SHARKS INCORPORATED IN THE BAHAMAS
They flew from Florida in a small plane, east over the Bahama Islands, into a watercolor nation of blue.
“Lots of small sharks down there,” biologist Dr. Marion Ford said. “The big ocean sharks usually stay in deep water. Remember that. I don’t want you kids messing around in deep water. We only have one rule—and you know what that rule is.”
He sat at the controls. To his right was Maribel Estéban, age thirteen. She was tall, studious, quiet, and always, always dependable.
“It’s an easy rule to remember,” Maribel said. She opened the spiral notebook she’d purchased just for this trip and made a notation.
Strapped into the back seats were her ten-year-old sister, Sabina, and their friend Lucas Jones, age eleven.
It was noisy inside the plane. They all wore radio headphones.
“There it is—Katt Island,” the biologist said. “Let’s take a closer look.”
Hills of green appeared in the front windshield. The hills were joined by strands of silver beach.
Like a slow roller coaster, the little plane tilted downward. The doors were made of some type of plastic glass. A hundred feet below, the water was clear. Shadows of fish glided over white sand.
“What kind of sharks?” Maribel asked.
“Can’t tell from here,” the biologist replied. “Couple of turtles, too. The whole island is a nursery for all kinds of sea life. And plenty of sharks to tag. You kids are gonna love it here.”
“I already do,” Sabina said into her microphone.
Usually, the ten-year-old girl had her nose buried in a book, or was writing poems in her diary. Not now. The scenery was too beautiful. And they were here to work. Over the summer, she, her sister, and Luke had learned how to tag and release small sharks. It was a research program designed for schoolkids.
Doc, the biologist, had been a fun but demanding teacher. The same was true of his partner, Captain Hannah Smith. Hannah was Luke’s aunt. She was a famous fishing guide.
The kids had become a team—Sharks Incorporated. They had learned to work quickly and professionally. As a team, they had tagged and released more than one hundred small sharks near their homes on Sanibel Island, Florida. Luke, Maribel, and Sabina had also earned a fifty-thousand-dollar reward for helping to bust a gang of shark poachers.
The money had gone into the bank, of course. This trip to the Bahamas was a bonus. They had been invited to spend three weeks on this remote island off the Florida coast. The kids would tag sharks, and learn about sea turtles and other wildlife in the island nation of the Bahamas.
The Commonwealth of the Bahamas was the official name.
Doc was here for a different reason. Coral reefs in the area were being destroyed by invaders. Lionfish, the invaders were called. Unlike sharks, lionfish seldom weighed more than a few pounds. But they were terribly destructive—and dangerous, too.
The three young members of Sharks Incorporated would help Doc with his research.
The little blue-and-white seaplane banked to the left. It gained speed, then swooped upward. Katt Island, lined by cliffs and white sand, grew larger.
“That’s where you’ll be staying,” the biologist said. “Hannah’s there now, and I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
Below was a cluster of cabins shaded by coconut palms. There were no other houses for miles. A narrow road cut through hills and ragged trees. South, where the beach ended, was a rocky cliff that dropped into the sea.
The plane climbed higher and circled. Seeing the area from the air was a lot better than looking at a satellite photo on a computer screen. Katt Island was long and narrow, with what resembled a boot at the bottom.
“Looks like a pirate’s boot,” Sabina said. “Is that a cemetery down there in those trees?”
When the biologist laughed, their radio earphones crackled with static.
“Could be. You’re right about pirates,” he said. “That island is loaded with caves. There are a lot of legends about treasure being hidden down there. The real treasure, though, is the people who live on Katt Island. And the clear water.”
A moment later, he said, “Hang on. Let’s fly low over the lagoon.”
“I love pirates and cemeteries.” Sabina grinned. “What’s a lagoon?”
“You’ll see,” the man replied.
