300 miles off the coast of Costa Rica
The current was strong.
Grace grabbed hold of a rocky protrusion with both hands to keep herself anchored to the sea floor, the bubbles from her regulator rising upward in a cascade. She was glad she wore a small emergency pack containing a GPS. If she was swept away, their skipper, Captain Aguilar, would be able to locate her. She was also glad she’d worn gloves. A cut on the finger or a slice on the palm would be unwelcome under these conditions, and not just from the pain.
The strong current attracted marine life. And where life thrived, so did sharks.
“Hold tight, ladies,” Alec’s voice crackled over the radio, the familiar voice of her partner in love, alerting her to stay sharp. Grace and the other women divers wore full-face masks, the equipment not just for communication. Alec, along with his team—Dan “Double D” Donovan and photographer Stephie Kim—wanted to be sure that faces could be seen on film.
The undulating shadows beyond signaled the approach of … something. Or many somethings.
Several shark species were known to frequent the area—silkies, whitetips, and the dangerous tigers. But the beauties gliding toward them were endangered scalloped hammerheads.
They were nothing short of magnificent.
Scalloped hammerheads were named for the notches found along the front of the cephalofoil, the flat snouts acting like a giant food detector, making them very efficient hunters. When Grace was a child, she had often pondered how it would feel to have her face so stretched out that her eyes would be located beside her ears, her nostrils separated by more than a foot. It was so bizarre to her that she’d told her shark-researcher dad that hammerheads had to be aliens from another planet.
Watching the shy creatures approach released the tension of the past few days, letting Grace’s worries briefly float away into the rushing current.
“What beauties,” Dr. Edith Wright commented from her position beside Grace. If there was a Grand Dame of the Ocean, then Dr. Edie, as she was known worldwide, would be it. She was the Jane Goodall of the marine world.
And Grace was diving with the esteemed woman.
It was still unbelievable that Dr. Edie had invited Grace to be a part of this documentary, along with three other women working in marine science and ocean conservation. Her first impulse had been to say no; her hemisphere of work and knowledge of sharks didn’t even begin to touch Dr. Edie’s resumé. And to top it off, Grace was still smarting from public criticism directed at Alec’s film about her freediving with great whites off the coast of Mexico. It had recently hit a mainstream populace when it debuted on a streaming platform in June, and the reviews had been mixed.
Why is she touching the sharks? Irresponsible.
And those were the nicer comments.
Weary and beaten down, Grace couldn’t fathom being in another film. Why would Dr. Edie even ask her? All Grace wanted was to focus on getting her shark sonar array installed at more beaches. Lately, her workdays had been filled with endless phone calls to coastal community officials or attending local council meetings when she was able. If beachgoers could be alerted to the presence of sharks then they could exit the ocean, mitigating an attack. Grace would save sharks by saving people.
Four hammerheads swam a wide circle around the group.
“They’re curious,” Jo Barnes said, a photographer and filmmaker who specialized in humpback whales. For this project, however, she was on-camera rather than off.
“I love their eyes,” Dr. Lori Rhinehart added, a marine biologist whose main focus was tagging and monitoring great white sharks as they headed to the “White Shark Café,” a remote area located between the U.S. mainland and Hawai’i. Grace was still in the process of comparing notes with the woman on the status of several sharks that Grace was tracking along the California coast.
A large school of jacks played in the shifting current, their silver scales glistening against the backdrop of the deep blue water. Grace had already spied several green turtles, an octopus, and a moray eel who periodically popped his head out of his cave to see what all the commotion was about.
It was a lush underwater Garden of Eden.
The stress knot in her belly loosened.
“The Mallet Boys.” Sukey Sanders’ throaty voice cut through Grace’s moment of Zen like a DJ scratching one of those ancient vinyl records.
Sukey—with her dark hair styled into cornrows, a nose piercing, and an elaborate shark tattoo on her left shoulder and upper arm—was a reality personality known for her audacious pursuit of poachers and those criminals that engaged in illegal fishing. She also had a big mouth. Every time Sukey spoke, Grace couldn’t get past the vision of a giant middle finger to the universe. If Grace felt insecure about her own place in this group, she was flat out flummoxed by the presence of someone like Sukey.
“We could start a rock band,” Double D replied, warming up to Sukey’s comment.
The current snagged Stephie’s petite form clad in a black wetsuit above them, and she was pushed into Alec’s shot, ruining it.
