By Bret Gilliam, September 10, 2009
Be forewarned. There are no traces of my trademark dry humor to be found
in this story and there’s no happy ending. It’s probably as close as
I’ve come to my trip to Valhalla. In October of 1972 it happened like
this: Rod Temple and Robbie McIlvaine were waiting for me when I drove up
to the beach at Cane Bay on St. Croix’s north shore. This area of the
Virgin Islands had some of the best wall diving in the eastern
Caribbean and the drop off was an easy swim from shore eliminating a
long boat ride from Christiansted. We unloaded our gear and began to
dress under the shade of the palms while a dozen or so tourists
watched with interest. Diving was still not an every day sport for
most people and the double tanks and underwater camera equipment we
dragged into place and began to assemble held a certain fascination.
We were setting off to recover some samples from a collecting
experiment we have placed on the wall for a local marine science lab.
Six days before we had positioned our large support float right over
the drop off with the research vessel and carefully loaded our
sediment traps, nets and lines so they’d be ready for positioning in
various locations in the shallow patch reef and the deep wall. Today
we planned to inspect one project at 210 feet and shoot some
photography of the area. Rod transferred the dive profile and
decompression information to his slate as Robbie and I rounded up the
remainder of the equipment and walked into the warm ocean to begin
our leisurely surface swim to the float station about 300 yards
We’d done Cane Bay hundreds of times in the last two years both for
work and for fun. And this October morning was no different than
scores of others as we snorkeled over the clear sand a few feet
beneath our fins. As usual, Rod struck a livelier pace and forged on
ahead while we wallowed in his wake towing the photo gear and another
plexi-glass marine specimen trap the lab wanted set in the chute that
spilled over the wall.
Reaching the float, Robbie retrieved the snap swivels that would
anchor the trap into our rope grid strung on the wall face. Rod
reviewed the deco schedule, “Look, if we can get this thing set up
and check out the project at 210 in fifteen minutes, we can save a
lot of decompression. Can you do the photos in that time frame if I
run the lines on the plexi trays?
“Sure,” I replied, “but don’t go wandering off in case Robbie needs
help getting snapped in with the trap. That thing’s a bitch to swim
“No problem,” Rod smiled back. “I don’t mind doing the heavy work for
you lazy Yanks.”
His British enthusiasm belied the fact that Robbie and I were about
twice his size and strength although he was older and more
experienced. We both gave him an “up yours” salute knowing full well
that any heavy lifting always came our way while Rod handled the
paperwork. As the timekeeper and dive leader, he would keep track of
our dive profile, work in progress, remaining air status, and then
run the deco schedule.
He eased away from the float and we began to swim the short distance
over the deep blue that marked the drop off. The visibility was
great, over 125 feet horizontally and even better looking up and
down. A mild swell wrapped around the point and the sea was calm. Two
of the Navy vessels that we worked with on submarine listening tests
were just a few miles offshore and we could hear their acoustical
sound generators pinging away as we descended.
Rod settled in on top of the wall at 100 feet and we joined up to
check gauges before slipping over in a gentle glide to the first
workstation at 180 feet. Robbie re-arranged the open ends of the
traps to aim in the west quadrant this week and I fired off photos to
record the scene. Most of the scientists who contracted us didn’t do
much diving themselves and they insisted on reams of photography so
they could get an accurate idea of conditions in the deep-water zones
they were studying.
Signaling that we were finished, Rod led us over the coral buttresses
and came to rest next to the deep project. It had slid a bit deeper
during the week so Robbie and I eased it back into position and hoped
it would stay put this time. This occupied our attention for most of
ten minutes when Rod excitedly tapped me on the shoulder to point out
the approach of two oceanic whitetip sharks. This was nothing new to
us as we dove with sharks routinely but it was rare to see these
notoriously aggressive open ocean species in so close to shore. They
passed within about ten feet of us and I shot a few photos as they
swam off to the east.
We finished up the required observations and Rod filled out the field
logs on his slate. Right on schedule he indicated; we were going to
get out with only about 20 minutes of deco it looked like. Robbie
started up first and pointed out the sharks again as they swam by him
headed over the coral and down into the sand chute. I remember
thinking how strange it was to see pelagic oceanic whitetips right
here on the wall at Cane Bay. It was kind of like walking off your
back porch and seeing an African lion when you expected an alley cat.
