Vital Signs dmb-2, page 23part #2 of Dr. Marissa Blumenthal Series
"Plus there never are any waves. It's always calm."
Almost the moment Wynn mentioned waves, Marissa felt the boat start to shudder against a building chop.
"Can't get much better weather than this," Wendy said.
"We've been lucky lately," Wynn agreed.
"But we'll hit some surf on the outer reef. It shouldn't be too bad though."
"How much further do we have to go?" Marissa asked. The Whitsunday Islands were now mere specks on the western horizon.
It seemed to her they were heading to the center of the Coral Sea. Being this far from land revived her misgivings.
"Another half hour," Wynn said in answer to her question.
"The outer reef's about fifty miles from Hamilton Island."
Marissa nodded. She was beginning to think she was about as fond of boating as Wendy was of gross anatomy lessons. She would just as soon have gone snorkeling. Then they could have stayed within sight of shore.
At just after ten o'clock the captain slowed the engines and sent Wynn forward to the bow. He told the women he was searching for a particular channel to anchor in.
"Best goddamn diving in the world," he told them.
After a half hour of searching, Rafe yelled for Wynn to drop anchor. Marissa noticed they were between two enormous heads of coral. Over their tops the waves were cresting. The surf had increased to approximately three feet.
"Anchor's on the bottom," Wynn shouted.
Rafe cut the engines and the boat quickly drifted until it faced northwest, heading into the wind. From the stern Marissa could see that they were moored about thirty feet from the outer wall of the reef. The color of the water abruptly changed from emerald green over the reef to the deep sapphire of the ocean beyond.
Now that the boat was no longer moving ahead, it was more susceptible to the waves. The boat began to pitch from the waves ing into the channel at the same time it rocked back and forth from the wash of the waves cresting on the coral heads. Marissa began to feel queasy from the rough, irregular motion. Steadying herself with one hand, she turned around and made her way back to Wendy, clutching the rail with every step.
"Is this where we're diving?" Wendy asked Rafe.
"This is it," Rafe said.
"You ladies have a good time. But stay with — Wynn here, understand? I got some work down in the engine room, so it will be just the three of you. Don't go swimming off on your own."
"Lower that cage before you go below," Wynn called.
"Oh, yeah," Rafe said.
"I almost forgot."
"Let's get our suits on," Wendy said to Marissa. She tossed Marissa's shoulder bag to her, then went below.
Marissa was impressed how at ease Wendy seemed at sea. She negotiated the deck as calmly as if they were still back at the dock.
After passing through the saloon, Wendy entered one of the cabins. Marissa went to the one opposite and tried the door.
Finding it was locked, she tried another. It was open and she went in.
Within the confines of the narrow space, Marissa had some difficulty changing out of her clothes and into her bathing suit.
By the time she emerged, she was feeling even more nauseated than she had before she went belowdecks. The faint smell of diesel fuel no doubt contributed. When she got back on deck she felt better but still not great. She hoped that once she got into the water, the feeling would pass.
Wendy was already pulling her tank on over her buoyancy vest when Marissa reached her. Wynn was giving her a hand. Marissa slipped on her vest.
A terrible grinding screech resulted from Rafe's efforts at deploying the shark cage. Marissa watched as the cage was lifted high above the deck, then swung out to starboard. With a high. he'd whir, it was dropped into the water.
Once Wynn had finished helping Wendy, he came over to Marissa to strap on her tank. He guided her to the stern of the boat.
Wendy was already on the dive platform, ready to go. Her mask was on, as were her heavy work gloves. As the swells hit the boat, she was alternately submerged to her knees and then dry.
After pulling on her own mask and gloves, Marissa struggled over the stern and stood next to Wendy. The water felt cold at first, but Marissa soon got used to it. The water was incredibly clear. Looking directly down, she could see the sandy bottom at about thirty feet. As she looked farther out she saw that the sand abruptly dropped off to incalculable oceanic depths.
Wendy tapped Marissa on the shoulder.
