See if you can guess my common denominator in this list: Depression, sharks, heights, visual disarray, cancer, car accidents, loss of my son or husband, loss of my mind or mobility, social isolation and social inundation, judgement, ridicule, being mis-understood and being understood, not being loved and being loved, flying cockroaches, orcas, loss of my senses, inescapable pain, species’ extinction, climate change, cigarette lighters, drain holes (weird, I know), swimming alone in the sea, bull sea lions, nuclear war, cyber war, man-of-war, heart disease, loss of personal freedom, dentists, being stuck inside, artificial perfumes, being stuck inside with artificial perfumes, hurricanes, tsunamis, lightening, loss of memory, ageism, sharks, and depression.
Did you guess it? They’re all things I am afraid of, rationally or not. I’ve been thinking about fear often this year. It’s such an originally useful, adaptive emotion that helps us avoid danger but one that often goes haywire in our modern times and wreaks havoc in our personal lives and societies. And if you look at my list again our modern human fears are mostly about things we dread happening in some possible future. They’re not happening NOW. Fear seemed to prey on our sanity this season. It was seeded in February with vultures kicking large rocks down on us from a Tiburon cliff, sprouted when we ran into a rock reef, came into full bloom at a tiny island you’ll read about below, and hadn’t faded much when I got trapped in one whammer of a lightning storm on top of the Tucson mountains just last week. We even discovered ancient fear in petroglyphs under an overhanging rock ledge near Baja’s San Basilio. What do you see in Paul's photo of this rock drawing in red ochre?
Paul thought it was perhaps a giant serpent used to teach a healthy fear of rattlesnakes to kids. I read that the modern Seri people of the Sea of Cortez have a deep-time oral history that includes the cultural memory of a great and sudden flood, so I saw the image as a person running from a towering tsunami wave, one of my listed fears. Did you notice that I book-ended my list with a double mention of sharks and depression? Well, given life on the boat this year there’s a good reason for this. Let me explain.
I’ll start with the simple one: sharks. In general, I’m not afraid of sharks. I love them and greatly appreciate their necessity in our ocean ecosystems. As a teen I castigated (would have liked to have castrated) fisherfolk on piers of the Outer Banks when they would catch sharks and leave them on the hot, splintery planks to suffer and suffocate instead of removing the hook and releasing them. I’ve petted the sandpapery skin of a greeting mob of reef sharks as they glided between my calves in the gulf of Oman. I’ve had to resist the urge to try and cuddle cute-as-buttons horn sharks in Mexico. I’ve been in humbled awe diving with breathtakingly muscle-bound schools of hammerheads in the Galapagos.
I’ve oohed and ahhed at the peacefully slumbering nurse sharks of Antigua and Bonaire. I’ve even witnessed, close-up, a feeding frenzy of various sharks on Australia’s far-flung Osprey Reef and felt merely alert as I peered out from the safety of my rocky nook beside Paul as he shot this video;
I don’t fake the confidence I exude when introducing folks to night snorkeling, assuring them that we are incredibly and sadly unlikely in this post-industrial-fishing era to encounter, near shore, even the most harmless of sharks and that if we did, they would likely not want anything to do with us because they’re smart, cautious, and discriminating predators. I reassure everyone that the chance of any one person being killed by a shark is 1 in 3.7 million, according to Nat Geo and other popular sources. But, after last May’s entirely too-close encounter in the Revillagigedos’ unprotected, open-blue water with a disgruntled and pregnant tiger shark, I just can’t shake, while swimming, an embarrassing paranoia. I constantly feel that a large, potentially dangerous requiem shark, like say a bull shark, is behind and stalking me. I know my fear is overblown but there it is, every time I get in for my morning peace-of-mind swim/snorkel . . . and it keeps disturbing my peace and rattling my mind. However, I know the statistics, so I keep swimming . . . . . and sheepishly checking over my shoulder from time to time.
It had been a full year since that near-death-or-dismemberment tiger shark experience, and I was just . . . just . . . getting more relaxed swimming solo in the sea again when we anchored at tiny and rarely visited Isla San Diego.
