The Color of Blood

Lured into the Unknown
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We dive three times a day for seven days, exploring half of the island's 20 designated sites. Between dives, we snorkel with mantas at the surface or zip out to Punta Ulloa in the skiff to watch humpback whales slap their tales on the water. Mostly, we simply gawk at the ubiquitous cycle of life and death.

One morning at "Lobster Rock," I watch a yellowfin tuna—the world's fastest fish—vaporize a small, green jack frolicking along the reef. Another afternoon, at Manuelita, I witness a clutch of reef sharks jockey violently with each other for entry into a tight cave, with the lucky ones emerging with pieces of unidentifiable flesh dangling from their jaws. For all the death, of course, there are equal parts new life. Take the amorous marble rays. Like a parade of high-flying welcome mats, the males pursue the rippling females, diving over cliffs, banking around pinnacles, sailing across canyons. They end up stacked atop each other in the sand, four or five piled high, in orgiastic bliss, with us rubber-suited peeping Toms sticking our masks in close for a steamy, pornographic look-see.

At dusk, when the fins of silky sharks break the surface and begin circling off the stern, we throw back beers and heckle Kersten Lange, practitioner of the "night dive," a seemingly bald-faced challenge to the human position on the food chain.

"Nice knowin' you, Kersten!" we yuk it up, as the 74-year-old German slogs toward the back of the boat in full wet suit.

"The silkies, they are no problem," Lange insists. "One time, the silky, he comes at me, and I shove away the head. No problem." Lange can't seem to find a night-time dive partner. Undeterred, he slips beneath the surface each night and hangs on a line beneath the Undersea Hunter for an hour, like a slab of beef jerky, tracing nine-footer silky sharks with his spotlight as they close their circle around him.

In the Midnight Hour
And then, on our last night, for reasons I can't expect to comprehend—either because I've finally conquered my debilitating fear of giant incisors, or because I've dived so much I'm suffering the brain-twisting effects of nitrogen narcosis, or possibly because the ethereal sirens of Cocos Island have commandeered my soul and deluded me into thinking that I am now mightier than the cycle of life and death itself—I sign up for the night dive. Like sky diving, it's not the plunge itself that's anxiety-provoking. I've watched Lange do it all week. The silkies come in close, have a good sniff, and then dart away.

No, the anxiety lies in the moments preceding the dive. It lies in my recalling the chapter on silky sharks in the Undersea Hunter's species book as I pull on my wet suit—"Upper teeth erect to slightly oblique, serrated, triangular, with a notch about half way down the tooth on each side; lower teeth slender, erect, smooth-edged."

It lies in the heckling I endure as I waddle the 30 feet to the back of the boat. "The silky shark," says Karen, another German, in giggling, Twilight Zone-ish mockery. "He eats you, no? Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!"

It lies in the memory of P. J.'s haunting words: "One day, one's going to ask, 'Hmm, I wonder what this tastes like.'"

I stand with Lange at the edge of the boat, my heart pounding like the back beat of a ghetto-blasting rap song. On cue, we giant step out over the circling fins, and at that moment, I somehow resign my fate to the natural order, and we disappear beneath the water.

Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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