Honeymooning with Jaws

Travel Stories: She went to Bora Bora on her honeymoon. She had a few tropical drinks. Someone suggested scuba diving. Then Nancy Smay found herself in way over her head.

07.16.07 | 10:37 AM ET

bora boraPhoto by Nancy Smay.

Had I not had several cocktails, I might have taken the whole life and death scenario thing a bit more seriously. I might have considered whether, diving under 60 feet of water the next day, I’d actually know what to do with the scuba gauges, connectors and controls that had once been easy for me to operate. But, alas, we were on our honeymoon, staying at an all-inclusive resort in Bora Bora. Drinks flowed like water that night and good judgment wasn’t my strong suit.

So when the dive trip form stated that if you’d been out of the water for more than eight years you were compelled to do a “refresher” dive, I lied. Although it had been 15 years since my last dive, I dropped a digit off the number and just put “5.” The “refresher” dive would have been pretty boring for my more experienced husband, Dave. He assured me that it was my call, but whispered confidently that he could get me back up to speed quickly before our first dive. So, yes, I let the lie stand.

The next morning before our first dive, having slept off my liquid courage, I felt nervous and had a tough time enjoying the all-you-can-eat buffet offered by the resort. I forced down a couple of tasty crepes with jam and some bacon knowing that I’d need energy in order to act as if I knew what I was doing once we were on the dive boat.

“Okay, so the buoyancy controller thingy,” I began as we ate. I poked Dave in the arm in order to get him to review the details of the equipment that I’d long since forgotten how to use. “How does that work again?” He rolled his eyes at me and assured me that he’d show me how to use mine once they’d actually given me one at the dive shop. I quizzed him all through breakfast and the ride to the dive shop, but when we arrived, I didn’t feel much closer to being ready to strap on a tank and take the plunge.

At the shop, we went to the counter to check out our gear. Regulator, check. Buoyancy controller, check. Fins, check. I felt like a pro when I informed the woman behind the counter that I wouldn’t need a mask and snorkel since I had brought my own. I flashed her a glimpse of my matching pink snorkel and mask.

“Great,” she said, smiling. “How much weight do you need?”

Panic rose in my throat like a bad piece of shellfish. I had no idea. I had forgotten all about the weight belt.

Dave stepped in, “You usually wear about ten pounds, don’t you honey?”

“Yes, that’s right,” I said, pleased that he was supporting me in my deceit.

On the boat, Dive Guy Nick greeted us, but he must have sensed my confusion as I attempted to screw the regulator onto my tank backwards. He took the regulator from me, and as he put it on my tank, asked, “So, when did you dive last?”

Nervous, I answered, “It’s been a little while…” I smiled, hoping he wouldn’t press. With an eyebrow raised, he turned to address the group.

“So, you all know of course, that this is a shark dive.”

The assembled divers all smiled and nodded as my heart struggled to escape through my shut mouth. I turned to Dave, my eyes bulging. How had I missed that this was a shark dive? Did Dave know that this was a shark dive?

“You’ll be fine,” he whispered. “Just stay calm.”

I reminded myself that I’d signed up for all this and continued trying to gear up like an experienced diver who wasn’t about to burst into frightened tears. I worked to stifle my fear as I tumbled backward into the water, holding my mask and regulator with one hand, and swam to Dave’s side. I tried to take comfort in his confidence, but it wasn’t working.

“The buoyancy controller vest—show me how the button works again!” I hissed. He showed me for the seventh time how to add and remove air from my vest, a contraption designed to help me float effortlessly above the bottom of the ocean or the reef once we were underwater, and still a little flummoxed, I began to descend. I peered below as we sank toward the 60-foot bottom, taking deep yoga-like breaths and trying to enjoy the sensation of weightlessness. Any Zen-like state of mind that I might have achieved during the descent was erased when I spotted a huge shark circling slowly beneath me, exactly where I would be in a matter of seconds. The shark’s shadowy form was turning in tight circles and I began to wonder if I’d read somewhere that sharks can smell fear, like dogs. I pictured his dead dark eyes, and all I could hear was the creepy music that plays as Jaws targets his next unsuspecting victim: dun-uh, dun-uh, dun-uh. My crepes and bacon crept back up my throat and I swallowed hard, not wanting to attract the shark’s attention by offering him an appetizer that might leave him eyeing me as a main course.

bora boraThe shark moved away as we came to rest just above the sandy bottom, and Dive Guy Nick signaled for us to stay there as he moved out ahead of us. I watched as he opened a bag and pulled out a huge bloody fish head the size of a small turkey. Immediately there were at least 15 sharks, some of them 6-feet long, circling around us and taking great interest in the disassembled fish parts being waved at them. They darted in and out of the area where Nick was chumming the water, their weird hinging jaws opening sideways to chomp down on the gruesome meal in front of them. One brushed past me, a bit too close for comfort, and I jumped at the feel of his sandpaper skin against my arm. I could have sworn that he shot me a knowing look as he went in for another mouthful of fish parts.

