Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Fish Tales

Everyone on Kwajalein has their fishing stories...
I got one for you!

Rich and I SCUBA dive all the time and we really enjoy it. We fish all the time too... but we've never combined the two activities successfully - the first time we tried it turned out to be the craziest day imaginable.

A couple of weeks ago we went SCUBA diving with our friends, Donna and Jerrod, to a place that's famous for having numerous sharks - Troy's Coral Head. It's located inside Kwajalein Atoll lagoon. Everyone in the group had been diving there before except for me and I was seriously nervous - thought I was going to have an anxiety attack before ever even getting to the marina. I don't mind seeing sharks because we see white tip or black tip reef sharks almost every time we stick our heads under these pristine waters but something about going to a place where schools of gray reef sharks (more territorial, aggressive, and generally larger) hang out is a little different. I kept reminding myself that divers go to Troy's Coral Head all week long and there hasn't been an attack yet so I will be ok! This is me diving - and I look as calm as a sea cucumber, right?

So we got there and threw the anchor down. The lagoon waters were rough so I was feeling pretty sick and nervous. Everyone was putting their gear on and Rich likes to put his on in the water so he threw his SCUBA gear overboard and then realized he hadn't inflated it because as soon as it hit the water it sank quickly out of sight. Jerrod and Donna hopped in with their gear and went down to get it and I stayed with Rich at the surface, waiting for them to send his gear up. After a while I could see Donna and Jerrod below, like at 90 ft, so I began my slow descent and headed toward them. Soon enough Donna and Jerrod got to Rich's gear, pumped a little air into it and it quickly shot up to the surface like a rocket. It was actually pretty cool to watch.

Within no time Rich had his gear was on and he was with us near the coral wall. We were all "ok" so we headed around the coral head. I was nervously anticipating big grey reef sharks. Rich and Jerrod lead the way while Donna and I followed 10 ft behind.

While swimming along near the ocean floor (about 100 feet deep) I saw a pretty big gray reef shark sleeping in the sand off in the distance... then two more snoozing near each other in a different sand bed. I heard Rich's underwater rattle as he pointed out a whole school of eagle rays. They were so beautiful and looked like they were soaring along through the water together. We were all watching them and taking pictures as they glided by us when all of the sudden a really big gray reef shark swam right up to Jerrod. It was pretty close by the time we saw it and it completely startled everyone, especially Jerrod! It came within about 5 feet of the guys and then swam on by.

After it passed, Donna looked back at me, I'm sure my eyes were BIG! and she gave me the "let's you and me be buddies" sign language since the guys were so far away from us and we needed to pair up and stay close to each other. I nodded my head "yes" and then I noticed a gray reef shark (7 - 8 ft big) was swimming right toward her. I swam up next to her. Jerrod was trying to get back over by her. It approached quickly to check us out, then swam off just as fast and circled wide around us.
Rich began moving forward and we followed. It's better to keep moving calmly while around sharks than to just sit there and have them come up to you. They were being too curious for comfort so we all swam along but I was a little upset inside my head. Donna and Jerrod had paired back up and my buddy was about 20 feet ahead of me, moving forward pretty fast, completely focused on the big sharks swimming by. I could feel myself sucking down air too fast so I decided to swim a little bit above everyone. I slowly swam upward and hovered over the group as we moved forward in the water. There were more and more big sharks swimming along past us in different directions and big tuna fish among the large schools of small fish swimming along.

As I swam up I felt better. Plus - the deeper you are the quicker you run out of air and since I was breathing so fast I was afraid I would run out too soon. By the time I was at about 60-70 feet my buddy figured out that I wasn't with the group and motioned that I come down. I shook my head "NO!" so everyone migrated up to be with me as we continued swimming along the wall of the coral head. There were still a lot of big sharks that swam by us so we still got our shark thrills and I felt a lot better at that depth, much more in control of my anxiety level.
Aside from all the sharks we also saw sea turtles, beautiful anemones with little fish living in them, spiney spider-like starfish, a great big eel moving from hole to hole in the coral... so many beautiful things.

Kwajalein's ocean is a beautiful sea garden. I've never seen anything like it in all the world. There was one little turtle in particular who didn't mind us at all. We followed it around, took photos and movies of it, and even reached out to touch it (it didn't exactly like being petted). It swam around near us and hung out while we did our safety stops.

There are comparatively very few people who dive here and upset the environment, unlike most other popular dive spots in the world.

Coral boquets and sea life, live cowrys, conches, shells of every kind with critters inside, and schools of beautiful, tropical fish are everywhere.

We all surfaced and recapped the many extraordinary things we saw while diving.

