Guantanamo Bay, Cuba
“I swim, but I wish I never learned…”
– Sublime, Bad Fish
There really isn’t much to do in your off duty time when you are stationed in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Flying the flag
Maybe that isn’t fair of me to say. Service members are not allowed off the base, but the enterprising soldier can find a large variety of activities to keep him (or her) busy, mostly sanctioned by the naval base Morale, Welfare & Recreation office, otherwise known as the MWR. The MWR works hard to organize sports, parties and events to keep the service members stationed on base occupied. Idle hands are the Devil’s playground, after all. The problems arise when soldiers, sailors, Marines and Coast Guardsmen find that they have done pretty much everything there is to do three months into their six-month deployment. It is at this point that the crazy, and often stupid, ideas pop into the heads of otherwise sane individuals.
I was stationed in Guantanamo Bay as part of a Military Police unit, doing my little part in the war on terrorism. As a member of the National Guard, I had left behind a pretty comfortable life in the city of Boston, but in return I received the chance to make some great friends, see a little bit of Cuba (and do I mean a little bit) and do some stuff that I’m sure my kids and grandkids will get a kick out of hearing.
By far the most popular way to spend off duty time involved the most abundant natural resource on the base (or rather around the base) – the ocean. Fishing, swimming, snorkeling, skiing and scuba diving were some of the most popular things to do on base. And why not? The water was so clear and blue, the sun was out everyday and there were no crowds to ruin the beaches. For all of its faults, the military has done an incredible job of maintaining the fragile eco-system in and around Guantanamo.
Being a huge fan snorkeling and SCUBA, I had a great opportunity to hone my skills and interact with some wildlife I normally would have had to go on vacation to see. Sea life I wouldn’t dream of seeing in the waters of Cape Cod would drift lazily past me, unaware of the awe dawning on my face. Green sea turtles and zebra fish would flee at the first sign of movement, whereas some of the smaller fish seemed as curious as I was. Occasionally I’d catch a menacing glimpse of a larger fish, a predator, a barracuda or a shark. Which is where my story really begins.
One of my housemates, Carb ($0.25 to the first person who can guess his profession), had bought a complete set of SCUBA gear from the dive locker on base. From the fins to the snorkel, his kit was top of the line and begging to be used. The most interesting piece of equipment was a spear gun, with a double rubber tube action that looked deadlier than some of the weapons the Army issued. It was black, sleek and compact, just like a deadly piece of machinery was meant to look.
I tended to avoid Carb when he was giving a presentation of his new favorite toy (I don’t trust people playing around with weapons capable of easily piercing my torso), but apparently Cooper, my roommate, did not. And as such, Cooper was completely taken with the idea of hunting down and spearing his dinner once or twice a week. Of course, my presence was required on these hunting sessions, not only because I was Cooper’s roommate, but also because I possessed an underwater camera and the skills to use it. Under the pretense of going for a leisurely snorkeling tour around a particular piece of coast I hadn’t been to before but Cooper had, he dragged me to Philip’s Dive Pier, a popular embarkation point for GTMO divers.
Cooper pulled out the spear gun, a huge toothy grin on his face. The grin scared me.
“I’ve got the best idea,” he started (as all disasters usually start this way). “When I was out here before I saw the biggest barracuda just cruising around. Those things are territorial, you know, so it should still be swimming around somewhere in the area. Let’s go get it.”
I was stunned. Grouper I could understand. Flounder I could understand. But a frickin’ BARRACUDA?
“Are you crazy? You don’t step on Superman’s cape, man.”
“Why? We’ve got a spear gun, and it shouldn’t be too hard to sneak up on it and shoot it.”
I think the look that crossed my face was somewhere between a sneer and a look of utter disgust. He wanted us to go into the barracuda’s playground and try to beat it at its own game.
“Cooper, those things can swim, like 40 mph, and have you seen their teeth? Don’t be ridiculous.” Not to mention the fact that if we managed to spear it, having a bleeding fish thrashing around in the waters of Guantanamo Bay, attached by a short string is like a neon sign saying, “HEY! COME CHEW MY FACE OFF!” to the other barracudas and sharks roaming the coast.
Cooper was adamant. He wanted to hunt it, and besides, he pointed out, all I would be doing was taking pictures. He would be the one sneaking up on the fish and shooting it. Knowing that I couldn’t turn back and maintain any semblance of manhood, I agreed to go.
“Fine. But if that thing takes your arm off I’m not going to feel sorry for you.”
“Whatever, this will be easy.” He seemed convinced.
“Stumpy,” was the last thing I said before I started to prep myself for the day in the sun. Sun block, water and some spit in my facemask and I was ready to go.
Philip’s Dive Pier
Cooper was still struggling to pull back both bands on the gun. He couldn’t manage to seat the spear in its receiver while both bands were notched. I gave it a shot and found I had the same difficulty. Finally we gave up and decided that the force generated by the one band would be sufficient to spear through any fish.
We jumped into the bath warm water and made our way leisurely to the spot Cooper had seen the killer fish. I used the journey as an opportunity to check out some of the interesting coral formations I hadn’t seen until now. The beauty of the water and the vibrant sea life again flattened me. I could only imagine how beautiful the rest of Cuba would be compared to this, and a tinge of regret over US policy hit me in the gut. One day, I thought.
