Sleeping With Sharks: Revi Part 1
Paul's pic of a couple tranquil whitetip reef sharks
The sharks are coming, sailor's promise, but first it’s time to reveal my vulnerable underbelly to you, dear reader, and trust you not to bite. I am stubborn. I can know that I need to change and yet still spend decades clinging to an exercise and food addiction. I’ll keep the back story simple, knowing that we all have struggles to overcome. Mine have not been special, just mine. I’ve spent my whole life in a state of fear and anxiety. After my parents and one of my sisters died way too young when I was fresh out of college (heart attacks and pancreatic cancer, respectively) my way of coping with the fear of death and loss of loved ones was to take control of my health while socially isolating myself. I became a serious vegan (only now regretting the serious element), and I developed an aerobic exercise routine that I had to keep amping up until, in my mid-thirties, I was literally running marathon distances every single day. The only way I felt the illusion of control and thus safe was to hike, run, and swim my butt off every morning and again every evening. I strained some relationships and missed out on a lot of opportunities because of my addiction.
Triplefin under sail, approaching Isla Socorro in Mexico's far-flung Revillagigedos Archipelago
For example, if the chance to spend two weeks diving in one of the most wild and remote places on Earth had come, I would have made some lame excuse to bow out of it, knowing that I’d be unable to keep to my introverted work-out routine. Now, at fifty-one, I hit a wall, knowing that I couldn’t and shouldn’t keep going like that. I needed to let go of my unhealthy attachment to exercise (oh-so cleverly disguised to the world as ultra-healthy behavior) by first changing my relationship to the present moment. I needed to learn to fully embrace it instead of being squeezed between my anxiety surrounding past events and my fear of what is to come. But again, I am stubborn. I knew I’d have to force myself to change. The way I chose to do it was that very type of adventurous trip: Sailing Triplefin in the intimidating, open Pacific to and from Mexico’s famed Revillagigedos Archipelago National Park and diving there for a two-week educational project with two complete strangers on-board. Simple, right?
César's speed-blurry selfie with Paul, me, and Frida who looks ironically like a Cabo holiday!
As we sailed away from Cabo San Lucas and began our two-day, 250-mile journey I tried to prepare my mind for the fact that my feet would not touch solid land for over two weeks. I got some yoga books and downloaded some ecstatic dance music to trick my mind into thinking I was working out instead of chilling out. Secretly, I was clinging to the safety net of expecting to at least be able to snorkel/swim while there to get my heart rate up a bit each day. I also ordered a veritable forest of organic veggies and began hoarding them. I was prepared for anything . . . except the sharks.
What? Me? Anxious?!
Don’t get me wrong, I knew the Revillagigedos (I think of it as “The Reveille of the Giants”) were famous for large, pelagic megafauna including numerous shark species threatened with extinction. Like any child of the ‘70’s who’d seen “JAWS”, I did still harbor some irrational fears, but I’d been diving with some large sharks, particularly scalloped hammerheads (Sphyrna lewini), in the Galapagos and had not felt threatened, just extra alert and fortunate to have the experience. Divers spend a heap of money to travel around the world to a handful of remote and protected locations, like the Revillagigedos, just to glimpse these ancient beasts underwater. Our own species has practically eradicated these mostly large and migratory requiem sharks from coastal waters. Whether due to basic over-fishing, the deplorable act of killing sharks just for their fins to make shark fin soup, being accidentally caught as bycatch in tuna nets, or simply killed due to misinformation and fear, sharks clearly do have more to fear from us than we do of them.
Fortunately, we are starting to appreciate just how important such apex predators are to the health of marine ecosystems. They provide stability by balancing prey populations, thus increasing overall biodiversity. Still, when there are attacks on humans, it’s these large requiem sharks who are responsible. Well, I’d say we are at more at fault for entering their realm, but the point is, they are potentially dangerous, fleet, and agile ambush predators. So, for this intense voyage I had the company of renowned shark behavior researcher, Frida Lara Lizardi, who earned her PhD in the shark inflected waters of “Revi”. On top of that, her dear friend and official Cabo Pulmo and Revillagigedos diving guide with muscle, César Jiménez Almendros, had my back along with my McGyver-esque hubby, Paul.
