Off the coast of Saint-Gilles
Grace Mann grabbed the boat railing as she bounced in her seat. The sun winked from view on the horizon as the 17-foot skiff raced beneath a blue-gray sky from Saint-Gilles harbor toward a SMART drumline—one of many distributed along Réunion’s western coastline—a kilometer offshore.
Beside her, Alec Galloway, her partner in the water as well as in life, rested a hand on her knee. Her wetsuit impeded direct contact, so he gave a gentle squeeze of reassurance to solidify the touch. She smiled at him, the long strands of her blond ponytail whipping around her face as if she were in a dryer. His other hand kept his underwater camera from flying off the bench seat.
Across from them sat the burly form of Dan Donovan, affectionately known as Double D, and Alec’s righthand man, both with camera work and as a silent partner in Galloway Films, Alec’s underwater filmmaking company. Beside him was Stephie Kim, the petite photographer, precise in her movements. Not for the first time, Grace marveled over the young woman’s calm demeanor. Nothing ever seemed to rattle the girl.
It had been eight months since she had met Double D and Stephie when Alec and his crew had filmed her in the Mexican waters of Guadalupe Island, with some of the biggest great white sharks on earth.
Eight months of loving Alec. She threaded her fingers with his. Her job at the California Marine Institute as lead shark researcher kept her in Monterey, California, while he was based in the Bay area. It was close enough for weekends together, thankfully, but weekdays were lonely without him. She was quick to grab the chance to travel with him for work, even if she had to take a few vacation days to do it.
Alec leaned over and gave her a quick kiss.
“It’s not a holiday, children,” Double D chided, but his tone bordered on amusement.
“When you get a girlfriend, she can accompany us on jobs too,” Stephie said matter-of-factly.
Double D released a huff of laughter. “I respect Alec and Grace’s relationship, but I’m definitely keeping my work and private life separate.”
“You don’t like having a woman tell you what to do.” It was a statement, not a question. Stephie knew Double D’s quirks well.
Double D smirked. “Why would I when I have you for that?”
Stephie didn’t take the bait and instead looked toward the front of the boat where the captain, a fisherman named Olivier, was at the helm alongside Andre, a local marine biologist. They were intently monitoring the water. Two deckhands—Henri and Jean—also watched from perches. Réunion was a French province, and the men had sufficiently thick accents to make their English somewhat unintelligible, but they’d been friendly enough welcoming the Americans on board.
“Grace doesn’t tell me what to do,” Alec said, raising his voice over the constant buzz of the engine.
Double D’s dark bushy eyebrows shot upward. “Oh yeah? Who told you to change your dinner order last night?”
“He asked for fish tartare,” Grace said. “He didn’t know what that meant.”
Double D scoffed. “We all know how to order fish.”
Stephie gave him a sidelong glance. “But do you?”
“I’m not too prideful to admit that I didn’t know it was served raw,” Alec said.
Grace turned to Double D. “You don’t have to live with his moaning when he eats something that doesn’t agree with him. I was just being proactive so I could have a good night’s sleep.”
Alec leaned close to her. “I thought you liked my moaning.”
Double D rolled his eyes. “I heard that.”
Alec smiled. “He’s got bionic hearing.”
“It’s my gift and my curse.”
The boat slowed and everyone stood, moving portside to view the drumline and hopefully the beast that had been caught. A caudal fin whipped at the surface, then disappeared.
“Bull shark,” Grace confirmed. “And a big one by the look of it.”
“By what look?” Double D said, frowning. “We saw one quick thrash. Do you have the six-million-dollar man’s bionic eye?”
“Grace knows her sharks,” Alec murmured, appreciation in his voice.
She nudged his shoulder. “Flattery will get you everywhere.”
He gave her a quick grin. “I’m counting on it.”
Stephie sat down and pulled on her mask. “I agree with Grace. It’s a bull.”
“It could be a tiger,” Double D said as he hauled his air tank onto his back and clipped the harness buckles.
“The officials of Réunion suspect there may be hundreds of bull sharks in the water around the island,” Stephie said. “I don’t mean to be condescending, but duh.”
Everyone stopped their activity and stared at Stephie.
“Was that a joke?” Double D murmured.
Stephie released air from her regulator, testing the flow. “An observation.”
