A Shark Tale.
Every diver has one, this is mine.
For the five or so years that I worked for Algosaibi in Saudi Arabia, pretty much everywhere I dived; there were sharks in reasonably close proximity to me.
Mostly I didn’t bother them, and they didn’t bother me.
However there are no divers, amateur or professional, who do not keep a wary eye out for that distinctive shape – made universally known from watching the TV show Flipper – when they venture below the surface.
The main varieties in the Persian Gulf and the red Sea; were Bull Sharks, White and Black Tipped reef sharks, there were also Tigers and Hammerheads, but not in the same numbers.
Great Whites were the bad boys, but we consoled ourselves with the factoid that they didn’t like warm water.
There was an old (divers) wives tale about sharks detecting the substance of an object, without actually having to take a bite.
So because we carried many steel tools, and wore a helmet, a waistcoat full of lead, we reasoned that they would detect us as primarily metal, and as such inedible
After my five months on Juaymah trestle, I had accepted a long-term contract with Algosaibi, the terms of which were one hundred ten days on and thirty days off, with a day rate, whilst on the job of two hundred and fifty dollars and whilst at home one hundred and fifty dollars.
Half way through my second trip on contract, the company sent me and five of my colleagues, on a thirty day Lloyd’s underwater inspection training course in Plymouth, after which those who passed the examination, were rewarded with an increase in pay and the right to call oneself a ‘Lloyds Underwater Inspector’
I was also the holder of a C Swip 3.1.U qualification, making me doubly qualified for any underwater inspection that Algosaibi might take on.
Me and the guys who had passed the Lloyds examination, were sent to inspect the hull of a tanker, anchored in the Ras Tanura deepwater anchorage, whilst waiting to load oil from one of the floating loading facilities, offshore from Al Jubail oil refinery.
A Supertanker can save a huge amount in fuel as it traverses the oceans, simply by having its hull cleaned twice a year.
The drag caused by the buildup of marine growth, could double the fuel cost on a Trans Atlantic or Pacific run.
The cost of cleaning fades into insignificance, when compared to the fortune that they save on fuel on any long journey.
We were required to clean the hull, and then carry out the yearly Lloyds inspection on all the welds below the waterline.
Us inspectors, living on the ‘Jewel in the Crown’ of the fleet, DSV Algosaibi 25, observed, in a slightly imperious, superior manner, from the surface, drinking coffee from white Styrofoam cups, and smoking cigarettes while an army of divers from the barges Algosaibi 1 and 2, swarmed all over the hull with scrapers ,hydraulic brushes and water jets.
They made short work of any marine fouling, and after two days of intensive activity the welds were ready for inspection.
We had heard from the cleaning crew that there were sharks below, but they hadn’t bothered the divers, even though in all probability, these particular sharks were the deep sea types, those that followed the tankers around the world, feeding on the garbage thrown overboard, as was the practice back in those days.
Because I had two complimentary inspection qualifications, I was rostered as diver one, tasked with the Centre Line video and randomly chosen MPI weld inspection. MPI (magnetic particle inspection) is a weld testing technique.
Usually it would be carried out at night, but it was dark enough under the tanker for it to work. I won’t bore you with a detailed description of the procedure; suffice to say that, using it, a trained inspector can determine if there are any defects in the critical welds under inspection.
My camera and lights were attached to my helmet, and I would deliver a commentary via my throat mic directly to the VCR and recording suite in the dive shack.
The heavy permanent magnet, the bag of iron filings, the blacklight and the various bits and pieces of tools hung from the D rings on my harness.
The underside of a supertanker is roughly the same size as a football pitch, maybe longer, and even in the sunlit waters of the Persian Gulf it is a darkly eerie place to be alone.
Firstly, I searched for the centerline weld in the gloom, using my hat light to scan the steel plates, patinated with a thin layer of rust.
I was wearing an A BLJ (Adjustable Buoyancy Life Jacket) a recent innovation in the diving world, which allowed me to adjust my buoyancy to neutral, despite the weight of the gear that I was carrying, and to fin gently weightless under the ship.
My full focus was on finding the weld, but I did check below and to my right and left quickly, for anything in the water with me that I might need to know about.
Below me I could see four or five sharking type shapes circling just above the bottom. To left and right were only shafts of sunlight angling through the water, 20 or 30 m distant on both sides.
After a few moments I located the centerline weld and reported to the surface that I was on the job
I was given the all clear to start, so I rolled onto my back, adjusted my buoyancy a little with a few puffs of air into the ABL J and I began my survey and commentary.
Diving helmets do not allow much peripheral vision, but a few minutes into the inspection, I chanced a glance to my right, where an unmistakably sharking shape had appeared. I turned back momentarily to pause the survey and in that blink of an eye, the beast had covered the distance from the sunlit sea to the gloom, and was right on top of me.
All I could think of to do was pull my legs up. Arming myself was absurdly out of the question, human reflexes are slow motion compared to the speed, at which these animals maneuver, and even if I could have reached my knife or the chipping hammer, I’m sure that I would have only antagonized it, if I had attempted some aggressive defense.
I fully expected to be attacked by this monster, but just at the last moment, without any change in propulsion that I could see, it dipped below me and passed between my fins, as I watched in awe at the flawless grace of the thing.
It was uniformly grey; probably a meter wide, at least two meters long, and it had two or three ripples in its skin at the front of its dorsal fin, like someone had jammed the fin in to a pliable skin. Funny the things you notice in a crisis.
It was a bull shark and a very big one. If it had determined that I was a potential meal, there was absolutely nothing I could have done to protect myself.
Maybe the old wives tale was true after all.
Being a consummate pro, despite my brush with death, I went back to work and finished the job, figuring, that if my shark had decided that I was inedible, he would tell his buddies.