They had warned us in advance we would be seeing sharks. They told us we should all stay together, and under no circumstances, should we go adventuring on our own.
From what I had seen so far on my vacation in Fiji no one had come back with missing limbs or blood dripping from wounds, so I had decided to be brave and go for it.
I did not get off to a great start.
To begin with, I must confess I am not all that comfortable in the ocean. Though my daughter and husband cavort in it like fish, I much prefer the mountains and trees for my wildlife adventures. And when in the water I most definitely like to be able to touch the bottom! So I could feel my heart pounding as they roared us out in this tiny motor boat, further and further away from the mainland.
I was one of the two people actually wearing my life jacket, and I was holding on to my husband’s hand for dear life when we finally slowed down and dropped anchor. All around me there was activity, as happy people put on masks and fins, splashed into the water and swam away behind the guide.
I was the last one off the boat. Adjusting my mask, fumbling in my fins, I finally dropped, most ungracefully, into the waves. In the distance everyone was already snorkeling and getting further and further away. I took a deep breath and put my head down to join them but almost immediately the water started streaming into my mask. What had started as minor anxiety grew exponentially into panic. The others were now tiny dots in the distance and it was just me and the boat. At this point, I was really considering just forgetting it and getting back in to wait for them. Thankfully, however, the guide helped me get my mask figured out so it stopped leaking. And my my husband came swimming back to lead me out to the group.
Then the real test: to put my head back in the water and take that first breath. I had to trust that the equipment would work, that I was supported and buoyant in the water, and that ultimately, all would be well.
And, if I really hated it, I could always get back in the boat!
I could hear my heart pounding and my breathing thru the tube. But the equipment continued to work and slowly I relaxed. Appreciating the big deep breaths that filled my lungs, I started kicking my legs and moving thru the water. And finally I began to enjoy myself a little. With each breath coming easily, I was able to notice the beautiful fish with their cobalt blues and bright pinks and the myriad of coral and sea life that was suddenly visible to the naked eye.
We finally caught up to the group who was stopped and circling in the water. And then, I spotted them: Three white tipped reef sharks. The real deal. They were not in a photo, they were not on tv. They were right there, swimming just below me – around and around.
And what was amazing to realize was that in watching them I was not afraid. True, we were in a group, and I might have felt different if alone. But the truth was, it was so beautiful to watch them in their element. They were so graceful, sleek, beautiful.
But somehow, their perceived danger to us humans has grown to mythical proportions. In our imaginations, all sharks are the sharp toothed, ferocious, deadly boogymen of the deep. Opening their huge mouths to drag us down and rip us asunder. ‘ Jaws’ will live on in infamy.
And though there have been fatal attacks, and they are definitely to be respected, the reality of them is that they are amazing, beautiful beings. God’s creatures, just as we all are. They have their place in the world and their right to exist. And it is we who have made them other than they are.
Over the rest of the trip I snorkeled several more times. Each time getting more and more confident, my heart beating not quite so loudly. And though I will never be the dolphin my daughter is I am so grateful I found the courage to try.
In hindsight, the reminders I took from this journey were profound.
- It is in overcoming our fears that we grow (I grew!).
- It is in experiencing rather than assuming that we learn (I learned!).
- It is in recognizing how powerful our mind can be in twisting the truth. And how important it is to stop and take the time see something as it is, not as we imagine it to be.
To all of you on the journey, may you learn to swim safely with the sharks.