Death in jaws. I’m chewing over the phrase. It plays on itself better when spoken aloud. The topic’s on my mind – not in the back of it – alive in every lurking cluster of sub-surface seaweed, tainting the turquoise ocean with their sinister shadows. They move with currents, lurch to the surface as waves lift and pull them, tug at my peripheral vision.
I’m alone outside the breakers, every sense engaged. The nearest people are two kilometres to the north and a hundred metres above sea level. I know, because I can see them. My not-quite-reliable-enough-to-drive-without-glasses vision can pick them out, two dots, standing at the lookout over the enormous expanse of beach. They’re watching me, I guess. I’m watching them.
I hope they come closer.
It’s not because I want to talk to them. It’s not even that (as I repeat in the rational part of my mind that keeps getting shouted down by my utterly spooked Fear Of Bloody Death department) they could help me if I was abruptly attended to by a large man (named Noah) in a grey suit.
No, I want them to be closer because at least then there’d be witnesses. I’d live on as a story. Gory, yes. Remembered? More so than the alternative; a scrap of wetsuit turned up by a search party and an expert opinion on a tooth pattern.
Two grey fins slice the surface tension in shallow, clear water to my south. They dissect the ocean in a perfect line toward me. My heart takes a quick run-up and slams into my ribcage before I confirm that, yes, they’re dolphins. Five, in fact. Two large females, an adolescent and two babies.
I wait, and bob around a bit. There’s rarely much point trying to guess the path of a dolphin pod. The local ones seem to like people; I slide off my board and drop below the surface as they close the distance. They’re approaching through a plume of sand kicked up by a recent wave; I surface and idly squeak my fingers along the bottom of my board until they emerge into clearer water. The squeaking seemed to entertain a dolphin I encountered once, and now it’s a habit of mine. I wonder if they notice. I wonder if it annoys them.
They’re feeling social. I duck my head back under, open my eyes. It’s a curse that our underwater vision is blurry. The front mother-child pair drift by me slowly, at half depth, turned on their side to study me. They pass within arm’s reach. I twist in the water. The other three split around me, fearless, curious, close. The baby is nestled, almost connected, slipstreaming under its mother’s pectoral fin. I can make out their eyes, just, in the dappled light. Then they’re past.
I realise I’ve been holding my breath and surface with a gasp as they do. A wave is bearing down – a good one. I lunge back to my board, take off and fumble a clumsy line through a short barrel. The next wave is bigger, and I’m stuck inside. The dolphins flash up in the blue face of the wave as it crests, then slingshot out the back and disappear as I duck the whitewash. They’re gone.
Elation subsides quickly. I have no-one to share the moment with. Seconds feel like minutes. A shadow cast by a sand plume sets my heart racing again. The dry easterly wind brushes the top off another Southern Ocean set, detonating on heavy sand after a nine thousand kilometre journey from the storms below South Africa. I last fifteen minutes more before I ride a wave to the shore. The Fear of Bloody Death department go back to their desks (I presume to watch videos about asbestos and spiders hiding in shoes and the dangers of driving fatigued).
I look back at the people on the lookout. They’re specks, turning back to their car. I wonder if they could see the dolphins. I wonder if they were alarmed, as I was, or perhaps jealous, or if they enjoyed seeing what they saw.
I shuck the top half of my wetsuit. Westcape’s notoriously sticky sand has gathered in the folds, and now my elbows are ringed with pieces of shell. The sun dries the salt water on my shoulders as I trudge back towards the headland. As I climb the wooden stairs, a single surfer trots down past me. We exchange smiles in silence. Words don’t feel necessary until after the fact; until I realise I might not speak to anyone else that day.
I turn back at the top of the steps, breathing a little harder than usual. The surfer is paddling out at the north end of the beach, riding a rip that rushes out past a huge rock that looks like an upturned Christmas pudding.
There are only two cars in the car park: his, and mine. I take my time getting changed, enjoying the ambience of the day. As I reverse out, another arrives. In my rear view, before my car drops below a sand dune, I see a couple clamber up to the lookout. One points at something down the headland, at the north end of the wide, sandy expanse.
And now, a day later, the experience feels as real to me as the moment it happened. Every vibrant detail, preserved in whatever passes for 4K in the mystery of a human memory. Sitting comfortably inside, I can send a memo of thanks to the folks who staff my Fear of Bloody Death department – specifically, the shark watchers.
If they’d been off duty yesterday, that moment wouldn’t have been as vivid. As clear. As alive. As real.
Death. It wasn’t really close to me, that day. Probably. But the fact that it could have been – all terror and primal instinct and cultural hysteria wrapped up in thousand kilograms of large-toothed fish – made me feel further from it than I ever have before.
Thanks, sharks. For being somewhere. As long as somewhere isn’t where I am, when I am.