then she laughed, a mixture of elation and exhaustion. “That was so incredible.” Clenching her fists and throwing her head back, her face bathed in sunlight, she moaned again with giddy excitement. “My God!”

“Tell me about it,” I scoffed. I was buzzing. I was so jacked up, my hands were shaking. I fumbled for the zipper on my bright-orange buoyancy-control vest in an attempt to mask it. It wasn’t working, and my teeth began to chatter. It was just the come-down from the adrenalin high, I knew all too well. Still, I felt ashamed to be going through it in front of George.

I deflected. “I didn’t think great whites came this far north.”

She paused a second, pressing her lips together with concern. I could see she was weighing up in her mind whether to check that I was okay or let me off the hook. Thankfully, for my ego at any rate, she chose the latter and flew into her senior ranger routine. “Yeah, they go right up into Queensland. The big ones like stalking the humpback whales as they migrate up and down the east coast. They go after the calves. Usually, the mothers fight them off, but every now and then they get lucky.”

A feverish back and forth followed as we each came to terms with our excitement, our hands flailing in animated discussion. We were both in awe of the spectacular animal, and how close it had come to us. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It was almost spiritual.

George ran her fingers through her scruffy pixie cut, brushing a sparkling spray of water from her hair. The wet ebony tufts still shone in the sunlight, and tiny droplets of seawater crept their way down her neck. She looked up at me.

Then she broke eye contact to retrieve something from one of the Velcro pouches on her vest. It was the yellow underwater camera she had been using to photograph the wreck.

“I got some video of it,” she proudly announced, looking back up at me with a broad smile.

I frowned at her. “So I’m there, scared out of my mind, about to get into a knife fight with a great white shark, and you’re on fuckin’ YouTube?”

“Do you want to see or not?” She tilted her head, batting my feigned incredulity straight back at me.

I sidled up against her in the foaming surf and leaned in to watch the tiny screen. It elicited a triumphant double-hum from her, only too happy to gloat at nailing my reaction. I playfully bumped her with my shoulder and sneered, “Shut up, you. You don’t know me.”

George giggled as she started the video. The shaky image began with an extreme close-up of my hands clenched around the handle of my knife before panning to the right. Half the shark’s face, blurry before the auto-focus corrected itself, filled the screen. Then George obviously zoomed out to capture a menacing shot of the whole thing, my forearm sliding back into the frame on the left. I could just make out the sound of bubbles from the camera’s speaker over the roar of the wind and surf around us.

Mere seconds later, the shark was too big to fit in the shot. All I could see were nostrils, teeth and that cold left eye. It glided past a lot faster than I remembered. The back of my head sailed through the shot from left to right as George kept focus on the shark’s head.

The image panned right, along its body. “Man!” she breathed as we watched. “It must be at least four, maybe five metres long. Probably a female. They get a lot bigger than the males.”

“Unlike us, huh?” I grinned down at my petite dive partner sitting in the surf. I had at least a foot on her, and I was easily twice her weight.

She flashed me a crooked smile, then returned her attention to the display. Just then, the shark recoiled, before sweeping its tail to launch in a different direction. The image shook wildly, with a metallic thwack, and I saw myself being buffeted on screen. The clink of our tanks against the hull was audible through the speaker, along with a muffled groan from George.

“Whoa!” George laughed. She looked up at me, her eyes bright. “It looks like it hit you with its tail.”

“No, I don’t think so,” I dismissed, patting down the pouches of my vest as I kept watching the footage of the shark disappearing into the distance. “I think it was just the…”

The underwater writing slate was no longer secured to my orange vest. The large mesh pouch I had tucked it into was ripped open, the Velcro flap hanging uselessly with nothing to grip. Other scuff marks and abrasions adorned the front of my buoyancy-control. It had definitely clipped me. I obviously hadn’t noticed in the heat of the moment.

“Holy fuck!” George breathed. She stared up at me, her mouth gaping open.

“Phew,” I tried to laugh off. But the realisation of how close I had come brought back the tremors in my hands. Attempting to avoid her intense gaze, I asked her to play the video again. Although my respite from her close scrutiny only lasted another twenty-eight seconds. That’s all there was, including the ten seconds or so of empty water at the end of the clip.

Neither of us spoke. The only sound was the foaming waves washing in around us. I held my hands in my lap beneath the froth, willing them to be still. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw George tuck the camera away and look back up at me.

I stared off into the main part of the bay beyond the rocky islet, not really watching the sun seekers sprinkled on the larger beach that curved southeast to the base of Burrewarra Point. Turning back, I met her gaze. Her big blue eyes were smouldering in a sincerity I had never seen in her before. As far as I could tell, it wasn’t pity. It was something else.

“You tried to save me,” her voice cracked, barely audible above the din. “You put yourself between me and the shark. You…” The words failed her, but her mouth kept moving regardless.

I had nothing to say myself, and I felt my face flushing with embarrassment. “Look, it’s…um…” I cleared the lump from my throat. “Don’t worry about it. Like you say, it was just curious. No real danger.”

I reached into the water and took off my fins. Then standing up and clipping them to my weight belt, I held out a hand to help her up. She strained under the burden of her tank and other dive gear as she stood. Before we could exchange an awkward moment of eye contact, I lumbered up the beach towards the carpark, with her in tow.

*

Thanks for reading. I’d really love it if you left some feedback.

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