Randy Fales, 68, of Satellite Beach, was scuba driving Sunday as he spearfished about 17 miles off the Florida coast, near Sebastian Inlet, when he surfaced and discovered that not only were his boat and family gone, but sharks were circling below.
"I've been diving for 35 years and this is the first time anything like this has ever happened," Fales, who captured much of the terrifying experience on his camera, told ABC News today.
Before diving into 90 feet of water, Fales said, he'd dropped a yellow jug, attached to the boat by parachute rope, onto a reef. Two of his daughters, one daughter's boyfriend and several grandchildren were on the boat at the time. The scuba driver was carrying his gear, a GoPro and a spear gun.
Fales said that when he surfaced, after 30 minutes of diving, he realized that likely because of the windy conditions, the jug had drifted off the reef, pulling the boat with it. He said his family had not noticed, thinking the jug was still anchored in place.
"That's not exactly an exciting feeling, you know, to realize there's no boat in the area," Fales said. "I was pretty confident there might be other boats in the area because it's a fairly common fishing area. I did see a boat after almost 15, 20 minutes."
Fales said he blew a whistle he was carrying and waved his bright-yellow diving bag high over his head, using his spear gun, to get the boat's attention. When that boat seemed to anchor a mile away, he started to swim toward it. Then the first shark appeared.
"He kept getting bolder, a little bolder, a little closer. ... The closest he got is he rubbed my leg with one of his pectoral fins," Fales said. "I would always go into a little bit of a defense mode and he would veer away."
After an hour, the second shark showed up, joining the other and circling him. Each shark was about 7 feet long. Although he didn't know the species, Fales said, he was certain they were neither tiger sharks nor great whites.
Despite the sharks' presence, Fales said today, he did not load his spear gun or intend at any time to shoot either animal.
"They're such majestic animals to begin with, but it was kind of cool seeing them and seeing them that close," he said.
Fales said that it wasn't the sharks, but his legs that started to concern him as they began to cramp and hurt. It was around the one-hour mark that he considered unloading his gear. After an hour and 20 minutes of treading water, Fales finally saw a boat coming his way.
"I said, 'Boy, am I glad to see you,'" he said.
Fales said that once he'd gotten on board, he was able to locate his daughters, who, by then, had sent a distress call to the Coast Guard. His daughter had timed him as he entered the water so when he didn't appear, the family started looking for him.
When nearly two hours had passed, she'd panicked. The Coast Guard was in the process of starting a search when Fales approached on the boat. By then his GoPro had died.
He said today that while his situation wasn't necessarily unique to divers -- "It does happen," he said -- he could understand why being stranded in the water would be terrifying to others.
"After you see a move like 'Open Water' or something like that, that has to go through your mind," said Fales, referencing a 2003 movie about a U.S. couple who are left in the ocean by a scuba-diving company and then targeted by sharks. "We just had a series of events and circumstances that came together and I ended up out there by myself."
Fales said he planned to return to scuba diving as soon as the weather permits.