We’d had our fair share of nasty encounters with these whitetips when
we worked offshore. They were immortalized in the classic documentary
movie Blue Water, White Death released about a year and half earlier
starring Stan Waterman, Peter Gimbel, and Ron & Valerie Taylor. Their
daring to swim with hundreds of these predators while they fed on a
whale carcass off South Africa had been permanently etched into every
diver’s memory of that era. The sharks frequently bit our equipment,
the steel cables deployed from the research vessel, and even the
shafts and propellers on occasion. We were convinced that they would
bite us as well once they got going and never turned our backs on
them without another diver riding shotgun. But these two didn’t seem
to pay us any attention and I turned to begin the ascent behind Robbie.
Our plan called for Rod to be the last guy up. I rendezvoused with
Robbie at about 175 just over a ledge and we both rested on the coral
to wait for him to join us. He was late and Robbie fidgeted pointing
to his pressure gauge not wanting to run low on air. I shrugged and
gave him a “What am I supposed to do?” look and we continued to wait.
Suddenly Robbie dropped his extra gear and catapulted himself toward
the wall pointing at a mass of bubble exhaust coming from the deeper
We both figured that Rod had some sort of air failure either at the
manifold of his doubles or a regulator. Since my air consumption was
markedly less, I decided to send Robbie up and I would go see if Rod
needed help. As I descended in the bubble cloud, Robbie gave me an
anxious OK sign and started up.
But when I reached Rod things were about as bad as they could get.
One of the sharks had bitten him on the left thigh without
provocation and blood was gushing in green clouds from the wound. I
was horrified and couldn’t believe my eyes. He was desperately trying
to beat the 12-foot animal off his leg and keep from sinking deeper.
I had no idea where the second shark was and lunged to grab his right
shoulder harness strap to pull him up.
Almost simultaneously the second shark hit Rod in the same leg and
bit him savagely. I could see Rod desperately gouging at the shark’s
eyes and gills as he grimly fought to beat off his attackers. With my
free hand I blindly punched at the writhing torsos of the animals as
they tore great hunks of flesh from my friend in flashes of open jaws
and vicious teeth. Locked in mortal combat, we both beat at the
sharks in frantic panic.
And then they suddenly let go. I dragged Rod up the sand chute… half
walking and half swimming. Once clear of the silt I could see Robbie
about 100 feet above us looking on in horror. He started down to us
as I lifted Rod off the bottom and kicked with all my might toward
But in less than fifteen seconds the first shark returned and hit him
again and began towing us both over the drop off. The attack had
probably only lasted a minute at this point but Rod had lost a huge
amount of blood and tissue and had gone limp in my grasp. I was still
behind him clutching his right harness strap as the second larger
shark hit him again on the opposite side down around the left calf.
Like the other, this shark bit and hung on as we tumbled down the
We were dropping rapidly now completely out of control. My efforts to
kick up were fruitless as the sharks continued to bite and tear at
their victim, all the while dragging us deeper. I felt Rod move again
to fend off another attack and my hopes soared upon realizing that he
was still alive. I clung briefly to the edge of the drop off wall to
arrest our rapid descent. The coral outcropping gave us some slight
protection and for a moment the attacks stopped.
Both sharks retreated into the blue and I watched them circle our
position from about ten feet away. To my horror I saw one shark
swallow the remains of Rod’s lower left leg right before my eyes. The
other gulped a mouthful of flesh it had torn off. I tried to push Rod
into the coral in an effort to shield him from another attack but
there was nothing to afford any real shelter. As I turned away from
the waiting predators, Rod and I came face to face for the first time
during the attack. He shook his head weakly and tried to push me
away. I grabbed for his waist harness for a new grip and felt my hand
sink into his mutilated torso. There was no harness left to reach
for. He had been partially disemboweled.
Shrieking into my mouthpiece in fury, I pulled him from the coral and
took off pumping for the surface with him clutched to my chest.
Immediately the sharks were on us again. I felt the larger one
actually force me to one side as it savagely sought to return to the
wounds that gushed billows of dark blood into the ocean around us.
