Mangos, finger bananas, pineapples cubes and fresh papaya scooped out with your fingers and eaten so that the juice dribbles down your chin and hand. What’s culinary protocol when you’re sitting in a canoe six degrees above the equator with a basket of handpicked fruit at your feet and a wriggling fish in your lap that you speared just minutes before? No need to cook him either. I made five slices down his side and the tore his flesh away from his bones, rinsed each morsel in the ocean water and enjoyed the best sushi I’d ever tasted.
This was Ponape, a small island in Micronesia six degrees above the equator north and slightly east of Australia. If you take a flight to Hawaii from Los Angeles and keep going another three thousand miles you’ll be there. I was in between my second and third years in college taking seven months to be a student missionary. I taught music in a church sponsored elementary school children, which basically meant I played the piano an hour a day while they sang nasal renditions of summer camp favorites. It was a good gig. I was young, in love with a fellow missionary, and fearless. Well, almost.
My roommates and I had decided to go snorkeling in a place where the water was so warm you needed to get out to cool off and so blue that it was made transparent. I could see the colored coral below our canoe and my roommates’ snorkels bobbing up and down and their fins splashing as they motored around.
“I’m going across the channel,” I yelled when a mask appeared. A thumbs up was the response.
The channel looked no wider than maybe a hundred feet, as if I knew what a hundred feet looked like back then. I spat in my goggles to keep them from fogging, rinsed them out, slipped on my flippers and rolled out of the canoe.
Talk about HD clarity. Colors blended with colors- fish and coral, little Nemos peeked out from within their anemones, parrot fish with kissing beaks played chase, some blue, some yellow, some green, and some striped all colors of the tropical rainbow. Breathtaking. So beautiful. But I left them behind and swam towards the channel watching the bottom fall away.
When I was half way across I paused to consider how far I had come. Everything seems farther away when you’re in the water, and I thought I must have already come at least a hundred feet. But I was half way. No reason to turn around- except that I couldn’t see the reef ahead. Fearless. I swam on.
The water was not so warm all of a sudden. The bottom had disappeared completely. I couldn’t see the other side nor the reef from where I’d come. I was alone in the open channel feeling small and insignificant. But I wasn’t alone. Oh, no. I was definitely not alone.
From the direction of the open ocean I caught a glimmer moving towards me. I wiped my goggles and peered into the darkness. It was enormous. Then, it …they, were all around me. Hundreds, even thousands of tuna swimming under me and in front of me, behind me. I could reach out and touch them, they were so close. Then they were not close at all. They were scattering.
I’ve scared them, I thought. But it was not me they were afraid of. It was the shark swimming through the open channel directly towards us. I saw him. Black eyes on gray skin. He was big. Six feet? Thirty? I froze. Couldn’t move. My mind told me to swim. My legs froze? I was to be the sushi.
But he did not eat me. He turned and followed the tuna, leaving me alone floating in my own pee. I forced my legs to kick like I never had before until I reached the highest bit of corral I could crawl upon. I yelled for my friends to pick me up. They laughed nervously when I told them what had happened. The locals rolled with laughter when I told my story. They said it was only a reef shark. Not dangerous unless you have a string of fish hanging from your waist, and then a bite is only an accident. But it did not matter. Reef shark or not, that moment changed me.