IMAGE: OCEAN RAMSEY
Like any Jaws-era child, I grew up frightened of sharks. Don't get me wrong, I never believed they were mindless monsters who attack humans on purpose, but I definitely didn't trust them. So much so that even as a little girl I would never swim in a pool alone, especially at night! I was convinced one would somehow sneak through the filter and "get" me (clearly I didn't understand how filters worked).
When I started free diving I realized it was affecting my performance. In a sport where you're trying to get as relaxed as possible, slowing your heart rate and thoughts down, I was always looking over my shoulder. A little part of me was still always thinking Brucey from Jaws was going to sneak up on me.
So evantually some good friends threw me on the back of a jet ski and hauled me a couple miles offshore to find some sharks at a spot they're known to gather at. They knew that fear would be gone once I saw them first hand. And deep down I knew it too. I went with three friends and only one of them hadn't yet swam with sharks. The two of us were both trading nervous looks with each other all morning (okay mostly me).
We pulled up and waited and after a few minutes I got my first look at a shark that wasn't in a horror film or an aquarium. They were easier to spot from above than I had imagined. I always pictured them somehow hidden, lurking below even in crystal clear waters. This big unmistakable grey shape passed us slowly by under the surface, pretty uninterested in us. The two of my more experienced friends slipped right in. They were followed shortly by the only other newbie of the group, leaving me sitting alone on a jet ski practically hyperventilating. They urged me to jump in but I couldn't do it. Not even with the pole from my Swiffer I brought (oh yes I did) as a buffer. They laughed and told me I'd be fine and that the most important thing was to make eye contact. (Which even now I'll vouch is probably the most important part of swimming with sharks, eye contact.) So, terrified and practically strangling my headless Swiffer, I finally slid in.
I thought my heart would be beating out of my chest (I mean, think of being center stage to your biggest fear) but strangely it wasn't. I hid behind my friends and quickly counted about six sharks. They were Galapagos sharks, which are usually around eight to ten feet long. I started to panic because they were all AROUND us. Leading up to this moment I had specifically and repeatedly been told that eye contact was the biggest thing and now WHICH one was I supposed to lock eyes with? The one behind me? To my right? Left? Beneath? I started to get what I call The Fear Giggles. When you go into panic mode and for some reason can only manage to nervously and uncontrollably laugh. So with muffled fearful giggling coming out of my snorkel I made my way back against the current and clambered back onto the jet ski.
I took some big breaths and thankfully was eventually told that constant eye contact with every single shark in the vicinity is (obviously) impossible. What you are meant to do is frequently look around at sharks near you and lock eyes with any that may be a little more keen to come right up at you.
I hopped back in and snuck myself into the middle of our group to hide but after a little while almost all the sharks had lost interest and taken off. Only one big guy remained and I started to get comfortable. As he would do passes by me I would start to follow behind and it was quite obvious that he was actually pretty scared of me. I even reached out once to him and he wiggled off, afraid I would touch him.
Now, if you sit down in front of Discovery Channel during Shark Week you'll probably get some speech in an overdramatic Mr. Moviefone-narrator-voice about how Galapagos Sharks are deadly and "have no fear of humans." Please don't believe this. It's been about two years since that day and I can't count how many times I've had the opportunity to swim with sharks. I've learned so much from fellow divers and the One Ocean Diving team, people who have spent their entire careers studying and swimming with sharks all over the world. Fear turned into fascination and respect, and it's now evolving into this need to be a voice for them. I'm no longer afraid of sharks, I'm afraid for them. And as someone who used to be more terrified of them than nearly anything else, that should say a lot.
Take your biggest fear, imagine meeting it and shaking it by the hand, being told and shown that it doesn't want to hurt you, it's afraid of being hurt itself. That's what swimming with sharks for the first time was like for me.