‘Just avoid the deep water,’ said the announcer. ‘You’re perfectly safe in the shallows and we keep an eye out for you. No one’s ever been hurt in the shallows but you must stay there because there are sharks in the deep water and two divers were badly hurt by a large barracuda only about six weeks ago. That guy wasn’t within 20 miles of here but it’s best to be sure.’
Into the water we all went and I floundered around for a while, hating it. For everyone else it was a magical time; snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef is an incredible experience. But my mind wasn’t able to deal with the others’ delight or the shouting, giggling and photograph-taking all around me. When you’re depressed, other people’s happiness just repulses you. I thought I would just swim around the boat for some exercise and then get out. I had completely forgotten what the announcer said and it never occurred to me that the reef stopped right there where we were moored. I swam out into the deep.
The giant barracuda was right there; lurking; probably about 30 feet down in murky blue water. It was enormous, with great black marks like portholes down its side and teeth that made me shiver. It was side on when I first saw it and probably 50 metres away but it flipped in less than a second to face-on and came upwards towards me so fast it was like a blur.
It is true that time slows down in a crisis. I remember the terror – and I also remember thinking very clearly ‘I want to live.’
A voice filled the space very clearly. It was neither male nor female and it was more like words written in my mind than sound that was spoken.
There wasn’t any question of disobeying. After all, what other choice did I have? I took a gulp of air and dived, swimming straight at the barracuda, roaring sound and air bubbles under the water.
It flipped away before I got to it.
I stopped swimming and floated back up to the surface watching it as it watched me. It was stalemate. I wasn’t turning my back on it and it wasn’t going any further away.
I didn’t tell anyone on the boat; I was too scared of being told off and there was no one else who was about to be as stupid as I had been. But as I sat, wrapped in my towel, on deck, shivering, I knew that I wanted to live. Henry’s death was not the end of me and I would survive.
I have the murky, slightly out-of-focus photograph of that barracuda on the desktop of my computer to look at whenever I’m feeling small or scared. It helps because it makes me remember that something spoke to the little, afraid and uncertain me when I needed help. And the help it offered was swift, effective and, above all, practical. There was no pink fluffy stuff about love or even about what I should be believing in; it was all good sound sense.