by Lynn Smith
I was diving on a reef off of Harbor Island, in the Bahamas. It was a lovely morning, the bright sunshine spearing down through more than thirty feet of water to light up the colorful and fishy reef below. I had a cheap plastic underwater camera and was floating upright just off the sandy bottom, positioned to record the dive master hand-feeding a few of the “tame” Nassau groupers. A small cluster of divers eagerly watched the dive master as she pulled some goody from the front pocket of her buoyancy compensator (BC) and hovered over the reef.
Pretty soon, four large groupers swam out of their holes in the reef and slowly approached the dive master. I took a quick “establishing” shot, careful to capture the dive master, the fish and the group of tourists. I tried to crank the roll of film manually to the next frame, but the gloves I had on to protect my hands from sharp coral made operating the film advance wheel impossible.
Tugging open the Velcro pocket on the front of my BC, I tucked my gloves safely inside, pausing briefly to look toward the reef to check on the action and to plan my next shot. While my eyes scanned the scene, my right hand fumbled to secure the Velcro pocket while my left hand floated freely away from my body, buoyed by the light camera.
Suddenly my left hand felt like it was hit by a pile driver. In reaction to the shock, my whole body jerked convulsively; that is, all but my left hand, which strangely seemed to be locked in place, floating just above my left shoulder.
My peripheral view was blocked by the opaque skirt of my mask, so I had to pivot my head to see what the hell was causing that pain in my left hand. It took me a second to process what I was seeing; a large Nassau grouper, its head mere inches from my face, its mouth partially open and completely engulfing my entire left hand, camera and all.
I hung suspended while I tried to figure out what the hell had happened and what I was going to do about this situation. My first reaction was to grab the fish or otherwise use my right hand, but some instinct told me to just be still and think. So I did, and apparently so did the fish. It just hung there, impaled.
While one part of my brain prepared to crank up the panic, another part was amazed that I could see straight through the fish’s wide-open gills to my hand, which was formed in a fist, clutching the camera body. I could see the bright yellow of the plastic camera case, the black lanyard around my wrist and little drops of blood seeping out of the critter’s gills and floating lazily toward the surface.
My blood? Fish blood? Is fish blood red underwater?
I tried not to think about sharks. Instead, I gently waved my arm, to see if the fish would just spit me out. But no, all I did was drag the fish through a short arc. The grouper twitched, hard, then appeared to try to open its mouth. I waited. Nothing. It just hung there.
Somehow, I recalled how predator fish typically have teeth that angle into their mouth, to keep prey from easily swimming back out. I decided to avoid yanking my hand away from the vice-like grip. Instead I tried a quick flick, to see if the grouper would take the hint and let go. The fish’s eyes rolled hugely and suddenly its mouth opened wide, the gills seeming to strain to their furthest point, and like that it spat my hand out.
I quickly brought my hand close to my face, to assess what damage I could see through my fogged mask. All of my knuckles were cut, rather deep, and more cuts decorated the back of my hand. My fingers were apparently intact, probably because I had instinctively formed a fist when the hand was swallowed.
Droplets of blood were floating toward the surface, and even as I watched, the droplets were starting to run together into a stream. Back to the Velcro pocket I went, fishing for my left glove. As I was trying to get the angle to see into my pocket, the grouper swam into my field of vision, right next to my pocket! It obviously wanted food and thought there was some in there. Didn’t it learn its lesson a minute before?
While I fished for my left glove and struggled to pull it over my torn hand, the grouper nosed into the pocket. I flicked its head with my right hand. Go away!
I twisted the camera lanyard around my gloved wrist and, thinking I might continue the dive, I checked the camera. The body was cracked and I could see water in the viewfinder. That camera was toast.
By now I had drifted some distance away from the reef, lost my neutral buoyancy and was floating toward the surface.
My knuckles were starting to throb and blood was seeping from the glove. I decided to return to the boat, doctor the knuckles, and get ready for the second dive of the day- on a different reef, hopefully away from any activity that featured “tame” fish or anything else that could swallow a body part with one gulp.
Nobody on the dive had witnessed my incident with the confused grouper, but when I showed my left hand, eyebrows went up, followed by tittering, then outright laughter.
The dive master interrupted the hilarity, suggesting that people might want to buy cheap cameras that were a different color than yellow and showed us why, by reaching into her BC pocket and producing the enticing goodie that the local fish had been trained to love- a bright YELLOW can of Cheez Whiz!