Cooper and I swam parallel to a large ocean cliff, with me on the outside while Cooper scanned ahead for his prey. After capturing the image of a fleeing sea turtle, a silver shadow blinked into the corner of my vision. Cooper, ahead and to the left, sandwiched between me and the cliff wall, was intent on staring straight ahead. Which was a shame, because that silver shadow in the corner of my vision slowly materialized into a barracuda, and he (she?) appeared to be on an afternoon stroll, swimming basically alongside us.
And what a specimen he was. Maybe the water affected my perception, but he seemed huge. Five feet long, huge, and the way he cut through the water left no doubt in my mind that the fish was all muscle and bone – a perfect killing machine.
My throat tightened up as I reached for Cooper’s fin to tug on. Honestly, what chance did we have against that thing if it chose to kill us? I tugged on Cooper’s fin again, more concerned with getting the spear gun pointed in the direction of the beast than with taking any more pictures.
Cooper turned, and though the snorkel distorted it, I could see that toothy grin. As a former Marine, he lived for this type of thing.
Immediately he made a beeline for it, but thousands of years of evolutionary nature hardwired in the barracuda’s brain took over and it changed course, away from the charging soldier. Cooper realized he couldn’t out swim the fish, and changed tactics.
I floated there, my back to the cliff wall, watching him perform a classic military maneuver. He flanked to the side of the fish, and started a long arc around it, hoping to cut it off further out into the ocean and drive it towards the cliff wall, where he could use the wall as a block to capture his prize. The only problem was, he was driving that killing machine straight back towards me.
I watched this series of events with detached fascination. I snapped pictures with my camera as the beast made its way slowly back to me. I would have felt better with a spear gun in my hand than a camera. If I do anything better than shooting a camera it is shooting a weapon.
The beast stopped about 30 feet away from me, and for a minute it was the two of us, face to face. I swallowed hard, and an odd sense of calm came over me. I’d at least try to fight as it tore me to pieces. I wasn’t sure who was really trapped – the barracuda or me.
Cooper came up stealthily beside the fish, and stopped within shooting range. He slowly raised the gun. The beast continued to stare at me.
Cooper squeezed the trigger, and the spear slid gracefully through the water, heading speedily towards the target. The spear struck broadside, a perfect shot that would fell the beast. It would have felled it, that is, if it hadn’t bounced harmlessly off the muscled side of the barracuda.
My jaw clenched tightly around the mouthpiece of my snorkel. Did I just see what I thought I saw? I chuckled a deep, deep belly laugh. The one rubber band obviously didn’t produce enough force.
In those next few moments, I thought of what I’d tell my superiors. I could picture the intense investigation into how exactly it came to be that Cooper was attacked by a barracuda while we were on a leisurely swim. In my eyes, I could picture having to drag Cooper’s body, ripped open by an angry barracuda, back to the dive pier. Overall, it would be an upsetting experience. “Fair game,” I’d say, “Cooper had his shot.”
But as those thoughts ran through my head, I noticed that the barracuda had barely twitched as the spear attempted to run it through. In fact, those dead eyes were still focused on me, and as I slowly began to back pedal away from the creature, I could swear that I saw that fish flash a toothy grin. It appreciated the irony. Cooper had shot it, but it would tear me to pieces. The barracuda twitched its muscled tale and swam towards me with alarming speed.
I know what James Bond would have done. I know what John Wayne would have done. They would have waited until the last possible moment to shove the camera into the open jaws of the oncoming predator, thwarting the attempted attack. In all honesty, I’m no James Bond. There was no way in hell I could have pulled that move off.
Instead, thousands of years of instinct kicked in. As the beast closed the already short distance between us, I lost control of any conscious thought and reacted the way a far dead ancestor would have reacted in the same situation. Rationality and reason lost all purpose. I used the oldest defense in the book.
I kicked and screamed like a schoolgirl seeing a mouse. I’m talking full out shrieking and twitching at the oncoming monster. Cooper later told me he watched in rapt fascination as my arms and legs began to flail at the barracuda, and how my high-pitched yelp drove away a pod of dolphins drifting in the distance. I went into full diva mode, a grown man of twenty-four, six feet tall and two hundred pounds shrieking his head off.
Impossibly, it worked. The barracuda, maybe thrown off by my apparent transformation into a Scottish banshee, changed course at the last moment, darting off along the cliff face to lick its wounds and try to figure out exactly what had happened. The next few minutes were an adrenaline-fueled rush to reload the spear gun, which is not an easy task in the water.
Cooper and I swam slowly and cautiously back to the pier while I shook my head and swore at him for several things, chief among them taking me on the stupid hunt and not cocking the two bands back. He laughed, I bit my lip and soon the tension drained away as Cooper basked in the anticipation of the story he would tell to our friends and house mates. That toothy grin remained plastered on his face while I shook off the adrenaline of almost having become fish food.
That wasn’t the last time I went spear fishing. In fact, I would one day again confront my “white whale”, with somewhat different results. Something inside me was switched on while I thrashed in the water that day, and soon I too had a toothy grin.