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Always There

by Jeff Johnson
Summer 2006

Laurent has obviously seen something. He descends past me silent, poised, his body angling toward the deep, his speargun well hidden next to his torso. I feel a tap on my shoulder. It's Josh. Using his thumb, Josh motions for us to surface.

The wind above water matches my labored breaths.

"Look down," says Josh, "watch Laurent."

I put my mask and snorkel to the water and see Laurent hovering, waiting motionless 40 feet below. A few curious fish glide by him. As he releases the trigger on the gun, I hear a muffled click and the fish quickly scatter away. Below Laurent, a large, colorful parai (surgeonfish) convulses with a spear in its side. Laurent remains there for a moment, studying his surroundings. During his ascent he spins continuously as to monitor anything that moves.

Josh taps my shoulder again and points down. Rising out of the purple depths I see shadows – three, four, five, six of them. Sharks. A frenzy. My initial instinct is to swim to the boat, fast. But I look at Josh and he is relaxed, almost laughing. Looking back down, I see more of them, blacktips, four- to six-feet long and too difficult to count now as they dart around sporadically. Laurent reels in his line and finds that the fish he speared is gone, taken by one of the sharks. Josh shakes his head as if to say, "Typical."

Laurent re-cocks his gun and descends. As he enters the frenzy, the sharks in their untamed movement charge right at him. Unfazed by this aggression Laurent confronts them, making quick stabbing motions with his gun. This method proves to be highly effective, for the sharks, like dogs, are easily spooked. Within minutes the sharks drop down beyond the pearl lines and dissolve into darkness. Casually, everyone goes back to work.

I have just taken five strings of oysters off the main line 30 feet below the surface. I am heavily weighted, preparing to ascend, when I see another shadow appear. But this one is darker, slower and much bigger than the blacktips. I am waiting for Timi to give me a buoy. He hands one to me, and its buoyancy sends me soaring to the surface. I look down at the large, ominous shadow. Because of the way the ocean plays with your eyes, it is difficult to tell how big she is, but I'd say an easy eight- to 10-feet long and very round. Like a ghost, she hovers for a moment, barely moving. I am frozen, staring at her in awe. It's as if all she wants is to let us know she is there, always there, nothing more. Then, slowly, effortlessly, like a sinking ship blending in with the dark depths below, she is gone.

That evening, during dinner, Josh explains the situation. He tells me how blacktips are not a problem, more of a nuisance and easy to deal with.

I ask, "What was that big one we saw?"

Josh takes a sip of beer. "I don't know," he says, setting the can on the table with a smile. "I've never seen her before."

About the Author
Though we have managed to get some work hours out of him here at the offices in Ventura, Jeff Johnson is a hard man to pin down. And he has multiple personalities to boot – surfer, writer, climber, photographer – though in no specific order. This field report was written while he and Yvon earned their room and board as apprentice pearl divers in the Tuamotu Islands.