In which our hero learns the difference between theory and practice - Part 7 of Several Installments.
My 4th Shipwreck dive – feeding the Sawfish was the main course on the menu, with an appetizer of scrubbing down the window in Section 4. Bill M was my trainer, with Bill H as backup.
Wiping down the main window was bit of an adventure – Bill M positioned himself with the fending tool and swam beside me as I pulled myself along. Since this is the main window that looks onto the arena, the sharks have a regular swim pattern that takes them along the glass. As we moved back and forth along the window, we were alternately facing directly into the sharks, or being passed by them. I couldn’t decide which was more nerve-wracking – seeing an approaching mouthful of teeth, or suddenly seeing the body of a powerful predator appear above, below, or beside me. We also ventured into the ‘forbidden’ Shark Cave to wipe down the circular windows that are set into the ceiling (or the floor, from the guests perspective). Several times the Sawfish slid by checking out what we were doing, as we took turns hanging on our backs while the other kept the fending tool between us and the outside world.
Once the windows were done it was feeding time. After grabbing the 3.5’ claw and the ‘chum bucket’ with the food in it, we stood on the dive platform for a few minutes discussing the plan of action. As I watched the Grey Reef Tips glide by us a couple of times I suddenly realized that I was standing chest deep in a shark tank, holding a tube of tasty treats that was dripping fish juice into the water around us. How smart is that??!!
To feed the Sawfish, divers place themselves in an arch which provides narrow passage between Section 2 and the arena. The idea is to provide a zone where the Sawfish are forced to approach from one direction, while the divers have a path to retreat if things get hairy. The problem is that if the Sawfish follows the diver into the arch, they can’t back out very easily, and once they tap their rostrum on one side of the arch, they’ll swing in the opposite direction, possibly hitting the opposite wall. Once that happens they could easily panic, and get into what Bill calls ‘the clapper effect’ – banging their rostrums back and forth against the walls of the arch, like the clapper in a bell, knocking off teeth and injuring themselves.
I kneeled down in the feeding zone with Bill M directly above me; after settling the chum bucket between my knee and a rock wall, the bamboo sharks started swarming. Only about 1 – 2 feet long, they have small but mighty sharp teeth, and knew that we had that which they so greatly desired. I felt them sliding like so many snakes over and between my legs, and they kept nudging the bucket.
I grabbed a sardine, clamped it into the claw, and extended it out into the arena. The Sawfish took turns lining up, and I was able to feed them fairly successfully without losing any of the food to the other fish who were crowding around. But I did have my share of adventure: first, one of the springs of the claw popped loose and hooked onto my chainmail glove– it happened just after I’d prep’d a squid for feeding, so I had my hand trapped right next to the food. No way was I going to be putting it out there for the Sawfish, but the other fish swarming around, including the bamboos, were definitely appraising their chances. Bill saw what happened and disengaged me, but it was definitely an ‘Oh Crud’ moment (with a capital ‘S’). Then, just like what happened to Ashley a couple of weeks ago, Popeye managed to snag the claw along with the squid and took off with it into the arena. Bill retrieved it and then I noticed that the chum bucket had fallen over. Lying horizontal, it was a perfect invitation to the bamboo sharks and sure enough one had wiggled in and was busily chomping away at the remaining sardine at the bottom. Unfortunately the happy camper wasn’t able to get back out, so we ended up taking it to the surface and lifting the tube up out of the water so he could slide out on his own.
Finally we finished with the Sawfish, and it was time to take care of the reef fish and the guys at the coral head in the arena. It was fairly uneventful, with the fish swarming around us as we squeezed out the bits of fish and food cubes. What I didn’t realize was that this kind of broadcast feeding wasn’t part of the routine for the coral head. While Bill H and I did manage to hand-feed a few of the larger fish, while I was squeezing out several bits I inadvertently excited the sharks. Suddenly the Zebra and Grey Reef Tips were swinging by quite close, and while I never felt particularly endangered, it was clearly an object lesson to remember – target feeding only in the arena!
During my final training dive (with Bill M. and Chuck C), it seemed the sharks somehow knew I was about to graduate from Dive Academy, and decided to really mess with me. While sinking the siphon into Section 3 I turned around and saw one of the Sand Tigers giving me the fish eye as he cruised by – his eye swiveled back and forth between me and the surrounding walls, as though he was sizing up the opportunity to … ask me to pet him…yeah, lets go with that!
