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Think of creatures such as the large hammerhead or the great white shark, and it's understandable, even inevitable, that man has developed a primordial fear of these animals. They rule a vast world in which we are thoroughly incompetent.... They know nothing of mercy, doubt or remorse.... Behold, the perfect predator.
I knew plenty about doubt and remorse. Plenty. As I clasped my hand over my mask and prepared to tumble backward from the rubber dinghy into the Pacific Ocean, doubt was my middle name; remorse was my weight belt. Beneath the waves swarmed dozens, nay, hundreds of hammerhead sharks—bizarrely shaped creatures that I had feared primordially since I was nine years old and watched my father reel one to the boat we were on in Florida. The captain, thank god, cut that 12-foot shark free. But I will never forget its terrible head, nearly as wide as my wingspan. Those dull cow eyes. That gash of a mouth. I sat in the middle of the boat the whole way back to the dock.
Now, some 90 feet below me, those perfect predators were cruising a vast world in which I felt incompetent. Thoroughly incompetent? I hoped not. A novice diver, freshly certified, I had made just three descents. (The tour organizers recommended at least 25.) I had been deeper than 60 feet only once. I faced a week of diving off Cocos Island, some 300 miles southwest of Costa Rica, in waters known not only for their massive schools of hammerheads but also for treacherous currents. Most of the hammerhead action would take place at depths between 60 and 110 feet, and the nearest decompression chamber, in case I acquired the bends (or worse), was 30 hours away. The sharks, I'd been told by those who knew, were the least of my problems. I felt like the Sundance Kid, who couldn't swim, hearing Butch Cassidy say before they made their famous leap into the river: "Hell, the fall will probably kill you."
I breathed through my regulator, nodded to dive master Mario Arroyo and tried to ignore the pounding in my chest. Then I tipped backward into the sea. The last words I heard were from photographer Mark Gamba: "Have fun, Shark Bait."
Gamba is the son of a bitch who talked me into this crazy stunt. Easy for him to joke. He'd been scuba diving since birth. When he first suggested diving off Cocos Island, I laughed out loud.
I don't dive, I informed him.
You can learn, he enthused. You're going to love it.
I particularly don't dive with hammerhead sharks, I said.
He craftily played up the literary angle. Robert Louis Stevenson had based Treasure Island on Cocos, Gamba said. It is 15 square miles in size, the largest uninhabited island on earth.
It was such a preposterous notion. The scariest movie I had ever seen was Jaws. You couldn't get me to put my toe in the water for two summers after that film came out. And while some people long to explore the undersea world, I'd never had the least interest in learning to scuba dive, because it would mean confronting my inordinate fear of drowning. I trace this fear to my mother's decision to teach me a lesson when I was two years old. I used to toddle around the edge of the pool at our country club, ignoring her warnings that I couldn't swim and might fall in. One day, naturally, I did fall in, and my mother let me sink to the bottom before rescuing me, so I might remember to heed her words. I think she left me down there too long.