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The Gulf of Mexico off South Florida September 12, 2006
When Briana Devon surfaced, her boat was gone. Somethingbesides the fact that the gulf had gone rough since she'd begun her divewas terribly wrong.
She struggled to keep her underwater camera and strobe from being ripped away by the waves. Her tethered plastic slate with its latex rubber pencil she used to make notes underwater smacked her face; she thrust it behind her.
She kept the regulator in her mouth, clenched between her teeth. Still sucking in the air from her tank, she heard the hiss of her more rapid breathing mingled with the howl of the increasing wind. Since she was fairly low on air, her single tank yanked back and forth on her BC, the vest-style buoyancy compensator that supported her in the water.
This was impossible! Had she come up in the wrong place? No, the pelican float she'd deployed bobbed wildly, riding the waves. She was where she meant to be, but where was Daria and their dive boat? And how fast the distant storm had come up.
Holding on to her gear and using her flippers, she spun in a circle. Maybe the Mermaids II was just blurred by the darkening horizon. No, all she saw were clumps of clouds, not even other boats, with that storm coming in much faster than the weather-man had predicted. But Daria would never have left her out here.
Despite being a veteran diver, panic pulsed through Briana for herself and her sister. Bree and Daria Devon were not only twin sisters but had been best friends since they could remember.
Bree put more air in her BC to keep afloat and fought to calm herself. After all, she'd been diving for twenty of her twenty-eight years and swimming these waters even longer. Every week, she and Daria dived the artificial reef made by the wreck of an old trading boat to check on the growth of pollutant-endangered sea grass and marine life. The grass was a bellwether for the health of the gulf waters in general. It had all been routine until now.
Bree had not noticed whether the anchor had been pulled up. She'd only been intent on doing her work well and quickly. Just take the photos, make the notes, get proof. The results were bad news that was going to upset a lot of powerful people. She'd only come up early because visibility was lessening, and that meant the waves were kicking up. But she'd never imagined this churning, gray sea and gathering storm.
The twins had always buddy-dived unless they were just scraping barnacles off hulls at the marina, but there were two reasons Daria hadn't made the dive with her today. She'd suddenly developed a bad toothache, which would have made the underwater pressure excruciating for her. And someone had to stay with their dive boat: Daria had given Manny, their only employee at their search-and-salvage shop, the afternoon off since he'd been having so much trouble with his daughter. Actually, Daria hadn't been diving much this past month anyway, since she'd been so busy concentrating on her accounting class.
Bree's arms ached from trying to hang on to her camera and strobe in the increasing turbulence. She had never feared this vast stretch of water, only respected it, but now terror immobilized her. Alone. Abandoned? She should probably start swimming in, but she was over four miles out and she'd have to ditch her precious gear. She should have taken it as a bad sign when she saw that bull shark cruising past the reef instead of the usual resident grouper. Bulls became disturbed whenever the water was riled, and they were known to attack humans. How many times had she warned someone not to swim alone or far from shore, and to avoid splashing?
Bree had a whistle to summon help, but there was no one in range to hear it. She could set off her strobe to try to attract attention, but holding it above the waves would wear her out. Reluctantly she let her strobe lights and camera drop, hoping they would snag somewhere near the wreck and shetheycould retrieve them later. The camera was worth big bucks; they'd scraped a lot of barnacles off yachts to buy it.
The twins' co-owned marine search-and-salvage shop had been struggling, but things were on the upswing lately. They did everything from underwater surveys to hull maintenance to retrieval of lost items or sunken vessels. It could be dirty, hard, even dangerous work, but they both loved it. They knew what was below the surface of the gulf off southwest Florida almost as well as they knew each other.
It had been a surprise and a thrill when the prestigious Clear the Gulf Commission had hired themnot their larger rival across the bayto record the difficult comeback of off-the-coast marine life under siege from toxic runoff. The whole local ecosystem was being poisoned by fertilizers from sugarcane fields, golf course fairways, and polluted water releases from just too many people.
To save her strength, Bree decided to dive again and get as far as she could underwater before she'd have to ditch her tanks and weight belt to swim in. Though she saw no watercraft, perhaps one would be heading for safe harbor and she could hail it. She upended and kicked down until the turbulence seemed to lessen.
The Gulf of Mexico, off Naples, Marco Island and Turtle Bay, was a shallow body of water, at least compared to the Atlantic. The bottom was fairly flat for a long way out: after an initial drop-off, it deepened about two feet per mile and was broken only by small ledges and man-made reefs. But because the depth was fairly shallow, the gulf could get violent fast. It was the underwater storm of sand and silt that had tipped her off to the one above. Though she did a lot of close-up, well-lit macrophotography, even that was looking grainy today.
