By: Ron Reil
In the mid 60s, at the invitation of the US Navy, I found myself living on a tiny bit of rock and coral in the British West Indies called Grand Turk. To most of the 110 sailors stationed on our tiny "Navfac", being assigned such duty was equivalent to doing prison time. To me the island was a paradise.
Having grown up in the western Pacific, and having learned to dive long before I could drive, the possibilities that existed in the virgin waters around the island were immediately apparent to me. I was glued to the window of the lumbering C-124 as we circled to land on the short mostly dirt strip that served as the runway. In fact, I had been at the window, or the door, all the way down from Cocoa Beach, Florida during this first trip into the magic of the West Indies. The beauty and danger, I saw three big sharks, were laid out below me as we crawled along barely 500 feet above the white coral sands and blue depths of the Bahama Bank. It was an exciting flight because the crew left the big side doors open so I could go look out the opening, protected only by a nylon strap.
The moment I stepped off the big cargo plane into the tropical heat and humidity I fell in love with the barren landscape of coral and cactus. The islands had been colonized 400 years earlier, and the remaining fragments of humanity clustered together in a tiny arid town that was almost totally dependent on the handouts of the British government for their support. The big plantations of an earlier era had given way to desert when the weather had changed in response to the cutting of the original forests that had covered the island. The rains no longer came to the island, except in the form of violent thunder storms that lashed the coral crags a few times a year. The island has almost no trees today, only cactus and briar.
A regular tour of duty on Grand Turk was only one year because it was considered "remote duty", and as such the men could not bring family. To the older men this was a great weight to bear, but to me it carried no significance other than a token increase in my pay check. I had only one driving passion after getting off the plane, get out into that wild expanse of reefs I had observed while flying down from Florida.
My first year flew by at a rate that was almost frightening. I was not ready for it all to end. I had become the acknowledged master diver of the base, actually there was one diver who was better then me, but I had established a personal connection to the "Skipper." He would often ask me to collect large quantities of lobster for various functions, and it allowed me to miss work to dive for the spiny critters. Missing work was not any big deal because we worked "tropical working hours." I was done by 10:00 A.M. every day, leaving me almost all day to take one of the boats and head out with one or two friends to some remote part of the reefs to explore.
Grand Turk is one island in a group of islands called the "Turks and Caicos Islands." I was able to travel to many of the other islands by boat to explore the islands, and the diving there also. I even had the exciting experience of being asked to represent the base in a sailing competition at Caicos Island. The Navy provided a cargo plane to load our sail boats on, and flew us over, where we took first and second places in the inter island competition. It was a grand break from the routine of everyday island life.
While stationed at Grand Turk, because of our "remote" status, we could take an "off island pass" for a few days of "R&R" every six weeks if we wanted. The transportation was free so it was a popular option. One day a "reserve" training flight passed through our island headed south for the island of Barbados. I found myself and several friends on board for a look at this romantic island in the sun. When we got off the plane I fell even more in love with Barbados than the Turks and Caicos islands. I didn't know it then, but in a year and a half I would be living in Barbados as my next tour of duty.
As my time came rapidly to a close in the Turks and Caicos Islands I decided to try to get an extension of my assignment to Grand Turks. I was only the second person to ever request such an extension in the history of the base and everyone thought I must be crazy. I contacted my "detailer", the person who decided where I would be assigned next, and I made my request. He granted my request, and I was overjoyed at the prospect of another year of underwater adventure.
A few days later my orders came in and I was floored when I read "proceed to Argentia Newfoundland!" I was so shaken I was almost sick. I had lived in St. Johns, Newfoundland for three years as a child, and I didn't see any future in the diving there. I lived with this emotional bombshell for 48 hours, when another set of orders came through changing the first orders to extend my assignment at Navfac Grand Turk one additional year. For the time being my life was complete, I had everything I wanted in life. My needs were very simple in those days.
Diving in the islands was different than diving I had known in the Ryukyu Islands of the Pacific. Sharks were an ever present threat in the Turks and Caicos Islands. We had sharks in the Pacific too, but I had never seen 200 at one time, as I had here. Further, no adult native would go in the water off Grand Turks due to fear of shark attack. Almost all of the old local families had been touched by the "gray ghosts of the deep" at one time or another in the past. We lost one construction worker who was visiting our Navfac, to a big shark off the north reef, and another diver lost a leg to a shark in a separate attack. In the two years I dove there I was attacked only once and it was by a very small shark. He finally gave in to a hail of kicks on the nose and went off without a piece of my leg. We were prepared for them, each of us carried an explosive device of his own choosing, and in some cases design. These were contact devices that could be instantly armed by removing a "safety pin."
