We Swam with Sharks

For a couple weeks, my friend Ahlem would say the same thing every night before we went out: “I’m leaving tomorrow,” she’d insist, in a voice that was perpetually hoarse from shouting the night before. But she’d still show up at the dive shop well after noon the next day, hung over, her wavy, honey-brown locks draped over her cut-off t-shirt.

“I swear to God, babe,” she said to me once (Ahlem was Australian, and called everyone “babe”). “This is one of the shittest places I’ve ever traveled to. But I can’t leave.”

The Bay Island of Utila lies just an hour’s ferry ride off the coast of Honduras, but really, it is its own three-by-seven-mile planet. It’s not the biggestCaribbean island, or the most beautiful island. Its waters are not a brilliant turquoise blue. Its beaches are, relative to the most, pretty charmless. There are too many sandflies for sunbathing, and the waves are too violent on the windward shore for surfing. Really, there is little to do besides scuba dive and drink—but for these activities, Utila is both world-class and affordable. And that’s what brings the backpackers.

Dive shops line the natural harbor on the leeward coast of the island, opening out onto long, wooden, bi-level docks. The only vehicles on the island are ATVs, golf carts, and a few mopeds. Cell phones are unnecessary: if you want to talk to someone, you find them at the dive shop, or you walk to their apartment and knock on the door. Tanned, lithe bodies are everywhere: lounging in hammocks, wandering the single, narrow street through town, hanging casually off the sides of the colorfully painted dive boats that are constantly heading in and out from sea.

Four years ago, one of those bodies belonged to me. I’d come to Utila for the summer to get my divemaster certification. Utila would be my last hurrah, I told myself, before I returned to the real world. After quitting my finance job, I’d been traveling for the past year. But it was almost about time to start figuring out what I was going to do with the rest of my life.

I’d planned to spend a couple months on the island. But a lot of the other divemaster trainees, like Ahlem, had ended up staying on for weeks or months after what was meant to be just a few days. That’s just kind of what happened: you came to Utila thinking it’d be a pit stop. Then you fell in love, and you didn’t want to leave.

One of our dive instructors once told me that the name Utila meant “rock closest to heaven”, and the locals called it “the Rock” for short. I liked this double entendre—the northern shore of the island was characterized by large, jagged rocks. And like Alcatraz, it seemed impossible to fathom escape.

They say everyone is guilty of telling one of Three Lies of Utila:

One: I love you.
Two: I’m not drinking tonight.
Three: I’m leaving tomorrow.

I’ve always had a thing for guys with sad, hangdog eyes—ones that seem to be perpetually shadowed, eyes that belong on a panda bear. Tom had eyes like that, and that dry way of delivering smart jokes that I am also a sucker for.

Not that I thought about him that way. He was six years younger than me, and at 21 years old, he would’ve just barely squeaked his way into an American bar. But like many of the Brits I’ve known who travel, he had an air of maturity that made him seem older.

Utila was Tom’s last stop on his extended gap year. We were so far apart in age, and I had a boyfriend back home in the US. We seemed liberated from the possibility of anything besides platonic friendship, and romped around the island that summer like a couple of puppies on a play date.

After one particularly rowdy night, Tom and I were stumbling home when I told him that I wanted to try and sneak on the liveaboard dive ship that was sometimes docked next door to my apartment. It was past two a.m., and we were loaded. But Tom humored me as he always did.

Holding our faces out of the warm, inky water, we clumsily stroked the 500 yards or so from my back dock to the ship and pulled ourselves on board. Once on deck, we lingered at the bow, where a large spotlight illuminated the ocean below.

Suddenly, we saw movement—a large school of spotted eagle rays swimming by silently. At least eight, maybe 10. This was rarely seen on Utila. Unlike its neighboring island, Roatan, which was a marine reserve, Utila was overfished. So bigger animals like turtles, rays, and dolphins were a rarity. Yet here were more rays at one time than we’d see in a few weeks. We watched in silent awe as the creatures glided off in formation, wings undulating gracefully.

And then we saw something…bigger. Five dark outlines, performing a noiseless dance in the water.

“Are those sharks?!” I whispered, grabbing Tom’s arm.

“They can’t be,” he said. “There aren’t any sharks on Utila.” This was true—if you wanted to see sharks, you usually had to boat over to Roatan, where guiding companies chummed the waters to attract reef sharks for divers.

“They’re totally sharks!” I insisted. “They must be juveniles.” Tom got excited.

“We should take a closer look!”

We generally understood that Caribbean reef sharks were rarely aggressive to humans—which is why shark dives (without cages or body armor) were so popular in Roatan. So we pulled snorkels and masks off the liveaboard’s tanks, and jumped in. The water was and cool, translucent; and the long, black bodies made figure-8’s beneath my treading feet. The sharp snouts and fins were unmistakable. When we pulled ourselves out 10 minutes later, we were exuberant. We swam with sharks.

I ran into my friend Jon the following morning. Bleary-eyed, I told him the story. Jon, a marine biologist, was skeptical.

“Are you still drunk?”

“No,” I insisted.

“Because that kind of stuff…doesn’t happen.” Jon paused thoughtfully. “You should tell the research center.”

No one I knew saw sharks on Utila again—at least not that season. Sometimes I wonder if it was all a tequila-fueled hallucination. But Tom had seen it too. We both agreed: If the other person hadn’t been there, we would probably just assume it had all been some crazy dream.

Strange things happened on that island: Later that summer, after I’d left, Tom and the rest of the gang would find a gigantic, partially submerged bat cave as well as a small, abandoned plane wrecked in the middle of the jungle. I watched it all from my living room in Colorado, through the photos they posted on Facebook, my portal to this other dimension. I wished I were still there.

