Read an Excerpt
South Australia, 1974
Swimming with Nightmares
Let's start with a story about sharks: Dangerous Reef, in the Neptunes Islands, 1974.
Blinded by blood, nauseated by the taste of fish guts, whale oil, and putrid horse flesh, I gripped the aluminum bars of the shark cage to steady myself against the violent, erratic jolts as the cage was tossed by the choppy sea. A couple of feet above, the surface was a prism that scattered rays of gray from the overcast sky; below, the bottom was a dim plain of sand sparsely covered with strands of waving grass.
The water was cold, a spill from the chill Southern Ocean that traversed the bottom of the world, and my core body heat was dropping; it could no longer warm the seepage penetrating my neoprene wetsuit. I shivered, and my teeth chattered against the rubber mouthpiece of my regulator.
Happy now? I thought to myself. Ten thousand miles you flew, for the privilege of freezing to death in a sea of stinking chum.
I envisioned the people on the boat above, warmed by sunlight and cups of steaming tea, cozy in their woolen sweaters: my wife, Wendy; the film crew from ABC-TV's American Sportsman; the boat crew and their leader, Rodney Fox, the world's most celebrated shark-attack survivor.
I thought of the animal I was there to see: the great white shark, largest of all the carnivorous fish in the sea. Rarely had it been seen under water; rarer still were motion pictures of great whites in the wild.
And I thought of why I was bobbing alone in a flimsy cage in the frigid sea: I had written a novel about that shark, and had called it Jaws, and when it had unexpectedly become a popular success, a television producer had challenged me to go diving with the monster of my imagination. How could I say no?
Now, though, I wondered how I could have said yes.
Visibility was poorten feet? Twenty? It was impossible to gauge because nothing moved against the walls of blue gloom surrounding me. I turned, slowly, trying to see in all directions at once, peering over, under, beside the clouds of blood that billowed vividly against the blue green water.
I had expected to find silence under water, but my breath roared, like wind in a tunnel, as I inhaled through my regulator, and my exhales gurgled noisily, like bubbles being blown through a straw in a drink. Waves slapped against the loose-fitting top hatch of the cage, the welded joints creaked with every torque and twist, and when the rope that tethered the cage to the boat drew taut, there was a thudding, straining noise and the clank of the steel ring scraping against its anchor plate.
Then I saw movement. Something was moving against the blue. Something dark. It was there and gone and there again, not moving laterally, as I'd thought it would, not circling, but coming straight at me, slowly, deliberately, unhurried, emerging from the mist.
I stopped breathingnot intentionally but reflexively, as if by suspending my breath I could suspend all animationand I heard my pulse hammering in my ears. I wasn't afraid, exactly; I had been afraid, before, on the boat, but by now I had passed through fear into a realm of excitement and something like shocked disbelief.
There it is! Feel the pressure in the water as the body moves through it. The size of it! My God, the size!
The animal kept coming, and now I could see all of it: the pointed snout, the steel gray upper body in stark contrast with the ghostly white undercarriage, the symmetry of the pectoral fins, the awful knife blade of the dorsal fin, the powerful, deliberate back-and-forth of the scythelike tail fin that propelled the enormous body toward me, steadily, inexorably, as if it had no need for speed, for it knew it could not be stopped.
It did not slow, did not hesitate. Its black eyes registered neither interest nor excitement. As it drew within a few feet of me, it opened its mouth and I saw, first, the lower jaw crowded with jagged, needle-pointed teeth, and thenas the upper jaw detached from the skull and dropped downwardthe huge, triangular cutting teeth, each side serrated like a saw blade.
The great white's mouth opened wider and wider, until it seemed it would engulf the entire cage, and me within it. Transfixed, I stared into the huge pink-and-white cavern that narrowed into a black hole, the gullet. I could see rows and rows of spare teeth buried in the gum tissue, each tooth a holstered weapon waiting to be summoned forward to replace a tooth lost in battle. Far back on each side of the massive head, gill flaps fluttered open and shut, admitting flickering rays of light.
