Encounter with a Shark


A wildlife classic by Cleveland Moffett

(Moffett interviewed salvage divers for a book published in 1898.)

Timmans, whom I used to call the student diver, because of his keen observation and capacity for wonder, leaned against the step-ladder that reached down from hatch to cabin on the Dunderberg, and remarked, while the others listened: "I did a queer job of diving once down into the hold of a steamship, a National liner, that lay in her dock, blazing with electric lights, and dry as a bone. Just the same, I needed my suit when I got down into her—in fact, I wouldn't have lasted there very long without air from the pump."

"Some queer cargo?" suggested Atkinson.

"That's it. She was loaded with caustic soda, or whatever they make bleaching-powder of—barrels and barrels of it, with the heads broke in after a storm, and it wasn't good stuff to breathe, I can tell you. First they set men shoveling it out, with sponges in their mouths, against the dust and gases, but one man coughed so hard he tore something in his lungs or head and died. Then they sent for a diver—that was me—and I worked hours down there hoisting and shoveling, like I was at the bottom of the bay, only there was no water to carry the weight. Say, but wasn't that suit heavy, and when I looked out through my helmet-glasses it seemed as if I was digging through a snow-field, with such a terrible dazzle it made my eyes ache to look at it."

"I suppose you don't usually see much under water?" said I.

"Depends on what water it is," answered Timmans.

"All rivers around New York are black as ink twenty feet down," remarked Atkinson.

"I know they are," said Timmans, "but I've seen different rivers. When I was diving off the Kennebec's mouth, five miles southeast of the Seguin light (we were getting up the wreck of the Mary Lee), then, gentlemen, I looked through as beautiful clear water as you could find in a drug-store filter. Why, it reminded me of the West Indies. I could see plainly for, well, certainly seventy-five feet over swaying kelp-weed, eight feet high, with blood-red leaves as big as a barrel, all dotted over with black spots. There were acres and acres of it, swarming with rock-crabs and lobsters and all kinds of fish."

"Any sharks?" said I.

Hansen and Atkinson smiled, for this is a question always put to divers, who usually have to admit that they never even saw a shark. Not so Timmans.

"I had an experience with a shark," he answered gravely, "but it wasn't up in Maine. It was while we were trying to save a three-thousand-ton steamer of the Hamburg-American Packet Company, wrecked on a bar in the Magdalena River, United States of Colombia. I'd been working for days patching her keel, hung on a swinging shelf we'd lowered along her side, and every time I went down I saw swarms of red snappers and butterfish under my shelf, darting after the refuse I'd scrape off her plates; and there were big jewfish, too, and I used to harpoon 'em for the men to eat. In fact, I about kept our crew supplied with fresh fish that way. Well, on one particular day I noticed a sudden shadow against the light, and there was a shark sure enough; not such an enormous one, but twelve feet long anyhow—big enough to make me uneasy. He swam slowly around me, and then kept perfectly still, looking straight at me with his little wicked eyes. I didn't know what minute he might make a rush, so I caught up a hammer I was working with—it was my only weapon—and struck it against the steamer's iron side as hard as I could. You know a blow like that sounds louder under water than it does in the air, and it frightened the shark so he went off like a flash."

"Perhaps he wasn't hungry," laughed one of the crew.

"Not hungry? I'll tell you how hungry those sharks were. They'd swallow big chunks of pork, sir, nailed and wired to barrel heads, as fast as we could chuck 'em overboard; swallow nails, wire, barrel heads, and all, and then we'd haul 'em in by ropes, that did for fish-lines, only it took twenty or thirty men to do the hauling. And there were plenty of sharks 'round, only they never seemed to tackle a man in the suit."

"Some say it's the fire-light of the valve bubbles that scares sharks off," commented Atkinson. "I don't know what it is, but I know the bubbles shine something wonderful as you watch 'em boiling up out of your helmet."


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