I whipped off my top, stripped to the essentials and slipped on the most remarkable footwear. Nobody gave me a second glance. The exquisitely balanced taste of lunch - sweet coconut infused with lime and turmeric - lingered on my lips and I was impatient to over-salt it. Slowly I eased myself off the jetty and splashed into the coral reef waters of the Maldives.
Snorkelling is a surreal peek into an ocean’s village. Sombre clownfish loitered between sprouting anemone, square-jawed creatures whooshed by like buoyant bricks and a gleeful yellow butterfly zipped past with a black patch around its eye pirate-style. Two companions, one buck-toothed and the other thick-lipped, shared a grumble whilst an aquatic Mohican admired himself in the gleam of a shell. The stripes of two shoals were so closely aligned that they fluttered along like a pair of pyjamas in search of an owner and, a little further on, iridescent marine life hovered around the reef as if assessing the wares on market day and pausing to confer like comparison shoppers.
And then I spotted it. Unsure as to what it was, I adjusted my mask and silenced my flippers. The shape skulked in the distance, a dull blur that loomed and then sharpened into focus. I choked on my snorkel. The supple movements of its body were propelled by the lithe flicks of its tail. What came first, the film or the fascination?
When I had watched the Jaws films as a child, I had screeched, knocked cups off the coffee table, and attempted to muffle my terror in a cushion. Here the effect was the reverse, a form of numbing hypnotism. The sinuous movements of the shark, side-to-side, a brash sashay, were so mesmerising that I was transfixed. It was unnerving to be so dominated so easily and from afar.
Flick, flick. Flick, flick.
The water that had caressed me was now heavy and I felt stuck in a huge slurp of treacle. I tried to push with my limbs but they refused to move through the gloop. My muscles tensed tighter. Where the colours of the reef were before a wondrous palette, now their vividness began to pulsate erratically. Fish were darting around me but what stood out was a fin tinted the neon green of an emergency exit. The red coral, at first delicate and graceful, now seemed like a contorted hand shrieking for help. But underwater the loudest sound screams from within the mind.
Flick, flick. Flick-flick. Fli...
Deftly, the shark turned. Up flashed a lighter underbelly and I could see the black tips on its fins. It was just a harmless reef species which seasoned visitors to the Maldives brushed aside with a wave of a cocktail-encumbered hand. It was also perhaps not quite as large as my fear of it. Even so, in its wake streamed a sense of reprieve mingled with marvel at the nearness of the encounter. I drifted, face down, eyes closed. The water felt lighter as if the ocean were thinning itself into relief. The ripples on the surface nudged my limbs into looseness and the current soothed my pulse to pump in time with its own.
When my eyelids found the strength to flick open, the world through my goggles was just as bizarre as before and merrily so. All was in order. My spirits swelled as made for the jetty. Already I was planning my own yarn and cocktail combo - apricot brandy perhaps with skewered pineapple and a dash of shark dismissal. Had I but glanced over my shoulder, I would have clocked something just behind, a chum, but not of mine. Instead, with life-celebrating gusto, I struck out with my feet and accidently hit the unfortunate thing over the head with my flipper. The reverberation shot up my leg, knocking my knee joint. The fish around me fled like a terrified rainbow. And I was clearly in the wrong.
This second shark was startled and thrashed its tail but, after a few angry twists and turns, it managed to right itself. Then it swung round to face me. Composure recovered, it delivered the killer blow - by gliding away with more poise, elegance and dignity than I could possibly have mustered.