My power-head was a custom made device. It was only 11 inches long and attached to my diving knife sheath, which was strapped to my leg. It was a .357 magnum weapon, and the recoil, with its little "T" handle, was terrible to experience. However, the pain in the hand was little compared to the alternative if I needed it to defend myself in a shark attack. In fact I did have to use it on five separate occasions during my time in the islands.
It is interesting to note that to kill a shark, even with a power-head, was no easy matter. A shark has no bones in its body other than its teeth, and it has plenty of those. The only reliable "kill spot" on a shark's body is found in front of the dorsal fin. Its location can be envisioned as the third point of an equilateral triangle where the sharks eyes are at the other two points. The third point is pointed back toward the dorsal fin. This spot is only as big as a fifty cent piece, and to miss it is to invite disaster. People are always surprised at how short my power-head shaft is, but it allowed me to be right on top of the shark when I used it. It was still not easy to hit the target, but it was far better than other methods of delivery. If it is possible to sweat underwater you will do so the first time you have to use a device like this to kill an aggressive shark. I carried such a short shafted device for convenience also because I carried an underwater camera most of the time. The power-head tended to get in the way if it was any bigger.
I should also mention the size of the sharks we dove with. An average shark was about eight feet long, and usually a tiger shark. Many went 13 to 17 feet. The largest one we took using a power-head was a few inches short of 15 feet! It was a large tiger shark that took three 12 gage power-head blasts before finally slowing enough to allow us to tie a rope around its tail to drag it backwards with the boat in order to drown it. We were not able to hit the kill spot, though we did cut the "spine" twice. He was a very unpleasant fellow, and his stomach was completely empty when we opened him up later. He was hungry! The largest shark we ever saw we estimate to have been 35 feet, and perhaps 6 feet across the widest part of the head! We were all grabbing and arming power-heads so fast that no one thought to get a picture of the beast. He departed the area with only a few swipes of his tail. He was all gray with no spots, so was not a whale shark. We only saw it once, and have no idea what kind of shark he was. He was in the same location, off the north end barrier reef, that we had lost our construction worker friend some time earlier.
You now have enough of an understanding of the environment we dove in to understand what follows. The narrative that follows is not violent, in fact it is much the opposite, except for my anger at the end. The experience was one of the grandest in my life, and that is why I have dedicated this narrative to my mother. I think that she is probably the only one who could ever really have understood the emotions I experienced 120 feet down off the edge of the Caicos drop off. This is the story of the "Mantas!"
My days of innocence and undersea exploration in the Turks and Caicos Islands were almost at a close. The two years had flown by at breath taking speed. All the wonderful friends I had made were gone now, and the base was not the same place anymore. I was ready to move on as it felt as though I was now in an Autumn of sorts. The excitement was gone, and I just felt lonely for old friends and times. Out of all the new people on base there was not a single diver. Out of boredom I had started to bring back to the base various diving trophies. I started with small fish in the 30-50 pound range, but was soon dragging huge creatures down the street with a tractor to show everyone. When I started bringing home some very big sharks all interest in going out in the water they may have had vanished. I had cut my own throat.
One of my diving friends who was still available was a fellow named Phil who was trying to get a diving business going on Grand Turk. He and I did a lot of diving together, but we were not close friends. Phil was mostly interested in collecting aquarium fish. He collected thousands, stored them, and when he had enough, he shipped them to the US. It was a good source of extra income for him. So I wasn't too surprised when he asked if I would like to do a deep dive off the drop off with him while he collected fish.
Deep diving was something that we had done a lot of over the previous 18 months. We never used SCUBA in water less than 50 feet deep. Several other friends and I had trained intensely for many months to be able to free dive to depths approaching 100 feet. Terry Scheffer, one of my very closest friends, could reach 100 feet or more, fight a fish, and succeed in bringing it to the surface, all with just the air in his lungs! He was the finest diver I ever dove with. Because of events connected with the Vietnam War I lost track of Terry and I would love to know if he is alive and well today. I wish him the very best.
Diving off the drop off into the Caicos Channel is always an interesting experience, no matter how often you do it. It is a spectacular undersea cliff that starts at about 35 feet under the surface, and drops many thousands of feet vertically into the depths! You never know what to expect, and it was here that I had encountered a frenzied pack of reef sharks that numbered in excess of 200 by our best estimate. It was impossible to count them because they were moving in and out among each other so fast that to follow even one of them was impossible. To use a current expression, it was a real rush!
When Phil suggested the dive for just the two of us that seemed normal since I had made hundreds of such dives, and had even done a 300 foot solo "snap" dive to explore for black coral. I knew that Phil would occupy himself collecting fish while I could go explore as I saw fit. Although I taught a diving class, with all the associated buddy buddy stuff, in real life we were very comfortable at almost any depth alone. Times have changed.
