Making chums with sharks

Randy Riley - Contributing columnist

The wooden platform wrapped around a large oak tree. We were standing there, looking down at the forest floor. We were probably at least 50 feet above ground. One of the members of our little band of zip-liners asked, “Are we nuts? What the heck are we doing up here?”

I am sure there have been many times since we got married that Debbie has questioned my sanity. Needless to say, she was not standing on that wooden platform with the rest us.

No, Debbie and several other spouses had opted to wait at a friend’s house. While we were preparing to fly among the trees, Debbie and the other spouses were comfortably sipping wine and waiting for us.

I always knew she was smarter than me.

A few weeks ago, we were reflecting on some of our travels and adventures together. We have been blessed to be able to visit the Bahamas, Ireland and many of America’s major vacation hot-spots.

Just last year, we drove across America to San Francisco and then up to Seattle. Just north of Seattle, we drove our little Buick onto a ferry and sailed north to Alaska.

We had been on the road for over a month, but after several days of meandering across Alaska, the Yukon Territory and British Columbia, Debbie was ready to be home.

Once Debbie gets into her go-home mode, there’s no stopping her. The next day we were homeward bound.

Unfortunately, we were over 2,300 miles from home. So, I drove over 12 hours a day for the next three days until we rolled onto our driveway. Dorothy and Toto were right, there really is no place like home — but it sure is fun to occasionally leave home and pack in a few adventures.

Back in my scuba diving years, we made annual trips to Stella Maris Inn. That is a gorgeous resort in the southern islands of the Bahama chain. All the scuba diving at Stella Maris is spectacular, but one of their more popular and exciting dives is known as Shark Reef.

Shark Reef is in about 35 feet of water. It is a large horseshoe shaped reef where dive guides regularly take down a white, five-gallon bucket filled with chum.

Chum is composed of large chunks of bloody fish. To the sharks it is fine dining. After many years of chumming the waters at Shark Reef, the sharks now start to gather as soon as they hear the boat motor and the splash of the anchor.

Our goal was always to have the divers enter the water before the bucket of chum was brought down. All the divers are then positioned with their backs to the coral reef. Then a dive guide enters the water with the white bucket and the sharks start getting excited.

The actual feeding and frenzied activity of the sharks takes place in the open, sandy area in the front of the reef.

At least, that’s the way it’s supposed to happen.

One year, the sharks seemed to be particularly aggressive. As soon as the dive guide stepped off the dive platform at the rear of the boat, the sharks keyed in on the white bucket and charged it. They nuzzled, bumped and bit at the bucket. One large shark even got his head in the bucket and had trouble shaking it off.

He yanked the bucket from the grip of the dive guide. Instead of the chum bucket being placed in the open area in front of the divers, the white bucket drifted down and landed between the dive group and the reef.

The Shark Reef dive entered a whole new level of excitement. Sharks were swimming in and out between the divers as they looked for chunks of chum. Divers were scrambling to get out of the way.

Nobody wanted to be mistaken for a chunk of fish-chum. It was rather exciting.

Being one of the more experienced divers in the group, I was always expected to be one of the first divers in the water and one of the last to climb back into the boat. Despite the misplaced bucket, we got everyone safely off the reef and back into the boat.

As I started to head to the surface, I looked up at the dive platform that slapped the waves at the rear of the boat. There I saw Debbie wearing a snorkeling mask looking into the water. I waved at her. She pulled her head out of the water as other divers climbed onto the dive platform.

Just after I climbed out of the water and started taking off my dive gear, she came up to me, gave me a squeeze and told me that I was nuts.

If she had been there, I’m sure Debbie would have said the same thing to me as I stood on that wooden platform waiting to zip from one tall tree to another.

Maybe she’s right, but I’ve always craved some level of excitement. Luckily, we don’t have to drive to Alaska or fly to Ireland or the Bahamas to find a thrill. We still have the zipline at Camp Kern to feed the thrill seekers among us.

Give it a try.

Randy Riley is former Mayor of Wilmington and former Clinton County Commissioner.

Randy Riley

Contributing columnist