"The Shark" by Mark Kowal

We all looked for different things to do with our free time. Asmara and the surrounding area could seem boring to some of the GI's but if you knew where to look you could find incredible things to do.

I had become friends with a "giant" of a man, an Italian name Reno. He was a huge, powerful man but he had a generous smile and a good nature. Reno owned a small truck repair shop just as you turned right from the "Kagnew" main road to go out to the edge of the escarfement and down to Mendafera. I don't remember how I met him and his wife, Cilia, but we, along with my wife-to-be Almaz, became good friends. Cilia was there when our daughter was born. I don't know who was more excited me or Cilia.

Reno had a number of Italian friends and one of them had a large boat which had a crew of four and could sleep about 20 people. They would get together a party every so often and would steam off to the Dahlak Islands for fishing, diving and sightseeing.

Reno invited me to go along several times. I could bring a friend and it would cost each of us about $30.00. This included four days and three nights on the boat, all the food we could eat and all the alcohol we could drink. However, instead of paying $30.00 cash we were each to buy $30.00 worth of booze from the Top 5 club. The prices we paid for beer, wine and liquor was about 1/10 of what they had to pay downtown. We didn't care how we paid and besides, we got to drink part of it anyway. They would provide us with a list of what they wanted and we would bring it with us on the first day of the trip.

On one particular trip, I picked my buddy, Pat Frame, (Stonehouse) to accompany us. He loved to dive, drink and party and not necessarily in that order. Pat would fit in fine. We slept up on the aft deck of the "ship" where it was cool at night. We would dive during the day and travel from island to island by night. It was comfortable that way because the movement of the vessel at night along with the sound of the engines helped one get to sleep.

About the second day into the trip we anchored off one of the islands and everyone got set to dive or fish. Reno, his friend, Giovanni, Pat and I decided to dive together. We each had spearguns and were interested in finding something for our dinner that night. The chef was an old Eritrean gentleman who was quite knarly but boy could he cook. Whatever fish was brought in to him he could turn it in to a masterpiece. We were mostly found of the local grouper. It's kind of like a sea bass, quite ugly but very tasty.

Now we never used scuba gear. It was too cumbersome and not really necessary. Some of the Italians had tanks but very seldom used them. Most of the time we dove in 10 to 30 foot of water. It was extremely clear, calm and relatively warm. We'd wear a t-shirt to protect us from the sun on our backs, mask, fins and snorkel. The water was so salty and buoyant you could stay out there for hours.

We headed over close to one of the islands. One of our party, a Greek dentist, was taking pictures on this particular island. We could see him off in the distance. I didn't think much of it at the time but it would become quite relevant later.

Reno and Pat decided to swim off together in one direction while Giovanni and I headed off in the other. Our spearguns were the pneumatic type, quite powerful but they could be finicky. We bought them from Jesse Dobbins' shop on Haile Selassie Avenue. Most GI's knew the place. (Author's note: I returned to Asmara in 80, 94 and 95. On each occasion I stopped in to see Jesse. He's still there running his little store with his wife.) I had speared a grouper and placed him on my stringer. We'd run a rope of the back of the speargun about 20-25' attached to a floating rubber buoy. Attached to the bottom of this was another rope which hung down in the water with a metal rod attached to it. We'd stuff the rod through the fish's mouth and one gill. It would be suspended there, alive and swimming, but unable to escape.

Giovanni shot another grouper and asked if he could attach it to my stringer. Upon pulling my stringer in to our surprise we found that the first fish was gone along with half the rope and the rod. The rope looked as if it had been cut. I had been having problems with my speargun at the time and suggest to Giovanni that I take his fish back to where Reno and Pat were diving and try to get my gun worked on. He agreed and said he'd join me shortly. He wanted one more grouper.

Reno and Pat were about a ¼ mile away. Swimming to them was no difficult task but as I was going along I thought to myself that this was rather stupid. Here I was, swimming alone, jammed speargun and carrying a wound, bleeding fish. I was a disaster waiting to happen.

As I neared Reno and Pat I noticed a small boat next to them. Reno was yelling at me. "Guardi! Guardi! La peshecane. Marco, guardi!" Basically he was telling me to watch out for a shark. Suddenly a large fin thrashed up right in front of me. I was about 2 feet from a very mad and violent shark. I understand now how Christ managed to walk on water. It wasn't a miracle. It was out of fear. I literally ran across the water and leaped into the nearby boat.

The shark was thrashing about with two spearheads in him. Pat and Reno were trying to stay clear. Just then Giovanni showed up and shot the shark again. I cursed myself for not having a working speargun. The small craft had to head back to the main vessel and I had the choice of going with them or getting out and back into the water with the shark and my friends. Nobody ever said I was very smart so out I went. I wasn't going to miss this for the world.

We pulled the shark into knee deep water. It had stopped thrashing now, totally exhausted. Reno explained to me how the shark had attacked him as he was fishing. It came straight in on him. Reno punched it in the snout with his fist. The shark backed up and then Reno shot him with his gun. Pat came in and put a second spear into it. When Giovanni arrived and shot it the third time all the fight seemed to go out.

The shark was a white-tipped reef. Potential "maneater" I later found out. It was about 7' long and 200 pounds. We found this out later when we got it back to the main boat. We also had a surprise coming.

The Greek dentist who had been on the shore with his camera came over and took pictures of us with the shark in the shallow water. Shortly after, the small rowboat returned and we decided to take the shark back to show the rest of the party. We started pulling the shark into the boat when all of a sudden it came back to life. The Greek was still snapping away with his camera and we got some incredible pictures. One is of the shark with its jaws wide open attacking Pat. It just missed his leg by inches. Reno and Giovanni were laughing so hard I thought they would cry. Pat didn't think it was funny.

When we got the shark back to the main vessel we hoisted the shark up by the tail, measured it and weighed it. Then somebody noticed something in the shark's mouth. It was a partially eaten fish along with a metal rod. Yep, the same shark had been tailing Giovanni and me earlier. It was the "knife" that had severed my line and stolen my grouper. It then moved off, possibly even following me for a while, and then attacked Reno and Pat. I had been lucky. We all had been very lucky.

I have no idea what ever happened to Pat after he left Asmara. Reno moved to South Africa, where Cilia died and Reno remarried an Indian lady. Giovanni still lives in Asmara. Even through all the fighting he never left. I've seen him twice on my return trips. We still reminisce about our "shark" adventure. Our times together now aren't so adventurous but no one can take those memories away from us. I plan to retire in Asmara a few years from now. Maybe I can add a few more memories to these. I wonder if Giovanni is up to it?

Pictures: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10] [11] [12] [13] [14]


All materials, pictures, whatever, except where noted.
©Copyright Rick Fortney 1998 All Rights Reserved