Private Thoughts On Swimming With Sharks

Is it genetic or is it environmental?

Is it nature or is it nurtured?

Why is it that I think of sharks when I am swimming in the ocean, far from shore? What brings them to mind? What causes the thought to suddenly pop into my head?

Alone with my thoughts with my head facing downwards, I occasionally ask myself, “What do I do if I see a shark? What do I do when I see it coming at me from the depths? What do I do if I suddenly see a huge set of wide open jaws just about to take a chomp out of me?”

After talking with shark divers and seeking the advice from those who have free dived among the most dangerous of the apex predators, I know what I am supposed to do in a shark encounter, but am I brave enough to do it? Would I have the gravitas to react properly? Or would I panic with a fin in the vicinity? Would I be able to face head-on a shark in the open ocean with a calm, composed demeanor? Or would I do exactly what you’re not supposed to do if I were the object of a shark’s desire?

I fear that fear would overwhelm me. Try as I might to convince myself that I am a warrior, a courageous soul capable to downplaying my fear, I fear that I would react worse than mere freezing up. It is highly probable that I would panic and thrash about, swimming away like a crazed madman. I know it is best to spread out my arms and legs and appear as big as possible while keeping an eye on the shark and maintaining a focused state of mind with relaxed heart rate. But I fear that measured reaction is inconsistent with my natural instincts.

I hear of many open water swimmers who would face the shark, punch the shark like Gary Hall Jr. did or swim calmly amid Great White Sharks like David Blaine did (shown below).

You have to remain calm,” explained Blaine. “Because they can sense your fear.”

But that is most probably not me.

Is this reaction to sharks natural? Am I genetically wired to fear sharks when swimming in the open ocean, especially off the coast of California, Hawaii or Florida or South Africa or Australia when sharks are known to exist? Try as I might to replay a shark encounter in my head, and I come to the same sad realization that I am no Penny Palfrey. No way, no how could I view a massive Great White Shark swim below me and immediately think, “How majestic…how beautiful…” No way, no how do I keep swimming like Michael Spalding without a thought of getting out of the water. No way, no how does my heart rate not spike or my breath not be taken away unlike the brave composure of Hawaii’s Triple Crowner Michael Miller. It goes without question that no way, no how do I remain in the water knowing that I share the environs with what is commonly described as the perfect predator.

Palfrey tells of her experience, “I could still see the bottom but cruising right below me was a Great White Shark. I looked, instinctively took my regular breath, then looked back again, yes it was a shark, yes it was a Great White Shark. It was majestic. I was in awe of this huge, graceful creature beneath.”

She faced the shark with reverence and awe. I would swim next to a Great White Shark with fear and dread.

Are these thoughts and assumptions environmentally influenced? Is my fear generated because of photos and videos that I have seen? Are my reactions nurtured by movies and television shows? Did the viewing of shark movies scar my thought process for life? Does a decade of Shark Week programs influence my mindset as an open water swimmer? Does modern media dictate a life of fear of sharks when I know the chances of ever experiencing a shark encounter are nearly zero?


Which is true: genetic make-up that is instinctively fearful of sharks or an environmentally-generated fear of sharks due to popular media? Whichever it is, I think of sharks while swimming out in the ocean. These thoughts are not enough to stop me from venturing beyond the waves, far from shore, but they remain in my head just as surely as the tides flow.

A misplaced mindset? Perhaps.

Illogical imagination? Possibly.

If I encountered a shark when swimming alone, how would I react? If I encountered a shark when swimming with a group, how would others react? Would the men act manly…or would the women? Would the young panic…or be prepared? Would the veterans react heroically with confidence and composure…or not?

I wonder.

And keep swimming along.

Copyright © 2012 by Open Water Source