Talk to any group of triathletes and you learn
their most common fear is swimming in open water. Even strong
swimmers get edgy about swimming across a wide expanse of
open ocean or a murky, weedy lake. When you ask why you usually
get the same answer, they don’t know what is down there.
For most of us the worry centers on some concern
about vague but awful monsters that will grab us and haul
us under to be eaten or drown. I know when I go out into the
really deep water and stare down into the abyss I wonder what
is looking back at me. It frightens me more than seems reasonable
for a grown man. My solution has been to keep looking forward
while swimming so I can see the surface of the water in my
field of view. I figure that as long as I ignore the giant
squid, lethal jellyfish, seasnakes and twenty foot white sharks
they will leave me alone. It’s like the monsters under
our bed when we were kids. As long as we don’t look
everything is fine. Keep your eyes shut tight. The interesting
thing for me is that if I could see what was down there it
might become less menacing- hopefully. The fear is not the
sharks, squids, barracuda, jetskis, jellyfish, drunk boaters,
power plant intakes, tangling weeds, stonefish, stingrays
and other icky things we can see- it’s the stuff we
can’t see except in our imagination that becomes so
scary. Or so I thought.
Following that reasoning, two decades ago I
set out to come face to face with the things I was afraid
of. I wanted to see the monsters under the bed. My logic was
if I saw them once and for all I wouldn’t be scarred
anymore. Turns out, I was only partially right…
This week begins Shark Week on the Discovery
Channel. My wife and I love watching Animal Planet on the
Discovery Channel along with all the documentaries about whales,
sharks, snails- whatever. Shark Week on the Discovery Channel
has been running for 20 years and has always been one of the
network’s most successful programming themes. Since
Peter Benchley’s novel “Jaws” and the Steven
Spielberg movie of the same name there has been a public fascination
with sharks. I think this parallels the success of the first
real horror novel, “Frankenstein”. Benchley’s
“Jaws” was a modern day “Frankenstein”
but slightly more plausible since sharks do exist. The masterful
part of Benchley’s fictional book “Jaws”
is that he took just enough license from fact to make the
story believable but was fast and loose enough to make it
terrifying. Sharks simply never behave the way Benchley depicted
them in “Jaws”. Really, they don’t. I saw
a guy in a lab coat on the Discovery Channel say so. After
seeing sharks on the Discovery Channel I thought I could be
one of those guys in the water with the sharks. If I could
do that, I wouldn’t be afraid of the things that swam
underneath me anymore.
It took me years before I actually found a shark
in the open ocean to confront my fears with. As it turned
out, it was more of a petting zoo shark. The nurse shark,
Ginglymostoma cirratum, is to the white shark or the
tiger shark about what my house cat is to a Bengal tiger.
They are shaped about the same, but pretty harmless unless
you do something really idiotic. I swam around with nurse
sharks in the Caribbean snapping photos and doing a reasonably
successful job of balancing fear against excitement. The whole
experience of diving with a bunch of nurse sharks seemed just
frightening enough to be exciting, but not so frightening
that I felt myself sliding down the food chain. I had faced
my fears, swam with sharks and rationalized that it was all
OK, just like the Discovery Channel.
Then everything changed.
Belize, just inside a coastal reef about a half
mile off shore. I had been following two nurse sharks across
the sandy bottom in about fifteen feet of water trying to
get them in silhouette for a better photo angle. They gracefully
arced in front of me and I raised my underwater camera to
shoot a beautiful image of the sharks with the sunlight filtering
through the crystal Caribbean.
I felt something odd. Apprehension I suppose.
A very specific feeling of being watched. It was palpable
enough to act on. It was a real physical sensation, like something
actually touched me through the water. Hovering a few feet
below the clear surface I felt the water seemingly get colder
and the hair on my neck stand up. I lowered my camera, slowly
spun around and looked behind me.
There was a shark. A real shark. The kind with
teeth. It was bigger than me. I floated silently in the water
and there it was. It was real. This was it.
When I was a child I read about sharks. I made
a distinct effort to memorize their scientific names. It made
me sound like an expert, an authority. At one point I had
memorized most of the major species Latin names. I flashed
immediately to this long forgotten knowledge as I hovered
silently under the surface in the clear water off the coast
Carcharhinus leucas. Bull shark.
I slowly heard my own voice reading the facts
back to me: “Dangerous species. Unpredictable. Responsible
for attacks on humans. Never turn your back on one.”
It felt very much like I was shrinking and the
shark was growing larger. There was the distinct sensation
that the blood in my body stopped moving. It took me a moment
to notice I had stopped inhaling or exhaling. The giant shark’s
behavior was vague. Unpredictable I guess you could say. That
was reassuring. At least the books were right. It swam at
right angles to me, turning quickly at either end of its passage
and never getting closer, never going away. It was between
me and my dive boat. There were no other divers around. Suddenly,
I was that guy on TV. The guy in the documentary alone in
the water with a big, dangerous shark. I was extremely scarred.
