THINGS BITE BACK
TINKERBELL IS COMING STRAIGHT AT ME. Her teeth are comic-book scary; her barrel-shaped body is the size of a Transit van. Her expressionless eyes fix me with the cold stare of a killer.
My finless feet are rooted to the spot. The weights around my waist feel as if they've suddenly trebled. She approaches slowly, almost lazily, and I feel the powerful sweep of her tail as she skims above my head. I suddenly realise I've forgotten to keep breathing.
Oh, Tinkerbell! My head knows that you're not remotely interested in taking a big chunk out of me, but my gut still churns with excitement, because you just might.
I'm on the Shark Awareness course at Edinburgh Aquarium: a weatherproof way of getting in a dive that guarantees a close encounter with sharks, without having to pay to get to Cocos.
Diving isn't generally a spectator sport, but this is. The faces pressed against the perspex tunnel are intrigued. It's unnerving to be observed while bouncing, finless, around a giant fish-tank.
If you've ever been unlucky enough to find yourself the object of curiosity for one of those glass-bottomed tourist boats, you may have experienced a similar twinge of performance anxiety: what are they looking at? What do these people expect to see?
Should I juggle some sea urchins, or launch into a James Bond-style attack on my buddy?
Here at the aquarium, I suspect they're secretly hoping to see a little shark action. They want blood! Watching divers feed the fish is all very interesting, but watching divers becoming fish-food - now that's proper 21st century entertainment.
Whoops, there's a ray underfoot. Must pay attention.
I stretch out my hand to guide the ray gently in front of the diver with a camera, and it bites me. Thankfully, I'm wearing gloves. While I can feel the nip, all it gets is a mouthful of neoprene.
Never mind, there's a cute, photogenic turbot barely a metre away. I kneel down to waft a layer of sand off it, and as my hand passes close to its head, it appears to be yawning. How bizarre, I've never seen a flatfish yawn. It lunges for my finger. The bloody thing is trying to bite me! In the words of Chantelle: "Oh my God!"
I jumped into this tank feeling all excited (and a bit brave) at the prospect of confronting five big sand tigers and escaping without getting bitten. Now a turbot with an attitude problem is publicly savaging me. How humiliating.
In the words of Churchill: "The optimist sees opportunity in every danger; the pessimist sees danger in every opportunity." And the turbot sees an opportunity for dinner in every diver. I blame the aquarium. What kind of an example are they setting these fish?
After "leaping" up the shotline that leads in and out of the tank, I can relax off-stage and strip off my drysuit. The extra kilos that kept me weighted down in the tank have pulled at my neckseal; I'm thoroughly soaked. As I didn't bring any spare underwear, I now face the prospect of going home "commando". Yet another danger of the dive that I failed to anticipate.
Backstage at the aquarium is like the aquatic version of a garden shed. It's where all the spare bits and bobs get stored; where all the exhibits that are quarantined or between moves are kept.
A few homeless newts are moping in a glass tank and - sweet! - there's a lone blenny in a plastic bucket.
Some say that intelligence is the ability to learn from your experiences. I lean over the bucket and the blenny swims perkily up the side. What a little darling! I can't resist stroking the surface of the water with my finger.
And, yes, the bloody thing bites me.