The feeding spectacle did little to calm my jangled nerves, and I struggled with my vest the whole time, trying to keep neutral buoyancy. This effort was largely unsuccessful, and while the other divers floated calmly with their arms and feet crossed serenely as they hung in mid-water, I struggled in fits. I kicked to stay off the bottom, stirring up a cloud of silt which swirled in the water around me. I flung my arms around, trying to keep from floating up too high, and yanked at the air tube on the buoyancy controller, letting air out, putting air in. Dave was shooting me hard looks by now, and Dive Guy Nick kept asking if I was okay in underwater sign language.

Sure, I thought. I was great. I was trapped beneath 60 feet of water, surrounded by sharks and clueless as to how to make my buoyancy device work properly, something that surely would have been covered in depth in the “refresher dive” I’d so cleverly avoided. I continued to rise and fall as we finally swam forward, leaving the hulking sharks behind, sinister shadows gnawing at their grisly treats.

bora boraOnce we were moving along, I began to enjoy the dive. Fish sporting colors bright enough to embarrass most Vegas showgirls flitted in and out of crevasses in the curving reef. Fan coral waved in the current and schools of almost-transparent trumpet fish darted between the drifting divers.

Dive Guy Nick signaled me to show him my air gauge, which I held up. Through his mask, I saw his eyes widen a bit and he signaled for me to drop my regulator and take his spare. I did as he asked, not sure what was happening. Once I was breathing from his tank instead of my own, he put an arm around my middle and began swimming along again with the other divers, as if nothing was out of the ordinary.

I’m not sure if blushing is evident in 60 feet of water, but I could feel myself turn bright red as I realized that I’d vented most of my tank through my vest during the first half of the dive in my struggles to stay neutral. That, in combination with my panicky breathing meant that I was about to run out of air. Dive Guy Nick, who evidently didn’t need to breathe much, was graciously sharing his tank with me to support my excessive breathing habit for the rest of the dive.

He was holding me against his chest with one arm, and swimming slowly along with the rest of the group. Dangling in his grasp, I felt ridiculous. I was rarely in full body contact with a man who wasn’t my husband, and there was nothing enticing about my position. I felt at once trapped and humiliated. I kept accidentally kicking him or whacking him with my arms, since I still hadn’t mastered my buoyancy issue.

Dave swam along beside us and signaled me to see if I was okay. There aren’t many shades of expression that one can use underwater, so the biting sarcasm that I would have chosen to respond to this inquiry on the surface wasn’t really an option. I made the okay sign and continued blushing.

I dangled below Dive Guy Nick, cursing myself and my penchant for bad decisions, for what seemed like an eternity. Why must I insist on breathing so damned much? I wondered. Why couldn’t I master the vest? I’d figured it out when I was a teenager, for God’s sake. How the hell had I gone through all that air when my husband, who easily had 50 pounds on me and should really need more oxygen, was still doing fine?

After what seemed an eternity, Dive Guy Nick let me go and handed me my own regulator again. He signaled that it was time to head back up.

Back on the boat, I had no idea what to say to Dave or to the guy who had saved me from running out of air at 60 feet. I sheepishly took off my gear and tried to sink into the beach towel I’d brought to dry off with. I leaned my head into Dave’s shoulder, hiding and trying to ignore the fact that all the other divers were dying to know what had happened. Dave assured me that they assumed that I had grabbed a tank that was already low, and I was happy to let them believe that to be the case. That plan might have worked, except just as we were approaching the dock—and my escape—Dive Guy Nick said, “Wow, you sure sucked through a lot of air! If you come back tomorrow, we’ll give you a bigger tank, eh?”

I smiled at him and at the other divers before skulking back to our resort to nurse my fractured pride. I pondered the future of my marriage. So far we’d escaped being eaten by sharks and I’d narrowly avoided drowning - and that was just on the honeymoon. I felt pretty certain that the next time I was offered a “refresher” course in anything that might save my life—or my ego—I’d accept graciously. But in the moments following my close call, all the refreshing I planned to do involved fruity tropical drinks.

Nancy Smay writes about wine, food and travel for a variety of publications, including Continental, AmericanStyle and Military Times. This story appears in the Travelers' Tales anthology, More Sand in My Bra.

2 Comments for Honeymooning with Jaws

Jonathan Reap 07.16.07 | 12:59 PM ET

Hey Nancy,
Wanted to send over a thanks for the article! Hopefully everyone takes your advice on that refresher course, always a good idea if you haven’t been diving in years - especially if you’re going down 60 feet to hang out with the sharks!!

Thank you for sharing your honeymoon with all of us. Congratulations! Can’t wait to read about your anniversary in Rangiroa in a few years! ;-)

Jonathan Reap
Director of Communications
Tahiti Tourisme North America

Will Blackmon 07.26.07 | 4:02 AM ET

Nancy you should be ashamed of yourself. Your “clever deception” was not funny, cute, or in any way “clever.” It was grossly irresponsible and dangerous. It was a flat-out lie. In this situation you were not just jeopardizing your own safely by diving outside of your ability but possibly those who would have to try and rescue you had you done something even stupider due to your incompetence. Divemasters are there (and I should know as I am one) for your safety and you have an ethical obligation to be honest with them about your abilities and experience for this reason. Diving is generally a very safe sport, with the right training, equipment, and attitude…but actions like yours are the underlying cause of many of the accidents and deaths that DO happen.

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