The one job I hadn’t done yet was act as the Fender while my partner scrubbed the main window. I joined Bill M. at the main window and we snuck up to the corner; peeked around the blind-spot, then I swam along above, below, and beside Bill, keeping myself and the fending pole between him and the sharks. Most of them steered clear without my intervention, but the Sawfish were more animated than usual, swimming out in mid-water rather than hugging the bottom as they usually do.
When we were done with the main window I took over wiping down the rest of the windows in the exhibit while Bill did some photography. I decided to start with the secondary window, and immediately forgot about the blind spot. It might have been because as I was getting ready to leave the dive platform, both Grey Reef Tips seemed to have taken a particular interest in me, circling thru Section 1 and over the platform, between me and the stairs, and coming within arms reach. Finally I saw a gap in the pattern and slid into the depths, headed into Section 3 and the viewing window. I started wiping it down, and as I approached the edge adjoining the main window facing Section 4, I was suddenly eye-to-eye with the snout of one of the Grey Reef Tips as he cruised around the corner. From the expression on his face I’m pretty sure he’d told his buddy only moments before, “Watch this - I’m gonna make the newbie pee in his suit!”
When it was time for the 10:30 feeding, there were several guests in the Section 2 viewing area, and when they saw me start to descend with the chum bucket and claw I signaled that they should walk around to the viewing area for the show.
This time I gripped the chum bucket, full of squid and sardines, between my knees as I kneeled in the archway – I didn’t let it fall over, like last time, but feeling the Bamboos swarming around and between my legs, nudging and poking away at anything they thought might give them an opportunity for some ill-gotten gains, made me doubt the wisdom of such a position. Then I saw that the tentacles of one of the squid were poking out thru the drainage holes, and the Bamboos were fighting to get at them and nip off a piece or two. THAT didn’t make me nervous!
Olive Oyl had scored a big ol’ Bonita during the shark feeding the day before, and she wasn’t interested in any of the food we had to offer today. But Popeye and Bluto definitely were, along with the Zebra and Bamboo sharks. We’d been given several squid for the males, two of which were the largest I’d ever seen – their bodies were easily a foot long, and with the tentacles seemed more like three feet from stem to stern.
Bluto swung in for the first offering – he chomped down on the squid and was immediately rewarded with a pinkish cloud of fish juice surrounding his head. A moment later two squid tentacles emerged from his spiricles (nostrils), just behind his eyes, and waved around in the current for a second or two as he chewed, before being sucked back in as he swallowed. That’s GOT to hurt!
That cloud really got the gang going. The Sand Tigers picked up their pace as they cruised by, and Chuck had to warn off the Zebra several times as I continued to feed the beasties. The Sawfish came in with their saws raised off the sand, so I had a perfect view to their mouths as I positioned the food. It was almost as though they were saying, “Feed Me, Seymour!”
Finally it was time to feed the smaller fish – simple broadcasting in Section 2 with the Puffer putting in a special appearance for the kids, gobbling down shrimp and other goodies as we squeezed them out of our bottles. Then out to the coral head in the center of the arena to target feed the bigger ones, the Napoleon Wrasse, Sheepshead, Squirrelfish, and others. I positioned myself in an alcove facing the main window and under a spreading coral, and began pulling out food and offering it to the fish as they came by, in full view of the spectators. The Sawfish, Sand Tigers, and Grey Tips were all circling, and then the Zebra came right up to me from the right. I put out my chainmail fist between us; the Zebra nudged it, then swung away with a decidedly disgusted air. But it wasn’t done with me yet.
I circled the coral head, offering food and trying to keep an eye out for the pit bosses. As I was preparing to offer another couple pieces of food, I discovered that the Zebra and the Greys had been trading notes – the Zebra suddenly zoomed by me, no more than a handspan away, dive-bombing me from upper left to lower right and giving me a way-to-close view of it’s skin.
The rest of the dive was (thankfully) uneventful – distribution of the remaining food, disassembly and storage of the siphon, and cleanup of our equipment with a wonderfully hot shower at the end. Bill complimented me again on my skill and comfort in the water, especially under interesting circumstances, as well as being the third graduate of the new ‘Aquarium Academy’ curriculum. I’m now a full-fledged Volunteer Diver, and have already signed up for two dives in September.
Dave Madorsky lives with his wonderfully supportive family in the Denver Metropolitan Area; his personal philosophy is, “Anytime I’m underwater and still breathing is a GOOD time!”
Disclaimer: Some pictures were taken by Dave Madorsky, and some are from public domain sources to better illustrate the sea life described.