My Blog


            One of my favorite places to snorkel or dive is the small cove across from the 16-mile marker of Hwy 30 on the northwest side of Maui. The waves lapping upon the black-sanded beach are only ankle high. The ocean surface is pond-like calm. Mazes of coral rise to within a foot or two of the surface, and are teaming with every kind of tropical fish one could hope to find on the islands—including the occasional shark. The location is far enough south from Lahaina that it’s not crowded with tourists, and is only frequented by the locals. In short, it’s the perfect place to set up camp, picnic, and hang out for the day.

            I’ve been diving for thirty-plus years. When not diving, I’ll go snorkeling until my skin is pruned and I’m shivering with cold. I’ve encountered sharks on numerous occasions in the open ocean, and even paid to dive with them at the Disney World aquarium. I’ve never felt fear around sharks, but neither do I molest or pursue them. There’s just something about encountering a shark in the open water that’s spellbinding, and it has nothing to do with their fearsome reputation. They move through the water so effortlessly, with such power and grace, such fearless dominance, that it’s a beautiful thing to watch in real life. So I’d never feared a shark attack until late one afternoon while snorkeling off the 16-mile marker.

            This happened about fifteen years ago. My son was still too young to become a certified diver, so we’d take him out to the placid cove where he could at least snorkel and become enthralled with the beauty of the ocean. We’d parked across from the 16-mile marker before noon. The weather was beautiful, another perfect day in paradise. The beach was mildly crowed with locals off work for the weekend. We’d snorkeled and played on the beach before settling down to enjoy our picnic. After sunbathing for some time, I was hot and covered with the black, volcanic sand that sticks to everything. I decided to go snorkeling one last time before heading back to our condo. My wife and son stayed behind. Their decision turned out to be a possible life or limb saver.

            I entered the water across from where I knew I’d find a path through the coral mazes. My intention was to go out deep and work my way back toward the beach. As I sat down in waist-deep water to put on my fins, I noticed a Hawaiian teen with a speargun already in the water off my left. This annoyed me, because these people were decimating the local fish populations. The once abundant snowflake eels in front of our condo had already been killed off. A warning should have also been screaming through my mind, but my brain must have been lulled by the peaceful afternoon. A speared fish, a bleeding, struggling fish, attracts sharks.

            I flipped over, and began peacefully finning my way along the surface. There’s nothing as relaxing as the feeling of weightlessly floating through the warm, ocean water. Ten feet below me, the seafloor was abundant with antler, cauliflower, and lobe coral. So many different types of colorful butterfly fish were darting amidst the coral towers that I couldn’t begin to name them all. There were wrasses, surgeonfish, and yellow tangs. A school of needle-like goatfish swam with me along the surface for a few minutes before a three-foot trumpetfish appeared. About halfway out, I spotted a snowflake eel slithering along a coral base. I dove down to watch it, sorry I’d used up all the film in my camera during my earlier trip. Having terrified the poor eel, I resurfaced, and continued my trip further out. Apparently, people on the beach were already screaming, trying to attract my attention. They went unheard.

            I continued out until the coral maze thinned, the seafloor dropped to about fifty feet, and I began to feel cold. It was time to head back to the beach. I popped my head above the surface to check my location. Three dive boats from Lahaina were a few hundred yards seaward. The green mound of Lana’i rose in the distance behind them. I turned toward the beach. Given my low view just above the surface, the beach seemed impossibly distant. The people appeared like tiny specks. One thing did capture my attention and alarm me, however. Red lights from a police or ambulance siren were flashing from the highway behind the beach. Something bad had happened. I began my rapid trip back, no longer concerned with fish watching. My main worry was that something terrible had happened to my family. The real danger never entered my mind. My family was safe. I was the one in harm’s way.

            The ocean floor was quickly rising to greet me. The maze of coral towers were soon forming a barrier, stalling my return. I was becoming frustrated with the delay. Had my son drown? Had my wife been robbed or injured in some manner? This was long before cell phones were everywhere, and I couldn’t understand how the police or an ambulance had arrived so quickly. Was it some sort of preplanned police raid? Having grown up in Detroit and Mexico City, anything seemed possible to my paranoid mind. Now the coral was reaching the surface, and I couldn’t find my way through the maze.

            I popped my head out of the water, hoping to check my location based on the beach. I quickly saw I was halfway home. The people along the beach appeared much larger. So much so, that I quickly spotted my wife off to my left at the edge of the lapping waves. A huge Polynesian policemen was standing just behind her. I was confused. Real fear began to set in. My wife must have seen me looking back at the beach, because she started jumping up and down while waving her arms to catch my attention. I tentatively waved back. Suddenly, she started making sweeping arm motions, apparently telling me to come in. As if to add to the immediacy, the policeman began to frantically wave for me to get my butt out of the water. Now I was dumbfounded. But it suddenly became terrifyingly clear. My wife screamed, “Shark! Shark attack!” She pointed toward my right where I had entered the water, and where I’d seen the teen with the speargun.

The hamsters spinning the rusty wheels in my head finally awakened. I realized the teen had speared a fish. The struggling fish had attracted a shark. The shark had obviously attacked the teen. I didn’t see an ambulance, so the teen must be gone. The problem was, the shark wasn’t. And if the attack had happened long enough ago that the victim was already gone, that shark could be anywhere by now. I was in deep, deep do-do.

