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A Real Life “Jaws”
From Robert "Frogfoot" Weller

 

“I was on my knees tuning my metal detector when the shadow passed above me. I looked up and could only see the belly of a large fish, but it was a huge one. It was when it turned and came back that suddenly I said under my breath…wholly sh.. it’s a Great White Shark!!  What’s he doing here?”  The situation became terrifyingly complicated after that.
 We were diving “Banco San Jose” for treasure, and treasure is never easy to recover, or else everyone would be doing it. The “Banco  San Jose”,  also nicknamed “Trollop Rocks”, is a sea mount that rises from a 160 foot depth to within 12 feet of the surface.  The Bahia de Panama, with its rush of tidal currents and huge ocean swells, is a navigators nightmare in the approach to the Pacific ports of Panama, and the Banco San Jose adds more misery.

  In 1631 it claimed its name when the Almirante “San Josef” of the South Seas Armada tore out her bottom on the rocks and sank with quite a bit of treasure. 1417 silver bars and over 200 boxes of silver coins scattered down the rocks. The top decks of the San Josef drifted with the tide some 40 miles until being towed into the bay of Contadora where salvage of her passengers personal treasure was attempted,  Conditions weighed against the Spanish as they attempted salvage with local divers holding their breaths.  Eventually salvage attempts came to an end and the remaining treasure squirreled its way into the many fissures and crevices that Trollop Rocks are known for.

Salvage diver Rob McClung had the resources to meet the challenges of tide and ocean swells that washed over Banco San Jose.  The salvage vessel New World Legacy was a fairly large boat with all the required equipment to work offshore.  He felt that if he could search the rocky outcropping with SCUBA tanks and locate the trail of treasure, he could move the salvage vessel close in to do a thorough job of salvage.  They had approached the Banco early in the morning but the tide had dropped and ocean swells breaking over the rock outcroppings made it impossible to anchor close.  So they lowered the Legacy’s 18 foot Boston Whaler over  the side and Rob, along with 3 Honduran brothers Watson, Hardy and Wilson, headed for Trollop Rocks.

Trollop Rocks lie just 14 feet below the surface, but with each ocean swell passing over the depth changed constantly as much as 10 feet. It would be an interesting dive., and not for amateurs.  Rob and Watson suited up in six mil. suits because the water was cold with the ocean current along the Pacific coast in the mid 60’s degrees. With full tanks of air they had about an hour’s bottom time as the dropped to the rocky ocean floor 35 feet below the surface. They had just turned on their metal detectors when  the shadow passed over them.

The underwater visibility was a cold 25 to 30 feet as the big shadow faded into the deep green.  McClung tapped Watson on the back and signaled that  it was a shark, pointing in the direction it had disappeared. Both divers edged into the rocks as they waited for the shark to make another pass.  It seemed just seconds before the shadow emerged again, this time headed straight for them.  Suddenly it was face to face with them…and “wholly sh…, it’s a Great White Shark!!!!”  Rob’s first reaction was …what was it doing here?  Probably cruising the currents along the Pacific coast.  Regardless, the situation was suddenly very serious.  This shark was more than curious, it was interested in these two man-fish wedged in the rocks.  And all these two man-fish had for protection was metal detectors and a dive knife.

Rob had seen many sharks in the past, but this one was the largest he had ever come up against.  It was at least 20 feet long. He turned to check on Watson…and Watson wasn’t there!  The 200 lb diver had wedged himself almost out of sight in a crevasse of the rocks a few feet away. Rob would have done the same except he couldn’t find another crevasse close by. He flattened himself up against the rocks as best he could as the shark, now nicknamed “Big Louie”, cruised by several times, often as close as 10 feet from the divers. Both divers knew that leaving the bottom now was out of the question, that away from the safety of the rocks they would be nothing more than chum bob.  Time wasn’t on their side.  They had full tanks when they had first landed on the bottom, but the excitement had used up much of their air.  They began skip breathing to conserve on their air supply, but knew they had to make a decision soon.

Great White between cage and boat

When their air gauge showed only 800 lbs. left they knew it was decision time.  What began as a series of contortion like motions similar to two mutes communicating, it was decided that Rob would surface first and try getting into the boat.  If both divers tried getting in the boat at the same time it would be a disaster at the boarding ladder, and time was critical. Once in the boat Rob could lower a tank down to Watson and give him more time to wait out the shark. It was resolved that Watson would sit tight until Rob made it out of the water, and it was obvious at the time that Watson would rather wait it out in the rocks than be eaten

 by Big Louie.  Rob made mental plans not to inflate his BC in the event that Big Louie beat him to the boarding ladder, and he had to make a return to the rocks. It was during this mental pause that Rob remembered the movie “Jaws” when actress Susan Myers was swimming near the bell buoy when she was eaten by the shark.  And the reality of it was he had grown up with Susan through junior and senior high school and were on the same swimming team.  He could hear the base fiddle playing from the movie “Jaws”and it made him wonder why he was scaring the sh.. out of himself.  Then it was up the anchor line like a shot.
When he broke the surface he had planned on dumping his weight belt as quickly as possible and get up the diving ladder. As soon as his head broke the surface he shouted “SSSHHHAAARRRKKK!” and it was at that instant that something struck him in the back!  Oh sh.., Big Louie!  He wrenched around and it was Watson.  So much for the plan. McClung didn’t waste time, ducking under the boat and grabbing the ladder next to the outboard engine. With two divers thrashing about the side of the boat it would have been a real smorgasbord for any hungry shark. No time to take any gear off, McClung flung himself up over the side and landed in the bottom of the boat…on top of…Watson!

Watson’s two brothers, standing at the edge of the boat, watched as the Great White Shark had followed both divers to the surface, and now lay only a few feet behind them.  With all their strength they heaved their brother completely out of the water with a single motion and he landed in the bottom of the boat an instant before McClung .  When the adrenaline rush was over there was a big smile on both divers as they shook hands. They watched as Big Louis made several more passes under the boat, and finally disappeared.   Watson apologized for running into McClung on the surface, but said he was swimming so fast he couldn’t stop when he hit the surface.  The minute Rob had disappeared up the anchor line he realized it was a bad decision to let him go first.  He thought the last guy out with sharks always gets eaten.  They checked their air gauges and both tanks were completely empty.  It had been the only decision they could have made, except…they wouldn’t be diving any more that day.  

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