Rod screamed for the last time as the second shark seized him by the
mid-section and shook him. The blue water turned horribly turbid with
bits of human tissue and blood. Once we were turned completely over
and I felt Rod torn away from me.
I watched his lifeless body drift into the abyss with the sharks
still hitting him. The attack had started around 200 feet. My depth
gauge was pegged at 325 feet now but I knew we were far deeper than
that. The grimness of my own situation forced itself on me through a
fog of narcosis and exertion.
That’s when I ran out of air. I think that subconsciously I almost
decided to stay there and die. It seemed so totally hopeless and my
strength was completely sapped. But I put my head back and put all my
muscle and effort into a wide steady power kick for the surface. I
forced all thoughts to maintaining that kick cycle and willed myself
After what seemed like an eternity I sneaked a look at my depth
gauge: it was still pegged at 325 feet. I sucked hard on the
regulator and got a bit of a breath. Not much, but it fueled my
oxygen starved brain a bit longer and I prayed my legs would get me
up shallow enough to get another breath before the effects of hypoxia
shut my systems down forever.
There’s really no way to describe what it’s like to slowly starve the
brain of oxygen in combination with adrenaline-induced survival
instincts. But I remember thinking if I could just concentrate on
kicking I could make it. After a while the sense of urgency faded and
I remember looking for the surface through a red haze that gradually
closed down into a tunnel before I passed out. The panic was gone and
I went to sleep thinking “Damn, I almost made it.”
I woke up on the surface retching and expelling huge belches of
expanding air. Apparently the small volume of air in the vintage
safety vest I wore had been enough to float me the final distance and
save my life. But I still had to deal with an unknown amount of
omitted decompression and the certainty that I was severely bent.
Swimming to shore as fast I could, I felt my legs going numb. By the
time I reached the beach I could barely stand. A couple on their
honeymoon waded out and dragged me up on the sand. I gasped out
instructions to get the oxygen unit from our van and collapsed. In an
incredible burst of good fortune, it turned out the wife was an ER
nurse from Florida and understood the pathology of decompression
sickness. They got a steady flow of oxygen into me and ran to call
the diving emergency numbers that I directed her to on the dive
I drifted away again into unconsciousness and was revived at the
airport where a med-evac flight was waiting to fly me to Puerto Rico.
But the Navy chamber at the base on the island’s west end was down
and it was decided to take me to the only other functional facility
up on the island’s northwest corner nearly 200 miles farther away.
But the flight crew was afraid I wouldn’t make it when we ran low on
oxygen shortly after passing San Juan. So they had the police stop
traffic on the main divided highway and landed on the road where a
waiting Coast Guard helicopter snatched me away to the hospital roof.
Two days later I was released but with residual numbness in my arms
and legs, substantial hearing loss, and legal blindness in my right
eye that persisted until corrected by modern laser surgery in 1997.
Robbie’s last view of Rod and me was as we were dragged over the wall
in a cloud of blood by the sharks. He never saw my free ascent and so
reported us both killed when he got to shore. It was not until I
called my dad from the hospital a day later that he knew I had survived.
A week later we had Rob’s memorial service at the beach. I resumed
diving the next day. His body was never recovered.
Aftermath: this attack in 1972 was widely reported and shark experts
speculate that the oceanic whitetips may have been attracted and then
stimulated by the low frequency sound in the water from the nearby
submarine testing. The previous deepest depth that a diver survived a
free ascent from was 180 feet. Gilliam was probably closer to 400
feet. He was cited for heroism by the Virgin Islands government for
risking his own life to try to save his partner. In 1993, British
television (BBC) produced a special on the incident as part of a
series called “Dead Men’s Tales”.
This piece was included in the books Great Shark Encounters! (1999)
and Mark of the Shark (2001)
Additionally published in Outside, Scuba Times, Rodale’s Scuba Diving
and several foreign magazines.
Bret Gilliam has been diving professionally for 38+ years with over
18,000 dives logged. His diving companies included publishing,
manufacturing, resorts, liveaboards, cruise ships, training agencies,
and operations consulting. He now makes his home on an island in
Maine while still traveling the world leading specialized diving
expeditions. He can be contacted at: email@example.com