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Just a Fish

When I was a child, my fear of sharks eclipsed my common sense. Swimming in the family pool alone felt like being abandoned in the middle of the sea—my imagination was larger than any shark. Again and again, submerged in the bright blue world, opening my eyes to the chlorinated sting, I watched as the teeth of the great white came for me. The struggle lasted half a second, the water ran red, and a few hours later my family found my dismembered body stuck in the filter. I cannot recall a single event that spun this web of terror in my heart. Jaws did not help, but I know my fear went back further. Sharks are just scary to a child. Why fear the imaginary monster in the closet when real monsters lurk in dark places? Then again, children and adults fear sharks. People are terrestrial beings; we are awkward and graceless in water, whereas a shark is the epitome of strength, grace and ferocity. Our only defense is to flail and panic, which entices them. Sharks swim straight out of a primordial time when humans had good reason to be afraid of fast animals with sharp teeth. Over the past one million years, human evolution has been dramatic, transforming us from barely bipedal clans of stick-carrying apes to the technological wizards we are today. But in that same stretch of time, sharks barely changed. Their bodies’ speed and agility bestowed them with marine dominance back then, and the past million years of evolution merely sanded the edges of a smooth sculpture. Both species evolved: But while humans were changing, sharks got better at what they already did well. They show no deference for our hard-earned position at the top of the food chain.

Wanting to get the better of my fear, I became determined to see a shark in the wild.

Like most fears, mine was spiked with a dose of curiosity. I spent hours watching documentaries about sharks, studying their serpentine movements, wondering at their perfection, drinking my fear in like a bitter medicine in the hope I would be cured. Still, the nightmares persisted into adulthood, through my studies of marine biology and into my SCUBA diving career. No attained knowledge or logic replaced the irrational fear. That my odds of being eaten by a shark were lower than being run over by a drunk driver, shot with a legal firearm, or attacked by a hippopotamus was irrelevant. I could dive the same reef repeatedly, knowing exactly what to expect. But as long as I was floating at the surface without a view of the bottom, at any moment the great white could emerge. Wanting to get the better of my fear, I became determined to see a shark in the wild. I envisioned diving someplace where sharks were known to reside and confronting them on their turf, but on my terms. I imagined the fear washing away as the object of my intense curiosity swam by in a controlled environment. However, life is unwilling to accommodate our expectations. My first encounter with a shark would pit logic against fear without my prior approval.

In late October of 2005, the SSV Robert C. Seamans left port in San Diego. I was one of the thirty-five crew aboard the boat, a hundred-and-thirty-five-foot sailing machine used for educational and research purposes. Mexico’s Baja Peninsula is about a thousand miles long and it took us several weeks to sail around it. The Seamans ambled through the doldrums at two knots, then turned east around the tip of Baja three weeks after departure. After a port call in La Paz, we headed south again through the mouth of the Gulf of California. Although it was late fall, our decreasing latitude kept the air and water warm. In these increasingly tropical waters we began to see more life – turtles floating alone, a pod of false killer whales eight hundred strong, fin whales, lots of birds. Not just seabirds, but songbirds and hawks lost out at sea, blown hundreds of miles from shore by a rogue wind. Some would perch on our masts and rigging for days before dying of thirst on the deck. Weird fish, too: sunfish, oarfish, flying fish. Sharks.

On a blustery, choppy afternoon, Captain Virginia Land strode across the deck surveying her charge. Wherever Virginia was, she was in charge – she was tall and limber, and carried herself with the bold self-assuredness of a ship captain. Her voice did not match her lanky frame; its sound could carry to any corner of the ship during a gale. The ocean knows as many colors as it does moods, and on this day the overcast sky shone an odd, unnameable color into the sea, and the sea spat it back out through a prism. The tone was a grayish, brownish blue with undertones of electric yellow. It was an uninviting color. But on this unlikely afternoon, Virginia decided the conditions were safe enough for all of us to have a little fun, so she gave out the always-anticipated yell: “Swim call!”

She barked out her instructions to prepare the deck for swimming. Sails needed to be struck. The rescue boat (or small boat, as we called it) had to be lowered into the water and motored around to the port side. I always assumed it was there in case someone got sucked away by a current. The other rules were implicit at this point and needed no specification. The ladder must be lowered to the water. Grab your soap because this may be your only shower for three days. A watchman must climb into the rigging to keep an eye on the bobbing heads below. Do not jump in until the captain gives permission. Only swim on the port side. And swim call lasts for a maximum of fifteen minutes. As a child I never swam in a more supervised environment, but then I never swam in the middle of the ocean as a child.

Furling a sail on the bowsprit a few moments later, I was surprised to see the bustle on deck suddenly stop. Back on the quarterdeck, people were pointing to sea. Could it be a whale? I wondered. By the time I reached the crowd, most of the crew was staring off the port side. Seeing my confusion, the first mate summed it up in one word: “Shark.” Swim call was canceled.

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