The year I settled in Mazatlán, 2006, was the same year I began my questionable avocation as a writer. Prior to my move to Mexico, the longest thing I had ever written was a detailed shopping list for a home improvement project. I began writing about my new life when I was prompted by a friend to send emails back to Idaho detailing my romp through Mexico, and I complied.
I would also post my musings on a Mazatlán forum, which is where my future editor found samples of my writings and recruited me to write a column for her monthly arts and entertainment magazine.
The following is from notes I made after a publicity stunt my editor cooked up in October of 2011 to bring attention to a new addition at our local aquarium.
It was a balmy afternoon in October when my editor contacted me and inquired as to my swimming abilities. My response was to quickly ask her why she wanted to know.
The years which have given me wisdom have taught me that answering a question with a question will buy time without automatically committing to something stupid or expensive. I am actually a skilled swimmer and very at home in the water, but was thankful to have kept that detail to myself when she voiced her request.
She was planning a feature story about the new expansion of our local aquarium, and needed my help to add some color to the article. She then eagerly admitted she wanted to put me into a shark-infested aquarium tank to further the cause of gonzo journalism in Mazatlán. In my mind the only color I could see was red — blood red.
So I suddenly made loud hissing and crackling noises, while holding the phone at arm’s length, telling her she was breaking up. I then closed the phone and returned it to my pocket. After about five seconds, I retrieved the phone and switched the damn thing off, thus giving myself ample time for several Pacificos and a bit of contemplation.
Actually I thought it would be interesting to see a shark up close sometime. I just didn’t want it to be the last thing I ever saw.
It was during that contemplation portion of my afternoon, while I was sharing a few beers with friends at a beachfront watering hole, that the editor appeared at our table and elaborated on her plan. When my drinking buddies caught the drift of what I was being asked to do, they howled with laughter.
I suddenly realized if I declined this swim in front of my buddies, my manhood would be irreparably damaged. Ah-ha. I had just been set up by my clever editor.
My dip in the tank was scheduled to take place on a Wednesday morning, while the place thronged with visitors. Walking around the huge glass-walled tank the week before, I counted 10 sharks ranging between four and eight feet in length. Viewing a large tank of predatory fish is one thing; joining them in their own environment is quite another.
I scanned the viewing area for the banner announcing that a gringo would be fed to the fishes the following Wednesday; nothing like blood and body parts to draw a crowd.
However, my reputation for death-defying acts being of value to me, I did not back out. On the fateful day I was met by Paulina, the aquarium media person. She handed me a clipboard with a sheet, asking me to fill out some type of legal consent form. It absolved the aquarium from any liability resulting from my dip in the tank.
First off, I never expected such a document existed here in the land of zero liability; consent to potential dismemberment? This was just great, even the aquarium was admitting this thing could go horribly wrong.
I took the clipboard and began to fill in the little boxes. When I came to the question which asked me who to contact in case of an emergency, I naturally wrote DOCTOR . . . . I am no fool; my significant other knows nothing about attending to massive flesh wounds.
My editor was stationed in the viewing area, camera in hand. If I lived through this I wanted proof. If the attempt proved fatal, the coroner would appreciate a visual record of the mishap. If there are coroners here.
All the while Paulina was doing her best to assure me that the 10 sharks circling in the tank were quite harmless. Ya, right, vegan sharks — I don’t think so. But she did assure me they’d just been fed large amounts of food and wouldn’t care about me.
After changing in the staff locker room, with fins and mask in hand I walked to the roof ladder and ascended to the entry point of the tank. There was a ladder in the center of the roof, and it dropped about six feet to a small metal platform several inches above the water.
When I reached the platform I encountered the aquarium’s resident shark handler; this was a very encouraging sight. Not because of the company I would have in the tank, but because he looked to be devoid of any serious scar tissue. The fact that this kid was undamaged meant it was either his first day on the job, or I would actually survive this thing with my major body parts intact. I chose to cling to the latter scenario.
I dropped into the 85-degree water, dove down about six feet and began swimming in the same counterclockwise direction as the tank’s inhabitants. I was hoping that my bright red swim trunks would distinguish me from any type of common food source.
The shark handler was quite adept at gently restraining one of these large creatures so I could stroke it and get a real up close and personal look. The mouth of a nurse shark, even a six-footer, is rather small with only a single row of teeth. It was, however, big enough to consume a hand or foot. For the next 40 minutes I intermingled with these docile but fearsome looking creatures, while I was actively transcending my galeophobia.
The handler would swim alongside the fish and place one hand on the belly, the other gripping the main dorsal fin. Those actions allowed the shark to pull him along. It took me several attempts to hitchhike a short ride on a passing shark, but the eventually successful result was deeply satisfying.
While the shark was loosely in my grasp I could feel the tremendous muscularity that rippled through its body; I was riding along with 250 pounds of very solid fish.
The skin on the back and sides of a shark is slightly rough, like a 200-grit sandpaper laid over a pliable leather substrate, while the belly is as soft and smooth as a baby’s bottom. When I released the fin and let my hands run along the length of the shark’s body, it would give a powerful flick of the tail to rid itself of the unnatural encumbrance.
With burning lungs, I would resurface, gulp some precious air and return to the carousel of cruising sharks; this turned out to be a truly top-notch experience.
Since that time I have returned to the shark tank on several other dubious occasions. The last dip in the tank was with the Mazatlán representative for the Sinaloa Tourism Board. The male bonding that occurs while swimming with carnivorous fish has forged a lifelong connection; we have become los hermanos del tiburón — the brothers of the shark.
The writer describes himself as a very middle-aged man who lives full-time in Mazatlán with a captured tourist woman and the ghost of a half wild dog. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.