I’M BLEEDING WHILE SURROUNDED by sharks. I can hardly see my watch through this green fog in my mask. Even in the darkness, I’m aware of more blood leaking
out in thick wisps around my face, tinged an ominous crimson by the weak light from my head-torch.
I’m determined to function logically and safely, and not panic, but fear is stubbornly creeping up from my guts.
It’s night-time in tiger-shark territory, and tigers hunt at night. One was seen here just a few days ago... and I’m bleeding into the water.
I catch a fleeting glimpse of my computer; it demands that I stay below the surface for one more minute or risk very painful repercussions.
I try to clear my view by tipping back my mask, then exhaling through my nose, but all that comes out is more of this warm, dark gloop.
I pinch my nostrils to try to stem the flow, but the oozing blood is just diverted down the back of my throat, forcing me to swallow again and again.
A ludicrous thought occurs to me: “I’m chumming for sharks... with my own blood.”
Fear does stupid things to your mind.

MY STORY BEGAN in a taxi driving out of San José, the bustling capital of Costa Rica. I was on the way to a butterfly farm, where I planned to practise taking photos with a new close-up lens.
I was spending a couple of days recovering from jet-lag before embarking on a boat to spend a week around Cocos Island, the famous shark-diving location that lies more than 300 miles west of Central America.
My passion is underwater photography, and this was to be my first trip shooting really big sharks. Cocos is where many of the photographs of huge shoals of hammerhead sharks you’ll have seen were taken.
As we left the city suburbs, I felt a sneeze about to happen.
Not wanting to spray mucus on the taxi seats, and having no handkerchief, I stupidly “contained” the sneeze by closing my mouth and pinching my nostrils shut, causing a massive and rapid increase of pressure in my head cavities.
What I didn’t know was that I had caused a small blood vessel at the back of my nasal cavity to prolapse and be on the very edge of rupturing.
Returning in another taxi a few hours later, I had a seemingly spontaneous mild nosebleed, the first I’d had since childhood.
The next day, the dive group settled into our cabins for the notoriously rough 36-hour crossing to Cocos.
Most of us tried to sleep through the inevitable seasickness, while somewhat sedated through travel pills or cheap Nicaraguan rum.

ON THE FIRST DAY OF DIVING I woke with great excitement and wondered which sharks
I would photograph that morning. The previous group had seen a whale shark and a Galapagos shark on their check-dive.
We cheerfully ate breakfast and prepared our gear. Then my nose started bleeding again.
It stopped pretty quickly, but I opted out of the first dive and discussed the situation with
a fellow-guest who was a medical doctor.
A working hypothesis emerged that my heavy snoring plus the ultra-dry environment in my air-conditioned cabin was interfering with the healing process of a traumatic nasal capillary injury. We agreed that I could try diving while being very gentle with my nose, and abort the dive if any bleeding occurred.
Nothing untoward happened that day during three amazing dives. I was pleased with two shots I got of hammerhead sharks, and we did a fun night-dive.
I slept very well, after copiously coating the depths of my nostrils with Vaseline to alleviate any harmful effects of the dry air in my cabin.
On the second day of diving, the pattern repeated itself. I had a light nosebleed shortly after getting up. Again, I cancelled my first dive and arranged with the crew that I could sleep up on deck that evening in the naturally moist outside air.
The next two dives weren’t as exciting as the previous day’s, because the hammerheads kept their distance, but there were still plenty of whitetip reef sharks and a few marble rays to photograph, and we even saw a Galapagos shark out in the blue during our safety stop.
Everyone had been keeping a watchful eye on me, and I was being very delicate with my nose. Things were looking up.

