Don’t look now, but there’s a shark at your feet

Shark swimming towards you in black water

Listen to Brenda tell the story

When it comes to vacations, everyone in the family has their role. One person takes on the planning and then vets suggestions with other family members. Then there’s the complainer and the enthusiastic participant. All roles must be carried out, regardless of how much someone likes the vacation. It’s tradition.

My role is to be initially cautious but then enthusiastic when I’ve committed to something. Diving with sharks, however, was not supposed to happen at all. My sense of caution outstripped any sense of adventure I had in any corner of my body. I mean, come on. I’ve seen those National Geographic videos and David Attenborough documentaries. The dramatic closeups, the thrashing seals, the slow motion shots of a gray head rising out of the waves with a snout and a gaping mouth revealing multiple rows of impossibly pointy teeth.

Only when I learned that we would descend in a cage to view the sharks did I relent. This must be safe, I reasoned, since I had seen other documentaries, too, where sharks bang up against the side of the cage to try to get at the divers. The bars always held strong.

I watch a lot of documentaries.

Off we went to Jupiter, Florida, to find the marina where our shark diving expedition would depart. A lone man sat on a bench.

“You going on the shark diving trip, too?” we asked.

“For the fifth time! And today my daughter’s coming, too.”

That was quite an endorsement. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad.

“How does it work, exactly?”

“We all get on the boat, head a few miles out into the Atlantic, then we all jump in the water.” 

So far, so good.

“And the cage? How does it work with the cage?” my husband asked.

The guy looked at us uncomprehendingly.

“Cage? There’s no cage.”

No cage?! What did he mean, no cage?!

My heart sank. I’d been duped! I debated the merits of encouraging the sharks to eat my husband, both for self-preservation and out of revenge for tricking me into this.

This thought was quickly dashed by the look on my husband’s face. He had somehow been duped, too.

And yet, the guy sitting in front of us had been on the tour five times and still had all his limbs. 

Before I knew it, I was sitting on a boat headed out into the Atlantic in search of sharks. There was a boat captain and a sharkologist (real job, apparently) on board, a woman who had been diving with sharks and all kinds of sea creatures her whole life. I felt somewhat reassured.

Once we reached a promising patch of water, the shark biologist (I lied earlier; that’s what they’re actually called) jumped in and slapped her fins on the surface of the water to attract fish. From the boat, the captain threw chum into the water for the same purpose. Smaller fish would attract the sharks’ attention.

“Sharks!” she announced. “Bull sharks! Everyone in the water!”

I was outfitted with snorkeling equipment and jumped in the water. The sharks were several meters below us and we were strictly advised not to panic if they came and “tested” us out.

The mere thought of that made me hyperventilate, which is not advisable when you’re face down in the Atlantic with a snorkel mask. I wondered if the “testing” included small nibbles that weathered marine biologists might deem inconsequential.

We were instructed not to swim around so as not to attract attention or scare off the sharks, who were usually very skittish. Seeing as I was nearly paralyzed with fear, this was an easy instruction to obey.

I kept my face in the water and didn’t move a muscle for 30 minutes. If anyone was going to attract a shark, it would be the spear fisherman next to me with an apparent death wish who kept kicking around. Fine. He’d be an easy meal and keep the sharks away from me.

I wouldn’t even have to sacrifice my husband.

As it turns out, my imagination had been embellished by all those documentaries and the movie Jaws. In reality, only 10 people are killed worldwide annually by sharks. But over 100 million sharks are killed by humans, mostly while fishing. Shark populations have plummeted to just 25-30% of what they were 25 years ago. So while I have spent my life watching scary documentaries about sharks, fisheries have been quietly decimating their populations.

This explains the skittishness of the sharks. I’d be jittery, too, if I looked up and saw potential assassins floating above me.

I recently read that Steven Spielberg regrets the impact his movie Jaws had on the public’s perception of sharks. It was so successful in scaring the bejesus out of people that it caused undue fear of sharks. It instigated a “collective testosterone rush” among fishermen on the East Coast of the U.S., inspiring thousands to hunt them for sport.

The end of the shark viewing was rather anticlimactic. After spending 30 minutes gawking at the bull sharks swimming below, they seem to have gotten bored and swam away. That was our signal to get back in the boat.

Another vacation adventure that I had been coaxed into had come and gone. Now it was time for me to assume my tried-and-true vacation role: to tell the story.

And so I have.

Brenda Arnold

Title photo by Wai Siew on Unsplash

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