My first thought was that I was in good shape. I was pretty close to the beach, and the water was shallow. I could do this. Then I recalled that most shark attacks on humans occur in three feet of water—murky, sandy water like the kind I’d have to pass through to get to the beach. I wondered how big the shark could be. Certainly not a fifteen-foot Mako that could swallow me whole. A man-eater that size couldn’t swim through the coral maze. But then I realized I had no concept of what a hungry shark would do to catch an easy dinner. Something had obviously made it through the maze, and it had a taste for human flesh. Even a small shark could tear a healthy chuck out of a person. That person could easily bleed to death before reaching an emergency room on Maui.

It was with a sinking feeling that I realized I was on my own. No one from the beach could help me—or even appeared as if they wanted to try. I stuck my face back in the water. My white, bare legs hung below me like two slabs of beef. They even seemed to glow in the dark water like neon signs that read: “Free dinner. Get it while it’s hot!”

There was one thought of finality that passed through my mind. I’d seen these powerful predators in their environment before. There was no way I was going to outswim a shark. If it found me out in the open, and was still hungry, I was done and ready for carving. The thought gave me my plan. I slowly headed back toward the beach with my head on a swivel while trying to see everywhere at once. I swam into the coral maze, hoping the coral towers would protect my blind sides. Then I realized this was a potential mistake. Coral is razor sharp, and the closer one gets to the beach, the more the waves push one around. It wouldn’t take much of a wave to slam me into the coral and cut me, causing a gusher. Might as well ring the shark dinner bell. Fortunately, I’d learned a long time ago to always wear dive gloves while snorkeling around coral.

So I poked, twisted and turned through the coral towers. On the positive side, the fish remained everywhere, apparently not sensing a shark (I’m not sure if they can or not). On the negative side, the wave push was getting worse. Sorry, environmentalists, I wasn’t above touching and pushing off the live coral that day. One’s sense of values changes when threatened.

Occasionally I stuck my head out of the water to check my progress. I was slowly drawing closer to the beach, but I also noticed I had attracted a cheering crowd. Everyone on the beach had surrounded my wife. They were yelling and waving me on every time I raised my head. My wife later told me that I was only numb-nut still out there. I just figured they were all waiting to see some live entertainment. Something they could later tell their grandkids. “Did I ever tell you about the time I saw this stupid haole get eaten by a shark?”

Amidst all the excitement, I realized I had a new problem, a more elemental dilemma. I had to pee. Not that I’m above peeing in the ocean. Fish do it all the time. I figured I’d been swimming in fish pee all afternoon. The problem is that urine attracts sharks. My dilemma was to pee or not to pee. Did I risk attracting the shark by urinating? If not, and I safely made it to the shore without peeing, could I hold it all the way back home? That was one problem too many, so I resolved it.

Through it all, I never really thought of this episode as a life-threatening situation. I’d been in much closer shaves. Plus, I simply couldn’t imagine being attacked by a shark. I didn’t really feel fear. One finds themselves thinking of the oddest things when encountering a dangerous situation over which they have no control. I didn’t make any promises to God. My life didn’t pass before my eyes. I might have wondered if we’d gotten anything out for dinner. How the dogs were doing, and if were behaving. Mostly, I was mad while passing through the coral maze. Some idiot had been spearfishing near a crowded beach. Mothers played with their children in those shallow waters—my wife and my son. And yet some bonehead had speared a fish, endangering everyone with his selfish activities. He deserved what he got. I just hoped he was the only one that got attacked.

The only time things began to get “scary” was as I neared the shore. The water became sand-filled. I couldn’t see my own hands. That fifteen-foot Mako could have been inches from my face, jaws gaping wide with rows of flesh-tearing teeth, and I wouldn’t have seen it. But the solution was simple. I reached down and unclipped my fins before sliding them off my feet. Then, fins in hand, I stood and calmly walked out of the water. I’d never even seen the shark.

The gathered crowd seemed deflated, almost disappointed. They quickly dispersed with hardly a word. Even the policeman just left. My wife, of course, was elated, relieved. She rushed forward and gave me a loving hug before demanding to know why I had ignored all their yelling to come back in after the attack had happened. She couldn’t believe that I hadn’t heard them or noticed all the commotion on the beach. Over the years, the whole episode has become a family joke. There was Dave, out snorkeling, the only one still in the water after a shark attack.

What had happened? Even my wife wasn’t sure. Apparently the teen had been bitten by a small shark on the leg. My wife didn’t even realize something had happened until the police and an ambulance had arrived. Not surprisingly, the episode didn’t even make the Maui news. I’ve discovered over the years that they don’t like scaring the tourists. I have no idea what happened to the teen, but this apparently wasn’t the last shark attack at the 16-mile marker. We’ve returned there many times since the first attack. They now have signs posted warning of shark attacks. I will say that I’ve never seen a shark in the area, and don’t fear snorkeling there.

What’d I learn? Nothing. One can’t worry about things beyond their control. I don’t molest sharks any more than I would march around in a lightning storm holding up a steel rod, but rumbling thunder doesn’t stop me from walking in the rain when necessary. Stuff happens. We deal with it as it comes, and then tell funny stories about it when it’s over.