A week ago my daughter, Dancia, was off on a first class, expense paid trip from Hawaii to Puerto Rico (we should all be so lucky), so my son Jamie, 17, and I decided to do a trip of our own. Dancia can’t have all the fun. We loaded up my Toyota Tacoma pickup with our scuba diving gear and headed to Washington State. Road trip!
Our first stop along the way was Olympia, where I finished high school and went to college. I booked a hotel room on my now few and far between Marriott points at the Town Place Suites on Capitol Boulevard. We walked and walked as we toured downtown and the waterfront and I shared stories with him of my life long ago.
It turned out the gay pride parade was happening the morning of our departure, so the hotel gave us a 2 p.m. checkout since the road would be blocked. At the hotel we were right at the start of the parade and could sit on our truck hood to take in the festivities. During our walk back to the hotel before the parade had started, we saw “Jesus Saves” people with very loud loudspeakers and tall flags trying to disrupt the peaceful parade even before it even started.
We watched as one woman on her own was confronting one of the Jesus protesters (for lack of a better word) who marched ahead of the parade. She tried to talk to him while walking alongside him as he blasted recriminations to the gay community over a loudspeaker. Eventually she turned in front of him and walked backwards, still trying to stop him. Lots of people watched. No one joined her. The guy didn’t stop.
The anti-gay fundamentalists had huge flags and loudspeakers that drowned out the peaceful singing during the parade. They had people on the side handing out pamphlets about seeing their version of light. Nothing stopped them from their constant intrusion. It didn’t set right. Nonetheless, the parade marched on.
Perched on our truck hood, we watched the parade until the last of the participants began to pass by. And then came the Jesus obstructionists with their flags and loud speakers, determined to have their proclamations drowning out the end of the parade. It was enough. I turned to Jamie and said, “Let’s do something.” He joined me unquestionably (he had seen enough too) and we jumped into the street and formed a barricade between the Jesus disrupters and the end of the parade. We joined hands in the middle of the street and asked others to join us, and they did.
It was amazing how many people joined hand in hand with us forming a line across the street in a short period of time. (Why didn’t I support the woman earlier on?) We stalled the Jesus demonstrators and it was only when they dispersed and wove around us (not behind the parade) that we left it alone. It was time for others (or not) to take action. I’m honestly not sure what happened after that, as we needed to check out of our hotel room, but I would like to think others followed our lead. One of the parade organizers came up to us during our efforts to thank us and join in briefly, so we felt good. It was the right thing to do.
We moved on to our next stop, the Sunrise Motel and Dive Resort in Hoodsport, where we would spend the next three nights as I showed Jamie my old stomping grounds from the late 70s/early 80s for scuba diving in Hood Canal (Steve Fischnaller, where are you? I’ve been trying to find you!). What a great location. We could scuba dive steps from our room, or explore my old favorite dive sites, all within three miles of the resort.
Which brings me to the scariest dive I have ever done. And we’re talking well over 1000. The last night of our stay I wanted to take Jamie night diving for his first time. We swam out to where we could drop down to 45’ and breeze past the murky thermocline to clear waters below. We immediately saw a large jellyfish with tentacles extending 10’ or more and I signaled to Jamie to swim to our right. We were just settling down to the bottom at about 50’ when from the slope below we saw a large shark emerge from the depths. During our stay we had heard a sixgill shark had been recently spotted by divers at 100 feet, so we pretty much knew that must be what we were seeing, only shallower.
I gathered close to Jamie and we both froze and stopped. My thought was to make ourselves appear bigger, but that didn’t stop this prehistoric sixgill shark (estimated to be 150 million years in its offing) to cruise slowly straight towards us.
We’re talking 20’ visibility at best, with night lights. The shark was far larger than any of the spiny dogfish sharks I had encountered years ago while night diving on Hood Canal. It was wide and the whites of its eyes will forever haunt me. As it kept coming towards us, all I could see was its wide head getting closer and closer. Jamie, on my left, could make out its side and could see its gills, with its dorsal fin and tail barely visible in the shadows.
The shark came within 3 feet of Jamie and 5 feet of me (clinging to his side; he would say I was hiding behind him). When it was clear the shark was not going away, we looked at each other and signaled to go up. While I tried to calmly surface and basically looked only up (get me out of here), Jamie used his light to see what the shark was doing below us. Now that makes sense. I was in escape mode and my son was in surveillance mode. He said it continued on its path right below us. I was glad it wasn’t following us up.
Hands down it was the scariest experience I have ever had in 37 years of diving. I kept remembering how dogfish sharks in Puget Sound would come up and ram our dive lights when night diving. Dogfish sharks may be up to 4 feet long, but they’re narrow and relatively small. We’d just whap them in the nose where they have a lot of sensory organs and they would swim away. But this wasn’t the kind of shark you wanted to hit in the nose and aggravate.
We surfaced with excited shrieks that two divers who had finished a dive before us heard. They had ended their “night dive” at sunset, when we (me) wanted to wait until it was really dark. They were trying to figure out if we were in distress and why we had surfaced so quickly. When they learned we had surfaced due to a shark encounter, one of the guys was really disappointed they hadn’t seen it too. He’s been hoping to see a sixgill for 25 years.
After our dive we learned there was a PBS special set to air on the sixgill shark in Puget Sound the next night. Now how ironic is that?
Sixgill sharks are known to live thousands of feet under the sea in the Pacific Northwest. Previously I had heard about them, but thought they didn’t come above 200 feet. When I went night diving decades before in Puget Sound we didn’t even think about, or encounter, them. Depending on which book or resource you read, they can get up to 16 or 26 feet long and weigh up to 1,300 or 1,800 pounds. They can be as wide as a couch and as long as a truck. The one we saw was about 7-8 feet long and pretty wide. It was big enough.
Since our adventure, we have watched the PBS sixgill documentary and it focuses on encounters with the shark near Seattle. It makes me want to go back to Puget Sound and descend to 45’ at night in front of the Sunrise Motel and Dive Resort (which we absolutely loved; best value around and the owner Frank is wonderful) to possibly experience this wonder again. But only with other divers in tow. Safety in numbers.
While the shark encounter riveted me, it also rejuvenated me. To have shared the experience with my son, on his first night dive no less, is a memory neither of us will ever forget. Road trips are always fun, but this road trip was one for the family’s record book.
To view the PBS documentary on sixgills go to: http://www.opb.org/news/article/searching-for-the-mysterious-sixgill-sharks-of-puget-sound/ and click on WATCH the Wildlife Detectives Documentary ‘Mystery Sharks of Seattle’.