It was a typical hot West Indian day. The coral sand was almost blinding in the brilliant tropical sun as we geared up for the dive, and the puffy little trade wind clouds did little more than add color to the sky. We had each brought along several tanks of air. Phil had a compressor and 12 tanks for his budding diving business, so we had no shortage. We were going to dive off the beach on the SW end of the island. As we rigged up there was no one else to be seen on the beach as far as we could see.
I had not spent much time diving in this location because it had always seemed a little barren to me in the past. It was also very near the place where I had dropped in on the 200 or so reef sharks, so it was not one of my favorite places.
This particular spot required about a fifth of a mile swim out in 35 feet of water to get to the edge of the drop off. Coming up on the drop off is always a moment of high drama. As the edge came into view my heart did extra little beats and sort of wanted to come up into my throat. It is so vast beyond that lip! Our visibility was almost always in excess of 200 feet, and sometimes much farther, so looking over the edge was guaranteed to command your entire attention.
As we snorkeled out I thought back to one of my more exciting moments in diving, which had occurred in this same location, with Terry Scheffer. Terry had acted as my air station, and had agreed to go down the drop off with his tank to a depth of 80 feet and wait for me to free dive down to join him. I then borrowed his mouthpiece to hyperventilate, and then proceeded to free dive to 175-180 feet! I had nothing on but my snorkel, mask, fins, weight belt, dive knife, power-head, and a green dyed jock strap! Our little club was the "Green Jocks." In the clear water I could see to perhaps 500 feet in depth! At that point in my training I could easily stay much longer than I had air to support me for, so I had to force myself to finally turn back up. It was so incredibly hypnotic to be down there like that. The emerald greens had given way to azure blues in a thousand different shades as I had descended. I settled down on a big coral rock and just took in the beauty of it all. I could easily have remained on the rock, or have continued on down to my destruction, in a totally calm and trance like state. Nitrogen does funny things to the brain when under pressure, even when not breathing pressurized air from a tank. It was a fantastic experience that I shall never forget.
As I turned to go up a gray ghost drifted across my path of retreat to Terry. I had my power-head strapped to my leg but I never even reached for it. I was in such a total state of peace with my surroundings I just glided up to the great shark and he drifted out of my way allowing me to pass by and return safely to Terry's life giving air supply. When I reached Terry he had a huge grin on his face while he pointed to the big shark 50 feet below us. That dive marked the epitome of my physical conditioning in diving. What had started out a year earlier as a great hunger for air during my longer dives had been reduced to a mild awareness that "a little air might be nice in a few minutes." It is amazing what training can do.
All of these thoughts passed through my mind as we snorkeled out to the drop off. My thoughts were suddenly jerked back to the present when the ragged lip of the great undersea cliff came into view. A few butterflies took flight in my stomach as the meaning of the line came home. It was now time to get serious about the dive, Phil was depending on it.
As we approached the lip we started our descent, angling down to reach the lip, instead of swimming directly up to it on the surface. It feels much safer when you can peak over the edge without being totally exposed from below. There is some primordial fear in all of us that is brought to the surface when we confront the abyss. It is easy once you are over the edge and you see that nothing is going to reach up and grab you, but the initial fear is instinctive and deep within all of us.
We "up ended", and started our descent down the face of the drop off. The cliff was clean and barren of coral in this area. I was not real impressed and wished we had chosen another area. I hated to waste a dive when I had so few remaining on the island. I would be flying out in just a few more weeks. I was becoming depressed as old times came flooding back into my mind again.
The drop off is not one vertical cliff, but a series of stair step like terraces. The first terrace lies at a depth of 100-120 feet. When we reached the terrace Phil started his fish collecting while I drifted along looking for possible pictures worth taking. I couldn't afford to go much deeper because my camera, a Nikonos II, would crush with much more depth. I indicated to Phil that I would explore along to the north.
I had not been gone for more than a few minutes when I caught a flash of light out in the depths. I looked and saw it again, so I went back and gave the signal to Phil that we may have some sharks visiting in a few minutes. He was comfortable with that, and so I again drifted off to the north in the direction where I had observed the flashes. Such flashes can often be seen when the white under belly of a shark, or other fish, is turned momentarily in your direction.
A few minutes later I saw it again, so I decided to leave the protection of the cliff and swim out to see who was paying a visit. That was one of the most fortuitous decisions I have ever made. I had not traveled more than 75-100 feet when a huge manta ray glided up out of the depths toward me, DIRECTLY toward me with its huge mouth wide open! This creature was huge! I don't know what the upper limit on mantas is, but he looked every inch of 12 feet across, perhaps bigger. There was nothing to compare him to for scale in the aquamarine depths.
He came straight at me and then turned off just enough at the last moment to avoid hitting me. He went up and over in a huge loop coming straight down at me again. Once again he passed right next to me, and this time I reached out and slid my hand along his belly as he passed by me. I had goose bumps as big as cherries at that moment. I was totally captivated by the experience, and then it was over. I hovered there in a kind of shock, when I remembered my camera. I had not taken a single picture!
