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?
Wow. My heart is pounding. Yikes!
Thanks, Cynthia … glad to have your visit today. I hope you’ll return often. This is Hound Day, but the Resident Foxes usually have something interesting/exciting on the other days of the week also.
Great post, Jeff.
Like you, I’ve experienced some pretty frightening life or death situation.
But I want to tell a different story. Like you, I was in the water, only it was it the clear tropical waters off Cozumel, or maybe it was Cancun. See, I love the tropics. And I love that I can SEE in the water. No surprises, right? This might (okay…definitely DOES) have something to do with JAWS. I saw the movie at a very early age, probably around 8-ish. And so I’m quite skittish about the water.
So, while frolicking carefree in crystal clear water, I saw the ‘shadow’. Naturally, the scene where Rob Scheider on the lifeguard stand screaming for everyone to get out of the water ran through my head.
The shadow was moving very fast. Much faster than I could move in waist-deep water. Damn waves battering me wasn’t at all helpful…Imagine, if you will, my DH on the beach watching me flail my arms around and screaming, but not being able to hear what I was saying. What a sight!
I would have been shark food, because that shadow was upon me. Only, it turns out the shadow was REALLY a shadow, a shadow of an para-sail overhead. *sheesh* Imagine my embarrassment. DH still gets a kick out of retelling that story.
You had me going there, Jenn. But I had guessed it might have been a school of fish which were packed very tightly together.
So the pirate lady is a tropical maven … figures.
Sheesh. Commenting first thing in the morning must be tough for me. I’m usually a better speller. LOL!
This pirate lady/tropical maven needs to get over her extreme fear of sharks if she’s ever going to make a living giving paddle boarding tours in the Caribbean.
BTW – there are loads of bull sharks in the Gulf swimming alongside beach goers every day. *shivers*
Book me for one of your paddle board tours … but I’ll need a little trolling motor on mine. LOL
Oh, boy! Shark encounters; boty , you people! I never had anything attack me in the water. Once I did , literally,’go down for the third time’ in the Chesapeake Bay when I was about 4, (and I remember it clearly).My father was not paying attention and I went down once, then twice.I struggled up the last time and knew I had to put effort into flagging my mother on the sand,(she was afraid of water).My aunt was with her, not in a bathing suit.I saw my mother put her cigarette down and run, but by that time I was going d-o-w-n.I remember looking under the rather murky water but being very calm, until I was snatched-up by Mom and Dad.Once it was established that I was OK, you can imagine that there were ‘words’ between them.
Glad to see you out-ran a shark, Jeff!
Thanks, Tonette. Now, remember, I can’t swear it was a shark … but I out ran SOMETHING large, dark, homicidal, and ravenously hungry.
And a note about your Chesapeake Bay experience: similar to my dunk in Lake Michigan in this respect: I also recall feeling unusually calm as I looked up through the water at my Dad reaching in for me.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should clarify that when I first wrote down this story (in 1985) my two buddies were much nearer to me than in the re-telling above.
Re-reading that earlier version just now (which is in an unpublished volume of ‘family history’) I simply cannot picture the scene except with my buddies in the distance. I distinctly recall being ALONE in the deepest part.
Also I should have clarified that I had waded out so far that I could SEE the drop-off … with a VERY noticeable descending grade.
My scariest experience also involved the ocean. I was swimming off the coast of Portugal and very nearly could pulled out to sea by a riptide. If I wasn’t, back then, such a strong swimmer I could have drowned but I was able to make it back to where I could touch the bottom. Needless to say it didn’t frighten me away from swimming in the ocean, just not any more that day.
Thank goodness you were a strong swimmer. I’ve heard of many people drowning as a result of riptides.
In my situation, I wasn’t deep enough — but might have been if I’d gone out much farther.
You must have a lot of courage to get back in salt water after that experience, Lindsay.
I love the Gulf, but I definitely respect the natives. After the oil spill, but before the oil came close enough for the beach to close, we swam among huge schools of fish that would ordinarily have stayed farther out. We marveled at the experience–until they started leaping out of the water. We immediately decided to follow suit.
LOL, Chris. I can well imagine. I would’ve been right in front of you.
Heart-pounding fear is something I think we never forget. Glad you made it out alive. 🙂 And yeah, ever since Jaws, I have a “don’t go in the water” attitude about salt water. Well, that and the fact that the Puget Sound and ocean here never really gets warmer than about 39 degrees. 🙂
Gad, Laurie, 39 degrees is cold for polar bears!
I bet you get some interesting marine life in the Puget Sound also. Don’t ya’ll have a “nessie” of your own up there?
as usual, enjoyed your adventures !
Thanks, Dean. Glad you could make it to the blog today.
So what do you think that dark, fast-moving, large aquatic shape really was?
Wow- you’ve had quite the number of adventures! I’ve had a few myself that involved knife wielding bad guys chasing us down a dark alley in Singapore. Suffice it to say we never went behind buildings to find out why a woman was screaming again!
Good grief, Stacey. Tell us more … but I’ll probably have to wait until daylight to read it.
Recovering from holding my breath- what a story!
I think it was a dolphin that was the shadow. That’s it, a dolphin. I’m just going to assume it was a dolphin. Don’t you think it was a dolphin? I think it was a dolphin.
(I reread this. There are no typo’s.)
Thanks, Llew. Actually a dolphin would make more sense than a shark.
However, it was the meanest, biggest, darkest, hungriest dolphin ever to swim the waters off Ft. Walton Beach. LOL.
I was thinking dolphin when I first read it, too. If it really HAD been a shark, there’s no way Jeff could have outrun/outswam it, if it was hungry.
Jeanne, actually, I prob. should have clarified earlier: my believe — for all these 44 years — has been that what I saw was something MUCH larger, like a small whale … and that it was considerably farther away than I imagined in my fright.
Of course, I’ve never done the research to learn whether whales of any type are in the Gulf …
I WAS being funny…or so I thought.
Not to split hairs, but there are a number of types of sharks, not all of them are Great Whites or other ‘dangerous’ ones. To paraphrase George Carlin in his line about snakes:”Even a non-maneater can give you a heart attack”.
quite true, Tonette.
Fun story although I can bet it wasn’t at the time. LOL!
They filmed part of Jaws II in the Ft. Walton/Destin area. Many of my friends were extras. I love the first movie, the second one, not so much- the shark was too cheesy in #2. Glad your shark/creature wasn’t a biter.
The first movie was terrific. I’ve seen the second one, but don’t remember it very well. Only saw parts of a third, I think, and had no desire to watch the entire thing.