Paul's pic of the Revillagigedos small, volcanic Isla San Benedicto which doubled in size in 1952's year-long eruption of lava and ash.
As we finally arrived and prepared to drop anchor at our first island, San Benedicto, I mentioned to Frida my desire to swim there. She informed me that our anchorage was home to large and potentially dangerous Galapagos (Carcharhinus galapagensis), silky (Carcharhinus falciformis), and even (chomp-first-and-ask-what-they-ate-later) tiger sharks (Galeocerdo cuvier), second in size and voracity only to the great white. Because these species often ambush prey on or near the surface even at mid-day, swimming was not a good idea.
Would you believe that even then, even THEN, my stubborn mind thought, “Well, maybe there’s a way . . . I don’t splash a lot when I swim . . . and maybe the next bay we anchor in will be less dangerous.” Ha Ha Ha. You know the ‘Stones sang, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you might find . . . you get what you need”? Well, it turned out that every spot we anchored was increasingly sharky. I listened every night to those formidable and graceful animals hunting prey on the surface, sometimes directly under my sleeping-bagged body which was suspended on our trampoline net just a meter above the water.
I took comfort in the fact that I tied those trampoline knots myself and thus slept without fear of falling in. The biggest thing I had to fear, I was stubbornly realizing, was my own unhealthy habit of mind.
Soon it was the other gentle giants who began to save me from myself. Every day I’d wake up and, instead of exercising, I’d go diving with my new human friends and encounter wonders I wish every person on the planet could experience. As we dived the grotesquely gorgeous, lava-sculpted cliff wall of Isla Socorro’s Cabo Pierce we needed to be totally present and not distracted so we could respond to the wave action there. It could suddenly yank us down to an unsafe depth and, just as suddenly, yank us back up towards the surface so fast we could get the diver-dreaded bends. Diving that cliff wall was like being amid a carnival of busy and colorful reef fish, eels, camouflaged scorpion fish, exotic free-swimming flounder, lobsters, corals, relatively sweet and snuggly whitetip reef sharks (Triaenodon obesus) and silvertip (Carcharhinus albimarginatus) sharks, plus an occasional fleeting hammerhead with rippling muscles.
Paul’s lava cliff wall pics above and below water with blue jacks, moray eel and juvenile hogfish, scorpionfish, all leading to the magical point
Where the wall ends we arrive at a magical, wave-pounded point. Here is where we repeatedly encountered several giant oceanic manta rays (Mobula birostris) who were being cleaned by bright orange, clarion angel fish (Holacanthus clarionensis). The mantas would sometimes swim right up to my open arms and we’d reveal to each other our vulnerable bellies as a display of trust. You can see all this in the compilation of César's video clips below. Dolphins also came to play with us there. One swam right up to me, went belly-to-belly-vertical with her tail down to mirror my posture, cocked her head at me, gave me a good sideways look, nodded and swam off. It felt like she was checking my state of mind. It was, to my own surprise, where it should be . . . engaged with the ever-fleeting moment. I found myself, finally, letting my self go.
One would think those incredible experiences would be enough to ensure a permanent change of mind. But, oh no. Wild and unpredictable big-Mama Nature had a few surprises yet in store for me. Our last dive at a spot known as The Boiler, every 45 minutes of it, was so intense it was like diving into the sun. . . . . something no human can fully prepare for. It left me soul-scorched with all my messy, tangled, overgrown undergrowth of anxiety burned away, and I am forever cleansed and changed and lucky to be alive. To be continued . . . . .
Here’s a big shout out to my new friends-like-family, Frida and César, for not only their amazing photos and videos of our experiences, but for their patience and compassion as they endured my bizarre ecstatic dancing and at times ugly growing pains. If you ever meet them, just ask them about my cauliflower freak out.