When I woke up this morning I did not expect to find myself underwater, surrounded by live Sand Tiger and Nurse sharks with a couple of huge Moray eels thrown in for good measure.
Let’s backtrack a bit: during one of the many odd conversations had at work, the bar’s TV was running a special on sharks and their habits, and, as I tend to do during such programs, I got that faraway look in my eye and said to myself, “I simply cannot die until I go on a shark dive…” after which I lamented giving up on my childhood dream of becoming a marine biologist. Hey, it was the early 1970’s when I had that dream; Jacques Cousteau was my god, I had forced my parents to take me to see BLUE WATER, WHITE DEATH six times, and I devoured books on marine life like I would later do with comic books (yep, there’s a sad revelation, dear readers). Little did I suspect that Tracey, our oft-mentioned waitress/goddess, had overheard me and filed that piece of info away for future use. A couple of months went by, and when my birthday drew nigh Tracey told me to keep July 10th free because she had a kickass surprise in honor of my birthday planned for that day.
Let me state right here and now that I loathe surprise stuff for my birthday because in times past few of the people involved in the planning managed to keep the surprise to themselves, and more often than not I would have preferred to spend my birthday on my own, with friends and loved ones at an agreed upon party location, or in the company of an enthusiastic, pulchritudinous bringer of copious osh-osh. So unless you can pull a spectacular birthday miracle out of your ass, I implore you not to even contemplate a surprise event. Keeping that caveat in mind, you can imagine my trepidation when Tracey let her intentions be known, but I did not want to be rude, so I waited for the 10th to roll around and hopefully be over as swiftly and painlessly as possible. But, like many of us would-be know-it-alls, I didn’t take into account the many times Tracey has made suggestions or recommendations and every single time she’s been right on the money.
Monday the 10th arrived, and while I would normally have slept scandalously late on a day off, I had to meet Tracey at the barbecue joint at 9:30 AM… Not a fun hour for us nocturnals, but ya do what ya gotta do. When I arrived, I was met by Tracey and our co-workers, Joy and Will, all of us looking like the ill-rested specimens that we obviously were. We all boarded Joy’s car and took of for adventures and parts unknown, and, luckily for our intrepid quartet, the day was simply beautiful.
We soon found ourselves on the Long Island Expressway, and for me the mystery of our destination deepened. I nonetheless enjoyed the sights on way while my friends chatted happily about all manner of oddball shit, and we passed by many strange billboards such as the one pictured below:
I’m sorry, but even though the spelling isn’t the same, I refuse to eat a chocolate confection that uses a slogan that sounds like “rectum.”
During the ever-lengthening ride, I saw that Joy possesses a gift that I wish I had, namely taking pleasure from driving, an act that for me is nothing but tedium and merely an exercise in getting from point A to point B. With a toothy grin lighting up her sunglasses-adorned face, Joy fueled her sleepy self with a Red Bull energy drink, kicked off her shoes and hiked up one of her fantastically long legs to rest a heel on one side of the steering wheel and merrily serve as our urban charioteer.
The ride stretched on for roughly an hour and forty-five minutes, passing through Long Island at a brisk clip, until we reached Riverhead; it was there that I sussed out that we were bound for an aquarium. Fine by me, since I loves me some sea critters and I had not been to an aquarium since I was a boy of nine years old.
As we drove into the parking area of Atlantis Marine World, my fellow passengers all turned to look at me as Tracey announced, “Well, obviously we’re taking you to an aquarium, but guess what? You’re gonna go on a shark dive!” My head nearly split in half thanks to my idiotic grin, and I briefly sat in stunned silence. I then went apeshit with happiness and gratitude, and nearly rocketed from the car to get into the dive area.
Once inside, we had to wait for the other booked diver to arrive, so we checked out many of the attractions on view within this building that sought to evoke the lost continent of Atlantis with images of Poseidon, Aphrodite and tridents in view all over the place.
Happy children ran about in sheer ecstasy as they beheld the living wonders of the deep, including an adorable seal that was rescued from the wild, and a pool where guests could not only feed a gaggle of stingrays, but also touch their frictionless hides as well. This exhibit was a big hit with adults and kiddies alike, and the stingrays charmed the hell out of everyone as they greedily jockeyed for position before the cluster of anchovy-supplying human hands. The graceful creatures glided along the bottom of the shallow pool with hypnotic ease, but they would frequently blow their ethereal aspect by practically flopping out of the water and making rude sucking noises as they hoovered the reeking fish from our outstretched mitts.
We didn’t care, though, because they were just so damned cute!
Soon, the other diver arrived, a guy named Vinnie who was treated to this honor by way of a Father’s Day prezzie, and once introductions were made, we went off with Ditte (pronounced “Ditt-Uh”), our Dutch dive master, for some simple instructions. On the way to the platform we were lead past a huge, ceiling-mounted model of a Great White shark and straight to the observation area of the 180, 000 gallon/fourteen-feet deep/forty-feet across saltwater tank and given an in-depth who’s-who of the denizens within, including various fish, a couple of huge and scary-looking Moray eels, and about a dozen or more Sand Tiger and Nurse sharks. Once that was done, we went upstairs to where cage was tethered, and other than the explanation of the logistics of how the full-face mask and its communications capabilities worked, I was pretty much good to go since I am utterly at home underwater, and, in fact, once I am in, I don’t want to get out. Vinnie and I soon found ourselves in skintight wet suits and weight belts to keep us semi-rooted to the diving cage’s platform, and then it was off to the races.
