Adventures in open-water swimming #2: Electric shark-a-loo

A couple of weeks ago, while I was talking about cycling with Brian, I mentioned that I have no clue how to change my tire and that I probably ought to learn how sooner or later.  He quickly shushed me.  “If you say things like that, the multiverse” – yes, we call the universe the “multiverse” because we are huge nerds – “will find a way to make sure you get that learning experience.”  I took his advice and shut up.

I probably should have taken his advice with regards to swimming.  The problem is, I’ve been very adamant that I will beat my fear of swimming in open water, to the point that I think about it a lot and spend a lot of my time on dry land psyching myself up.  (I also spend a lot of time in the pool just making sure I can actually do the mechanics of the thing, because what good is being brave enough to get in the ocean if I’m just going to sink like a conch shell to the bottom?)  I haven’t always prevailed over my fears. We’ve been spending the week in the Florida Keys, just south of Key Largo, and one of the big obstacles I’ve run up against is the lack of sandy bottom beaches pretty much anywhere.  If I want to swim, I have to make my way through several feet of sea grasses and mossy rocks and god knows what else to get there.  Ha. As if.

So when Brian suggested we go snorkeling, I figured that this would be a good way to make up for my lack of swimming while on vacation.  We’d have three drops over the course of three hours, which would be plenty of time for swimming around.  Plus, I’d get to see the only living coral reef in the United States AND I’d have another chance to work on getting comfortable in the water.

We boarded the tour group’s boat yesterday afternoon, then after some quick instruction, we pushed off and headed out into the Atlantic Ocean.  Our first stop was about ten miles off the coast, in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.  Right away this should have clued me into the fact that things were going to be a bit different.  I’ve been snorkeling before, but always in protected areas close to shore.  Instead, I spent most of my time marveling over the aquamarine colored water and how it was almost transparent in places, so much so that the bottom of the ocean looked like it was close enough to the surface to touch.  I was excited to get in.

We got to our first stop, geared up, and after a couple of deep breaths, I jumped in.  We were over a sandy bottom about twenty feet deep, but then right ahead of us loomed a coral reef jutting about fifteen feet up from the bottom.  We had to swim over it to get to the other side, which meant the purple fan corals and huge brain corals were just a couple of feet below us, so close we could touch them (which we were under strict orders NOT to do, unless we wanted to be responsible for killing an entire reef, which I did not).   Then the reef opened up into a deep crevasse, and when you looked closely, you could see all kinds of massive, brilliantly colored tropical fish tucked in with the coral – parrotfish, tangs, angelfish – and even some huge, shy grouper hanging out near the bottom.

Suddenly I noticed I was in the middle of a whoosh of two-inch-long silvery-and-blue fish, all of which swarmed around me. The last time this happened, I was in Grand Cayman and I nearly broke my neck trying to get away from the scary baby fish.  I still remember catching a glimpse of Brian as I contorted myself like a pretzel to avoid coming in contact with the little beasties, and how he was practically doubled-over with laughter.  So the fact that I wasn’t bugging out was huge for me, as was the fact that we actually saw barracuda and I did not freak out too much over that, either.  (Brian said they were probably the smallest barracuda he’d ever seen in his life, but so what.  They are still barracuda!  Heart didn’t title a song about shady music publicists after the creatures because they are cute and cuddly, you know?)  We even saw quite a few jellyfish and again, no freak outs.  I was feeling quite proud of myself.

The dive crew sounded the horn a short while later and we hauled ourselves onto the boat to regroup before heading to the next spot.  While we sat on the deck, Brian said, “You seem to be a lot more comfortable down there.”  I agreed, I did feel a lot more comfortable.  I thought I might even be willing to give free-diving a shot at the next stop.

Oh how pride goeth before the fall.

The next stop was at a place called Grecian Reef, which was another huge mass rising out of a sandy bottom.  Almost right away, we noticed sea life was much more abundant here than at the previous stop.  For instance, the jellyfish were everywhere.  I knew this because every so often I’d hear someone yelp as they got stung.  There was also a lot of seaweed floating on the surface, and every time it brushed up against my legs or arms, I jumped and twitched.  The needle on my internal anxiety meter started creeping upward.

Brian brought me over to the reef and pointed out a huge brain coral that was two-thirds the size of his body.  We watched a parrotfish eat – later a friend told me that parrotfish eat coral and poop out sand, a fact I find endlessly entertaining – and saw all kinds of tang and barracuda and about a hundred other fish whose names I don’t know, but who were just as spectacular as you’d expect them to be.

Brian started guiding me further and further away from the boat and before I knew it we were going through a huge patch of seaweed.  Suddenly my anxiety meter jumped way up high and I started freaking out, batting away the seaweed and screaming “FUCK THIS” through my snorkel.  I noticed that the seaweed seemed to harbor a lot of jellyfish, which helped me calm down approximately none percent.  Brian saw me and said, “Caitlin, it’s just seaweed!”  He grabbed a bunch and rubbed it on his chest, but I did not care.  That shit was touching me all over the place, and the last thing I needed to experience while swimming in the ocean was the sensation of being touched by alien plants in places I can’t see.

Plus I had to go to the bathroom and for some reason – even though I knew the ocean was pretty much a big toilet for whales and stuff – I couldn’t let go.  Brian saw my panic, and so he grabbed my hand and we turned to go.

Before we could swim far, though, an eerily familiar shape slid into view.  My lizard brain started responding with alarm.  SHARK! SHARK! SHARK!

