Just two notes of a song, daa naa, and we all think of the movie "Jaws".
Jaws awakened so much irrational fear--sharks as killing machines--and, still to this day this movie inspires Hollywood to create movies with sharks as the antagonist.
As a scuba instructor and scuba shop sales associate, I was almost too embarrassed to admit to being afraid of sharks. But, in the one year I’ve worked at Force-E, I have had enough people talk to me about their fear of sharks that I thought it might help to share how I have overcome my fear.
My family introduced me to the water at a young age—swim team, annual beach trips—I developed a lifelong love for the water very young, which I believe is a very large part of why I have been able to overcome my fear.
I don’t remember exactly when I saw Jaws or if I saw all of the sequels, but, I do remember being afraid of the deep end of the swimming pool because Jaws was in there. But, I already loved the water so much. I grew up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., and I really looked forward to summers in the water. So, I still went in the pool, and, I still went into the ocean every year, but was always on edge that Jaws was possibly out there.
The first time I saw a shark in the ocean, I was snorkeling in Key West, one of my first times on a real reef. I was not entirely alone but, my brother was on the boat and everyone else was off lobstering somewhere close by. I was enjoying the crystal clear water and the vibrantly colorful reef. When I floated above and suddenly saw a nurse shark. I didn’t know what kind of shark it was at the time, I just knew the shape—dorsal fin, long gray body, and, I was OUT OF THERE. I flew onto that boat in a panic! I was met with some chuckles but, mostly just reassurance. They told me that that shark had no interest in me and it was pretty much harmless. And, they were right--I had watched that shark as I made my way back to the boat, it did not follow. It did not even seem to notice me. That first encounter was key in my progress. And, that reef was too beautiful to give up because of this fear.
The next time I saw a shark in the ocean was on a scuba dive in Costa Rica, it was one of my first dives ever. Fortunately, the dive group had talked about possibly seeing sharks before we went in the water, so, I was able to prepare myself. I talked to the more experienced divers and shared my fears about sharks. They suggested that if we saw any sharks during our dive to stay still (no sudden movements), to try to appreciate their beauty, try to enjoy the moment because it wasn’t certain we would see sharks, but, if we did, we were lucky! Sure enough, we came upon a family of four reef sharks all lined up from largest to smallest, and they were kind of swaying in place. The largest one circled around to check us out but went right back to its spot in line. My dive master and buddy were right next to me, and, they had each placed a calming hand on my arms. My heart was beating incredibly fast and I used up my air very quickly during that dive but; I had seen how graceful the sharks were, how they kept their distance from us, and, how all of us divers were perfectly safe and sound at the end of the dive. It ended up being fortunately thrilling and happy experience! This sighting was another key turning point for me. I already had the scuba bug but, now I had seen sharks while in the water, there was no turning back to irrational fear for me. But, I wasn’t cured after two sightings.
I don’t remember every shark I saw after those first two encounters but, I did start to realize I was looking at them differently and that I was much calmer each time. I started to pay attention to their different colors, their different fins, their different faces; I was interested in learning about the sharks I was seeing. I noticed that some might be found sleeping under a ledge (nurse sharks) while others I only spotted moving (reef sharks, lemons, bulls). I no longer saw them all as “Jaws”.
Talking about my anxiety with people that had a lot of experience with sharks was definitely important to my progressing away from irrational fear. Their reassurance before and after the dives, combined with many shark sightings during scuba dives over the past 10 years, has allowed me to overcome my fear. The more I learned the more comfortable I became.
I recently took the SSI Shark Ecology Course to learn even more about the animal that I had grown to love. It was fascinating to learn about little details I hadn’t figured out by observation, such as the makeup of their skin, as well as their evolution over history, and about the many many different species of sharks. I had no idea that there were so many different kinds! I highly recommend the program for anyone who wants to learn more, and especially those who are afraid. The SSI Shark Ecology Course addresses the negative stereotypes and how they have endangered sharks over the years. I wish I had known about such a course years ago, I’m sure it would have helped me overcome my fears much faster!
I haven’t yet seen a Great White in person but I truly hope to see one someday. We had one in Palm Beach recently and, I was jealous but so excited and happy for all the very ecstatic divers who came into Force-E to show pictures and share the experience with us that day. When I do have the chance to see one, I will let you know how I did. I don’t think I will be scared. I think I will feel excited and lucky to see the beautiful and rare creature who graces our ocean neighborhood from time to time.