As I turned to retreat toward the cliff another flash caught the corner of my eye. I turned and immediately got goose bumps on goose bumps. There were TWO of the huge creatures returning to me! I watched them come toward me with their great mouths wide open. I could see right down inside of them. I would easily have fit in there with room to spare. I had no fear of them though because I knew that they were plankton feeders and harmless to me. I didn't forget the camera this time and got things set up to record them.
When they arrived they started into great banking arcs that put them into looping turns on either side of me. They were perfectly timed and would come directly down at me from above to pass right next to me on either side. I took pictures as fast as I could for fear that they would suddenly leave. I soon expended my supply of film, and then the real fun began. They continued their dance of courtship, as I later learned, passing by me so close I had to pull in my elbows. I became more forward and stroked them freely as they passed, even brushing my hands across their face or mouth as they came on. They seemed to enjoy the game as much as I did.
I wanted to go and get Phil, but I was afraid that they would depart if I did. I felt that this was probably the finest diving experience I had ever had, and I was not in a rush to end it. I had double tanks on so air was not a problem, but I was deep and needed to watch the decompression tables. I did not want to get into decompression diving. We had no decompression chamber in the islands back then, and to get the bends would almost certainly be crippling or fatal.
I decided to just relax and enjoy the company of the docile animals for as long as I could. I spent what seemed hours, really only minutes, with them and then they suddenly departed as if some signal had called them away. In a very few minutes I would learn what that signal was, much to my dismay.
I drifted back to the cliff, and back to Phil who had quite a collection of brightly colored fish. He had to start his ascent with them immediately because they required decompression, just as we would have if we stayed much longer. We needed to stop at various depths to allow the nitrogen to escape from the blood in the fish or the nitrogen would form bubbles, killing them just as it would us. Phil had been doing this for over a year and had figured out his own decompression schedule that he used with the tiny fish. We worked through it and slowly reached the shallows.
We ascended past the lip of the drop off and headed in to the beach. When I broke the surface I took a quick look around to check for any boats that might be headed toward me and noticed a small group of people on the beach. I paid no attention and went back to snorkeling the remaining distance to shore. I was in a hyper state after the encounter I had just experienced. I knew that I could never communicate what I felt during the experience. It seemed so cold and empty to say only that I had seen some mantas during the dive, there was so much more to it. I had shared a magic moment with them.
We reached the beach and Phil rushed his days work to a special oxygenated tank for new fish, while I broke down the gear and put things in order. The group was still down the beach, standing and looking at something, so I decided to walk down to see what was going on.
When I arrived I was stunned to see a baby manta lying on the sand. It weighed perhaps 200 pounds, and had a big ugly hole in its body where a high powered spear had penetrated. The killer was standing right there very proudly holding an "SMG" spear gun. These multiple barrel spear guns are powered with explosive cartridges that come in different charge weights. They are lethal weapons, and are total overkill for just about everything. I had been part of a select group of divers that never used spear guns, but only a pole spears. We fired no projectiles, but relied completely on stealth and grace in the water to approach the fish to within range for the limited weapon. For a short time, after all my friends had departed, I had used my power-head for taking some huge fish, 600 pounds and up, but I regretted it now.
I stood there watching the dummy with the gun proudly explain how he had taken this "dangerous" animal. He did not understand the difference between sting rays and manta rays. The other people didn't know any better than to believe him. I could not handle it any longer and lit into him with everything I had. I watched where he had the SMG pointed and was ready to take it if he decided to try to bring it to bear on me. I educated the people standing there about how dangerous the little ray actually was, and took most of the steam out of the blow hard diver in the process. About that time Phil came along and instantly sized up the situation quite accurately. He could see that things could get ugly if we didn't get out of there, but I was in a fighting mood and not a retreating one.
Finally I cooled down enough to let Phil pull me away from the goon and his admirers. I was sick at heart about the little ray after I had just been diving with its parents. I am not a tree hugger, or anything like that, but it was such a stupid act. I would not have had any problem if it had been a shark, or some other potentially dangerous creature, but one that is so beautiful, rare, and totally harmless, was hard for me to understand.
My thoughts have changed over the years about the wild creatures, and our part in the big picture. I have put my guns away in exchange for the joy of experiencing the creatures with my daughters in the wilds while we backpack. I think that there is truly a "circle of life" that ties us to all other creatures. To think that we are somehow separate and apart from the rest is not only foolish, but could be tragic for our species in the long term. Here in Idaho some people are violently against the reintroduction of wolves to our mountains. They were there before we came, and can only help to balance the ecosystem when they return. I sincerely hope that the ignorant among us wake up before it is too late for all of us.
If you have any comments and would like to contact me, you may do so by phone. Please feel free to do so, as I would enjoy hearing from you. Thank you.
8 Mar 99
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