Strategically located at the tip of the Arabian Peninsula close to the eastern approaches to the Red Sea (and the Suez Canal’s sea-route connection between Europe and Asia) Aden was, in 1965, still a British protectorate; one that, two years later, would succumb to the growing tide of nationalism and the efforts of armed insurgents to become part of the Yemen.
One of the diving team’s allocated responsibilities during our frigate’s stop-over in Aden was to search the hulls of vessels moored in the harbour at Steamer Point and look for anything that might cause harm. A straight-forward enough task were it not for the fact that the keen fishermen on board ship – casting their lines from the ship’s foc’sle – complained that their initial catches of smaller, edible fish were being eaten by sharks.
Coming from the UK and the cold, northern waters where the threat of shark attack was never considered to be an issue (and very aware of the fact that an encounter with tropical water sharks was – according to popular folk-lore – something to be feared) we all expressed concerns about hopping into the water without some sort of protection. Refusing to be comforted by the Royal Navy Diving Manual and the section on sharks that said, in part, that, “There is no recorded attack by a shark on any Royal Navy dressed diver …”, we were issued with what we were assured were ‘shark repellent packs’, small satchels that we could attach to our ‘Sam Browne’ harness and, should we sight a shark, operate by tearing open the pack via a tab on its top.
As an additional precaution, the ship’s sea-boat was lowered and a marksman armed with a .303 rifle stationed in the bow while it performed a constant circuit of each vessel that we were searching. (It was always hoped that the marksman’s job was to shoot at sharks close to the surface. It did, however, cross our minds that a secondary role may have been to put surfacing divers, screaming that they’d been bitten by a shark, out of their misery by placing a piece of lead between their eyes. )
Nevertheless we put our faith in science and the ‘shark repellent compound’, a substance that, we imagined, would terrify any shark foolish enough to swim within sniffing range.
Some months later we learned that the ship’s supply officer – while lacking anything that even came close to an officially recognised shark repellent – had an over-supply of the dye-packs used to mark the location of life-rafts.
Fortunately, I didn’t – at that time – know the meaning of the word, ‘placebo’. As far as I was concerned a placebo could just as well have been a brand of suppository … in my case, a totally redundant item.
PostScript: In February 2009, a Royal Australian Navy Clearance Diver taking part in an exercise in Sydney Harbour, was savagely mauled by a bull shark. Although losing a leg, hand and forearm in the attack, he has subsequently become an advocate for the conservation and study of sharks.