My time in Asia was coming to a close. As a last treat, my girlfriend, Katie, and I decided to take a boat trip around some of the smaller islands surrounding Ko Phi Phi (pronounced Fi-Fi). One of them, Maya Bay, was where the movie The Beach, with Leonardo DiCaprio was filmed. This was billed as the highlight of the tour, but it was the bit after, which I was looking forward to even more. This was a trip to a place named Shark Point.
When visiting a place named Shark Point, one has certain expectations. Luckily for us, these expectations were met very swiftly as upon our arrival, we were greeted by the sight of two frantic swimmers waving their arms in the air and shouting the word "shark" at the tops of their voices. Our tour guide assured us that any resemblance between the swimmers' behaviour and any international distress signal was entirely coincidental. This was merely how people communicated at sea in these parts.
We quickly put on our snorkel masks and fins (I'm PADI qualified. Flippers are for amateurs) and leapt from our boat into the azure water beneath. Due to the coral reef, the boat had to moor a good distance away from where the swimmers had notified us of the shark's presence and we had to swim about twenty five or thirty metres to get there. By the time that we did, the swimmers had calmed down and returned to snorkelling, with their faces now in the water.
I placed my head in the water and tried to look for the shark, but without any luck. I assumed that we had just missed it and so decided to check back with our tour guide for some redirection. When I did, I noticed that he was now frantically waving his arms about and he left absolutely no room for his actions being confused with anything other than a distress signal. He wanted us to get out of the water and he wanted us to do so quickly.
Katie and I exchanged a nervous glance. We could now see that the rest of our group (about twenty people) had also received the guide's frantic instruction to return and they were all swimming back in a state of near panic. It was now not simply a question of where the shark was, but how big and how many? I grabbed a hold of Katie's hand and together we started to swim back to our boat. We were eager to return and kicked our fins wildly, like frantic seals. With each few strokes, I would look back to see if a shark was stalking us. For some reason, I was convinced that the danger would come from behind. I was wrong. The real danger was directly ahead, between the pair of us and the boat.
To describe what happened next, I want you to try and picture a scene from the Disney Pixar movie Finding Nemo. If you have seen this movie, then I know exactly what has come to your mind. There is a scene in the movie when the lead character, a clownfish named Marlon, comes face to face with a very big, very scary great white shark named Bruce. It is the image that is carried on most of the posters for the movie and it is truly terrifying (albeit, in a Disney-fied cartoony way). It is completely the wrong image for now. The part that I want you to think of, comes much later in the movie.
Have you guessed it yet? I'll give you a clue - "Swim through the trench, not over". I am of course, referring to the scene when the heroes find themselves completely surrounded on all sides by jellyfish. Given the choice, I would have taken the shark. At least you can punch it on the nose. With a jellyfish, you cannot fight back. You cannot do anything really, apart from swim like crazy and hope that you do not get stung. Which is exactly what we did.
After the most nerve wracking swim since obtaining my 25m swimming badge at primary school, we finally made it back onto the boat. Luckily for us, neither Katie nor myself suffered stings. A pair of Brazilian girls were not so lucky. Their legs were covered from ankle to waist with ugly red pock marks from the stings they had suffered. Both girls were in considerable shock and pain and the atmosphere among the group was heavily subdued on the way back to shore. That is, except for two Swedish guys. They had exited the boat on the other side to the rest of us, into jellyfish free waters. They had also found a shark, which they were proud to show off on their underwater digital camera's display.
The lesson that I have learned from this experience? All I can think is that the most dangerous threat is not necessarily the most obvious one. Fear is greatly amplified by the unexpected. If a reader knows where the real danger is going to come from, then your writing has gone wrong somewhere. Readers will always try to second guess us as authors, but we should not allow them to succeed. The next time that you are writing a horror story and the hero is tiptoeing along the corridor of a creepy old house, expecting an axe murderer be lurking around every corner, don't give them an axe murderer. Throw in a tiger instead. That will really scare the Hell out of them.