“Sorry, Boss,” she said, while continuing to snap photos, being the professional that she was.
“Stephie Kim,” Double D dragged out her name. “Always making lemonade out of lemons.”
“That’s what I’m paid for,” she replied.
Two dolphins burst through the school of jacks, sending geometric angles of fish in different directions, and the hammerheads began to move away.
“Do you want us to follow the sharks?” Sukey asked, her question obviously directed to Alec.
“No,” he answered. “It’ll be difficult keeping everyone in frame with the current. And I don’t want us to get split up.”
Alec was always about safety. Grace loved him for it, despite feeling constrained by it at times. She would have preferred to freedive and ditch all the scuba equipment, and she had said as much privately this morning. The bubbles and noise would be a deterrent to marine life, extending the time it might take to build a rapport with any sharks, turtles, or whatever else popped in. But with the depth and the current, scuba was safer. The conditions around Cocos Island definitely called for advanced diving.
Alec focused his large video camera and two spotlights on the dolphins and their quick movements as they circled above. In the blink of an eye, they dropped closer and darted past, making eye contact with Grace. They seemed to enjoy scoping out the humans and remained for several minutes.
“Bottlenose dolphins are my favorite,” Edie said. “Those brash boys have brains bigger than humans.”
“That’s not difficult, considering the small-brained humans I’ve encountered,” Sukey said.
One of the dolphins began chasing a trevally, its shimmery metallic skin flashing with undertones of blue and green. Around and around they went. Although the dolphin didn’t catch the fish, he committed to the chase with gusto.
“The Mallet Boys are back,” Double D said. “Couldn’t stay away from the party.”
The hammerheads came closer than before.
“I wonder if the dolphins ever try to play with them,” Grace remarked.
“I suspect our presence is affecting the behavior somewhat,” Edie said. “If only we had an invisibility cloak. Maybe you could design one, Grace.”
Grace laughed. “I’ll see what I can do.”
“Gracie could be Aquawoman,” Double D said. “Queen of the Hammerheads.”
“Sounds like a comic book,” Sukey said. “How do The Mallet Boys even see?”
“Their eyesight is actually quite good,” Lori said. “Like surround sound, except visually.”
The sharks continued to glide past and around them. As usual in the presence of sharks, Grace lost all track of time. They were the most beautiful beasts, and her heart swelled with the love and adoration that she’d acquired at the feet of her dad. Her mom had learned early in her marriage that she would always share Eddie Mann with these most perfect predators of the ocean.
The hammerheads began skimming the ocean floor, the brown-bronze tinge of their skin reflecting the light from Alec’s camera. Likely in search of food, they preferred stingrays, but also ate schooling fish, squid, and an occasional crustacean. One shark came low, swam near, its large body undulating back and forth and cruised past Grace and Dr. Edie, its bulging eye fixated on them. Grace kept her arms close and her aluminum stick tucked low so as not to appear threatening.
A tiger shark had bitten a diver in the leg two years ago in this area, resulting in the woman’s death. The Cocos Island National Parks Department now allowed divers to carry the sticks as a deterrent in the event a shark began to stalk them. Grace, and all those in the water, had one in hand.
“Like most sharks, scalloped hammerheads are endangered,” Edie said, making conversation for the audio that Alec was capturing for the film. “They’re fished for their fins while also being caught as bycatch on longlines and gillnets. Watch how they swim.” Edie pointed as one of the hammerheads glided sideways through the water. “They use their dorsal fin to reduce energy expenditure.”
The dorsal fin on hammerheads was larger than their pectoral fins, not usually the case for most sharks.
“I could watch them all day,” Jo said, her voice filled with awe and approval.
Grace couldn’t deny that she was glad to be in the company of likeminded women, Sukey notwithstanding.
Despite exhibiting wariness, the hammerheads had accepted the women interlopers, along with Alec and Double D, into their world. While dive operators came regularly to Cocos Island, its remoteness kept the numbers low, so the marine life wasn’t completely accustomed to human presence. Although Alec had been here before, it was Grace’s first visit, and it didn’t disappoint.
The four sharks were all female, as exhibited by a lack of claspers on their undersides. The Mallet Boys needed to be renamed The Mallet Ladies, but Grace wasn’t about to rebuke Sukey in front of the others. Still, it annoyed her that the brazen conservationist didn’t seem to have even a basic understanding of shark anatomy.
