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Swimming with Sharks

July 19, 2010


 “Jaws,” a 1975 film directed by Steven Spielberg, was based on Peter Benchley’s novel of the same name. I saw the movie on television just two days before I went deep sea fishing off the Outer Banks of North Carolina aboard the Albatross, a forty-five foot shallow-draw craft.  I thought of a line from the movie, “You’re gonna’ need a bigger boat.”

Fifteen years earlier, I had been on a similar boat. After two heart attacks and a stroke, driving an automobile was difficult for my grandfather and unsafe for everybody in his path. I got a South Carolina driver’s license when I was fourteen. After that, I became Pappy’s designated driver.

When I was in the tenth grade, Pappy drove his green Oldsmobile to Spartanburg High School. He blew the car horn repeatedly until Dr. Spencer Rice, the principal, came out to see what all the fuss was about. Of course, Dr. Rice knew my grandfather. 

“Mr. Neely, is anything wrong?”

“Nothing wrong.  Send that boy out here.”

“Which boy?” asked Dr. Rice.

“My grandson, Kirk.”

Dr. Rice paged me.  “Please send Kirk Neely to the office.” 

That’s the announcement every tenth grader dreads.  I walked slowly to the principal’s office wondering what I had done wrong.

Dr. Rice explained, “Kirk, your grandfather is here.” I was both relieved and worried. I went outside.  Dr. Rice followed. 

Pappy had moved over into the passenger’s seat. “Get in here, boy, and drive me.” I got behind the wheel. 

 “Mr. Neely, are you taking Kirk out of school?” Dr. Rice asked.

“No, I’m not taking him out of school. He needs his education.” 

“When can we expect him back?”

“In about a week.”

“Do you have an excuse?”

“No! No excuse. We’re going fishing!”

 Pappy turned to me, “Take Highway 56 South toward Augusta.”

In the rearview mirror, I could see that Dr. Rice was stunned. Pappy stunned a lot of people. My mother told me later that she thought that being with Pappy for a week was an educational experience, more valuable than a week of school. She was right. 

We did not talk much. We drove to Daytona Beach, Florida, and we fished for a week. 

Pappy’s doctor had told him that he could fish only every other day.  He chartered a boat. On the off days, we drove all over Florida, going to spring training camps for major league baseball teams. 

On fishing days we went on the boat to the Gulf Stream, angling for red snapper, bottom-dwelling fish.  Our double hook baited with squid, we fished a few turns off the ocean bottom. 

Pappy was an excellent fisherman. By the time he got his line to the bottom and cranked it up a few turns, he would have a fish.  Because his arm was weak, he would hand me his rod and reel, and I would hand him mine.  I reeled in the fish while he hooked another.  Many times he had two snappers on the double hook.

In three days’ fishing, we caught red snapper, 600 hundred pounds worth, dressed, frozen, and put on ice. 

We still had one day of fishing to go. We got to the boat early that last day.  Pappy announced, “Cap’n, I want to go trolling today.” 

We landed several king mackerel. Then we went further out to the Gulf Stream.  We stopped moving for lunch.  The clear blue water of the Gulf Stream was like glass. We were about twenty miles off the coast of Florida. 

When we finished lunch, the second mate, a couple of years older than I, asked, “Wanna’ go swimming?” 

“Go ahead,” Pappy said.

I stood on the transom and dived headfirst into the Gulf Stream.  I swam in the warm water ten or fifteen minutes before climbing back into the boat. 

As we continued trolling, we caught dolphins, some of the most colorful fish in the ocean.  These are not porpoises.  A dolphin is called mahi-mahi in Hawaii. They fight like a bream.  Imagine having a twenty-pound bream on the end of your line. 

I hooked a large bull dolphin. The fish darted back and forth.  All of a sudden, it started running straight to the boat.  I reeled as fast as I could trying to understand why the fish behaved so oddly. 

Then I saw a dorsal fin rise up out of the water. The fish on my line was being chased by a ten-foot-long shark.  The shark closed in, and the fish retreated.  The shark followed, and the fish fled.  I felt a strong thump and then dead weight on my line.  The shark had cut the fish in half.  I reeled in the head. 

It took me a moment to realize; only minutes earlier I had been swimming with the sharks!

Last summer, before our vacation on Pawley’s Island, one of our sons asked, “Dad, have you noticed that Shark Week on the Discovery Channel often coincides with our week at the beach?”

One late afternoon, the tide was coming in. I was swimming with our children just beyond the breakers. Riding up on a wave, I saw a mullet jump. The fish was being pursued!  And then a dorsal fin arched in the waves just a few yards away! Thankfully, it was a porpoise!

I realized again that when I swim in the ocean, I am not alone.

Kirk H. Neely
© July 2010

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