We had to wait 1 hour until we could dive our second SCUBA tanks so we drove the boat over to a big rusty barge that is wrecked near shore of an island. It sticks out above the water, high on one side. Rich and Jerrod climbed up it to jump off - like cliff jumping. We played around for a while and then headed to our second dive spot, ocean side of the atoll.

The second dive was fun; ocean-side always is but nothing too crazy so I'll skip the details of that one and get to the WORST and BEST (which makes it the craziest) part of the day...

F I S H I N G... the scary climax....
As we were heading back I was talking about how SCUBA diving always makes me feel hungry for fish.
Jerrod pulled out his two hand lines (fishing gear) and we hooked up fishing lines on each side of the boat - a fishing line for ocean fish is actually a big, thick rope. We wrap one around the rear cleat of both sides of the boat while trolling the lures through the water. We do this all the time when coming back from a dive and have never actually caught anything before.

We were joking around about catching something big and what would we do with it? Usually when we go fishing we bring a great big cooler and a gaff so that when the fish is reeled in we stick the gaff through the gills like a skewer and heave it into the iced cooler, then close the lid and sit on it because a big fish can thump around so hard that if it's a big fish it could thump the cooler right back into the ocean if without the wieght of somebody sitting on it until it finally dies from the gaff wound.
Now I guess I should stop for a second and explain a "bird pile". A bird pile is a whole flock of small, fish-eating birds that fly around together just above the surface and they swoop down to eat little fish that are jumping up out of the water. The reason little fish jump up out of the water is usually because there are really big fish below, chasing and hunting them. The birds also have the ability to see the fish through the water so they all circle around about 1-to-3-to-6 feet above surface of the water like a swarm and follow the fish-hunting that they can see going on below, swooping down for an occasional snack. So the thing about a bird pile is that it's great to pull the lure through the middle of it because that's where we know the big, hungry fishes are that we want to catch.

Anyway, by now we were ocean-side of the atoll heading toward the pass that we travel through to get into the lagoon and back to Kwajalein.

Donna spotted a really BIG bird pile swarming nearby, a little farther out in the blue water. We dragged our lines through the bird pile. Circled back around and dragged the lures through again and again. As we passed through the bird pile we could see white shadowy fish-bodies in the deep, dark water below and the smell of fish blood lingered in the air. If you’ve ever smelled it you’d recognize it immediately – very distinct and pungent smell.

We were all excited and Rich decided he wanted to jump in and get a closer look. He was hoping to see something cool like a whale fish, a bait-ball, or a school of marlin. As Jerrod was driving the boat around back toward the bird pile again we wondered what was going on, talking about how there are sure to be sharks near fish blood. (But we just finished diving with 30-40 sharks and it didn't seem like too big a deal.)

Rich found his mask and snorkel. Jerrod pulled the boat right into the bird pile again and told Jerrod to pull the fish line in so he wouldn’t get snagged on the lure but Jerrod decided to leave it out in case Rich needed to grab onto the rope. Jerrod laughed and said "I'll cut the engine in case you need to get back in the boat in a hurry". I said – “Hey you need a snorkel – don’t get in without your snorkel!” I handed a snorkel to him just as he hopped in. Rich was in the water fast, looking down and all around; and quickly drifting away with the current.

After a minute or two Rich looked up fast and said something and then stuck his face back in the water. He was clumsily back-paddling toward the closest fishing line (rope) behind the boat. By now he was a good 30 yards away. He stuck his head up again, his back was toward us, and his mouth was barely above the water because he was trying to stay focused on something so we couldn't understand what he was saying except for "Shark!" and "Line!" but he put his head back in the water and continued back-paddling until he finally reached the rope way out behind the boat and started pulling himself - still looked very clumsy and didn't look like a relaxed snorkeler at all!

We were looking at each other in the boat saying "Cool - we have a shark on the line!" and began pulling the line and Rich who had a hold of it toward the boat. He was still back-paddling, getting clumsier, pulling himself closer and popped his head back up, "GET ME IN THE BOAT!" put his head down to look, then back up again, "THERE'S A SHARK AFTER ME!! HELP!!!" By now we were all scrambling and Jerrod pulled the rope in as fast as SUPER-humanly possible.

We three could see a white shadowy body just below his feet. It was then that I realized that he wasn't being clumsy- instead he was frantic and panicking! We didn't have a shark on the line, we had Rich holding on the line for dear life with a shark hunting him, posturing, and preparing itself to eat him! Finally we got him to the side of the boat and Jerrod hoisted him up, over, and in before anything happened.

Freaky FREAKY! So Rich was totally shocked and upset as he told us his story....

