Words and photos by Phil Garner
When you tell someone you’re a scuba diver they immediately ask you if you are afraid of sharks. There are so many ways of getting injured while diving that sharks are the least of your concerns. Arterial gas embolism, ear barotrauma, skin bends, pulmonary and neurological decompression illness, hypothermia and drowning are a few of the ways to take the fun out of diving. Then there are the factors that are beyond your control. Creatures beneath the surface have only one purpose in life. They are there to hurt you. Many of them seem so benign until the moment they strike.
Sea urchins litter the bottom of kelp forests. Resembling pin cushions, they seem so easy to avoid. If a diver gets within a few feet of an urchin, it somehow manages to jump into the diver’s wetsuit, gloves and skin. It’s not uncommon to see divers sitting on the rocks after a dive with a pair of tweezers frantically trying to perform minor surgery on themselves. Even with its lovely name, the Heart urchin wears its slings and arrows on its back. The water itself teams up with the evil creatures to hurt you. Waves and surge can push a diver in any direction, but it always seems to be in the direction of a rock covered by urchins and barnacles.
Sea lions can be one of the more acrobatic wonders of the sea. Their quick spins and effortless movement through the water entertain divers all over the world. Just when you let your guard down and delight in their underwater circus, they attack. Some charge full steam ahead, turning away at the last second but not before bearing their sharp canines and blowing bubbles in your face. Bull sea lions have been known to sneak into homes and steal small children. I was actually attacked by a bull sea lion during a dive at Marineland once. He tossed me around like a rag doll before biting my elbow. I lost all fear of sharks at that moment. I realized that if an animal chooses to attack you there is little time to react and even less chance of fighting back or fleeing. And people wonder why I like nudibranchs so much.
Two of the more common residents of the reef have inflicted wounds upon me as well. Garibaldis will nip at your wetsuit until you can see skin if you approach their territory. A large sheephead once mistook the yellow glue on the fingertips of my recently repaired gloves for Purina Fish Chow. Did you know that your blood looks brown at depth? I’m pretty sure it was blood. Most of the animals you encounter during a dive, from a large moray eel to a tiny goby seem to delight in showing you their teeth. My friend Michael was hunting abalone back when it was still legal to do so. He dropped his catch between two rocks. When he reached in for his dinner an eel tried to make a meal out of him. Mike was not deterred. He was back in the water after the stitches were removed.
Sometimes you are not even safe out of the water. While working at a dive shop in San Pedro a fisherman came in and asked me what to do for a cabezon sting. He had attempted to grab the large scorpionfish from his line. The cabezon thrust its dorsal fins into the guy’s hand. In a matter of minutes his arm was dark purple and the size of a small pachyderm. He refused medical treatment. I told him to soak his arm in the hottest water he could stand. I should have told him to put a couple of lobsters in there with him. There’s no reason to starve while writhing in pain.
We do have some dangerous sharks in our local waters. The Horn shark gets its name not from the sound it makes while stuck in traffic, but from the sharp spears it hides next to its two dorsal fins. Some divers think it’s funny to grab horn sharks and carry them around. It is much funnier when you see them release the shark quickly. Very quickly.
There are fish with the words tiger, leopard and wolf in their names. There are killer whales and even false killer whales. I’ve even seen a Vampire squid! I still amazes me that I continue immersing myself in this morass of molars each week. I may begin spending more time with the sponges, though. DZ