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The Shark Was Her White Rabbit

by E.K. Daniels 10 months ago in Short Story · updated 10 months ago
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One woman’s journey through the wonders of the sea.

Coral Bleaching in American Samoa, Before (Dec 2014) & After (Feb 2015); The Ocean Agency / Ocean Image Bank

You don’t really think about breathing until you’re running out of air. Naiad wished these thoughts would strike her at a more convenient location, above ground, where she could actually write them down. Being 60 feet underwater with dwindling oxygen was not the ideal place to have a spark of inspiration. Yet here she was.

Naiad still remembered the first breath she ever took under the water. She didn’t have gills, but sometimes it felt like she should. To her dismay, she was as human as they come. Hopes, dreams, and fears in abundance—including, oddly enough, an inconvenient fear of sharks. Ironic given her affiliation with underwater science, but it was a burden she carried in silence.

The work was always more important than her fear. She spent her days dutifully descending the depths of the ocean, dive buddy in tow, intently focused on her tasks. Some days were spent scrubbing algae off the PVC coral trees where the reef specimens would hang. Some days were spent on the boat, on the lookout for a spot to plant them. Lately, that didn’t seem to take too long. Every new dive yielded a new crop of dead or dying coral.

Staghorn coral tree; suspended coral ready to be transplanted onto the reef. Photo by NOAA

Environmental stewardship trumped any fears. In theory, anyway. Practice was proving difficult. She glanced at her dive computer to see her psi at 500. Just enough oxygen to finish planting another branch. The Staghorn had lost its signature vibrant colour at depth, but the white polyps made a stark contrast against the brilliant turquoise sea.

Cassandra swam towards her, kicking up a cloud of sand in her wake. She motioned towards Naida, tapping two fingers lightly onto her opposite palm to query how much air she had left. Naida displayed ‘5’, ‘0’, ‘0’ with her fingers before hastening them into ‘OK’, finger and thumb clearly poised to signal she was fine. One quick plant, and she’d make it back to the surface.

What Cassandra may have lacked in grace, she made up for in tacit understanding. 500 psi should have been the time they both returned back to the boat, but Cass understood.

They had been diving together long enough to know how to let each other get on. And sometimes that meant breaking the rules every once in a while.

Satisfied with Naida’s ‘OK’, she glanced down at the watch on her wrist and slowly ascended to the boat, careful to measure just one foot every two seconds, confident Naida would be right behind.

Naida remained, reaching into her BCD jacket pocket to grab her hammer only to also succeed in pulling out its entire contents in the process. Flashlight, tape measure, pencils, and a broken rubber band that was meant to keep them all together. So much for the best laid plans.

Her eyes widened in horror as she littered the ground, and her mind quickened in an attempt to calculate just how many pencils she had brought with her. Leaving just one at depth would be unforgiveable.

Her forehead loosened in remembrance, content with the number three. Her eyes scanned the ground, inwardly cursing her brain’s inability to perceive colour well under water. The bright red pencils were a great idea on the ground, but were reduced to a dull blue at depth. Barely indistinguishable from the seascape.

Scanning the sand, she locked her sights on what looked to be two pencils and the offending rubber band that failed to fulfill its purpose. The torch and tape measure lay close by, nestled aside a sea fan that swayed in the current. She swam towards the escaped objects, eager to return them home to her pocket.

Meanwhile, her dive watch ticked away more precious oxygen by the minute. It read 250 psi and dwindling. When the watch read 0, it was game over. No extra bottle of air, and no dive buddy in sight.

Naida knew the implications. But she also knew one pencil still remained on the sea floor. And that was simply unacceptable. It was almost certainly her dive-addled brain at work with its faulty logic, but in that moment, the pencil was worth risking it.

She caught a sharp angle out of the corner of her eye, unclear of just how it was possible for it to have strayed so far. The current must have been stronger than she thought. She braced herself to retrieve the pencil, only to find herself paralyzed by an invisible force. A Caribbean reef shark quietly found its way into her path, its dorsal fin distinguishing it from its brethren.

Naida was a quick study when it came to telling apart different species. A survival mechanism, you could say. She figured if she could learn more about them, maybe it would remove some of the power they held over her. That was sadly never the case, as her pulse quickened with a predictable rhythm, regardless of the kind she found herself faced with. It may as well have been Jaws staring her down rather than a reclusive reef shark.

Her breath hitched in her chest and her body instinctually moved backwards. She was out of time. She needed to move. Upwards, preferably, to find an infinite supply of oxygen on the boat. To see Cassandra again. To plant another reef. To play a role, however small, in helping the planet. The corals weren’t going to save themselves. But first, she needed to move.

Her body refused. The shark shifted position, squaring its rounded nose with hers before propelling itself in her direction. The gap between Naida and her nightmare was quickly closing in.

She did an approximation of an about-face in the water in an attempt to out-swim her predator. Her breath came in eager gulps before she stubbornly sucked from the hollow nothingness of her empty scuba tank.

The shark angled past her and she met its gaze. What she had originally perceived as black eyes were replaced by a deep blue, the iris’ edges glistening in the light of the sun.

If these were her last moments, they were beautiful. Even if only for a second, Naida understood her place in the world. Her life, like the shark’s, was fragile. Despite her predicament, she smiled, and followed its gaze towards the ocean floor.

Gazing into the depths of a Caribbean Reef Shark; Photo by Hannes Klostermann / Ocean Image Bank

A small tank lay partially obscured by the sand, inches away from its mouth. It was unmistakably Cassandra’s pony bottle of extra air, clearly dislodged from her gear when she made her ascent.

Sparing no time, Naida reached for the bottle and assembled it quickly to commence her self-rescue. Naida secured the rubber regulator snugly in her mouth, dutifully drawing in fresh oxygen. A wave of relief swept over her, body alight with adrenaline. The shark remained in place, unperturbed by its diminished personal space, as if determined to stay until the fear left Naida’s eyes.

She decided to amend her original thought. You don’t really think about breathing until you realize it’s running you. She slowed her pace and drew in calm, measured sips. It was as close to magic as she could fathom, and she was Alice in Wonderland. And the shark was her White Rabbit.

~

This piece was inspired by the author's passion for coral reef restoration and educating others on the importance of being a citizen scientist. She is an underwater scientific diver engaged in these efforts. Please consider supporting Dive N2 Life, a STEM enrichment program helping youth to affect environmental change through scientific diving. They regularly engage in coral restoration efforts and underwater research to have a positive impact on our oceans.

Short Story

About the author

E.K. Daniels

Writer, watercolorist, and regular at the restaurant at the end of the universe. Twitter @inkladen

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