Most peopleespecially tourist divers from "the frozen North," as their dive friends called itthought the water off Naples was not great dive territory. But the twins had always loved it more than the glamour spots of the Keys or even the Caribbean. Fifteen feet of visibility in this part of the world was a great disappointment to some, but in the summers, the sea often went flat and turbulence was minimal. This part of the gulf was not crowded with divers, so it seemed pristine, with an abundance of wildlife like grouper, tarpon, rays, sea turtles, beautiful shells and, unfortunately at times, sharks. They also loved the gulf because that's where they'd learned to dive. It seemed so untouched, with the exception of the fact the reefs were man-made. But then, the natural coral reefs on the other coast were as endangered as the sea life would soon be here, if their project didn't help turn things around.
As she swam toward shore, roiling sand and silt and the thickening clouds made it too dark for her to be certain in what direction she was heading. Mostly, she went with the surge of the waves, which should take her in. Unfortunately, the tide was flowing out and the wind was fighting that, churning the water into a soupy maelstrom. She couldn't even read the luminous dial of the compass dive watch Daria had given her for their birthday last month. Daria and the boat She could not imagine what might have happened, why her sister would desert her during a dive.
Surely nothing could have capsized Mermaids II, not a twenty-four-foot skiff with a flat bottom. There was no so-called Bermuda Triangle on this side of Florida. Yacht pirates and drug dealers wouldn't want a slow diver's boat. Smugglers had begun to bring in desperate refugees fleeing Cuba, and boats involved in the horrible human trafficking trade imported poverty-stricken Guatemalan women as domestic drudges or even sex slaves on both sides of the state. But those boats sneaked in at night to avoid being spotted or caught. Even if Daria had become ill, she wouldn't leave her. Nothing made sense.
In the murky water Bree could not read her air-pressure gauge, but she could feel the air through her mouthpiece becoming more difficult to breathe. Realizing her air was quickly running out, she surfaced. The waves were four feet now; she rode them up, down, sliding with their strength. It had started to rain. Which way was the shore?
She accidentally took in a mouthful of water, then spit it out. Swallowing salt water always made her nauseous. She was getting sick to her stomach anyway, furious and fearful. Dad had always said never to let your emotions rule your head, not when diving. In a way, after Mother died, that had become his credo for life. Just keep busy, so busy you don't have time for feelings, suffocating, desperate, drowning feelings
Bree dropped her weight belt, ditched her tank with the quick-release straps and began breathing through her snorkel. The tank went under with a loud gurgle. She felt lighterbetter, she tried to buck herself up. She could make it in. Keewadin Island, long and narrow, must be ahead somewhere, maybe three miles or so. Thank God, she hadn't been at some of the more distant dive sites like Black Hole Sink or Naples Ledges, which were around thirty miles out.
She tried to convince herself that this was only the usual, quick afternoon summer storm, which would pepper the gulf, bathe the Everglades, then depart to leave a warm, humid evening. When would this summer weather break? Was she going to break?
Bree tried not to swallow water. Swimming was suddenly exhausting; despite her desperation to get ashore, she had to pace herself more. She slowed her strokes and kicks toward what she was certain must be land.
Stroke, stroke, stroke, breathe. Despite the outgoing tide, she was certain the waves must be pushing her along. But it was so far in. Hard to get good breaths. And then she heard it, the thing she feared most.
Thunder rumbling, coming. And that meant lightning.
Oh, no. Oh, no. Just last week, she had sat on their veranda at Turtle Bay and watched a storm like this. Forks of lightning had stabbed the gulf and then the bay just beyond the docks, coming closer, closer. As usual, the power had gone off for a while, but the twins weren't air-conditioner addicts like their older sister. Amelia almost never opened her windows, even in good weather. That would make her house dusty. Her poor kids, whom she kept so clean, could use a little dust and dirt.
Bree's muscles began to burn. She could hear Dad's voice telling her and Daria, "When in doubt, get out." Out, she wanted out. She wanted to be on the Mermaids II with Daria. She wanted to be home, safe and dry. She loved the water, loved the gulf, but not out here alone, tiring, so exhausted. Lord, please keep me safe. Daria, too. What happened? Daria, where are you?
A wave took one of her fins, and she had to kick the other off to avoid swimming askew. On, on, pull, pull, breathe, flee the thunder and lightning coming closer. She was starting to feel in the zone, like when she jogged several miles, but she was getting light-headed, dizzy, too.
The first distinct crack of lightning struck so close she flinched and shrieked into the mouthpiece of her snorkel. And then she saw another reason to scream. A big bull shark was swimming with her.