Fish Bait : Shark Encounters in Eastern Malaysia

Sharon and I spent a relaxing morning under a coconut palm. We’ve been on the go for nearly two weeks, making our way north from Singapore up the eastern coast of Malaysia. We arrived in Redang two days ago, looking forward to a few days of diving, hiking and sunbathing.

The island is as beautiful as they come: dense rainforest cascading down steep hills to powdery white sand beaches. The turquoise water is clear and warm, offering a brief respite from the humid tropical climate of the South China Sea. There are only a few beaches scattered around the island, accessed primarily by boat. Most of the resorts are located along a section of pristine beach in a cove at the northeastern end of the island. The setting is idyllic. Toward the center of the beach lies a large rock formation jutting out into the surf, dividing the coral gardens below.

Redang is known for its excellent coral, and I was looking forward to seeing it for myself. We found a quiet shady spot near the rocks and settled in beneath the palms with books and drinks. We sat for a few moments watching the light surf roll in against the sand and enjoying the subtle sounds that only tropical islands make. Naturally, it didn’t take long for that familiar restless urge to set in. The crystal water beckoned me. I could see the dark shadow of a reef emerging from the white sand about fifty yards offshore. I wondered what might be out there sheltering in the safety of the reef, and imagined the predators that might be feeding on those reef dwellers. I grabbed my mask and snorkel and decided to go for a look.

Kicking straight ahead, with the rocks to my left, I was immediately greeted by an army of sergeant majors and juvenile parrotfish. These brave little fish are obviously used to being fed by tourists. They swarmed around me in a frenzy, nipping at the hair on my legs. A little further out I swam through schools of snapper and grunts and spotted a large leatherback turtle in the coral below. Gulping a lungful of air, I went down to get a closer look at this passive, endangered creature. He gracefully glided away as I hovered above, trying to keep up but desperately losing the race. As he disappeared into the distance my attention began to wander toward other creatures on the reef — a large triggerfish crunched the coral below, a toothy barracuda stalked the surface ahead, and a school of silversides shifted and swirled past potential predators.

Suddenly I felt a sharp stinging sensation on my arms and legs. Adjusting my focus, I noticed dozens of small jellies drifting in the waters around me. As I faced the rocks I could see hundreds of the transparent little stingers hovering near the surface. Colorful sparks of green and electric blue pulsed within their tiny translucent bodies. A jellyfish is more of an annoyance than a danger. But many jellies stinging all at once can be a real problem to a bare-chested snorkeler. I cursed myself for not buying a dive skin before I left and quickly swam away from the rocks back out along the open reef, dodging as many of the little stingers as I could.

Something was moving below. I caught a flash of gray in the corner of my left eye and instinctively turned my head. Not far below was a very large blacktip shark cruising just above the reef. I stopped in my tracks, tucking my fin-less feet up against my body. My heart jumped into my throat and began to beat a drum roll. The shark was within a few meters and making no attempt to move away.

For a reef shark he was a big one: about five feet long and thick throughout, with a head as wide as my waist. He looked healthy and menacing — the largest reef shark I’ve ever seen. A bright green cleaner fish clung to his fat head. His demeanor caught me off guard. I immediately thought “it’s a tiger or, possibly, a bull”, knowing full well that those two sharks are man-eaters. I felt an uncontrollable rush of fear. But the markings were clearly defined: prominent black patches on the tips of the fins. It had to be a blacktip. “He’s just a harmless reef shark”, I reassured myself as he began to circle, inching closer with every pass.

Most reef sharks are timid creatures. They quickly scoot away as soon as anything larger than a meal approaches. Usually, I’m kicking after them to get a look before they vanish in the reef. This one was different. He showed no sign of fear, continuing to circle uncomfortably close. His lifeless black eyes twitched in my direction, sizing me up, questioning whether I was food or foe. I was supposed to be the observer, the silent watchful eyes from above. Now I found myself the object of attention, scrutinized by a large unpredictable fish with a small brain and a taste for blood. It was an unsettling role-reversal.

I kept him in front of metwisting like a corkscrew and, at the same time, trying not to splash about like a wounded seal pup. For a moment I thought about making a mad dash for land. I turned my eyes from the beast for a quick look at the shoreline. It was still a long swim away, and I didn’t like the idea of turning my back on an animal that swims much faster than I do and has a lot more teeth. I needed an emergency plan, just in case the unimaginable happened. I decided that if he made a move toward me I’d slam his nose as hard as I could with my fist, hoping it wouldn’t end up in his mouth. If that didn’t deter him I would jab my fingers straight into the eyes. And, if he still came at me, I’d raise my head out of the water and scream like a teenage girl in a bad horror film.

I was really getting nervous at this point. I’d never seen such a bold shark. Was he circling out of curiosity or aggression? I felt extremely vulnerable, bobbing on the surface like a big white dumpling. I’d seen plenty of sharks while diving, including a few large hammerheads, but never felt as uneasy or fearful as I did at that moment. Just being down on the reef in full scuba gear offers a lot in self-assurance. The noise and the bubbles and the economy of movement all aid in deterring shark attacks. Humans move so awkwardly in the water that if a shark really wanted a bite there isn’t much you can do to stop it. As a snorkeler I was completely exposed and limited in options. I thought to myself, “Great, I go for a swim to get a little exercise and see some fish and end up a scooby-snack for a reef shark with an attitude”. I wondered if anyone would hear my screams. I felt an increasing sense of anxiety and consciously worked to control my breathing.

But there was also a sense of excitement: the adrenaline high that comes from potential danger. Observing a large healthy reef shark at close range in its natural environment is a unique and uncommon experience. And it’s the uncommon experiences that we cherish the most — the underlying motive of travel. I was giddy with awe. I wanted someone there to share it with me, to authenticate the moment. I wanted to jump up, point my finger and shout “look how big the bastard is!”. There was a definite feeling of privilege and marvel mixed with the dread. A feeling that diminished with each passing second.

He circled again. His pace was swift and steady as he interrogated me from below. There was a tone of confidence and grace in his motion, like a field general surveying a battlefield. He seemed aware of my vulnerability. Playing on it. Toying with me like a cat with a captive mouse. I waited. He circled again.

And then, with a jerk, he quickly turned away, swimming back out into the reef as if he’d suddenly lost interest. I exhaled.

Watching him fade into blue I imagined him giggling to himself and telling stories to his buddies saying something like “you should have seen how big his eyes were!”. I was relieved and also, surprisingly, a little disappointed. My exciting little adventure was over, and there was no blood shed — no nasty wounds, no ugly scars, no near-death experience, no heroic tales to tell my grandchildren. It’s amusing how courageous we become when the danger passes — courage that quickly retreats when the danger reappears.

I decided not to wait around to find out. When he was well out of sight I turned to the shore and broke into a rapid stroke, glancing behind between breaths. I half expected him to follow as images of a trailing dorsal fin and open jaws filled my head.

My heart was still racing when I hit the sand. Sharon was sitting quietly with her book in our secluded spot beneath the coconut trees, completely unaware of my perceived peril. She smiled and waved as I collected myself on the beach. Then I trudged across the warm sand to our shady sanctuary where she received me with raised brows and a quizzical smile. “Is this another one of those fish stories?”, she joked. I sighed. Some experiences just can’t be shared.

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