August 2016 – Bonaire
He keeps swimming back at me, circling around maybe twenty feet away and then skimming right by my hands. A couple of times his scales graze my leg or arm and I let out a scream I’m sure the entire anchorage hears through my regulator, through the fifty feet of water, across the kilometer-long anchorage. His mouth opens and closes as he swims by, baring what little teeth he has at me. His big round eyes protruding from his head are trained on me, his eyelids not even blinking. His long silver body – maybe four or five feet long – covered in stainless steel scales shines like a barracuda.
He’s not a barracuda. He’s a tarpon. Tarpons are the do-dos of fish – big and clumsy, not very intelligent and not at all aggressive. In Culebra, Puerto Rico, we fed the tarpons french fries off the restaurant deck. Here in Bonaire, we’ve been diving alongside big tarpons for weeks. Their mouths open on top – with a protruding under bite – so that they can funnel whatever food represents itself into their mouths. They have such small teeth that they swallow whole whatever food they do catch. I know their big cumbersome trunk and small flimsy fins make them inefficient killing machines. Barracudas – they have jaws of death. Reef tip sharks – they have fins that propel them like a missile. Tarpons? They plod around all day, go up to the surface for air, and plod around some more.
At less than fifty feet under the surface (I regularly dive well below that), and not more than thirty feet from my boat’s mooring line (we often dive far from the boat), the only thing panicking me (and I’m panicking, swimming in circles, screaming through my regulator, sucking air out of the tank) is that it is well after sundown and the sliver of a moon is shroud by clouds. It’s my first night dive and the tarpon is captivated by my handheld light, like a crow to aluminum foil or a deer in headlights.
I try to remember that objects underwater appear larger than they really are. I try to remember the children’s story of the benevolent Rainbow Fish who gives away a shiny scale to each other fish to make friends. I try to invoke the fearlessness of Freya Hoffmeister, who circumnavigated Australia solo in a kayak, battling alligators that tried to flip her kayak and eat her paddle. I try to summon the resolve of Hemingway’s Santiago, who sailed back to land with sharks gnawing away at his hard-earned marlin. But I am now panicked as the tarpon makes his fifth or sixth pass.
Not very deep, close to the boat, on an island I’ve dove over twenty five times, circled by a tarpon hunting for food, the logical thing to do is to turn off my light. Without my light, the tarpon won’t be attracted to me. Without my light, I won’t even see it coming. This is the logical thing to do, and I’m a (mostly) logical person.
The problem is, without a light, I won’t see anything else coming either – the barracudas that bare their teeth at me, the moray eels that lash out from their caves, the sharks that lurk along the bottom. I know they’re out there; we’ve swam with all of them during our day dives. For now, I can’t turn off the light. Not on this night, not on this dive, maybe never. Thank goodness for the twelve hours of sunshine everyday, all day. Because I can’t wait to get under the water again.