Luke’s stomach fluttered when the plane dived toward the water. Below was a salty lake. The lake was connected to the ocean by jade-colored creeks no wider than sidewalks. The creeks tunneled through acres of low trees.
A speck of swirling black water grabbed the boy’s attention. The speck resembled a hole in the earth. It lay in a basin of sand, not far from the cabins where they would be staying.
A cave? he wondered.
Sabina was still thinking about pirates. Within a few days, her curiosity would lead the kids to the oldest cemetery on Katt Island. There they would discover a hundred-year-old mystery.
Luke remained focused on the dark spot that looked like a hole in the earth. He had no way of knowing that his curiosity about that strange hole would nearly get him killed.
Maribel, sitting in the copilot seat, looked down at the lagoon and the rocky green hills. In her spiral notebook, she wrote, Sharks Incorporated has just one simple rule: Always follow all rules, but above all else take care of your teammates.
On the next line, she wrote the date and added, Flying into the Bahamas is like flying into a beautiful blue dream.
After a few days on Katt Island, the last thing Luke expected when he left his cabin that morning was to end up trapped in the swirling black hole he’d seen from the airplane.
But that’s what happened.
Problem was, he’d grown up on a farm. He was always awake before Maribel and Sabina, who slept in the little cabin next to his. So, at sunrise, he grabbed a granola bar and went down the steps while roosters crowed, and parrots quarreled in the trees.
Breakfast was an hour away. Plenty of time to explore.
All week, he’d been thinking about the speck of swirling black water he’d seen from Doc’s seaplane. But he hadn’t had time to search for the spot. He and the sisters had been too busy learning about lionfish and sea turtles and coral reefs. Most mornings, there was work to do. And afternoons were spent tagging small sharks in the shallows.
This was Luke’s first free morning—a chance to explore on his own.
Smoke from a cooking fire trailed him across the empty beach toward the bay. A lagoon, the biologist had called it. Never had the boy seen water so clear and blue.
Carrying a mask, a snorkel, and his expensive new Rocket fins, Luke waded out. He sealed the mask over his face and dived under.
The world of sunlight became an aquarium of tiny fish, rainbow colors.
A sea turtle appeared. It was the size of a dinner plate, its shell golden-green. Long flippers stroked the water like wings as it glided past.
Wow. In the Bahamas, turtles were fast! They were nothing like the plodding turtles found in farm ponds. Sea turtles soared in clear water like birds, even when the water was only a few feet deep.
Luke, wearing rubber booties inside his new fins, followed at a distance. That was just how he was. The boy’s eyes would lock on to an object while his mind forgot everything else. Next thing he knew, he’d be lost, miles from where he started, with not a clue how long he’d been gone, or how to get back.
It had happened to him many times, growing up on a small farm west of Toledo, Ohio. And never did he bother to tell anyone where he was going.
Fact was, Luke seldom knew himself.
Brain-dead, his stepfather had termed the flaw before sending Luke to Florida to live with his aunt, Captain Hannah Smith.
That was four months ago.
The same was true on this bright blue morning in the Bahamas. The turtle didn’t seem to mind being followed. Occasionally, it would pause to munch on blades of underwater grass. This gave the boy time to stand up, clean his mask, and look around.
When he first stopped, his little tree-house cabin was still visible. A few stops later, he was alone in the shallow blue lagoon. The sandy bottom was tinted bronze. The area was pocked with mangroves, rubbery trees that thrived in saltwater. The mangroves blocked his view of the cabins. But as the turtle sailed through an opening in the trees, the boy followed.
Water deepened, but not much. The next time the turtle stopped, Luke could stand up, no problem. A tidal creek—that was how locals referred to the streams that ribboned through the lagoon.
Tide was a word most farm kids didn’t understand. Luke did, sort of, because his aunt was a fishing guide. And the biologist, Dr. Ford, was his closest adult friend.