We were at that speck in the sea because I had promised Paul a late morning dive to help him keep the always-lurking-blues away. It had been a tough sailing-for-science year for us, with the “we got this” rug continuously pulled out from under us by forces beyond our control. It left us wondering if, after five years of frustrating work and bleeding our savings, we should give up and sell Triplefin. It was especially taking an emotional toll on Paul, and (partly because I love and live on a boat alone with him) me.
Paul experiences random, heart-pounding bouts of anxiety followed by mattress-grasping depression. Hearing your life partner ask, with tearing eyes, why in the world you stay with such a miserable human being is excruciating when you know there is nothing you can do to help them feel better. When the monster has ambushed him, almost everything I do, even my mere presence, seems to make it worse. If I’m in a negative mindset that naturally adds threatening shadows to his mind’s dark corners, but if I’m cheerful and positive, it just manages to piss him off because he’s simply unable to join me there in the light at the end of his tunnel. When the grip is unrelenting, lasting days, we both feel hopeless and unable to recall that it will indeed pass. I struggle not to take his mis-directed impatience and anger personally. So, that sunny day at Isla San Diego, as the spirit-hungry jaws of depression were circling us, we both knew that a dive at this non-touristy, off-shore spot would likely keep the monster from surfacing. But you know me, I was going to get my morning power swim/snorkel in first. I decided to swim around the island’s extensive south point where it drops off at a deep shelf to check out our likely dive sight and then enjoy the clear, calm, shallow, safe waters nearby while doing a REEF.org fish survey. But you know plans are jokes we tell the gods and Poseidon has an especially sadistic sense of humor.
(The image I always fear appearing over my shoulder when swimming is like Paul's clip of thi Galapagos shark coming in close to check us out while diving in the Revillagigedos.)
I managed to shamefully shark-check over my shoulder just a few times while swimming over that deep drop off and was just feeling all my stalking-predator-alert muscles relax as I entered the rocky shallows when I saw them. Who in the world, I wondered, would dump three big grey barrels into the sea at such a pristine spot? I was in about a meter and a half of water and swimming hard towards the culvert-sized, PVC-like barrels to see if we could collect and dispose of them when I noticed that they had fins and, just before swimming directly over them, faces with teeth!
Yeah. I almost swam right over the backs of three large, sleeping sharks. Was I terrified? Surprisingly, no. I actually felt just like I have on dives where I’ve encountered non-dangerous, sleeping reef sharks at depth: pointedly calm and in awe. I simply stopped swimming fast, gingerly backed up a bit, and then continued gliding very smoothly away from them and closer to the rocky shore to continue collecting data on the colorful confetti of fish. I was just feeling relief at my overblown fear coming true and having confirmed that the sharks, indeed, were not interested in me, a human animal. Then an archaic voice inside my head pointed out that those were really BIG sharks in very SHALLOW water, meaning they were likely bull sharks. I decided to turn back, cut my snorkel short, and stay in the safety of a mere meter of water . . . just enough to gently glide in without my hands grazing the rocks. I did some mental math and recalculated the likelihood of dying by shark if you are someone who swims in the wild sea most every morning. I mean, Nat Geo’s statistic includes all the planet’s land lovers who may never stick a single little hairy toe in a river, much less salt water. Before I tell you what happened next, let’s consider why bull sharks are special. And, please, as you read this, keep in mind that on average only 20 humans die each year by shark mouths while between 20 – 100 million sharks die by human hands, and that most sharks, especially shore-hugging bulls, are threatened or near threatened with extinction.
OK. Say your family happens to be in St. Luis and it’s a pretty day so you decide to take a short 20-minute drive north along the Mississippi River to check out the National Great Rivers Museum in Alton. After the kids enjoy the interactive displays y’all step outside and decide to cool your toes in the river. Then, there in front of you, some grey fins glide through the water’s surface and you realize that a quite large shark has swam 700 miles upriver from the Gulf of Mexico. That, my dear, can only be a bull shark. They've even been seen 2,500 miles up the Amazon! WTF, right?
