Rachel Graham may be the shark's fiercest protector – an Oxford-educated biologist who isn't afraid to wrestle a bull shark into submission.
Credit: Photograph by Peter Bohler
I pushed back my departure a day, in the hopes of seeing a hammerhead or a tiger shark, two of the larger sharks that used to roam around Belize, but we laid line for hours off Caye Caulker without a bite of any kind. Statistically, the news isn't good. All of Graham's work points to the need for regionally harmonized protective measures, much like the international laws passed in the 1980s to protect whales. In March, there's a meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species that could help to regulate the trade in a range of sharks, especially two hammerhead species that have declined precipitously in Belize.

"It's worse here than even I thought," says Graham. "Or maybe we just hit bad luck. I'm a scientist, so I don't want to make a big deal out of a couple bad days of sample. But this is more and more how the days go."

We headed back to shore, where Graham has other, human problems – her children's education chief among them. "I'm not one of those crazy scientists," she says. "I love sharks, but my kids come first."

I half-believe her. It was time for William, Hilmar, and Jomael to take the ferry back to their families. Graham and her three amigos trucked down the dock, coolers and gear on their shoulders – Graham was carrying more of the weight than the three men combined.

I was staying over in Caye Caulker and rode the boat back with Chip. His family was in town, and he was taking them out in the boat later to Shark Ray Alley, a shallow cove where sharks were known to hang out and wait for tourists to feed them fish or chips or other tasty treats.

"You should come. Rachel doesn't love it, but she says, 'I'd rather people be feeding sharks than killing sharks.'"

I was torn for a second or so, feeling guilty remembering Graham's tsk-tsking about feeding sharks in their natural habitat. But a second beer ended the doubt. I'd come 3,000 miles: I wanted to swim with a goddamn shark. It was now near sunset; a magic glow bounced off the water as we headed out with mothers-in-law, wives, brothers, and a half-dozen local kids. We dropped anchor a half-mile or so offshore, and the gaggle of us jumped in: drunken dive masters, mommas clutching toddlers in their life vests, and me.

I floated for a while, trying to chase away the nausea of 60 hours spent on a boat in the past six days. Then I felt something slithering around my feet. I looked down, and the ground moved, but it wasn't really the ground: It was two nurse sharks, maybe six feet each, feeding on the bottom. I could see their beady eyes. They circled back, but they couldn't have cared less about my presence. Before I could focus, there was a crashing splash above me. I thought it might be one of Chip's numbskull co-workers doing a cannonball, but it wasn't. It was Chip's retriever, Argos. Turns out the dog could swim better than a fleet of Belizean fishermen.

For a moment, I stayed under and looked through my mask. I could see sharks cruising, babies kicking, and a dog paddling. And for that moment, Graham's dream had come true: man, child, pet, and shark co-existing. My nausea disappeared, replaced with a giant smile.

But then the sharks were gone, and I wondered if anyone would believe me when I told them about it back home. And then I thought, If I brought my kids here in 10 years, would there be any sharks to step on? Maybe they would just think I was an old man telling a fish story.