THIS IS ME WITH A SHARK.
If you had talked to me about sharks two months ago I would have said this:
I hate sharks.
I know that’s not cool to say. I realize sharks are endangered because people are dumb and cruel and cut off their fins to make soup and the big fishy shark ironically drowns.
This is awful and I know it. I just wish that sharks had never existed. Because they scare the shit out of me. I can’t get in the ocean because of them. I have a hard time getting in a swimming pool or a lake even. I know this makes no sense but I can’t change it. I will never love sharks or even respect them. They will always freak me out and be nothing more than death-dealing, robotic, soul-less creatures of the deep.
That’s what I would have said for the first 39 years of my life.
Then I went to Australia and did something crazy. Especially for someone who is scared of sharks.
I went to Australia and I swam with sharks. It was amazing. I now love sharks. Let me tell you what happened.
I was told to go on a trip to Australia by a website called GoMighty.com. They are a website that is all about being (as the name implies) “mighty”. Which is not a word people use to describe me in my private life. On stage I feel mighty and I feel I can be mighty. In my regular, civilian world I think people would be more likely to describe me as “cautious”, “nervous”, “neurotic”, “anxious”, “careful”, “grumpy”, “drowsy”, “curmudgeonly” or perhaps “slightly misanthropic with a dash of bullshit”.
I looked it up and none of those are a synonym for “mighty”.
So it was a surprise and a bit discomfiting when GoMighty.com told me (they are very mighty people so they don’t ask, they tell) that I was going to Australia and that I should do some things that were brave, out of my comfort zone or just in general not things I would normally do but perhaps should. You know, things I would do if I was “mighty”. Which I most certainly am not in most ways that count.
As a semi-joke I told them I would like to swim with sharks. Because ha ha ha, they’ll never make me do that, right? That’s something people do on the Discovery Channel during Shark Week. That’s something crazy white people who are thrill seekers do because they need to feel alive. People who jump out of planes swim with sharks. I do neither of those things. Because both of them are scary and pointless. Why jump out of a perfectly good airplane and why put yourself needlessly in danger by getting in the water with an apex predator? Better to read a good book about someone who does those things than to actually do those things yourself. Right?
Then I got my itinerary. On my 9th day in Australia I was indeed to go swimming with sharks. I was to head out to Manly Aquarium on Manly Bay and be well… “manly”. Oh crap.
I tried to get out of it. I told Rachel in a jokey manner that no way would I swim with sharks and we’d find a reason we couldn’t go. I was testing the waters (pardon my pun) to see if Rach would let me turn yella and weasel out of this thing. She wasn’t having it. She said she was shit-scared of scuba diving so if she could go scuba diving then I could swim with sharks. She said we both were going to enjoy it if we could just face our fears and what an opportunity this was.
I laughed nervously and told her I thought I had pneumonia and I might die if I went scuba diving. I had looked it up on the internet and I’ll be damned but sure enough if you show signs of having pneumonia you are most certainly not supposed to scuba dive. She just looked at me like I was being ridiculous. Which I was. Sort of. I mean, lying to get out of swimming with a 7 foot killer shark isn’t that ridiculous is it? I told her it would be lame and “not real”. That we would be at an aquarium and it would be sterile and pointless. She merely nodded and continued to ignore my cowardice.
Then came the day we were to do the deed. We took a ferry out to Manly Bay from Circular Quay in Sydney. The lovely ferry ride over to Manly Bay is lovely, but its stellar views of the Harbour Bridge, the Opera House and the Pacific did nothing to calm my nerves. On any other day it’s honestly one hell of a ride. If I lived and worked in Sydney I would find a way to have to take it every day. It’s about a half an hour and the whole time you’re gazing at the bright blue Australian waters and/or one of the most gorgeous cities on the planet. I’m sure if you’re not terrified of being turned into shark shit it’s the best ferry thing ever. However I was at that moment terrified of being turned into shark shit.
DO I LOOK HAPPY TO YOU? BECAUSE I WAS NOT HAPPY!