"Do you remember the diving sign language?" Wendy asked. Her voice sounded nasal with her mask covering her nose.
"Sort of," Marissa said.
Wendy went over all the key signals, demonstrating them with her free hand. She had to hold on firmly with the other so she wasn't knocked from the platform. Marissa held on with both hands throughout the review.
"Got them?" Wendy asked.
Marissa signaled okay.
"All right!" Wendy said, slapping her on the shoulder.
"You ladies ready?" Wynn asked. He had joined them at the stern of the boat, taking a seat on the gunwale.
Wendy said she was all set. Marissa merely nodded.
"Follow me!" Wynn said. He put in his mouthpiece, then somersaulted backwards into the water. Wendy followed almost immediately.
Marissa put in her mouthpiece and took her first breath of the cool, compressed air. Turning her head, she looked longingly into the boat. She caught sight of Rafe as he disappeared below.
Glancing back into the water, she saw some algae stream past, then some seaweed. The current seemed swift, heading out to sea.
Unable to delay any longer, Marissa grabbed hold of her mask, let go of the boat, and plunged into the water.
The instant the bubbles disappeared, Marissa was astounded.
It was as if she had leaped into another world. The clarity of the water was beyond her expectations. She was surrounded by butterfly and angel fish. Thirty feet ahead, Wendy and Wynn were waiting at the lip of the channel. She could see them as clearly as if they were suspended in the air. Below her the sand sparkled, giving her the impression she could see each and every grain.
Looking to her right and left, she saw walls of coral in fantastic shapes and colors. Behind her she could see the bottom of the boat with the shark cage suspended from its cable.
Without the slightest effort Marissa found herself carried. by the current toward the other two.
After everyone had exchanged okay signs, they started to swim out of the channel, veering to the left. Marissa paused at the channel's edge and peered uneasily into the eerie abysmal depths.
The sound of her breathing echoed in her ears. Fighting against a primeval terror, she shuddered to think of what creatures were lurking in the cold, black vastness.
Marissa saw that Wendy and Wynn had already left her behind.
She swam hard to catch up to them, scared of being left alone.
Her fears were soon overcome by the sheer beauty of the world around her. All her phobias vanished as she found herself enveloped in a silvery cloud of cardinal fish.
As she followed the others into a coral gorge, she was thrilled by the number and variety of fish. They came in every size and shape and in colors more brilliant than anything on land. The coral was equally dramatic, with colors that rivaled the fish and in shapes that ranged from brain like masses to antler like growths. Diaphanous sea fans waved sinuously in the current.
Distracted by the beauty, Marissa realized the others had disappeared.
She hurried forward, rounding a large coral head.
Wynn was stopped up ahead. She saw him reach into a net secured to his waist. When he pulled out his hand she saw that he held some bait fish In an instant he was surrounded by batfish and parrot fish. He clearly wasn't interested in these species because he waved them away. Instead he went close to the opening of a large underwater cave and began to wave the bait through the water.
Marissa's heart leaped into her throat,
Wendy swam up behind Wynn and signaled that she wanted to try to feed the behemoth. Wynn gave her several bait fish and showed her how to hold them out.
The cod was happy to oblige, opening its huge mouth and sucking in the bait like an enormous underwater vacuum cleaner.
Wynn motioned for Marissa to swim over, but she was happy to stay where she was and indicated as much via hand signals. She watched Wendy feed the fish, but it was not easy to stay in one place. The surge from the wave action on the reef swept her to and fro, forcing her to fend herself off the coral with her gloved hands. The motion reawakened the queasiness she'd felt on the boat.
Once the potato cod had devoured all the bait fish Wynn was willing to offer, it lazily drifted back into its lair. Wendy went to the very lip of the cave and peered in. Then she swam back to Marissa and motioned for her to follow.
Reluctantly, Marissa swam after Wendy. They passed the cave's mouth and dove close to the sandy bottom. Wendy pointed into a crevice, then backed away so Marissa could take a look.
