(Encounters with marine life while drawing underwater)
Aquascape Artist Nick Peters
I would like to dedicate this story to my dive buddy, Val, who enthusiastically encouraged and offered constructive suggestions while I was developing Aquascape.
Diving in Bonaire, Netherlands Antilles, on a bright sunny day, calm ocean with excellent visibility. A dive site called Cliff.
There's a metal flagpole at thirty five feet with a dive flag flying in the current. The pole sits right on the edge of a cliff. Over the edge and one hundred ten feet to the bottom lies the wreck of a small sailing ship.
I'm hanging onto the pole, my left fin on its base, my right leg wrapped around the pole like an image from a Charlie Chaplin movie. I'm leaning out over the cliff, looking down at he wreck, getting ready to draw it with a brown pencil.
Suddenly, it's dark, like some gigantic vacuum has sucked all light out of the water. I can't see the ship. Looking up , the source of the darkness descends on me, an enormous school of silversides starts to surround me like a funnel cloud in Kansas. The sight is awesome, breathtaking. The school is so thick, I can't see more than two or three fish deep into it.
The silver cloud extends from the surface to thirty feet, extending along the drop off.
Suddenly, out of the darkness two large shapes emerged like phantoms sporting dorsal fins. My first reaction was: SHARKS! My next reaction was: I have to draw them. I looked at my pencil; it's brown. "Yikes. Where's my silver one?" A quick wave of anxiety rolls over me as the shapes get closer and I'm still fumbling for the right pencil.
I locate the pencil and, with perhaps a bit too much exuberance, start to draw. "Yikes again!" The lead snaps off, rolling around on the paper. As I chase the lead to grab it before rolling off the paper and falling over the precipice, I'm starting to worry that these intruders are going to get away without a trace.
Finally, after what seems like an impossibly long time, I snatch the runaway lead and, gripping it like a vice, begin drawing. As they swim closer, almost within arm's reach, I'm startled to discover that these sharks are not sharks at all.
What is this? I thought. They're big, almost as big as me. With deep bodies like a salmon, and scales that seemed as big as my palm. They cruise by, right in front of me. That's when I notice the eyes--big as silver dollars with coal-black irises that looked right through me, like I was just some inconsequential drifting sea-plant. It seems they were transfixed by their prey. And since I had no part in their meal plans, they simply ignored me.
All this time I'm drawing furiously as the non-sharks glide unhurriedly before me, an occasional slight flick of the tail providing more than enough propulsion. After several more minutes, they disappear in as ghostly a fashion as they came. But the drawing is complete, though I still don't have a clue as to their identity.
Back to drawing the silversides, I quickly realize that there won't be enough time to draw each member of the school. It would only clutter the composition anyway. OK, I wont' draw them, I'll represent them. But how? A dot works great for the eyes, with a V on its side for the tail. Many dots and lazy Vs later, I'm satisfied with the result, and the school is down on paper.
Like flashes from a dozen strobes, a school of horseye jacks burst on the scene, moving fast in a zigzag pattern. They were hunting the silversides in earnest. Working together like a pack of wolves, they appeared to be trying to get close to the silversides without spooking them. In fact, after a while it became obvious that certain individual horseyes were coordinating their runs into the school in such a way that they would be as unobtrusive as possible. Individual jacks would break off and make a run at a targeted silverside, then regroup with the other jacks.
As the individual jacks darted into the school, the silver mass shape-shifted, leaving holes and tunnels of empty space, morphing like the liquid-metal android in Terminator 2. Both hunters and prey were in constant flux, moving back and forth, in and out, engaged in a frenetic dance for life.
During the several minutes I watched this ancient, swirling ritual of the food chain, I never saw a jack actually make a kill. No wonder they looked a little anorexic. Tough work being a predator.
Now a new form entered the scene, gliding slowly, purposefully toward the school of silversides. A very large dart-shaped barracuda. I've seen my share of barracuda: in Roatan and Guanaja, Honduras, even on a night dive in Grand Cayman. But never one this big.
Unlike the fast moving jacks, this fellow seemed more self-assured, confident that he could take a silverside any time he wanted. The silversides seemed to agree, as they kept a far more respectful distance from him than they did with the jacks. However, this was to be their lucky day, for the big fish seemed completely oblivious to the little morsels and far more concerned with what I was up to.
I was drawing the whole time. The barracuda, who had apparently headed for the open sea, and the jacks. And their movable feast, the silversides. Somehow my precious silver pencil got sharpened. Don't have the foggiest notion how. After drawing all the players and finally running out of watercolor paper, I took a last peek over the edge of the drop-off. A large grouper was skulking along the bottom , moving from coral head to coral head, trying to stay out of sight.
As I moved toward shore, I noticed that the school of silversides had bunched up and was headed in with me, keeping themselves between me and the jacks, who were very nervous about coming into shallow water. Caught in the middle, I was the pivot point of a compass needle, with the jacks the north end and the silversides the south. Desperate for a kill, the jacks shortened the distance to the school by getting closer to me. Curious to see their reaction, I started waving my arms. The jacks scooted away, while the silversides moved in closer to me, as though they could sense that I would somehow protect them.
I began to run low on air, so I ended the dive, still wondering about my earlier encounter with the mysterious non-sharks.
Long climb up the ladder to the dock. Worn out. Exhausted. I shed my gear,lugging all I could carry to the storage shed. On my way up the ramp I run into Dennis, a local Bonaire dive guide and fanatical fisherman, who's headed for the dock where he keeps his dingy. I tell him about the jacks and silversides, not more than a hundred feet off the dock. "Where were they?" he demands. "There," I point awkwardly, my arms still full of gear. "And there, at the drop off." He turns and dashes up the ramp to the dive shop to get his gear. By the time I get back to the dock, from putting away my gear, he's pushing off.
I wave my drawings, yelling "Dennis, what are these fish?" But he's to far out, and too focused on the spot where I had last seen the jacks.
Frustrated, I head for the restaurant, expecting to have the fish identified there. Entering, it's quickly apparent that my quest will take a little longer, for the room does not contain a single diver, only a small group of tourists off a cruise ship.
The tourists were fascinated by my drawings, asking numerous questions about how I'm able to draw underwater. But they're certainly no help in identifying my mystery fish. Showing my disappointment, I head for my room.
Outside on the walk I run into Captain Don Stewart, somewhat of a legend in the diving world. If anyone can identify my sea-ghosts, it's him.
As I'm describing my encounter with the strange big fish, Captain Don's face contorts with an incredulous smirk. He's obviously thinking I'm nuts.
"But Don, I can prove it," I stammer as I shove my drawings under his nose.
"Well I'll be xxx," he growled. " Tarpon ! Never seen them in this close."
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