A millisecond before the mouth would have collided with the cage, the great white bit down, rammed forward by a sudden thrust of its powerful tail. The upper teeth struck first, four inches from my face, scraping noisilyhorriblyagainst the aluminum bars. Then the lower teeth gnashed quickly, as if seeking something solid in which to sink.
I shrank back, stumbling, as if through molasses, until I could cringe in relative safety in a far corner of the cage.
My brain shouted, You...you of all people, ought to know: HUMAN BEINGS DO NOT BELONG IN THE WATER WITH GREAT WHITE SHARKS!
The shark withdrew, then quickly bit the cage again, and again, and not till the third or fourth bite did I realize that there was something desultory about the attack. It seemed less an assault than an exploration, a testing. A tasting.
Then the shark turned, showing its flank, and by instinct I crept forward and extended my hand between the bars to feel its skin. Hard, it felt, and solid, a torpedo of muscle, sleek and polished like steel. I let my fingers trail along with the movement of the animal. But when I rubbed the other way, against the grain, I felt the legendary sandpaper texture, the harsh abrasiveness of the skin's construction: millions upon millions of minuscule toothlike particles, the dermal denticles.
The shark was moving away, upward; it had found a hunk of quartered horse, probably ten pounds, possibly twenty, dangling in the chum. The shark's mouth opened andin a split-second mechanical replay of the bite on the cageit swallowed the chunk of horse whole. Its gullet bulged once as the meat and bone passed through on its way to the gut.
Tantalized now, the shark turned again in search of something more to eat. It bit randomly, gaping and snapping as if hoping that the next bite, or the next, would prove fruitful.
I saw a length of rope drift into its gaping mouth: the lifeline, I realized, the only connection between the cage and the boat.
Drift out again. Don't get caught. Not in the mouth. Please.
The great white's mouth closed and opened, closed and opened; the shark shook its head, trying to rid itself of the rope. But the rope was stuck.
In a fraction of a second, I saw that the rope had snagged between twoperhaps three or fourof the shark's teeth.
At that instant, neurons and synapses in the shark's small, primitive brain must have connected and sent a message of alarm, of entrapment, for suddenly the shark seemed to panic. Instinct commandeered its tremendous strength and great weightat least a ton, I knew, spread over the animal's fourteen-foot lengthand detonated an explosion of frenzied thrashing.
The shark's tail whipped one way and its head the other; its body slammed against the cage, against the boat, between the cage and the boat. I was upside down, then on my side, then bashed against the side of the boat. There was no up and no down for me, only a burst of bubbles amid a cloud of blood and shreds of flesh from the chum and the butchered horse.
What are they doing up there? Don't they see what's going on down here? Why doesn't somebody do something?
For a second I saw the shark's head and the rope that had disappeared into its mouthand that's the last thing I remember seeing for a long, long time. For when the shark's tail bashed the cage again, the cage slid down four or five feet and swung into the darkness beneath the boat.
I knew what would happen next; I had heard of it happening once before: the shark's teeth would sever the rope. My survival would depend on precisely where the rope was severed. If the shark found itself free of the cage, it would flee, leaving the cage to drift away and, perhaps, sink. Someone from the boat would get a line to me. Eventually.
But if the rope stayed caught in the shark's mouth, the animal might drag the cage to the bottom, fifty feet away, and beat it to pieces. If I were to have a chance of surviving, I would have to find the rope, grab it, and cut it, all while being tumbled about like dice in a cup.
I reached for the knife in the rubber sheath strapped to my leg.
This isn't really happening. It can't be! I'm just a writer! I write fiction!
It was happening, though, and somewhere in the chaos of my beleaguered brain I appreciated the irony.
How many other writers, I wondered, have had the privilege of writing the story that foretells their own grisly demise?