Sharks were the least of my worries…

We spent three idyllic days on Tioman Island, 30 miles off the eastern coast of Malaysia, in the South China Sea. A speedy ferry whipped us over there, where we were deposited at the end of a long jetty (pier) and walked about 2 miles to the end of the beach in the town of Air Batang, to our chalet rooms.

Our tour guide insisted we were “roughing it,” but my sense of “roughing it” and his are a bit different. Each room had a bed with mosquito netting, a fan, electricity 24 hours, running water (although it wasn’t hot), a hot pot to boil water, clothesline, and patio overlooking the ocean crashing below. Where was the roughing part?

The view from my balcony

The view from my balcony

I suppose it could have been the fact that it was so hot, I dripped sweat constantly, or the lack of hot water. But really, the last thing I wanted was any more heat. Cold was fabulous. An extra bonus was that my roommate and I each got our own rooms, which was nice. We’re not sick of each other…yet. In fact, we get along just fine.

But back to the island…

We spent two full days on a small boat put-putting over the mostly calm ocean to islands offshore where we snorkeled in the ocean, which was welcome relief from the heat. The sun was so strong, however, that our guide from India had his first sunburn there (on an earlier trip.) My roommate, a Latina, also had her first burn. I have spent the past two days applying aloe vera lotion to her painful, red skin.

The blue diesel-belching boat

The blue diesel-belching boat

The second day was more of the same, with the diesel fumes from the motor enveloping us, so loud that we had to scream at each other unless our mouth was six inches away from the next person’s ear. This time we were looking for black-tipped reef sharks. A friend at home asked, “Is that safe?” when I told her where we were going.

The sharks were the least of my worries. I told her it’s like anything else in Nature…if it’s your time to die, it’s your time to die. I just hope it’s not too painful. Our tour guide assured us they were shy but curious and more likely to swim away.

We first spent some time snorkeling around the island, and to get around the point, the current was so strong, I nearly gave up, as some of the others did. I used a technique I’ll call “swim like hell and don’t stop, or you’ll be dragged out to sea” (although technically, we were already in it…)

I was able to rest a minute by bracing against a sharp, barnacle-covered rock. Just a few yards ahead, though, and the worst of the current was over. Then we hovered motionless at the surface and enjoyed the Disneyland-like ride, watching as saucer-shaped coral as large as pillows and clownfish like Nemo passed below. There were brightly colored wrass that swim by flapping only their pectoral fins, flashing fuscia surrounded by a stripe of electric blue on the sides of their green bodies.

Then it was time to look for the sharks. We continued drifting in the strong current, through murky water for a while. Nothing. When it was time to head back to the boat, it was “swim like hell” time again, and this time I nearly did give up.

I could hear my breathing heavy, rapid, and non-stop in my snorkel. Good thing I had brought my good one from home, which is virtually leak-proof. I’m sure if I had choked on any water, I would have been in serious trouble.

I was keeping my distance back from the others, since I had already been kicked in the head and nearly had the snorkel punched out of my mouth inadvertently by others. Next thing I knew, there was a curtain of bubbles, and they were gone. Nothing but me and the murky green below.

I alternated crawl and breast strokes with my arms, and pretended I was doing stair stepping machines with my legs. Visibility was good enough that I could see down and realize I was making nearly no progress for my all-out effort, but I kept thinking, nobody to save you but yourself. Keep swimming!

I suppose I should have asked the tour guide if he was trained in life saving beforewe headed out, but then again, if he had said no, I would have been freaking out even more. I popped my head up, and he was there, saying, “Just relax. Keep going,” and pointed toward the boat, which was waaaaaaay too far away.

I put my head back down and started a mantra, I have stamina, I can do this. Besides, what choice did I have?

I thought of that friend and how she was worried about the sharks. Sharks, my @##!

Eventually the current abated a bit, and I was finally close enough to the boat to ease up on my effort. I do not ever want to do anything like that ever again.

Drinking iced drinks as we watched the sun set and the hermit crabs come out that evening, I thanked our guide for his help. He said yes, he was certified in open-water rescue, and yes, he could have saved me, there’s a technique. Whatever.

The good thing is, at least I burned off a lot of the delicious food we’re eating!

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