We got to the aquarium and were five minutes late, which bothered me greatly. I can’t stand being tardy for things. Even things I manifestly don’t want to do (like get turned into shark shit). It turned out fine though, because like everyone else we met in Australia the Manly Aquarium folks were super nice and accommodating. I was a little bummed because I had hoped being late (which I hate being) would have disqualified us from swimming with the sharky warks. No such luck.
Side note: Do you see how my brain works? Do you see???? I was mad about being late but hoping being late would get me out of doing something I had asked to do. I AM INSANE A LITTLE I THINK.
We were quickly ushered to the back where we met three other unfortunate souls who would be joining us on our dip. Brendan Kelly, the charming, cherubic and shaven-headed operations manager was there, swaggering about and joking with us. I think he probably just has a gregarious personality but to me it seemed like he was trying to break the tension in the line for the gallows. I’m sure Brendan would be a great guy to have in the trenches with you during WWI or to be stuck on a tall mountain with. He seemed very capable and confident in his abilities. His jokes were funny, his eyes had a twinkle. He seemed calm about the fact that his job involved swimming with monsters.
I on the other hand, was freaking out inside. I was nervous, nauseous and unhappy. I wondered if it would be weird if I asked if I could hold Brendan’s hand during the dive? It seemed like a fair question given the circumstances. But then I thought Rachel might get jealous or more likely, never let me forget how I had to hold a guy’s hand when I swam with sharks because I was a scared little weenus.
The first thing they do at Manly Aquarium Shark Dive Xtreme is make you sign your life away. I didn’t bother to read what I was signing but I’m sure it said that if a shark ate my genitals in front of me I was not allowed to sue the aquarium because that happened. I usually read stuff before I sign it but I didn’t really think there was much point in this case. If something went wrong I wasn’t going to be around to sue anyone. Also I had to keep up my false bravado. I joked about how the sharks were lucky because today they got to swim with me and I was the most majestic thing they had ever seen. This got some laughs. I began to feel a little better.
Next the nice people at Manly Aquarium tell you how you are in no danger by getting into their aquarium with a bunch of flesh-devouring sharks swimming around your head. Which to me sounded like they said, “YOU ARE ABOUT TO GET IN AN AQUARIUM WITH FLESH-DEVOURING SHARKS OMG WHAT ARE YOU DOING YOU STUPID AMERICAN???!!!”.
They really do try and put you at ease with their spiel. Then they show you a DVD about your upcoming experience. This DVD is very “Shark Week”. In other words, it has ominous music and makes the sharks seem extremely dangerous. This DVD did not put me at ease.
Next it was time to get in the showers and put on a wet suit. I don’t like wearing business suits or leisure suits or even track suits, so wet suits are definitely not my thing. Plus they didn’t have one that was quite my size because I’m a giant oaf so my arms were a little restricted. Also I mis-timed my pee break rather badly. So as soon as it was time to get in the icy cold Sydney Harbour water, I immediately needed to go to the bathroom. So there I was, needing an emergency wee, submerged up to my chest in cold sea water, dressed in a too-tight wet suit and about to face the greatest fear I have ever feared. I was so close to leaving. I’d say another 30 seconds and I would have been out of there.
But they do a great job of moving you along at Manly. “No chances for tourists to back out” must be their motto. They give you a quick lesson in scuba diving basics, they tell you that the water in the Aquarium is from the Harbour (which is awesome that we were swimming in the actual Harbour and not just a fish tank) then they show you some scuba hand signals and it’s time to go. Holy crap.
You enter the shark area by swimming from a little holding pool through a hole in the side of the wall. I was second to go with Rachel right behind me. This was it. I was about to get in the water with the killers of the deep, with the monstrous beasts I dreaded most in the entire world, and I had to do it. None of the other divers were backing out and Rachel gave me a much needed shove in the back. Through the hole I went and sunk down about eight feet so that the sharks were swimming a few feet above.