ULLOA IS ONE OF the shallow night-dive sites off Cocos where some predators have learned to follow divers’ lights to hunt for sleeping and otherwise hidden fish.
We’re due to see this on a spectacular scale at another site later in the trip, but right now there are three whitetips and a black trevally roaming below our group. I get some decent photos of them, perhaps over-concentrating
on my photography and not enough on being gentle with my nose when equalising.
Satisfied with these images, I start setting up my camera for playing around with motion blurs when I notice green wisps floating around my face. I’ve seen blood under water before from small cuts and grazes, and know that it looks green.
I tap my buddy’s arm and show him the gloopy tendrils emerging from my mask.
He rolls his eyes, and we both do upwards-thumb hand-signals to signal our intention to ascend. We aren’t too deep, only about 8m below the surface.
A scary story that our guide Manuel told me the previous night stays stubbornly in my mind as we rise, blood slowly filling my mask.
A few weeks earlier, during a night-dive at this very site, a tiger shark had burst into the area lit by his group’s torches, and ripped a whitetip reef shark apart in front of them.
The terrified tourists had recklessly shot for the surface, their computers screaming due to dangerous speeds of ascent, and heroically jostled with each other to scramble up the boat ladder to safety, some with fins still on their feet.
We have been briefed that if we were to see a tiger shark during a night dive we should descend to the bottom of these shallow waters and not shine lights or camera flashes in its eyes, to avoid stimulating it during its hunting phase.
Left alone, Manuel had sensibly wedged himself into a rocky crevice and, as he put it, “released all his ink” before staying there until the tiger had finished its meal and left the scene.
I try to clear this unhelpful memory from my mind. I focus on my situation, determined to continue looking after myself as best I can.
I activate the strobe-light attached to my shoulder strap so that bright flashes will let the skiff pilot know where we are. I manage a glance at my computer through the bloody fog – it’s now displaying just a non-mandatory safety stop that I know I can safely ignore when in difficulty.
At last I surface, inflate my wing and let forth a loud blast on my air-horn to call for attention.

BACK ON THE SKIFF, I continue to pinch my nostrils and swallow blood. As the flow diminishes, I know it’s time to put the contingency plan in place: not diving again until at least 48 hours has passed without incident, giving the wound a decent chance to heal.
There’s plenty else to do in this beautiful place other than diving – not least kayaking to the lush island and photographing its topside flora and fauna.
Unfortunately, the night dive was to be my last at Cocos. Later that evening I had a frighteningly heavy nosebleed that left me no choice but to return to civilisation as soon as possible, and receive medical treatment from a specialist in San José.
Luckily a nearby boat from the same fleet agreed to give me passage back to port.
In the months since arriving back in England, all the factors leading to this situation have been fully addressed with my doctor.
I’m sure there are those who may criticise me for diving once a pattern of nosebleeds had been established.
In my defence, I would point out that my motivation to continue was enormous. I was at a world-class destination, a divers’ paradise, that had cost me a huge amount of money and time to reach, and which was part of my first overseas holiday in more than 15 months.
I had discussed the situation at length with our group leader, the boat crew and the doctor.
I had even rung Divers’ Alert Network via satellite-phone.
After more than 500 dives, I knew that I could keep a cool head when the heat was on. We had created a contingency plan that I put into place when the underwater bleed occurred. Until the really scary haemorrhage, the bleeds had been lessening in duration, severity and frequency. Our whole group knew to keep an eye on me, and I never strayed far away from them.
Perhaps I should have tried not diving earlier for a longer period, of course, but hindsight has 20/20 vision.
Was I really in any danger from a tiger-shark attack The answer is clear: the risk was extremely small. Shark attacks on humans are very rare, and there are historically very few reports of attacks on divers – only 205 in 170 years of records.
Research has shown that even large concentrations of human blood don’t excite sharks in the way that tiny amounts of fish blood do. Nevertheless, the advice from experts is not to be in water with sharks when bleeding, nor wear bright clothing or shiny jewellery, and
to stay in groups while avoiding splashing.

I WAS VERY YOUNG WHEN I first saw the film Jaws. It left me with a childhood horror about sharks and being chomped by sea monsters.
I remember snorkelling on a family holiday in Crete aged eight, hyper-vigilantly scanning the blue in case I was going to become something awful’s lunch.
Now I know better, that the most dangerous thing to me under water is myself.
One very real risk was that I might have panicked when faced with a mask filling with blood, or when I couldn’t clear my mask using my nose, and done something fatally stupid like bolting for the surface.
Diving, like the rest of life, is full of risks that need to be managed in the best ways we can: training in emergency skills, foreseeing problems, maintaining our physical fitness, diving within our competencies, and carrying dive computers, SMBs and EPIRBs, for example.
When I realised that I had to stop diving at Cocos, I was very upset and disappointed.
I made a solemn promise to myself there and then that I would return one day.
It’s an amazing place to dive, with a mind-boggling number of sharks that benefit from attempts by the Costa Rican government to protect them from being killed for their fins.
If I do get back there, I hope I’ll arrive fitter and more prepared for such extreme remote adventuring. I know one thing for certain – I will never try to “contain” another sneeze by pinching my nostrils, and neither should you.