Swimming with the sharks

shark3This is not a story about vicious lawyers or cutthroat businessmen. This is about an actual swim with the sharks – TEN of them to be exact.

Once a year I like to challenge myself physically or mentally to something that I am scared to do. To prove to myself that I can do it. A metaphor for breaking through the fear. This was one of those challenges.

The dive took place in Freeport, Bahamas with a company called UNEXSO. I have never encountered a shark in all my dives, so I figured the best way to do it safely, if that’s possible, is to plan it.

Anticipation is a strange thing. It builds up an event so much that you can sweat just at the thought of it. And I was doing a lot of anticipating.

The night before the dive I had nightmares of thousands of sharks heading towards me with their mouths wide open yelling “FEED ME!”. Was this a precognition of things to come or just nerves? I passed it off as nerves.

The morning of the dive came too fast. At 10 AM the twelve divers scheduled on this adventure were shuffled into a briefing room. The first thing we were given was a Release form. Releasing UNEXSO legally if the sharks decided the twelve divers looked like a buffet lunch and wanted a nibble. No less than three times during the briefing you were given the chance to change your mind. “Sharks are not trainable, they are wild and potentially dangerous.” sneered the instructor. Tell me something I don’t know!

The dive was constructed as safely as it could be. With one feeder, three safety divers, and a shark2cameraman to record the whole thing on video so you won’t feel the need to do it again.

The feeder wears chain mail gloves that go up to his shoulders. The same kind that the butchers use to prevent chopping off their hands. The sharks teeth can penetrate the glove but they release it because they don’t like the feel of the steel in their mouths. Who tested this out?

Two safety divers were located on each side of the feeder armed with four foot sticks. Not electric prods. Sticks. When a shark got to aggressive they would simply push the naughty shark away. The other safety diver was located behind the 12 guest divers that sat in a semi-circle directly in front of the feeder. Like the old street gangs we knew our butts were covered.

The boat ride out to Shark Junction only took ten minutes. It was close to shore, which I’m sure is very comforting for the beach swimmers to know.

One by one we jumped into the water. I expected JAWS music to play any second. As soon as I got in the water and started my decent I saw a shark come out of nowhere. I remembered they said to stay calm. Sharks whole bodies are like receptors and they can sense fear. So I casually swam over to the other divers. I would have whistled if I could, but the regulator was in my mouth. Besides, the last thing I wanted to do is get some shark angry because I was off key.

The action started out slowly. Within minutes, ten Caribbean reef sharks were circling around us. Sometimes as close as five feet away. There streamline bodies glided through the water effortlessly. After a few minutes you could tell the sharks apart. One had a rusted hook and the skeleton of a fish dangling from its mouth. Another one, obviously female with a baby shark swimming underneath, was the most aggressive. Another shark had two tiny pilot fish directly in front of his face, knowing the sharks every move. This seemed most annoying. Like an annoying, Sunday driver on the highway who slows down every time you try to speed up.

After their initial curiosity the sharks were not the least bit interested in us. My anxiety had subsided. It was amazing that just twenty minutes ago I was filled with nervousness. The fear of the unknown can be a powerful immobilizer if you let it. I thought if I can do this, cold sales calls should be easy.

Tshark1he sharks would circle around the feeders and one at a time take turns being fed. Their cold steel eyes never blinking except when they bit on the food. Then a white film would cover their eyes as they bite, protecting their eyes from any morsels of food. There mouths would distort into a P shape as they went to bite the fish.

It was fascinating watching these beautiful creatures without being on the other side of the glass at the aquarium. I almost felt like reaching out and touching one of them and then realized it was not a Hallmark commercial.

Thirty five minutes into the dive, it ended. The nine-foot, 500-pound female shark was getting to aggressive and kept trying to take the black food container out of the feeder’s hand, even though she was pushed away with the sticks several times. It started to cause a ruckus with the other sharks. Like a shopper with 25 items getting in the express lane at the supermarket. At that point we received the two thumbs up from the feeder that meant the fat lady had sung. We all slowly ascended up towards the boat having experienced one of the most thrilling dives of our lives. Granted it wasn’t the movie Jaws, but it was exciting enough.

So why am I telling you this? So you can go out and dive with sharks? Not necessarily. But more to say, if you have a fear – break it. If you have a desire – do it. And if you have a dream – live it. For when you challenge yourself in life you realize that it’s the fear that paralyzes you and once you’ve conquered that, anything is possible.