While in the water he saw a really BIG shark 30-40 feet below him in the distance. It looked at him and them swam directly up at him until it was right off his fins. Its face had scars and gashes, was about 15 ft long and had an incredibly large girth compared to the gray reef sharks we are used to seeing; its coloring was much more predatorily looking – extremely white belly / dark back.

It's mouth opened just slightly, like to suck in the flavor of this tasty new morsel that just dropped into the water, and began posturing while maintaining a 1-3 ft distance between its nose and his fins. After a little while it turned off and circled wide around, behind Rich. That's when he popped his head up and said "Line" "Shark"... he was trying to tell us to throw the line to him. Before he was able to reach the line the shark had circled around and was right back at him, fixated.

Rich maintained eye contact with it and his feet/flippers between he and the shark. He felt he must maintain eye contact to avoid a possible bite and also so if he did get bit he could have some control over what part of his body be targeted.

There were all sorts of large dog-toothed tuna and other fish around but the shark was only interested in one thing – my husband! It stayed just inches off his fins right up until we actually pulled him out of the water and into the boat.

F I S H I N G... the happy climax....
After we all calmed down we started the boat and pulled the lure through the bird pile again. Rich yelled out "I have a little fish on!" he reeled in his hand line to find the lure had snagged a 3 ft long, narrow needle fish (a.k.a trumpet fish) through the neck. It's head was almost ripped off so we decided to throw it back in and use it for bait. We all wanted to catch that crazy shark that almost munched on Rich so we were talking about the shark and circled around to pull the needlefish bait through the bird pile again. The fishing line tightened.

He had a BIG catch! We were all excited as the guys battled to reel the rope in with his hand line, talking about "what if it's a shark - what are we going to do with it" since we didn’t have the right equipment with us but we wanted to keep it. The fish was flipping around in the water and fighting hard. As it got closer we saw yellow flashes. Donna said "Look, it’s yellow!" We looked at each other and all at the same time realized it wasn't a shark. It was Yellow Fin Tuna! - The yummiest fish in the ocean! hahaHA! Jerrod literally started jumping up and down and we were laughing and celebrating like a boat full of little kids. We were all so excited!

The guys pulled it up to the boat and it was BIG ~ 50 lbs of pure muscle thrashing and beating against the boat. We didn't have any of the regular fishing equipment with us so Jerrod reached down, grabbed it by the tail with both hands, and together he and Rich hoisted it into the back of the boat. It was thumping and jumping like crazy in the boat, almost high enough to hop out and back in the water. Donna and I scrambled to move dive gear out of the way (not wise to have even a hint of the smell of fish blood on SCUBA gear). Jerrod beat the catch in the head with his fist and slit the gills open with a dive knife so it would bleed out and die quicker.

By the time we got back to Kwajalein our brains were swirling... trying to comprehend all of the events and the emotions of the day; sorting through it all as we told our stories at the marina.

Now, I don't know if you can see it since Jerrod's muscles are such a distraction ;o) but the scale reads 47lbs...
from using needlefish and a hand line! Haha!

After a hot shower, later that evening we got together for dinner and to look at our pictures and movies. The sashimi was great! We looked up the type of shark Rich was being stocked by… oceanic white tip. Google it – I dare you! Even Jacques Cousteau thought the oceanic white tip was the freakiest of all sharks!!

It took a few days to process everything and weeks before we could laugh about it… swimming with 15-30 gray reef sharks at Troy’s Coral Head, the horror of Rich's close encounter, the oddity of snagging a needle fish through a bird pile, and the joy of catching and eating yellow fin tuna with our friends on this beautiful little island out in the middle of the equtorial Pacific that we call home. It truly was an amazingly crazy Kwajalein day!


Story: Jane Erekson, I am thankful for a happy ending!

Photos: Jerrod English, a few from Jane Erekson, and one shark picture was spliced from a movie shot by Dan Morgan (different dive at Troy's with Rich and Jarem, but the sharks all look the same crazy-mean at Troy's Coral Head no matter what day it is).


Brooke said...

I love to see the pictures along with the story. It creates so much wonderful visual interest. However, I must admit, I loved hearing you tell the version live. That was enthralling! Love your blog. I am happy you are here to blog with me!

Brooke said...

I have mom here... I just showed her your blog. This is her comment. "These stories give me the creeps!!! Don't go diving anymore. EVER!"

Brooke said...

Mom also says that she signed on to get service on the internet again. Brady Hale is going to install my modem tomorrow. see ya in cyber space. love mom.

Sara Barclay said...

wow, WOW! that is crazy! what a day!!
I dunno if I could ever laugh about that! Or, even get back in the water!
Very exciting though - must have made Rich and the rest of you feel so alive!!