I have always been afraid of sharks.
Though after all these years on the island, I know that I should be used to seeing them in the water occasionally. I’ve also been told time and time again that they are not going to eat me if I don’t get too close (and perhaps they won’t even if I do get too close). But all of the reassurances people have tried to provide me with have never helped. The fear is deeply rooted and unwilling to budge for logic alone.
About 100 feet out from our beach, we have a wonderful reef where we occasionally go snorkeling. Parrotfish, squirrelfish, tang, lionfish, and sergeant majors surround the coral heads in undulating schools. It is always with a kind of wonder that we approach this natural aquarium.
Most of the time, we’re able to hover over the reef for hours, observing all the activity in awe without the slightest disturbance. An occasional barracuda may pop up in the periphery but as long as they don’t get too curious, I can deal with them.
Recently, I was enjoying a leisurely snorkel with my brother and his wife. It was a gorgeous day and I felt at peace. And then a shark appeared.
Sleek, dark, and way too big for my taste, he closed in on the reef. True to form, I panicked, hurling myself towards the beach like an extra in Jaws. I swear I could feel him right behind me the entire time with his mouth gaping open, ready for a human snack. I swam as fast as I could, the adrenaline coursing through me and causing me to keep flailing in terror even after I reached the safety of the shore. I am certain that I looked like a cartoon character desperately crawling at the sand.
Once I actually looked back out at the reef, I could see that the shark must have stayed there, eyeing the smaller fish instead of choosing to chase me. My snorkel companions were almost drowning from laughing so hard. “It’s only a nurse shark,” my brother yelled, “and they can’t bite you!”
Easy for him to say.
I decided to educate myself and looked up nurse sharks on Wikipedia. While I discovered that, yes, they don’t normally bite humans, that doesn’t mean that they are entirely harmless. Due to their poor eyesight, it is a possibility that they could confuse your body with that of a stingray or a lobster. I was determined not to be a victim of this sort of mistaken identity.
But the very next day, fear and all, I was back out on the reef. I couldn’t resist. The nurse shark – which by this time I had named Dolores because I simply can’t think of a nurse shark as a male – was still there. I found her lying on the bottom, slightly covered in sand. I decided to hover several feet away, still not convinced of the absolute safety of the situation. I kept the shore well within reach and after a few minutes, Dolores stirred. I read that nurse sharks hunt in the night and sleep during the day – Please don’t wake up and hunt me! I thought.
Not wanting to disturb her, I slowly back-paddled towards the beach. But rather than continue her slumber, Dolores seemed to find this interesting. She came to life and swam in my direction. I moved as calmly as I could, trying not to overreact, and reached the shallow waters. But instead of racing out this time, I just stood there in the water up to my knees.
She stopped and seemed to be waiting for something. Not sure what to do, I fussed up a little sand cloud with my feet and sent it out towards her. She sort of looked at it – if sharks can be said to contemplate something – and slowly swam into the cloud.
Feeling braver than ever, I started walking down the beach, still in knee-high water. I shuffled a little with each step to stir up more sand, and Dolores promptly followed.
We walked like that, just the two of us, for about half an hour, until I finally turned and ran up to my house to alert my husband. Waking him from his afternoon nap, I eagerly recounted my adventure.
“She followed me home!” I told him.
“Can I keep her?”