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Scary Things.
By Tom Demerly
Sarah gets nearly gets eaten by shark.


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 of Belize.

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 of magnification.

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 farther away.

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 me.

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 happen.”

He didn’t say anything else about the shark.

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 eaten.

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.



© Tom Demerly, Bikesport Inc.
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