The bull shark was very beautiful but it looked
oddly disinterested- in anything. It did look very mean in
a menacingly blank and random way. One word came into my mind:
Lethal. You hear of people taming lions and tigers and bears
but you never hear of people befriending big sharks and frolicking
with them in the ocean. I think, after seeing this one, it
is because they are empty inside. Everything on it was pointed.
Nose, fins, tail. Even the color made it difficult to see
at the farthest point it swam away from me. Then it would
gently turn and swim back again. Back and forth. Slowly. It
seemed to have nothing better to do. It seemed to simply be
waiting. I was waiting too, but I am not sure for what. I
was hoping it would simply swim off somewhere, but it would
not. Then I realized something that turned my fear to a quickly
rising level of terror: “It isn’t leaving because
I am here. It is interested in me.”
I began to think about my predicament with the
odd calmness of a man in deep trouble. I recalled that a shark’s
simple mind divides all things into one of three categories:
Things it can eat, things that can eat it and things that
it can use to make more sharks. I was hoping for a fourth
category that included none of the above.
It was silent underwater and that made the experience
more haunting. The shark wasn’t large, it was huge-
the biggest sea animal I had ever seen except on TV. If I
were pressed to estimate it size I would say at least seven
feet long and horribly deep in body shape. It was wide too.
When it turned face on to me it looked like a row boat. If
the shark were to be measured I wouldn’t be surprised
to find out it was only five feet long, but fear has the effect
To fill the silence I heard my mind’s
voice narrating the scene. It was gray and cleanly streamlined.
It seemed capable of blinding speed. It could close the distance
between us in one full arc of its caudal fin. Then it would
slam into me, mouth open, with the force of a car collision.
Its teeth would rake briefly across my skin, cutting, tearing.
The wounds would be deep and jagged and there would be many
of them. I would wildly push at the fish not from some organized
combat but in desperate panic. Then it would swim away and
I would be left in the water, kicking toward the surface in
a growing cloud of my own blood and wondering when it would
hit me again. The people in the dive boat would see me then.
They would not know why I was shouting. They would wave. It
would hit again, right then, and under I would go trying to
fight it off. This time I would truly be injured- it would
tear off my foot, dragging me briefly through the water until
the limb became fully detached. It would not hurt, it would
simply be blindly terrifying. I would not see the shark again.
That is where my mind’s narration ended. I had one brief
flash of trying to climb the ladder onto the dive boat and
realizing my foot was gone.
Then I was back in the water with the shark.
The view of it was becoming grainier. It was fading despite
the clear water. The shark was slowly swimming farther and
And then the ocean was empty. It was clear and
the sea grass waved on the bottom slowly. The nurse sharks
were gone. I could see a great distance underwater and the
dancing curtains of sunlight scattered about on the sandy
bottom. The shark was gone. It swam away. My camera was still
in my hands. I had not taken one photo of the bull shark.
I was too afraid.
I went up the three or four feet to the surface
and saw the dive boat, not more than a hundred feet away.
Sound returned. People were climbing up the little ladder
in the back. I started swimming toward the boat then got very
frightened. I looked underwater, behind me, to either side,
behind me again. It was still there, somewhere, in the water.
I was in the water. I wanted to get out. I dove back down
to the bottom and swam along the sand and sea grass feeling
somehow safer that the shark could not approach me without
being seen, but I kept looking behind me. It had appeared
so suddenly. It could easily do it again.
When I got to the boat I climbed up the ladder
with some difficulty. I was unsteady. I feigned calmness as
I stepped onto the boat. I couldn’t get my fins off
fast enough. I didn’t feel too good.
I looked at the divemaster and told him, with
the greatest degree of calmness and matter of fact that I
could, “You might want to let the others know there
is a large bull shark out there.” He looked uneasy.
“There are no bull sharks here…” He told
That night I recounted my tale to a man near
the hut we were staying in. He worked construction in the
area and rode the barges up and down the coast.
“Yes, the bull shark. You saw him.”
He looked down as though we were sharing a secret. “They
stay out… other side of the reef. But people feed the
fish and in comes the bull shark. Someday something bad will
He didn’t say anything else about the
When I was flying away from the island I looked
down at the water. It was so clear I imagined I might be able
to see more sharks from the airplane, but the water looked
empty and clear. Maybe we were too high or going too fast,
or maybe there were no sharks.
That’s the problem with them. You never
know if they are really down there until you turn around and
they are right there.
I thought facing my fears would somehow drive
them away, that I would conquer them by seeing a real shark
in the open ocean. It did not work the way I wanted. To this
day it makes me feel funny. I remember the feeling of being
in the water with that shark. I don’t think I have ever
been scarred in quite the same way by anything else in my
life. It was a very basic fear, the fear of attack or being
As athletes we moderate many fears; fear of
failure, fear of looking bad, fear of being injured or having
an accident. It seems none of us ever really moderate this
fear of the things we imagine swim beneath us. And I can tell
you first hand that confronting them in person doesn’t
do much to make those fears any smaller. At least next time
I see a shark in the open ocean I’ll know what it feels
like to slide a few rungs down the food chain, but it doesn’t
mean I’ll be any less frightened.