Swimming With Sharks

A few years ago, I spent a week with my father and his family in San Diego. While there, I made a startling discovery. I am both much braver and much more of a chicken than I knew.

My brother’s friend, Crystal, who’s a Marine Biologist told us all about a public beach where leopard sharks come in to hang out every summer. She said the following, which made it seem like a good idea. “They’re small and docile.” (She may actually have said more than that, but I clung to those two words (SMALL and DOCILE) like a lifeline.) My younger brother, sister, and step-mom were all in, so I said “SURE!”. ‘Cause I believed I was A) Brave and B) have a degree in biology that once was a planned stepping stone to a career in Marine Bio… had life alternate careers in Computer Programming and Writing not gotten in the way )

The day after I agreed to this outing, a friend and I went to Sea World, where we saw the leopard sharks in a tank. My friend, Jennifer (who’s lived practically in the ocean most of her life and who I believed knew what she was talking about) pointed to them and said, “This is about the size of the sharks you’ll see”. I nodded, secure in the belief that the cute, LITTLE sharks would pose no threat.

So there I was, several days later, at the beach with the rest of the fam. Feeling brave. Excited. (And only a little trepidatious.) I did the “don’t-step-on-a-ray” shuffle out to thigh deep water (because Crystal has been stung a few times and she warned us that the biggest threat to our persons was actually the rays.) I spit in my goggles and rinsed them out (so they wouldn’t steam up and I could catch a gander at the cute little sharks I was about to see). I adjusted my snorkel. I was READY. This was going to be FUN! I pushed off the bottom and started my float through the surf.

Now, it should be noted that I’ve been snorkeling and SCUBA diving a number of times, so I know an intrinsic fact about myself… It takes me SEVERAL minutes of paddling about and breathing under water until I can get my breath under control. (Because it’s kind of strange breathing underwater and it always freaks me out for the first couple of minutes). Also, I want to point out that the visibility wasn’t more than 10 feet… so in addition to my breathing, I was also fighting a panic about anything that I could see was within 10 feet of me. (Note: 10 feet is not that far. That’s like… LESS THAN TWO OF ME arranged end to end.)

sharkI’m swimming along, trying not to hyperventilate when…

Oh.

My.

GOD!!!!!

There was a 6-8 FOOT shark headed RIGHT FOR ME!!!!!!! (that would again be, LESS than TEN FEET away from me!)

Yeah. I did PRECISELY what you’re not supposed to do, and flailed like a crazy person meeting Jaws up close and personal. (There was much churning of water.) The shark’s eyes got big and he spun around. (I suspect less out of fear and more out of a need to call to his buddy and shout, “Yo, Bob! We gotta live one here!!!”) I paddled back to the thigh-high water again to get a grip. (Because at that moment, adrenaline was NOT my friend!) Crystal came over to see if I was OK. I explained what I’d seen. She told me 6-8 feet was “small” by her definition. (”They’re People sized.”) To my way of thinking, anything that can wrap it’s jaws around one of my limbs, shake his head and remove said limb, is far too big to be swimming with.

I think, in retrospect, I probably would have felt better about the whole thing had I been wearing fins, because I’m not a terribly strong swimmer and fins make me feel like I can get somewhere in a reasonable amount of time… Not that I think I could have out-swimmed a shark, but I might have been able to outswim others who weren’t wearing fins. You don’t have to be fastest… you just have to be faster than the SLOWEST.)

I decided that I was being a baby. Plus I’d just bought an underwater camera, and I was going to get a good story out of this! (And in my flailing and panicking, I forgot to click the shutter ) I took a deep breath. I was brave. I could do this. I tried it again.

(For the sake of brevity, let’s just say… Lather. Rinse. Repeat.) At which point, I realized that A) I’m not that brave and B) I didn’t want to go down in history as “That chick from Ohio who got eaten by the leopard shark”.

sharks8So I handed off my camera and toasted my melbas on the beach while the rest of my family swam with the sharks. (None were eaten, Thank God!) And they laughed at me. (But I’ve decided to forgive them for it… eventually). As it turns out, it’s probably better that I returned to shore when I did, as there wasn’t just ONE giant shark out there, but an entire SCHOOL of them. (I was told more than ten… All I can say is, “DEAR GOD!”) This pic shows at least 4 of them. (And there’s kind of a shadow of another toward the middle-back.