The oceans are huge, deep and mysterious, stretching across the globe from the bitter cold of the poles to the blistering heat of the tropics. Oceans are miles deep in places, the great depths under incredible pressure, the sea bottom cloaked in blackness.
What undiscovered life forms exist there is still a question we cannot answer. The ocean is and always has been both mysterious and dangerous.
If you have ever met a U.S. Navy diver and talked to one at any length, you quickly discover they are men of strength, both mentally and physically. Their work in the depths places them in positions of constant danger, where teamwork, calmness under pressure and the ability not to panic in potentially fatal situations are absolutely necessary.
I met a retired Navy diver at a conference and had several long conversations with him. His name is Jim Best of Colorado and he also loves the outdoors. Somewhere between talk of hunting, ballistics and bullet performance the subject of diving came up and I asked him if he had ever had any unusual experiences during his time in the Navy.
That was a question worth asking.
IF YOU ARE a history buff you may recall the German cruiser Prince Eugene cruised in the South Atlantic hunting and sinking allied merchant shipping early in World War II. U.S. and British forces chased the raider east, pushing it eventually to the Indian Ocean. The Prince Eugene evaded our navies, but over time the wear and tear of operation began to tell. Powerful warships continually closed in on it until, low on fuel, ammunition and other spare parts, its captain was forced to steam to Japan. When the war ended the Prince Eugene was still sitting in Tokyo Bay.
The U.S. decided to tow the captured ship to Bikini Atoll, where atomic bomb testing was taking place after the war. On that long voyage the cruiser sprung an unexpected leak, rolled over and sank in the South Pacific near a series of shoals about 100 nautical miles north of Eniwetok Atoll. There it lay until the 1970s.
In the 1970s, the idea came up to raise the Prince Eugene, the only salvageable German capital ship of WWII, if possible, and make a museum out of her. First, though, she had to be found and her condition assessed. Was she still in good enough shape to be raised?
IT SO HAPPENS that Jim’s ship, a 206-foot ocean-going tug, the USS Quapaw, ATF 110, was the dive vessel closest to Eniwetok. The Quapaw was contacted and ordered to examine the sunken German cruiser and report her shape.
The crew located the sunken ship with sonar and Jim and his partner, Randle Powell of Houston, dressed in scuba gear and slipped over the side. Little did they know what awaited them.
The cruiser lay in 150 feet of water on its side. The divers were ordered to do nothing more than swim the length of the ship and visually determine how well it had held up over 29 years on the coral bottom.
Jim and Randle started at the stern and swam slowly 30 feet above the ship examining her. Just above the center of the ship they were both suddenly seized in a violent, twisting vortex of water. They were spun round and round, head over heels, tumbling like woodchips in rapids without the slightest warning. Just as quickly the sudden surge of water released them and they righted themselves and stared at each other.
What in the world was that? There were no known fast currents here, no reason for a pocket of turbulence of that strength.
Jim says he saw the confused, questioning look in Randle’s eye turn to that of absolute amazement and then terror. Turning he was horrified to see an absolutely huge hammerhead shark banking around in the clear water above them like a giant airplane as it prepared for a second pass. A giant shark whose bulk and strength had sent the divers spinning in the water like rag-dolls a few seconds before with a single sweep of his huge tail.
Both men swam for their lives, racing downward for the ship, quickly slipping behind a rusted crane. The hammerhead shot up to them with a speed and arrow-like grace that belied his monstrous size. It must have been 18 feet long and the sideways projection of his hammerhead stretched over 6 feet across. Here was a shark that dwarfed every other hammerhead they had ever seen. Here was a giant among giants.
The great shark seemed to eye them hungrily, pushed on the crane and then maneuvered around trying to force a way to them. Its open, tooth-studded mouth was only 18 inches away and both men shrank back against the ship as the shark explored every angle. At one point it actually stood straight on his head, turning and twisting to reach the men cowering behind the crane. Only its huge size prevented it from reaching them. After 5 minutes the great shark backed off; its empty, soulless eyes studying them.
JIM AND RANDLE had other problems beside the shark. They both glanced at their depth gages: 130 feet. At this depth and pressure the divers could only stay a few more minutes. They must escape and soon.
The hungry shark hovered, moving slightly left and right, obviously looking for another way to nab these tempting snacks. Its great girth would easily accommodate the torn pieces of both men, but how to nab them?
Suddenly, frustrated, the shark turned his great bulk and swam straight away, dwindling in size until it became a dot and vanished.
Glancing at their watches, both terrified men now had to surface immediately, but they could only ascend as fast as a single bubble of air rose. To rise quicker would cause the absorbed gases in their blood and tissue to bubble — the bends, a serious and life-threatening situation.
As they slowly ascended, fear choked them, both felt like pieces of dangling bait. The senses of a shark are so delicate the hammerhead could easily detect them and their bubbling scuba tanks at a great distance. Would it return?
Finally, after a seeming eternity of dread, they reached the surface where both divers fought one another to get up the ladder. Safely on deck the bright sun had never felt so good. They breathed deeply, shaking, but still uneaten and alive.
What about the Prince Eugene? It had rusted badly; they left it for the shark.
(Wade Robertson is an award-winning outdoor writer whose articles have been published in Pennsylvania Outdoor News, Pennsylvania Game News, Fur, Fish & Game and other publications. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.)