“Hot damn, Stephie,” Double D boomed. “That was a joke. I always knew you had it in you.” He held up his hand. “Gimme some skin, sweetheart.”
She stood, ignoring his efforts for a high-five. “Don’t call me sweetheart,” she said.
Double D nodded, appearing sufficiently contrite. “All right, all right.” Then his face brightened. D was never downcast for long. “How about we make this interesting? If it’s a bull, Alec and I buy dinner. If it’s a tiger, the meal is on you two senoritas.”
Grace wiggled her right foot into a flipper as Alec said, “Don’t include me in this.”
“Coward,” Double D said under his breath.
“Pragmatic is more like it,” Alec countered, moving aside as Captain Olivier’s short and stocky body made quick work of removing a section of the gunwale. “You’re gonna lose, D.” He grabbed his video camera and flipped on the bulbs, lighting up the deck. He was remaining topside while the rest of them went in the water.
Double D positioned his mask. “Then dinner is that fish shack down the street from the hotel.”
Alec laughed. “And you’re a cheap bastard.”
“Everybody ready?” Andre asked, his dark curly hair jutting out from beneath the ballcap he wore.
Grace gave a thumbs-up. Double D and Stephie nodded. Henri flipped on two spotlights, illuminating two buoys bobbing in the water—one indicated the anchor line; the other, marked with red, showed the baited hook that had caught the shark. Between the two was a triggering magnet that had sent a GPS alert as soon as a shark had taken the bait.
They had about ninety minutes from the initial hook before the shark was at risk of death, so the clock was ticking.
“Stay alert,” Alec instructed as Grace moved to the edge of the boat.
“We’ll wait for your signal before we start hauling the shark on board,” Andre added.
Double D and Stephie entered the water with their video equipment. They would film the shark from below while Alec got the topside footage as the fish was transferred to a small holding tank on deck. Grace’s job was two-fold: monitor for any additional sharks, since bull and tigers were ambush predators, and take photographs. Alec had been steadily teaching her how to use his equipment. She joked that he would need to start paying her soon.
Once in the water, Grace quickly took stock of the writhing shark. No underside claspers, so a female. At least ten feet. Definitely a bull shark. And very unhappy.
Double D and Stephie positioned themselves on opposite sides of the shark, and after a 360-degree scan to make sure the area was clear, Grace started snapping photos.
With the night sky now black, the visibility with the camera and spotlights was only about fifteen feet. While Grace was generally comfortable in the water with sharks, these conditions were less than ideal. The lights created a curiosity and likely a magnetic hum that other sharks and fish would be attracted to. And the stressed-out bull shark could possibly trigger anxiety in other creatures.
With everyone in position, she lifted her head from the water and gave a thumbs-up to Alec and Andre. Both responded with a nod. She sank beneath the surface and descended.
The baited hook had lodged on the left side of the shark’s mouth and had gone clean through, protruding from the shark’s cheek. A pang of remorse filled Grace, but the treatment was necessary. Bull sharks had been preying on surfers, swimmers, and kayakers at Réunion Island for well over ten years. There had been many fatalities, some quite gruesome. Something needed to be done. If relocation worked, it would be a compromise to what had become a hot-button issue and a devastating tragedy to those who had lost loved ones in these waters.
This shark didn’t know it, but this was the best possible outcome for her. All she needed to do was stay away from the coast once they dropped her elsewhere.
The concern, of course, was that the capture and transport would stress the shark so much that it would cause lethal physiological changes, leading to its death. One thing Grace knew from growing up at the feet of her dad—the late Dr. Eddie Mann, one of the leading early researchers of white shark behavior—was that reward and risk went hand-in-hand.
The line began to move upward, dragging the thrashing shark with it. Grace moved back, as did Double D and Stephie, to avoid getting hit by the tail, which easily could render them unconscious, or worse. Grace still bore a tender scar on the back of her neck from being trapped in a cage with a juvenile male white shark during the Guadalupe Island expedition. Just as Alec and Double D had managed to free her, the shark, dubbed Felix by a cage-diving charter company, hit her with his caudal fin, knocking her out. Luckily, Alec had pulled her from the water and he and her best friend, Missy, had performed CPR, saving her life.
Her passion and love for sharks notwithstanding, they were wild animals with all the random unpredictability that went along with that.
