By Jeff Salter
I’ve had a goodly share of scary experiences during my lifetime, beginning with two instances of “nearly drowning” (according to my parents) about 18 months apart … when I was a toddler.
At the other end of the spectrum were 13 death threats from a crazy man who was built like a NFL tackle.
Then there have been several unsettling experiences while traveling in various aircraft … and many frightening “near-misses” on highways.
But none of that is on the table right now. Today I’m focused on a time I was literally terrified at what I saw in front of me, but I was unable to run away.
The Gulf of Mexico
I first need to establish the extent of my immersion in the Gulf, which we visited quite often as I grew up … since I had numerous aunts, uncles, and cousins living in Biloxi MS and nearby. Our warm weather trips to the coast nearly always involved wading in the Gulf, which was extremely shallow … with a grade so gradual that you could wade for 15 minutes and hardly be up to your waist. In fact, over the course of my entire childhood I don’t recall EVER reaching water any deeper than that.
Fort Walton Beach
The summer after I graduated from high school, two buddies went with me along the coast all the way to Fort Walton Beach, FL. We stopped at several beaches along the way (both directions). Fort Walton was the best (in my opinion) at that time and was immeasurably nicer than the rather poorly maintained beaches we’d utilized between Biloxi and Gulfport.
So, being an adventurous buck of 17.5 years, I figured I would finally have a chance – at Fort Walton – to actually SWIM in the Gulf. But, like the Biloxi coast, the incline was tediously gradual and I waded for what seemed like half an hour before water finally got above my waist. And once it did finally get deeper, it got a lot deeper … a lot faster.
I’m not a great judge of distances, particularly when standing in chest-high water looking back at an unfamiliar beach with no landmarks. But suffice it to say I was WAY out from shore. I knew (generally) where my two buddies were, but they were hardly more than specks.
But I kept pressing outward. Remember, this was my big chance to finally get into deep water.
Well, folks, let me tell you what can happen in deeper waters.
The sun was shining, with just a light breeze, and minimal waves. The Gulf was about as clear as I suppose it ever is – in terms of visibility – and a whole lot clearer than the rather dirty water around Biloxi (where they used to have fish canneries right on the beach in the generation before me … and dumped all manner of garbage from fishing piers during my childhood years).
I had a face mask with me, because I wanted to SEE what I was swimming in — and Gulf water is way too salty for unprotected eyeballs.
Swimming in the Gulf
When I got to chest-deep water, I strapped on my face mask and began swimming underwater … away from shore. I’d come up for air and find that I could still touch bottom. So far, so good.
Then I came up for air one time and realized that I could NOT touch bottom any more, so I was finally over my head in the Gulf. My life-long dream … to finally reach deep water.
Well, that dream lost a lot of its luster when I realized I had no footing. It made me decidedly uneasy to tread water, but I was still focused on experiencing what was “out there” in the Gulf … away from all the noisy kiddies splashing a few feet from the shore.
Then I Saw It!
This deeper water was slightly murkier than the water closer to shore. Suddenly, a chill ran through my system. Ahead, was a dark shape. Moving. Moving fast. Coming toward me!
Well, folks, this event occurred a couple of years before Peter Benchley published Jaws … and thank goodness! Had this happened after absorbing Jaws, I’m sure I would have totally panicked.
As it was, I was terrified. I didn’t know WHAT it was, but I knew it was large, dark, moving fast, and coming at me. Those were all the details I needed to know that the deeper waters of the Gulf were NOT where any sane person wanted to be.
Gasping for breath, I whirled around, and paddled – you couldn’t call it swimming – as my feet kept churning and trying to reach bottom again. Despite moving as fast as I could, it felt like I wasn’t going anywhere. In fact, it actually felt – briefly – as though I was moving farther away from shore!
But, surely I wasn’t. Surely, I was making some progress toward safety. Safety from IT — the dark, huge, fast swimming thing that had located me on its sonar and figured me for a tasty snack.
Once I finally got my footing again, I began RUNNING toward shore. Ever tried running in neck-deep water? All your energy is expended moving your feet and legs. You only move forward about a few inches with each ‘stride’. Of course, I was still paddling with my arms as well.
Heart pounding, gasping for breath, limbs aching from the effort, and all my systems impaired from my fear — I finally got back into water that was chest high. I began yelling to my buddies – who later said they couldn’t understand what I saw saying but could tell I was agitated. And after more effort, I finally reached the waist high water. My buddies also made their hurried ways to shore.
And, as you likely guessed, I made it out alive.
What Was It?
Heck if I know. I’d like to think I possessed enough scientific curiosity – and fortitude – to have paused briefly in my flight, turned around, put my mask back on, and taken another gander. But under the circumstances, I just KNEW if I stopped to look, all I’d see would be sharp gnashing teeth.
It certainly could have been any of a number of rather benign – in the sense of NOT typically dining on humans – sea creatures which are large, dark, fast, and head straight toward swimmers. But I can’t guess which one it may have been. I’ve never pretended that it WAS definitely a shark, but I’ve always maintained that it COULD HAVE BEEN.
How far away from me was this creature? No idea. But I do know this: it could move a whole lot faster than I could, so it would’ve made up any distance between us with very little effort.
Was it hungry? Curious? Or just Mother Nature playing a trick on the brash vanity of a newly graduated kid who thought he had all the answers?
Whatever it was, I don’t ever want to encounter it again. Since seeing and reading Jaws, I don’t even want to get waist-deep in salt water again, actually.
But I can say this with authority: never in my life have I been more frightened (for myself) than I was in that deep water, looking through a face mask at what I imagined was sudden, violent death. [However, I have been MORE fearful – and nearly paralyzed with anxiety – for potential danger my CHILDREN were facing.]
Interesting side note: one of my two buddies in that experience later became a marine biologist. Connection? Not necessarily. But when I retell this story, I always include that fact, because it lends more weight to the possibility that the crazed aquatic maniac stalking me at Fort Walton Beach was, in fact, a killer Something-or-other.
When has YOUR life been in danger? Or you THOUGHT it was?