Marissa hung on to the coral so the current didn't pull her along as she let her eyes adapt to the shadows. She was glad she was wearing the heavy gloves. Finally Marissa saw what Wendy had pointed to: a large green moray eel with its mouth open and its needlelike teeth bared.
Marissa recoiled from the sight. This was precisely the sort of creature she hoped not to see.
Wynn joined the two girls. Pulling out another bait fish he managed to coax the moray out of its crevice, terrifying Marissa in the process. It writhed through the water, snatching the bait fish in its horrid jaws, then retreating to its hideaway.
As Wendy took a bait fish from Wynn and tried to get the eel to come out again, Marissa began to comprehend that beneath the reef's veneer of spectacular beauty lurked an entirely predatory world. The potential for danger lay everywhere. It was a violent, eat-or-be-eaten world. Even some of the exquisite coral was razor-sharp to the touch.
While Wendy and Wynn devoted themselves to the eel, Marissa heard a low-pitched vibration that made her look up toward the water's surface. The sound became progressively louder, but just as Marissa was about to become alarmed, it stopped. Holding her breath, she listened intently. All she heard was the hiss of the waves above. When it became clear that neither Wendy nor
Wynn was concerned about the sound, Marissa decided to ignore it too.
After Wendy had tired of the game with the moray eel, she and Wynn recommended swimming along the reef. After twenty more feet, they entered yet another coral gorge. Again Wendy stopped and pointed for Marissa's benefit.
Marissa joined Wendy cautiously, hoping another eel hadn't caught her eye. To her relief, Wendy had spotted some colorful clown fish ensconced in the poisonous tentacles of a bed of sea anemone. The fish were a neon orange with vivid white stripes edged in black. For several minutes both Wendy and Marissa were entertained by their antics.
After almost an hour of diving, Marissa began to tire. She still felt mildly nauseated and was fatigued from fighting the surge. It was a constant struggle to keep from being knocked against the coral. Finally Marissa decided she'd had enough.
Signaling Wendy and Wynn, Marissa indicated that she wanted to return to the boat. Wendy nodded and started to come with her, but Marissa signaled for her to stay. Marissa didn't want to drag her friend back until Wendy was good and read Y.
Wynn gave Marissa the okay signal. He and Wendy waved a farewell. Marissa waved back, then turned and started swimming for the boat. When she got to the mouth of the channel where the boat was anchored, she looked back at Wendy and Wynn. They were intently examining something on the face of the coral about sixty feet away. Marissa swam into the channel. Ahead she could see the Oz's keel, the shark cage, and what looked like another smaller boat off to the left.
Reaching the dive platform, Marissa hauled herself up onto it.
Exhausted, she was content to sit for a minute with her legs dangling in the water and her back against the stern of the boat.
As the boat rose and fell, the platform was alternately submerged up to her navel, then dry.
Marissa removed her mouthpiece and shoved her face mask up on her forehead. After wiping her eyes, she reached up and grabbed the rail that ran around the stern. Still she didn't stand.
She continued to sit on the dive platform. It seemed that the motion of the boat was worse than the surge.
"Guess I'm just a landlubber," she told herself. She was embarrassed such relatively calm seas could have such an effect on her, but then she had always been susceptible to motion. As a child, she had often gotten carsick.
While she was waiting to feel better, Marissa became aware of progressive movement around her legs. Bending over, she saw a profusion of small, eager fish darting about. Looking more closely, she saw bits and pieces of fish go by with the current, then a larger blur of what looked like blood and entrails. The building school of fish was busily feeding.
Marissa was preoccupied and baffled as she watched this growing feeding frenzy of colorful tropical fish. But then things turned serious. Out of the blue streaked a five-foot barracuda-type fish which tore through the offal before disappearing as quickly as it had appeared. The smaller fish, which had scattered upon the larger predator's arrival, soon returned in ever greater numbers.
Marissa's blood ran cold. By reflex she drew her legs up onto the dive platform. Just as she did, more coils of intestine went by in a swirl of dark color that had to be blood.