Almost immediately I felt Rachel tap me on the back and point up. I looked over my right shoulder and a 6 foot snaggly-toothed Gray Nurse Shark swam about 3 inches away from my head. Apparently the sharks don’t always stay at the top. Sometimes they like to pick out the guy who is the most scared and pull a funny one by immediately buzzing his tower. I panicked and tried to back away. Because of the weights on my back this translated to ineffectually shuffling my feet and then falling on my ass. I know you can’t hear underwater but I looked at Rachel’s face and I could see she was laughing really hard. I lay there for a second analyzing my situation. I had been in the shark tank for about a minute and so far the sharks were pretty much ignoring me. There were beautiful sting rays and fish swimming everywhere else about me. I forgot I was cold. I forgot I had to pee. I forgot everything about being afraid and I began to laugh at myself for being such a doofus. Brendan came over and pulled me up and our dive began in earnest.
As we walked and swam through the tank while leisurely observing the animals it struck me that sharks were way cooler in person than they were in theory. The ones in this tank were in a bit of a playful mood and a male kept breaching the surface to show his dominance over the others. I looked in their eyes and realized how beautiful they really are. That’s what sharks are to me now – big, noble, not terribly intelligent, sea-puppies. All my misconceptions proceeded to melt away in the next 30 minutes and as became time to get out of the tank I didn’t want to leave. I was really digging hanging out with sharks!
I came to a conclusion while I was down there. Sharks are not mean. They are not cruel. They are what they are – beautiful, totally in harmony with nature and meaning mankind much less harm than we mean them.
I no longer hated sharks or feared them really. Instead I loved them. I respected them. I understood how dumb I had been to hate them in the first place. Like most hate it had come from fear of the unknown. Now that I had been up close and personal I knew that hating sharks because they attack the odd human (when we are in their habitat in the first place!) was like hating bears or tigers or elephants for doing the same thing. Of course I don’t hate those other animals. In fact they are some of my favorite species on the planet. And now sharks are too.
I want to go swimming with sharks again. I want to get in a cage out at sea and watch Great Whites. I want to learn more about them and read books on all the wonderful, amazing and varied kind of sharks we share the earth with. I want to protect sharks now and I don’t fear them one little bit. All because the people at the Manly Aquarium took me to visit the thing I was most afraid of. Then I looked the thing I was most afraid of in the eyes and saw beauty, saw grace, felt harmony, felt pity, and experienced empathy.
I EVEN FELT CONFIDENT ENOUGH TO DO THIS!
A few days later Rachel and I were hanging out at Bondi Beach in Sydney. I don’t really like the beach because I don’t like to get in the ocean because my whole life I’ve kind of been terrified of sharks. But that day I wasn’t. That day I decided I wanted to go swimming.
Rachel asked me, “Really?” and I confidently replied “Really,” as I took off my shirt and ran for the waves. I have never enjoyed being in the water so much. I couldn’t stop laughing or smiling. All of the scaredy-cat part of me had been removed. It felt like a rebirth. It felt refreshing. It felt fun. It felt like a gift.
It felt that way because I had indeed been given one. I had been granted a release from needless, mindless, ignorant fear. Most of my fears have turned out to be my own ignorance masquerading as cowardice. Most of my fears can be conquered. That’s what this experience reminded me and I will never forget it again.
The day we left Australia I asked Rachel if she wanted to go on a quick dip in the ocean before we got in the car to the airport. Again she looked at me like, “Who is this brave man I am with?”. She agreed that getting in the Pacific one more time was agreeable to her so we left our hotel in just our suits and carrying a couple of towels. We laid them on the beach and one more time I frolicked - FROLICKED I TELL YOU! - in the ocean. I have never thought of the ocean as anything other than where sharks live. Now I think of it as my friend and I want to swim in it more often. Too bad I didn’t learn this lesson when I was living in LA for 16 years instead of now when I am land-locked in central Texas! Oh well. I suppose it doesn’t matter. A lesson is a lesson is a lesson at any age.
My experiences in Australia taught me that at 39 I still have a lot of growing to do. Thank you GoMighty.com for making me be mighty for a day and thank you Manly Aquarium for bringing me on an incredible, literally life-changing journey.
ME AND MY PALE, GLORIOUS BODY BEING MIGHTY IN THE OCEAN.