The hammerhead females weren’t exhibiting any hierarchy signals such as head shakes or torso thrusts. To Grace, they were thoughtful predators and generally temperate most of the time.
Be like a shark, Grace.
She needed to work with the other females in her group, not against them.
With a sudden thrust of their tails, the hammerheads disappeared. Grace began scanning the area. Something had spooked them.
A large male tiger shark cruised into view, his posture assessing.
“Heads up,” Alec said.
Double D added, “There’s a new kid on the block, chasin’ the ladies away.”
Grace was nearing the end of her air supply, so it was no surprise when Edie suggested they ascend. As the group moved upward, Grace remained alongside Alec to keep a visual on their visitor.
Tigers could be sneaky and aggressive, much like the bull sharks she and Alec had recently dealt with on Réunion Island, and Grace didn’t entirely trust them. Tigers were opportunistic and sometimes called “trash compactors,” since they frequently bit and held on, unlike the great white who attacked and then retreated, waiting for prey to weaken and bleed out before consuming it. Humans were never on any shark’s menu, but that didn’t mean that tigers didn’t explore their environment, and attacks on humans could be devastating.
“Bite first, talk later,” Double D said, also keeping an eye on their moody visitor swimming circles around them.
“Don’t encourage it,” Stephie said.
“I’m just letting him know I’ve got his number.”
“I’d rather you get footage instead of his number,” Alec said.
Above them, the women began leaving the water and climbing onto the dinghy that had brought them to the dive site. Homebase was a spacious liveaboard yacht with deluxe staterooms and private bathrooms that was anchored about two nautical miles away and closer to the island.
“This viz is starting to suck,” Double D said, as the water steadily became murkier in the late afternoon sunlight.
The tiger was barely visible now. Grace was less worried about him and more concerned with possible sharks they couldn’t see lurking just beyond the cloudy water. She positioned her aluminum stick in front of her just in case.
“You and Stephie are next,” Alec said.
“I should stay,” Grace said.
“This isn’t up for discussion.”
Grace began her ascent beside Stephie’s smaller form. A glance upward showed Sukey to be at the surface but still in the water.
A tiger shark shot past at lightning speed.
“Sukey!” Grace yelled. “Shark!”
But the woman already must have pulled off her mask, because she didn’t rush to get on the dinghy.
Grace pumped her legs upward as the shark clamped onto Sukey’s foot, its body writhing back and forth. Muted screaming ensued from above and Grace kicked her fins harder, her thighs burning. She jammed her aluminum rod into the tiger’s underbelly while Alec suddenly appeared beside her and poked hard behind the shark’s left gills with his own stick. Thankfully, the irritation worked. The shark released Sukey and swam away with a violent thrust of its tail, barely missing Alec’s head as he ducked to the left. Hands from above yanked Sukey out of the water.
The tiger reappeared, no doubt eyeing the dissipating cloud of blood.
“Get out of the water, Grace!” Alec said. “You too, Stephie!”
The deckhands lifted Stephie, and then Grace, from the ocean.
Grace shed her mask and quickly scooted out of the way. The dinghy rocked back and forth as the deckhands grabbed Alec and Double D’s equipment from the water, then pulled the two men aboard.
Sukey lay at the opposite end while Edie and Lori wrapped her foot in gauze from a first-aid kit, trying to sop up the blood.
Grace wiped water from her face and asked, “Is she okay?”
“How bad is it?” Double D asked.
“She didn’t lose her foot, thank goodness,” Edie said. “It looks like two puncture wounds. As soon as we get to the boat, one of the crew will stitch her up.”
“Why did he come after me?” Sukey said, gasping for breath through her obvious pain. “Doesn’t he know that I risk my life every day to save his ass? And just for the record, we’re not cutting our trip short for this. Promise me that we won’t be running back to the mainland, even if I start bitching about the pain.”
“No promises, Sukey,” Edie said. “But I think you’ll survive. Is this your first shark bite?”
Grace held onto a rope as one of the boat crew started the engine and raced the dinghy back to the liveaboard.
Sukey gritted her teeth. “Believe it or not, yes.”
Alec grabbed his camera and started filming but Double D had a dark and worried look in his eyes that took Grace aback.
What the …?
As she shifted her gaze between the two, she railed against the obvious conclusion.
Sukey and Double D?
Grace considered Alec’s best buddy and filmmaking partner a good friend, so if Double D liked Sukey then Grace would have to like her too.
Copyright © 2020 K. McCaffrey LLC