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Losing Your Head

We sincerely hope you don’t, but our intrepid contributor, Stephen Weir, has taken steps just in case, and he’s not alone

Text by Stephen Weir

Stephen WeirIf at some point in the future someone who is not my dentist gets up close and personal with me and they see my social insurance number, then I’m a dead man. Perhaps I’ll have been eaten by a shark, lost at sea, found in aircraft wreckage alongside the crushed coral runway of a distant atoll. The possibilities are as numerous as they are unappealing. In this scenario I’m unlikely to be the usual sum of my parts and my days of amiable chitchat will be behind me.

Sounds a little macabre? Perhaps, but bear with me. My story begins earlier this year when I got my Toronto dentist to tattoo my social insurance number onto the backside of my new upper left implant. You’ll never see it unless my mouth is open wide and you are equipped with one of those little dentist mirrors.

It wasn’t cheap. But, as a diver who has had a few close calls underwater (all of them my fault), the tattoos give me peace of mind knowing that if my body washes up on a faraway beach, or if fishermen finds my jaw in the gut of a shark, there is a good chance I will be identified and my remains returned home for cremation.

I have had two encounters with sharks over the past decade – a large Tiger Shark in the Gulf of Mexico and a pair of small Great Whites that I got between, accidentally, while they were feeding on baby sea lions just off shore in the Galapagos Islands.  Both encounters left me shaken, pensive about my own mortality and fearful that my body (or what is left of it) will never be identified.

Dental outfits in the United States specializing in making ceramic and gold implants, crowns and bridges, know about this fear and are now able to put custom artwork in your mouth.  Here in Canada, there aren’t so many companies offering the service. My dentist, Dr. Evelyne Bourrouilh, was originally going to place an identification chip (similar to what pet owners use to tag their dogs and cats) on my implant but opted for the tattoo when she found a local lab willing to permanently mark the tongue side of my soon-to-be-installed ceramic tooth. The picture you see was taken just before the two-tooth implant was screwed into my upper jaw. 

Tooth Tats

“Our first request for a dental tattoo was from an airline stewardess in about 1990. She requested that her initials be engraved on her crown, so that her body could be easily identified if the plane crashed. We put her initials on her molar and she was thrilled,” says Tom Kowalkowski, the president of Westbrook Dental Studio in Chicago.  I contacted his company when I first went looking for a tooth tat – but decided to work with my dentist and a lab in my home city.

“Anyone can get a tooth tattoo on a crown, bridge, or dental implant,” he went on. “The tattoo stays on your tooth permanently if you want it to be there, but if you want to get rid of the tooth tattoo, your dentist can grind it off in a matter of minutes.”

There are a growing number of labs in the US that work with dentists to put the small tattoos on manufactured teeth.  Dentists and their patients choose suitable artwork  – fraternity letters are popular and so are cartoon characters – or they can design their own.  The implants and crowns are delivered to the labs and the tats are put into the surface of the ceramic teeth and then returned to your dentist for insertion.

The cost in the U.S. can run from $85 to $200 more per tooth. The lab that my dentist found in Toronto charged about $300 to print my SIN number, like a stain, onto my porcelain implant. It was then covered in a clear porcelain and baked until it became part of the tooth.

When viewed in a mirror the SIN numbers are backward.  I probably should have had them done the other way! No worries I still have four more implants on the way. My next tat? My email address frontward and backwards and my website URL!

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Close Encounter

Tigers, Great Whites and the Galapagos Sharks have been known to attack divers.  They don’t necessarily intend to eat the neoprene wrapped human, but the simple act of tasting is usually fatal.  I survived my meetings intact but they left me with a deep concern that I might die diving and that my remains might not be found and identified for a long time.

In the case of the Tiger Shark, it was late summer in 2013 and I was diving with three experienced Fort Myer divers – a cop, a bondsman and female underwater archaeologist. We were three hours out into the Gulf of Mexico from Sanabel Island. It was hot, the seas were up and storm clouds were blowing through the area. We jumped into the sea, grabbed onto the anchor line and pulled ourselves downwards. The boat was empty, bouncing in the incoming waves. My companions were going to spearfish; I was going to photograph them catching their dinners.

There was an artificial reef made from long concrete pilings 60 feet down. But before we reached the bottom we were shrouded by a school of frenzied fish, madly swimming between our legs and arms and buzzing past our heads.  

Fish faces don’t usually show expression, but these metre long fish looked frantic, and with good reason.  As we punched through the thrashing ring we could see through the gloom a large 8-foot tiger shark herding the fish. Behind the tiger were four smaller sharks, including a 6-foot bull shark. They were the next step down in the food chain – following the hunting tiger in anticipation of some leftovers.

We touched bottom and instinctively formed a circle, our backs touching and fronts facing the lazily circling sharks. I had a cop on one side and a huge bails bondman on the other. The young archaeologist had somehow gone missing.

The sharks continued to circle us in the dull light of the warm and turbid water. They remained just within visibility range. Spear guns were put away and through pointing and sign language we decided to surface, hoping to find our companion on the boat.

Swimming upward we encountered a strong current. Breaking the surface we looked for the craft.  Rough seas had pushed us a mile away from the anchored dive boat.  It was so far away we could only see the boat when we bobbed on the crest of a wave and looked down at her in the trough of another wave.

With waves splashing hard into our faces, we had to continue to breath through our regulators as we started a long difficult swim against the current. It was a tough slog, made more difficult by the sharks that swam just two to three feet (less than a metre) directly below us. My companions disappeared under the waves several times to push at the pesky sharks with the butt ends of their guns.

It took 40 minutes to almost reach the stern of the boat. A few feet from safety I ran out of air.  I was dragged to the ladder by my buddy. Climbing into the boat I called down into the cabin for our fourth diver. No answer. She wasn’t there.

We all stood and searched the horizon for a dive safety sausage (a 10-foot/3m tall signaling device). North. South. East. And West. Nothing. We were going to issue a mayday when suddenly we could hear her yelling far off the stern. 

Our missing diver was coming home. She swam through the same sharks that had escorted us to the boat. She climbed exhausted aboard.  Smaller and lighter than we oversized men, the current blew her farther away from the boat as she surfaced.

It was a long, bumpy butt-busting ride back to Sanibel Island.  Three hours in 6-foot swells.  Time enough to plan my next dental visit. 

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