Here was how tides worked: Twice a day, almost every day, seawater flooded into the bays until the tide was high. Twice a day, almost every day, it flowed back into the sea. At low tide, the water might reach only to your ankles. At high tide, the water might be up to your chest. Both tides, high and low, peaked a little later every day of the week.
Usually by about an hour, the boy had been told.
It had something to do with the moon.
The tide was flooding in from the sea when Luke left that morning. The current was mild. The flow carried him and the turtle along at an easy pace. It didn’t seem like an hour, but probably was.
There was a lot to see—including lionfish. They were strange-looking creatures with ornate stingers. The stingers fanned out from their bodies like a lion’s mane. The name lionfish made sense.
Lionfish didn’t belong in the Bahamas, he and the sisters had learned. They were native to the Pacific Ocean, but had somehow traveled halfway around the earth.
More likely, they had escaped from a resort’s giant aquarium, Doc had told them.
Lionfish had no natural enemies in this part of the world. They were multiplying like crazy. Worse, they were killing all types of local sea life. Lionfish weren’t aggressive, but touch one? Ouch. Their sting was incredibly painful. Sometimes even deadly.
Luke was careful not to get too close when he swam past them.
As he followed the turtle, a couple of barracudas shadowed him for a while. A few days ago, the boy would’ve been spooked by their daggerlike teeth.
Not now. He had gotten used to swimming with ’cudas. The lagoon, they had learned, was a nursery for small sea creatures of all types. Bigger, sometimes dangerous fish—including sharks—hunted outside the reef in deep water.
Sure, you still had to keep an eye out for jellyfish and stingrays. They didn’t attack, but, like lionfish, they had dangerous stingers.
The boy was reminded of this when, ahead, a stingray exploded from the sand. It surprised the turtle, too. This caused the creature to zoom from sight at an incredible speed.
The turtle resembled a golden Frisbee with fins. That image stuck in Luke’s head. He stood, spit in his mask, and for the first time wondered how far he had traveled from the cabin.
He noticed, though, that the current was now flowing in a different direction. It was stronger. Much stronger.
Maybe this was good. It meant the tide had changed. Water was streaming out of the shallows, returning to the sea. The same current that had carried him into the lagoon might carry him back to the cabins where they were staying.
Makes sense, Luke thought.
He had already missed breakfast, so he needed to hurry. Every day at lunch, he and the Estéban sisters were expected to meet and go over their schedule. They still had a lot to learn about Katt Island.
Today, something special had been planned. His aunt, Captain Hannah, was supposed to take them to a place where they might be able to see giant sharks from the shore.
Soon the lagoon was too shallow to swim. Luke, after taking off his swim fins, started walking.
No idea which way to go. He was lost. What had been a blue aquarium was now a desert of sand. Worse, if he didn’t hurry, he’d miss the noon meeting.
Maribel, the quiet sister, was nice enough to be understanding if he was late.
Not Sabina. The ten-year-old had a sharp tongue—and a temper. And she often kidded Luke about growing up on a farm. Which was okay. Usually.
He liked both girls. Trusted them, too. It was probably like having sisters of his own, because Sabina, especially, could be a pain in the rump. But he dreaded the embarrassment if they found out that he was lost again.
Ahead, the boy noticed something strange. There was a deep blue shadow where water appeared to not just bubble. It boiled, like water in a cauldron. But there was no steam, so the water wasn’t hot.
Was it the swirling black hole he had spotted from the airplane?
This was exciting. Wearing his rubber dive boots, he slogged closer. It wasn’t a shadow. It was a bubbling whirlpool. Luke pictured a flushing toilet—the way the tide swirled was similar. The whooshing suction sound it made was familiar, too.
Luke would have detoured around the spot if he hadn’t seen a turtle rocket past his knees. It was followed by another … then another.
You’re not going to lose me this time, he thought.
An instant later, the boy was spinning in circles. The current pulled him down, down, down into a hole beneath the water.
Copyright © 2021 by Randy Wayne White.
Copyright © 2021 by Molly Fehr