Above and beyond the sloshing of the waves against the boat's stern, Marissa heard distinct splashing noises. Standing up, she peered into the boat. Moving to port so that she could see better in the direction the noise was coming from, Marissa spotted two men. One was on the smaller boat she'd seen from below; the other was on the Oz itself. Both were busily emptying buckets of churn into the water. With the breeze Marissa caught a fetid whiff of decaying fish.
Rafe was nowhere to be seen. Turning back to look at the water off the stern, Marissa saw a widening patch of blood that was now staining the surface dusky red. Fish had begun leaping from the water in their frenzy for the food.
Marissa shouted at the men.
"Hey!" she yelled.
"There are divers in the water!"
The men's heads shot up and they glanced at Marissa. She noticed one was Asian. Then they went back to their task, furiously dumping the rest of the offal.
"Rafe!" Marissa yelled.
The Asian man leaped from the Oz onto the deck of the smaller boat with the boat's bowline in hand. Then, with a roar of a powerful engine and a puff of gray exhaust, the smaller boat sped away to the west.
"Rafe!" Marissa yelled again as loud as she could.
Rafe came out of the cabin, shielding his eyes from the blazing sun. Smudges of grease were on his cheeks. He had a large wrench in his hand.
"There ere two men dumping chum into the water," Marissa yelled.
"They're heading away in a speedboat." Marissa pointed to the receding launch.
Rafe leaned over the gunwale and glanced at the boat.
"My word, they're heading west!" he said.
"They were supposed to fish out beyond the reef."
"Fish!" Marissa cried.
"Look what they dumped into the water!"
Rafe looked down.
"Jesus!" he cried- He ran back to the stern and eyed the expanding patch of red. Fish were leaping from the water in even greater numbers.
"Jesus!" he repeated.
"Could this mess bring sharks?" Marissa asked him.
"Good Lord, yes!" Rafe said.
"Oh, my God!"
Despite her terror, Ma
Fish of every size and shape swarmed around her. Visibility was drastically reduced. Biting down on her mouthpiece, Marissa swam ahead, trying not to think about anything but getting Wendy back into the boat.
By the time Marissa neared the mouth of the channel, she saw her first shark; small and white-tipped, it was slowly circling the offal. The ghastly creature terrified Marissa more than anything she'd seen in her life. Keeping her eye on the shark, Marissa swam to the left, close to the wall of coral. While she was still watching, the shark suddenly darted forward into the feeding melee and snared a rope of intestine. Then another larger shark appeared out of nowhere and gave chase.
Trembling uncontrollably, Marissa rounded the edge of the mouth of the channel, scanning the distance for sight of Wendy and Wynn. More sharks appeared, progressively larger than the first two, including one Marissa recognized as a hammerhead.
The big fish looked prehistoric, like a monster left over from the dinosaur age.
Up ahead Marissa finally saw Wynn. Wendy was directly below him, exploring a crevice; only her legs and flippers could be seen. Marissa swam toward them, but even before she got there, Wynn turned and looked her way.
Frantically, Marissa pointed over her shoulder at the feeding frenzy that had developed. Wynn responded by ducking down and giving Wendy a tug. Then he swiftly swam toward Marissa with strong strokes.
Marissa began to head back to the boat. To her left she saw one shark ram another shark. A huge gash was left along the side of the one that was hit. The next thing she knew, the wounded shark was rapidly eaten alive by several others.
Wynn passed Marissa and turned into the channel.. Marissa glanced back, expecting Wendy to be right behind him. Instead, all she could see were Wendy's flippers, She was still head-down in the same crevice. For a second, Marissa debated what to do.
Then Wendy's head popped up, looking for Wynn. She immediately spotted the school of sharks, whose numbers seemed to be increasing by the second.
Wendy started for Marissa in a panic. As abruptly, she was forced to stop when several sharks came between them. Marissa started to swim a sort of backstroke toward the opening of the channel, keeping Wendy in sight at all times. Her terror had increased to the point that she felt she was running out of air.
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