Monday, October 15, 2012

Swimming with Sharks in Real Life - and In Business

I’ve been the publisher at Family Magazine for over 21 years.  We’re located in the Washington DC area so I can tell you I’m familiar with the rough and tough business of “business.”  There are sharks in these DC commerce waters.  Big ones, little ones, sneaky ones – all hungry.  I hereby admit I have acted shark-like myself as needed over the years.  Eat or get eaten as it were….

You’d think I’d be ready to swim with the real thing after two decades of business experience.  You’d think.  I just have to tell you, those underwater sharks with fins and tails are a different kind of scary.  They actually can and will bite your arm off if you make a wrong move (any move).  After my recent experience of being surrounded by real sharks, I have many new levels of respect – for sharks, myself, and even my business associates.

I learned a lot about myself sitting on the edge of the boat and on a rock at the bottom of the ocean that was teeming with hungry sharks.  I learned that:
1.    Preparation is everything – don’t jump off a boat into a shark fest without someone who knows what they’re doing (and a plan to get out).
2.    Sometimes you have to take a leap of faith – you gotta trust that guy with the shark bait.
3.    Research the dangers so you know what you are getting into – as much as that’s possible….
4.    Know your limitations.
5.    Be prepared for the unexpected – the aforementioned plan must be flexible.
6.    Don’t try to solve problems too fast.  Often, they can solve themselves with less danger.

How I swam with sharks and lived to tell you about it….

Here's our video and the story below!

On our recent annual vacation with my husband, our youngest daughter and her new fiancé, we did some scuba diving.  Scuba diving in shark infested waters.  On purpose. 

We are all experienced scuba divers and have been taking an annual vacation together for four years.  This year our goal was to swim with sharks in the waters of the Bahamas.  This particular area is very well known as a great place to experience sharks up close and personal.  Assuming you’re into that sort of thing.

Not to ruin the ending, but it was a truly amazing experience.  One that I almost didn’t experience.  I was scared to death.  So as I got ready to make my giant stride (scuba lingo) into the water, I paused and asked the Dive Master if he thought I’d make it.  He said I’d be fine since I was so petite.  I was liking that guy already – he said the sharks only seem to notice the really big guys when they move.  Score one for the little lady.

As “guests” at the shark feeding, our job was to sit as still as possible on the ocean floor in an Arena where the Master Divers (the hosts as it were) fed bait to the sharks.  Apparently sharks don’t really see what they’re attacking.  They’re attracted by smell and large moving objects.  They actually cover their eyes during a feeding frenzy with a special membrane to protect them.  So the argument goes that we divers, seated politely in the middle of their feast, won’t draw their attention. 

My daughters, Brittany and Amy, are always telling me how much I use my arms when I dive.  You’re not supposed to, but I do.  So I’m thinking I’ll never be able to sit still during a dive.  I’ll be the one down there stabilizing myself by waving my arms around.  I could just hear the voices in my head:  “Here sharky, sharky.  Come and get it!” 

The water around the boat was teeming with sharks – what was I thinking?  You could see them coming up to the surface and then swimming away from the boat.  However, when the photographers and two Dive Masters entered the water, the sharks seemed to move away from the boat.  I put that in the plus column.  The Dive Masters kept telling us we’d be fine and to take our “leap” of faith.

So I take a giant stride out into the water, and what do I see just as my mask hits the water?  A shark.  So the sharks had not gone away as I previously believed (or to be honest hoped for).  I can just see the look of surprise that would be on my daughter Amy’s face if she could see me now.  Me, her mother, the wimpy diver who panics when she thinks there’s a shark in the distance (usually swimming away from us).  Her mother has just stepped off a perfectly good boat into shark infested waters.

There were twelve of us at this shark dinner party.  After we were all seated or kneeling on the sand, the shark experience started.  The “feeding diver” arrived with a box of bait.  I wasn’t sure I needed an experience greater than what we already had - the sharks had been circling us from the very moment we entered the water.  So when the bait arrived they started swimming closer, next to, and (gasp) between us. 

When the feeder started pulling bait out of the box, the sharks went crazy.  It wasn’t quite the huge feeding frenzy that would make it onto “SHARK WEEK” but it was intense!  These sharks weren’t just for show.  They were hungry, wild animals going for the kill - at the bait thank goodness.  The sharks actually bit the feeding diver a couple of times.  He casually pushed the sharks away or jerked his arm out of their mouths.  Needless to say, the chainmail covering his arms did its job.  Still, I can’t imagine a situation where I’d ever be “casual” about being bitten by a shark!