Carcharhinus leucas (bull sharks) are our planet’s only diadromous sharks, meaning they can osmoregulate with specialized organs allowing them to move between salt and freshwater with ease. It’s believed that their numbers got pinched in an evolutionary bottleneck during the last ice age and their solution was to evolve to bear their live young in the relative safety of rivers and lakes, returning to the sea only when mature enough to be on the top of the food chain.(1) You see, young bull sharks are not only preyed upon by other shark species but by adult bull sharks themselves. So, yeah, not a finnicky eater the bull shark. They hunt in the shallows with a self-explanatory “bump-and-bite” technique and their standard dining fare is fish, other sharks, sting rays, turtles, dolphins (don’t judge), birds, and (“ah-hem”) TERRESTRIAL MAMMALS. I know. I freaking KNOW.
These super stout-bodied (Don’t call them fat, they’re sensitive!) sharks are the widest and heaviest of sharks relative to length and (Move over great whites!) they have the strongest bite force of all sharks, calculated at 5,914 newtons. That’s 1,330 lbs of force which, based on my calculations is equal to holy-crap-be-calm-but-get-out-of-the-water-now! Here’s a wee video of a pregnant bull shark, but trust me, even non-preggers they are breathtakingly barrel chested:
Bull shark wiki video (Video S3 from Brunnschweiler J, Baensch H (2011). "Seasonal and Long-Term Changes in Relative Abundance of Bull Sharks from a Tourist Shark Feeding Site in Fiji". PLOS ONE. DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0016597. PMID 21346792. PMC: 3029404.
Bull sharks are also known to be rather bullish in character. They’re territorial, have a zero-tolerance policy for provocation, and are one of the top three sharks most likely to whoopsy-doopsy nibble on humans. (2, 3) The bottom line is that bull sharks are likely the most dangerous sharks for humans due to their take-no-shit personalities and shallow water hunting habits. It’s now believed that they are responsible for most near shore attacks around the world. In fact, the Jersey Shore attacks of 1916 that inspired Peter Benchley’s regretful JAWS were almost certainly the misdirected work of one or more bull sharks. They typically hunt alone but may team up with one or two buddies in order to craftily trick their prey. So, encountering three big bull sharks while surface swimming . . . let me recalculate that potential bite force to about 17,000 newtons which equals (let me grab my calculator) . . . . I-just-pooped-my-wetsuit force.
So, there I was, swimming back VERY non-spastically in a meter of water adjacent to where I spied the sleeping bulls, when suddenly in my peripheral vision appeared a barrel-chested grey form about two and a half to three meters long. Yes, I had indeed woken the sleeping giants, and at least one of them was now checking me out. She passed my shoulder just a couple meters away and then with one graceful flick of the all-muscle tail turned around and was swimming directly back toward me! I just could not believe it. It was so shallow that if someone was watching from shore, they would have seen her dorsal fin and tail clearly out of the water . . . and who knew about her two hunting partners!?! Maybe she and her pals were just curious about the strange-smelling terrestrial mammal who woke them, but I did not think it a wise theory to test. Trying to keep my heart from pounding (sharks can literally feel their prey’s pulse), I instantly rolled over onto the even shallower rocks (to hell with worrying about tearing my wetsuit) and crawled on knees and hands out of the water in disbelief. I scrambled around the point and waved to Paul on Triplefin to come escort me back with the kayak.
Do you recall my promise to Paul to dive off the point after my swim? Well, it seems my fear of his depression was proved greater than my fear of bull sharks because we did it. Of course, I knew that diving with sharks, even bull sharks, is relatively safe compared to swimming on the surface with them, but still, it took all the rational courage I had to get back in and sink down. Just like Paul mistaking me for an enemy while in the grip of anxiety, a bull shark could, even at depth, mistake me for food. During the dive I considered how bull sharks and depression are similar. They both appear where and when you think you are the safest and let down your guard: In the comfy shallows of home with someone you love. Of course, with bull sharks you can get out of the water! Still, just like I’d rather risk fully living on a wild planet shared with unpredictable and potentially dangerous sharks, I’d also rather risk fully living with the wild and challenging experience of unconditional love.
I'll leave you with more of Paul's video from Osprey Reef because who can get enough shark?
1. Tillett B., Meekan; M., Field; I., Thornburn; D., Ovenden, J. (2012). "Evidence for reproductive philopatry in the bull shark Carcharhinus leucas". Journal of Fish Biology. 80 (6): 2140–2158. doi:10.1111/j.1095-8649.2012.03228.x. PMID 22551174.
3. "Bull shark". National Geographic. Retrieved 3 April 2011.