Brian pointed at the shark, which was no more than five feet away from us, gesticulating excitedly.  I, on the other hand, was frozen solid.  The only parts of my body that were moving were my lungs, which were hyperventilating, my heart, which was doing some kind of flamenco against my ribcage, and my hand, which was gripping Brian’s hand so tight he said it was sore for several hours afterward.  I think I thought that if I just held still long enough, the shark wouldn’t see us and would maybe decide not to eat us as a result.

While we humans were losing our shit – he with excitement, me with fear – the shark was just casually sauntering along the reef, his big old tail twitching back and forth like he was out for an afternoon stroll.  He was the baddest bitch on the reef and he knew it.  I had to admit that the shark was magnificent.  I could see why people are fascinated by them, why Shark Week (which I, incidentally, do not watch) gets such huge ratings.  The shark was fearsome, yes, but he was also sleek and elegant and oh-so-sinuous.  If Jeremy Irons were a fish, he’d be a shark.

The encounter lasted about fifteen seconds before the shark faded into the deep blue of the ocean.  We looked at each other for a second, and then I began swimming back to the boat as fast as I could.  I was moving so hard and with so much panic that I swam face-first into a jellyfish.

Let’s roll back the slo-mo on this, shall we?  An enormous shark with jaws that could easily dismember my body and leave nothing but effluvia for my loved ones to bury me swims five feet away, and he doesn’t so much as twitch a dorsal fin in my direction.  No, it’s the brainless, gelatinous sack of marine phlegm that fucks me up.  Not only that, but it got me while I was trying to get away from the shark!

Several hours later, I replayed the scene over and over again in my head and laughed and laughed and laughed.  I survived an encounter with a shark, only to get the shit stung out of me by a jellyfish while escaping.  At the time, though, I was beyond horrified.  My body was flooded with adrenaline and my face felt like someone had lit it on fire and I was so scared that I couldn’t pee myself, even though I really needed to.  Two of my worst-case open-water scenarios – the ones that caused me so much fright that I refused to even think about them – came true within the span of a single minute.   And of course it happens to me!  Me, with all of my dumb little theories about dealing with fear and facing them head-on and the importance of not letting fear rule my life.  I thought about a passage in a Stephen King book, where he said FEAR didn’t stand for “Face Everything And Recover,” but rather “Fuck Everything And Run.”

I spent the rest of the trip swaddled in my towel on the deck of the boat.  I tried to go back into the water to see the famous Christ Statue, but my arms and legs were limp from exhaustion and there were jellyfish everywhere.  I turned around after a couple of minutes and got back out.

The crew joked around with me a bit, but I could also tell they thought it was really cool that we encountered a shark while we were underwater.  And now that the fear had worn off, I had to agree – it was really cool.  Brian, who has been snorkeling and scuba-diving for about ten years, had never seen a shark in the wild before, and he was positively radioactive with excitement.  He loves sharks, and I was happy that he got to finally see one in the wild.  And the truth was, I was happy I’d gotten to see it, too.

We later determined the shark was a bull shark, which is the breed that sometimes attacks humans.  Brian said the bull shark was the most dangerous thing in the ocean, yet we’d seen it with our own eyes, without the safety of plexiglass to hide behind, and it had left us alone.   I felt humbled and awestruck and more than a little bit lucky.  The shark was only slightly smaller than I am, making it the second largest creature I’ve ever seen in the wild.   The largest I’d ever seen was an alligator I came across in a city park, about nine feet long, sunning itself on the banks of a river.  I wasn’t afraid of the alligator because I knew I could outrun it on land, but a shark…there was no way I could outswim a shark.

And yet here I am, sipping coffee in my pajamas and writing a blog post, safe and sound, limbs, heart and mind intact.  I’m still trying to process everything that happened yesterday, which was easily in my top five most terrifying moments ever and as a result will probably require several more days, if not weeks, of consideration before I can fully understand the effect it’s had on me.  But I’ll tell you one thing I’ve noticed already – I feel a little bit braver today than I did yesterday.  I don’t feel quite so afraid of the water.  I’m actually looking forward to getting back in.  There’s part of me that says I’ve faced the scariest thing the ocean has to offer, the stuff of which nightmares and horror movies are made, and I survived.  Bring it on, little fishies.

Plus, if I’d let fear totally rule my life, I’d never have this great story to tell.

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9 responses to “Adventures in open-water swimming #2: Electric shark-a-loo

  1. Whoop!:) Sharks are awesome. I saw one on my very first open water dive and I was so gobsmacked I couldn’t remember the sign for ‘shark’ that I’d learned the day before.

    You rock, by the way. And because I read your post on paddleboarding, I’m doing my third lesson next weekend.

    • Dude, YOU rock! I’m glad you’re enjoying paddleboarding so much! It’s loads of fun and you are making me think I need to go again soon.

      Also I laughed at your story about seeing a shark on your first open-water dive (eek!). I would think the sign for “shark” should be something easy, like waving your arms in panic. That would be a lot easier to remember. 🙂

  2. That is so cool. I hope one day I can see a shark it its natural environment as well…if I don’t pass out first 🙂

  3. I’m sorry, I laughed so hard at some of this. Not the fear parts, but the description of the fear parts. I love how you write. Also, I think “Fuck Everything And Run”, which I’ve never heard before, might become my new life motto.

  4. Holy crap! A bull shark! That’s the one thing that freaks me out to no end swimming in open water. They can be found in brackish waters, like non-saltwater rivers! And they’re very aggressive. It took me a long time to get brave enough to swim in open water. My first open water race was in the Ohio River. I was ok, until I thought about bull sharks. I swam so fast to the end!!
    Also, jellyfish are evil. I hope you recovered ok from the stings. And props to you for all your bravery. I would have lost my mind, and my bowels.

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