The feeder pulled the bait of a box and put it on the end of a spear to attract the sharks.  The sharks continued to come in and out of our circle.  When I say they were close, I mean close.  They actually bumped into us.  Mostly they bumped my head and regulator.  I clenched my teeth so hard my jaw was sore. 

When they came right at you, you could look them in the eye.  It reminded me of being on safari – you get to watch these great creatures in their world.  But being literally face to face with these sharks and feeling them swim by was such an intense experience.  When I saw a shark gliding in my direction, I would crunch down and grab the rock harder where I was sitting.  Once I was able to relax a bit, I started to see how beautiful and graceful they were.

Sometimes they came from behind, and you didn’t know they were coming until a big shark eye was in your peripheral vision.  Just turning and watching the full length of the animal glide by was so exciting.  I tried to see if my family were enjoying the show, but there were so many sharks in the ten feet between us that I couldn’t see them.

These were not small reef sharks; most were ten to twelve feet long.  That really surprised us.  We did not expect them to be so big.  The other surprise was that several of them had fishing line coming out of their mouth.  One even had a weight hanging on the line.  You could tell they had hooks in their mouths.  I asked about this later and apparently in Florida (not sure of the Bahamas, but they probably have the same guidelines), you have to use hooks that will rust so they’ll eventually come out of the fishes’ mouths. 

I did get to where I could appreciate the sharks and not be on the verge of a panic attack. However, one incident put me back on high alert.  Since we’d be on the bottom for 30 minutes, I sat with my legs out in front of me because I knew if I tried kneeling for that long would be uncomfortable.  Plus, as I mentioned, I had already made big plans to cling to my rock to make sure I did not move my arms.  My future son in law Randy told me he could see my knuckles were white.  I did grab the rocks as tight as I could.  I was appropriately scared by any rational standard.

While I was sitting there entranced by these fascinating animals, a large (bigger than a dinner plate LARGE) piece of bait flew off the end of the feeder’s spear and landed exactly between my legs.  So in my head, I hear the following thought stream:  “These sharks are going crazy biting and grabbing at this bait.  There is a piece of this bait lying between my legs.  If I use my arms to move the bait, the sharks are going to think I am holding food, or worse yet, that I am food.  The feeding diver is getting bitten on the arm when he feeds them this bait. My arm might get taken off if I touch this bait.  If I leave the bait between my legs the sharks might go for it and bite my legs.  I am in trouble.”  That entire thought bubble took less than a second to form over my head!

I froze.  Which turned out to be the right thing to do.

In addition to our friends the sharks, there were also many, smaller fish swarming about eating tidbits the sharks were dropping.  Several big yellow tail snappers spotted the bait as it landed between my legs and raced for it.  They swarmed the bait and started began fighting over it.  It was a bit of a fishy tug of war. 

As the snappers sucked and pulled at the bait, they moved it across the top of my legs, to my left leg, over to my right leg and finally (sigh of relief) into the sand beside my legs.  A big grouper came up and took it away from the snappers.  Needless to say I have a new found respect for yellow tail snappers.

As the feeding continued, a photographer and videographer moved around in our circle filming us so we would have pictures of our experience.  Brittany, Randy and my husband Doug also took some great photos.  I tried taking a few, but I was so nervous about putting my arms up to take pictures, I did not get very many good ones. 

I actually like our photos better than the still shots taken by the professional.  Because we were looking at an angle to each other, you can see more of the sharks in the circle.  Brittany and Randy also filmed some video that I’ve posted on YouTube – I’ll be taking public credit where due for this shark dive.  Randy’s favorite picture is where he touched a shark and actually ran his finger down the full length of the shark’s fin.

When the feeding diver finally ran out of bait, he ascended and the sharks followed him.  He swam away from our circle and pulled all of the sharks away from us. I spent a shark free minute on the bottom and dug through the sand. I actually found two shark teeth to take with us as hard evidence of our experience.  When we were back on board the boat and out of our gear, we agreed we had just had one of those experiences of a lifetime.

Helen Keller said it best, “Life is a daring adventure, or it is nothing at all.”  We definitely dared to adventure this week.  Surviving to tell the story is another plus.  Now we can spend the rest of our vacation relaxing in the traditional Bahamas way.  Lying by the pool, warming in the sun.  We conquered the sea and are already planning our next adventure.


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