Andre, Olivier, Henri, and Jean hauled the shark to the side of the boat and secured her with a rope around her belly while Alec filmed from the deck. Stephie continued to document from the water while Double D swam to the aft of the boat and climbed aboard to help with lifting the shark from the water.
Grace hung back, snapping photos and keeping an eye on the angry bull female. She was beautiful and so perfectly evolved to her environment—a thick and stout body, long pectoral fins, able to thrive in both brackish and fresh water. Taken as a whole, bulls had unremarkable features but were easily identified by their blunt snouts and eyes that flashed with nothing short of malice. Of all sharks, Grace had to admit these were the hardest to love.
Their aggression and territoriality were without compare. When Peter Benchley had written Jaws, he had based it on a series of shark attacks along the Jersey coast believed to have been perpetrated by a great white; but the evidence had always leaned heavily in favor of a bull shark.
When Grace was in college, she and her sister, Chloe, had spent a summer in the Bahamas taking tourists in the water with bull sharks habituated to accept food. On one excursion she had taken a father and son down after the normal feeding had taken place, naïvely believing that with full stomachs the sharks would behave. They hadn’t. Expecting food, they had swarmed the three of them. Grace did everything she could to get her customers out of the water, paying the price when a bull bit her on the shoulder near her neck. Still, Grace hadn’t held the shark responsible. It had been her fault believing that bull sharks could ever truly be trained.
But this same sentiment was often directed at the unlucky swimmers and surfers who had been attacked at Réunion Island. They shouldn’t have gone in the water. They should have known better.
Not everyone was a trained marine biologist, and Grace had to concede that the population of locals, as well as tourists, didn’t deserve the level of predation that had occurred here on the western coastline since 2011.
The big question now was: Would the relocation program work?
It had proven very successful in the waters off Recife, Brazil, but the geography was different at Réunion with its steep volcanic slopes making it easier for sharks to come closer to shore in search of food. The human population on the island had only grown, and with it came polluted streets, especially on the coastline. During cyclone season, the terrain made it easy for debris and muddy water to run off into the ocean. Sharks were garbage eaters, and the trash was surely attracting them.
The bull shark currently several feet from her was now being hauled from the water, so Grace readied to return to the boat. Movement caught her eye, and she barely had a chance to shine the light of her camera toward it when a blunt nose slammed into her, shoving her violently through the water. The beady eye, a black slit against white, watched her, then its gills slid past in a flurry as the fish flicked and turned away, the dislodged camera sinking to the sea floor. Stunned, Grace struggled to keep her regulator in her mouth as the dark abyss swallowed up the equipment in the last bit of light.
She should swim down and retrieve it, but every fiber in her screamed to get out of the water. The shark had every advantage in the dark. Kicking her fins, she headed to the boat. When her head broke the surface, she spit the regulator out.
“Stephie! Get out of the water!”
The men were struggling with the captured shark and their shouts drowned out her voice. Stephie swam closer, struggling to keep her head out of the water, her heavy air tank weighing her down. A fin crested the surface behind her.
Grace ducked under, her mask still on, and pushed Stephie aside, extending her arm and shoving hard when the shark came close. The bull turned and her hand scraped on its rough skin as it bolted away.
Whipping her head above water, Grace sucked in a breath.
“You go,” Grace gasped to Stephie, who was still behind her. “I’ll watch your back.”
Stephie moved quickly to the ladder hanging off the boat, and Grace followed, her gaze continuously scanning the surroundings. A pressure wave pushed into her. She put her face in the water just in time to see a large shadow pass below.
The goddamned shark was beneath her.
Without looking up, she kept moving to where she thought the ladder was. The shadow turned, moving upward, revealing the unmistakable outline of a shark. The aggressive beast was coming straight for her. She readied herself to redirect with her hand, but it would meet her feet first. Did she have enough strength to kick it? Grace really didn’t want it to snag one of her flippers.
Pumping her arms, Grace prayed the boat was behind her.
With the shark almost upon her, she was suddenly yanked from the water. She flew onto the back deck of the boat as the shark slapped the surface with its caudal fin, turned sharply, and splashed her as it spun away.
“What the hell was that?” Alec said in her ear.
With relief, she leaned back into him. “Mother Nature’s perfect creation.”
Copyright © 2019 K. McCaffrey LLC