When people ask where I’m from, I usually say, “America” (unless we’ve recently done something terribly embarrassing, in which case I fall back on, “Canada”). The problem is, the moment that word leaves my lips, I can see the instant judgements, stereotypes and classifications flick into place behind the listener’s eyes.
When pushed for more detail, I give my home state of Utah, which triggers questions about Mormons, polygamists and (from the more interesting stranger) land-speed records.
We all know that no matter what we call ourselves or how we choose to identify, we are thrown into a box by the person on the judging end. And none of us are plopped in a more restrictive box than sharks.
Much like Americans looks like this in the minds of many outsiders,
sharks are simplified to this:
Before you think I’m getting ready to rant on about how they are big, misunderstood teddy bears, let me state my position:
I’m all for shark love and appreciating the species, but I am still terrified of seeing some of them in person.
I am new to the open water and a very big part of that is because sharks scare the shit out of me. They do so because, like most of us, I’ve seen Jaws (that movie has a lot to answer for, guys).
The unfortunate fact is that we humans are far more inclined to watch a show where limbs are ripped off in cloud of red waves (Hollywood) than spend five minutes watching a big fish sleep on the sand (reality).
Up to now, I have met two sharks in person: a leopard shark (technically zebra) and a whale shark. Both of them are afuckingdorable. One is tiny. One is huge. Neither of them have teeth (this helps).
On the other hand, we also have bull sharks here occasionally and that fact makes me pee in my wetsuit (more than usual). They are known as one of the most dangerous brands out there. The thought of seeing one in the water frightens me to an irrational degree. And yet, I want to do it. I want to pop that cherry, break that barrier, look at this “terrifying” beast in the face and see that it doesn’t actually have any interest in me. Because it doesn’t.
Sharks don’t eat people.
Let’s put this in relatable terms for a minute while I tell you a true story about how I’m dumb.
Imagine you have a plate of chicken legs. They’re fat and juicy and covered in sticky bbq sauce. You haven’t eaten all day and you vigorously tear into a drumstick only to instantly discover that what you thought was a pre-cooked lunch was, in fact, raw flesh. What do you do? You gag briefly, thrust your mouth open and push the offending material out as quickly as possible, leaving a marred bit of drool-coated leg on your plate.
That’s how sharks feel about us. They don’t hunt us. They don’t like the taste of us. We’re gross to them. Occasionally, when we happen to be flailing around like a seal, they think we’re the right thing and find out after that first bite that they were wrong.
The problem is, with all those beautiful, sharp teeth, that first bite tends to be a doozy, and what they throw back on the plate is sometimes our entire leg, now conveniently carry-on size.
These are wild animals. They hunt. They have big teeth. They have territories. Just like I would keep a reasonable distance from a bear, I would maintain a safe viewing distance from any animal that is capable of such carnage with such little effort.
In light of these facts of nature, my lifelong, media-crazed fear and the very real ability of these guys to damage me irreparably, it would be SO much easier to simply avoid them all together. I mean really, is it worth the sheer panic I will surely experience when I see that ominous shadow emerge from the depths?
I believe it is.
Because the first time I saw a leopard shark I absolutely fell in love. And when I saw the whale shark, all I wanted in the whole wide world was to swim alongside it. The two types I have met so far are not just beautiful, they are absolutely breathtaking. The way they move through the water, the power that propels them, the graceful way they flick their tails (the fact that they are not only completely uninterested in me as a snack but wish I would leave so they can carry on with their nap). They are truly stunning creatures.
So, when the day comes where a body-building bull shark with rows and rows of sharp, pointy, flesh-tearing teeth heads my direction, I will take a deep breath and try to remind myself that just as Donald Trump is not the typical American, Jaws is not the typical shark.