Despite the lack of large, exotic underwater creatures, the diving conditions on Utila were ideal—the water was clear and warm, and there was very little current. But the conditions were also uniform, and once the novelty of breathing underwater wore off and we became nonplussed by schools of rainbow-colored parrotfish and angelfish with bovine eyes, we amused ourselves in other ways. One day, when we were still working on our 60-dive quota, a few of us simply went down to a sandpatch at the bottom of the ocean floor and played Hangman for 20 minutes.

But I never got bored of diving the Wreck. It was a deep dive at 30 meters (100 feet), which gave you a lot of time to descend. I loved the ritual and feeling of going down: someone would signal a thumbs-down to the group, we’d put our regulators into our mouths, lift our air hoses above our heads and press the buttons that deflated our vests. Hissing air and burbling water would be all we’d hear until the ocean rose above our eyes, and suddenly it was just quiet.

We quickly learned to communicate without words underwater. Eye contact and a simple hand sign could express an entire thought. It’s an intimate feeling, looking into someone’s eyes like that.

Everyone had their own method of enjoying the trip to the bottom. I can still see Ross, a blond college student from Australia with a hulking frame that belied his agreeable personality, turning upside down with his muscular arms crossed, like a slow missile heading for the ocean floor. And AJ, a 19-year-old kid who was always one of my favorites, spread out like a starfish, fins still in his hand. He’d pull his regulator out, open his mouth in a big O, and make bubbles as he drifted toward me. AJ was a little bit crazy, in all the best ways.

I’d cross my legs over one another, touch my index fingers to my thumbs as if meditating, and drift downward. Hanging in the middle of the ocean, floating—it’s the closest feeling I’ve ever known to flying.

It took us all about six weeks to finish our divemaster training. When the last of us had passed our snorkel tests—a time-honored and debaucherous divemaster tradition—we took a little break from the dive shop. We got ahold of a golf cart and an ATV, and piled eight people and a couple of six-packs onto the vehicles. We went joyriding through the streets.

One night, we went to the beach to try to catch a glimpse of baby sea turtles hatching. I rode behind Tom on the ATV while everyone else bumped behind us on the golf cart, holding on for dear life as we tore through the jungle in the dark. When we got the beach, we sat there in a row, quiet in the pitch black so as not to scare away the turtles. I remember the sound of the waves crashing, the warm wind blowing in our faces, the feeling of being so close to one another.

We never did see baby turtles that night, though we sat on the beach long enough for my buzz to wear off. Photos taken with a flash later revealed that we were sitting amidst piles of trash that had washed up on shore from the Honduran mainland—but for that moment, with our eyes closed in the dark, it felt like we were in paradise.

We couldn’t stay there forever, of course. After two months of trying to keep up a relationship through choppy and unreliable Central American Internet connections, my boyfriend was at the end of his patience. It was my turn to say I was leaving.

My last night on Utila, we went out to our usual haunt, a bar called Tranquila that was built on a two-story dock that drunk partygoers routinely cannonballed off of. Toward the end of evening, I realized I had lost track of Tom. I was leaving in the morning on a 7:00 a.m. ferry. Perhaps it was better this way: I hate goodbyes. But on the way home, I saw a familiar figure running toward me on the street. I smiled.

He was out of breath, having sprinted down to my apartment to look for me. We walked out to the end of the dock behind my building, the same dock we’d leapt off of that night we snuck onto the liveaboard, and we sat, talking until our eyelids were too heavy to keep open. I brought out a thin bedsheet—all we needed during this warm night—and we lay down on the wooden dock. I leaned my head against his shoulder and closed my eyes.

Sometime during the night, I heard sniffing in my ear. Lawrence the dog, who belonged to the dive shop across the street, had lain down next to us. Some time after that, I opened my eyes again, and saw that the stars were gone. The color of the sky was changing. My last Utila sunrise.

Tom stirred next to me, mumbled. “I think this is the most romantic thing I’ve ever done.” A pause, then, slurred: “I love you.” I stayed still, pretending to be asleep, pretending not to hear.

The last time I saw Tom was on the dock where the Utila Princess departs twice daily, taking passengers to and from the mainland. Before stepping onto the ferry, I turned around. He was shirtless and barefoot as usual. I waved. He waved back, one last, stoic look with those panda-bear eyes. I boarded the boat, my spaceship back to earth.

For a couple years, every once in a while someone from Utila—usually AJ or Ahlem—would randomly pull up a photo of that summer on Facebook, spurring a flurry of “likes” and wistful comments. Full of hope, someone would suggest a reunion in some exotic diving location—Egypt, Bali, Australia—but that’s about as far as we ever got.

Some nights, when I get home late after a couple of beers, I let myself go back. I page through the old photos: All of us sitting at a round table covered in a plastic floral cloth, at the place that served those amazing Caribbean jerk pork chops. The chairs that AJ and I stacked in front of my neighbor Luis’s door one night, hampering his entry just long enough to make him literally shit his pants laughing. Ross and Tom silhouetted against the sunset on the top level of the dock at the dive shop. We’d crack open cold, sweating Salva Vida beers up there after a long afternoon spent in the ocean, while the saltwater dried on our skin. I let myself remember how good they tasted. How right everything felt.

And my heart fills up so full that it cracks wide open. I have lost these moments forever, but only because I lived them once. They were moments so bizarre and exquisite that if it weren’t for those other mad souls who also bore witness, I might wonder if they really happened. But a dream you dream together is reality. And we are the lucky ones, to have dreamt this together: one perfect summer. The summer we swam with sharks.

 

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