Ocean Encounters and Bonin Islands – By Kaori Freda

Reef sharks loiter two feet away, staring at me with curious, wide open eyes. 

Perhaps they were messengers from the reef, saying “We’ve abided your fluttering about in this ocean of ours, but it’s high time you went home and left us in peace.”

Or maybe they were a pair of oceanic bouncers, barring my entry to the sea beyond.

Chances are they were simply curious about the large blobby creature floating on the surface, and came to investigate. What a strange thing, they probably thought in their fishy brains, what a creature! I was the sole swimmer in the sea, sporting black fins. To the sharks, I probably seemed like a clumsy thing that certainly didn’t look like the octopus morsels that it toted along.

I had been in the midst of shoving my hook, line, and floater into the plastic mesh bag I had been dragging around as I snorkeled on the Bonin Islands in Japan, in hopes of catching and containing a tasty fish. I had caught a gorgeously bright neon fish, a species that was much more agile and friendly than the others I had seen, trailing after me at times. It would have been a sin to have eaten it, so I let it go.

I had trouble getting the hook out of its mouth, and it took me several agonising attempts. The fish was mostly patient about it but would jerk away when I jabbed at its little mouth too hard or abruptly pulled at the stuck metal bit.

The second time I nearly caught a fish that I had been targeting; a huge spotted fish lurked under some coral and nearly took the bait, but quickly, it grew suspicious. Now and again, as I paddled tight circles above the coral, resisting the gentle waves, I could see its head peering out from under the coral like a housewife opening the windows to air the house.

The third time, I thought I caught a fish, a small brown one with bulging eyes, but it sought refuge in a crevice and I lose the weight when I jerked too hard on the line. It must have gotten entangled by a piece of coral, since the fish was pretty small and couldn’t have put up that much of a fight.

That’s when I noticed, out of the corner of my vision, that two sharks were lingering quite nearby, peering at me with glints in their dull fishy eyes. That morning, I had read online that when threatened, sharks swim about in an exaggeratedly slow and sinuous way. These two were simply drifting in place, their pointy snouts angled in such a way so they could keep staring at me.

I decided to dump the silly plan that I had concocted before I saw the pair – to stow the line and my life jacket and try to free dive 20 feet for the weight.

I scampered, mesh bag trailing after me, octopus juice probably spewing everywhere in my wake. After a handful of smooth kicks I looked back to see if I had any followers. The sharks were tailing me, immediately to my right. I muttered a muffled “shit, that can’t be good,” into my breathing pipe and determinedly swam faster, with fewer excess movements.

In that moment, I decided not to look back, thinking that if they decided to bite then that was that. But I had also remembered that Chika had told me that nobody on Chichijima had ever been bitten and the best thing to do in the presence of sharks is to remain calm in an encounter rather than foolishly thrash about and excite the creatures. And, apparently, sharks feast at night. In the mornings and afternoons, they are more drowsy and content, unless roused.

When faced with human threat, most animals would rather take flight than ready for battle and attack, (a piece of wisdom garnered from Pi, a shipwreck survivor stuck with a Bengali Tiger for more than 200 days in a lifeboat adrift in the Pacific, from The Life of Pi, an audiobook I’ve been obsessively listening to recently). With all these tidbits floating around somewhere in the back of my mind, I kept calm. If I were a more experience diver/snorkeller/swimmer, say, a professional for the National Geographic (a far-off dream,) then I wouldn’t have blinked an eye. I probably never really had anything to worry about, but the human mind will do silly things when faced with an animal that society has made out to be a vicious man-eater (thanks to Jaws).

I reached the shallows, looked back, and sighed a breathe of relief. How exciting. I made it, in one piece.

Once I was out of the sea and on the beach, I trotted past rusty war paraphernalia imbedded partway in the sand, a tragic relic from WWII that nobody likes to talk about. (I usually store my bag and water in a foxhole near the shore, to protect my belongings from the pitter-patter of the rain.) I’m biking home now, stopping to write this little adventure on my defunct iPhone.

Since I almost drowned off the coast of Morocco, near Berrechid, I’ve mostly avoided the water. But now that I’m surrounded by it, I can’t resist but explore the life teaming below the water’s surface. I’ve watched more fish than I’ve ever seen in my life. Many of them can also be found in Hawaii~ bright, neon, jittery little things, or dull, vapid creatures combing the ocean floor and coral reef for tiny bits of food, algae, or polyps. I’ve seen cuttlefish, blue-barred parrotfish, angelfish, giant clams, frightened little sea snakes peering out of holes, blue sea stars, and a whole rainbow’s worth of sea urchins. I’d like to stay here forever. I’ll be here at least three months, hopefully more.

Yesterday a manta ray, like a dark angel of the sea, circled around me before winging its way into the ocean deep.

Today, sharks. What will tomorrow bring?