Ditte got us into position, made some last minute adjustments to our breathing apparatus, and then instructed the tender to push us into position and gingerly lower us into the drink.
As we descended, Ditte reminded us to speak loudly and clearly, since when we were submerged the bubbles from our air tanks would be very loud and the noise would drown out our words, pun intended. Once below the surface, Vinnie and I were blown away by the size and grace of the creatures that leisurely swarmed about the cage; the eight-foot Sand Tigers got within mere inches of the bars, and I couldn’t help but marvel at their casual power and simple, perfect predatory perfection, each bearing an ominous presence that scattered the multitude of smaller fish as they implacably bullied their way through the liquid environment.
Almost as impressive were the placid, bottom-feeding Nurse sharks, a mellow lot who slid about the tank’s floor resembling sleepy-eyed, elongated dogs.
And while the sharks were definitely the star attraction, the creatures that riveted me most were the pair of fluorescent green Moray eels who hung out at the bottom, mouths wide open in seeming smiles while their eyes contained a hint of barely contained evil; as they breathed heavily their temples yawned open, exposing their gill arrays and, in my eyes, rendering them fiercely alien and dragon-like in demeanor. These were the only inhabitants of the tank that all of the other fish gave a wide berth, and when an eight-foot snaggle-toothed shark doesn’t want to piss you off, you must be a pretty bad motherfucker.
I was so enraptured by this experience that I did not feel the allotted half hour fly by, and all too soon we had to return to the surface world and its cruel gravity. But I didn’t mind in the least; my brief stay in the simulated ocean rekindled deep feelings within my heart that I had thought long dead after years of living in the Big Apple and being away from the beach that was within walking distance from my boyhood home in Connecticut. I have to reconnect with the ocean once again, and the sooner I do that, I think that part of my ongoing malaise will be unceremoniously kicked to the curb.
Once back in my street clothes, my friends and I checked out the rest of the aquarium and had a great time doing so as we ooh’ed and aah’ed at the gorgeous forest of sea anemone, in which brightly-colored tropical fish capered about, the display of sea horses and horseshoe crabs (in which the crabs appeared to be giving up the ghost before our very eyes), and a shy, economy-sized octopus whose chromatafores were working overtime to keep it camouflaged as it huddled against a rock. Our group split up for a time while I waited for my complementary 8x10 of myself standing in full wetsuit with Ditte in the dive cage, and when I made it to the photo booth I saw the aquarium’s mascot greeting the kiddies. Some poor kid in a full-body suit portrayed “Jimbo Jaws,” a smiling anthropomorphic shark who looked surreally ridiculous, so I of course had to get photographed with him. Joy soon appeared from out of nowhere and did the honors as parents stared in horror at some crazy black guy flashing the Satanic “horns” next to a character meant for the little ones.
Our little band then regrouped and made our way to the outdoor amphitheater for the 2:45 PM sea lion show, giddily occupying the nosebleed seats as we were gripped with a raging case of the sillies that turned us all into cynical wiseasses. That state of mind proved wholly appropriate as the teenaged announcer got the kids worked up for the incredibly bizarre warm-up show, a parade of pop music snippets accented by the terpsichorean stylings of Jimbo Jaws, who took the stage after taking a header while going up the stairs. Jimbo, a smiling, furry shark in oversized sneakers dancing around was crazy enough, but the performance literally “jumped the shark” into outright lunacy when Jimbo busted loose to that intolerable 1990’s hell-on-wax, the Macarena, while the announcer exhorted the audience to join in. The person who was judged as the best dancer was promised a free t-shirt, but once about twenty little girls and their cellulite-laden mothers began doing that pointlessly semaphore-esque shimmy, I think the announcer thought better of it since I never saw him unload the souvenir shirt. Jimbo then launched into a spirited routine that was identified as the 1970’s mainstay “the robot,” but I found it unrecognizable as such, thinking instead that it resembled nothing so much as cerebral palsy night at the disco (I anticipate your brickbats for that one).
Tracey and I nearly pissed ourselves laughing at all of this madness, but then it was time for Jimbo to return to whatever strange, sub-sea dance club that he haunts, and the stage was taken over by the antics of Bunker, the sea lion. Bunker’s much-ballyhooed act was cute for what it was, but after the buildup it turned to be maybe ten minutes in length, and at the climax the trainer bid the audience farewell as Scandal’s “Goodbye To You” unsubtly spewed from the speakers. Tracey and myself found that quite amusing, and we amused ourselves by singing the more honest lyric of “Goodbye, and get the fuck out” as we filed through the exit.
By this point, our little band was weary beyond words, so after a quick lunch we headed back to Brooklyn.
On the ride back I had time to think about the whole experience, and I realized that during the short time that I have worked at the barbecue joint I have come to consider the entire staff as a crazy, semi-dysfunctional family, and while we frequently drive each other into states of apoplexy, we do care about each other a great deal. Today’s trip and shark dive are something that took me by surprise and moved me deeply; a gift given out of love by good friends who every day have put up with a lot of the same shit that I write about on this very blog, and much like during wartime, sometimes a strong bond is formed from shared suffering and horror. As I often say, I knew the job was dangerous when I took it, but sometimes putting up with shit leads to unexpected rewards.
So, thank you, Tracey, Joy and Will. This day will live long in my memory as one of the best of my life.