Shades of Fear

Welcome to my random musings about the world, on a weekly-to-occasional basis.

Where we are: Right now, on a flight from Nicaragua to El Salvador. Following a Caribbean beach with a Pacific beach seems like a good plan.

Shades of Fear

When we were in Panama in October, we spent a week on a boat in the San Blas Islands, an archipelago of little islands that are not much more than overgrown sandbars. It was idyllic, right out of a deserted-tropical-island movie: turquoise waters, powdery white sand, palm trees and coconuts. We lounged around on the boat, splashing into that dreamy blue water whenever we felt like it. I had a mask and a snorkel and perfect visibility, and that’s pretty much all I need in life.

One day, Lee and I jumped in for a lazy snorkel around some coral that was maybe a six or eight minute swim from from the boat. It’s basically two parallel ridges of coral, maybe thirty or forty feet long, separated by a channel about six feet wide. There are a few narrower channels running through each ridge, perpendicular to the main channel. There are fish everywhere, beautiful tropical reef fish, in every color of the rainbow. It was like swimming in an aquarium.

We’ve been snorkeling together for as long as we’ve known each other, so we both know how it’s going to go: I’m going to be in heaven and not want to leave, but Lee is eventually going to want to go dry off. No worries—he learned years ago to just let me know before he gets out of the water. I can seriously snorkel all day, y’all.

So we’re on the far side of the two ridges when he decides he’s done. I shrug and wave, and he goes around the outside past the ends of both ridges, and heads toward the boat. I swim slowly through one of the slightly wider channels, which opens into the main channel, between the ridges. I’m now in the middle, between two walls of coral. Something catches my peripheral vision, and I look to the right.

It’s a shark. Swimming in my direction. It was bigger than me (probably not by a lot, but it seemed gigantic). That distinctive shape felt menacing, looming in a sea full of Nemos and Dorys.

I. Freaked. Out.

know intellectually that sharks aren’t interested in me, and I reminded myself of this fact, but it didn’t matter. I just needed to GetAwayHideYellForHelpKeepMyEyesOnThatBeast.

It was blind panic. I can’t remember ever feeling like that before, and I have to say, I don’t think I like it. Sitting here in a hotel breakfast room, writing this, I can raise my heart rate to an alarming level just by replaying that moment.

Sharks don’t generally think of humans as food. I know this. It is a fact that is firmly lodged in my brain, after years of reading and learning about ocean life. I did, after all, want to be a marine biologist once upon a time. I love the ocean, and I generally love watching the creatures in it. When we saw sharks in the Galapagos (that was a lot of sharks, but I was never alone, so I was mostly able to keep my panic under control) I thought of a snippet from Emily Dickinson:

    But never met this fellow, 

    Attended or alone,

    Without a tighter breathing,

    And zero at the bone.

Zero at the bone. That’s exactly what I felt. (Yes, in my most primal moments of fear, I hear poetry in my head. Don’t judge.) 

The normal, rational part of my brain knew I needed to swim to the end of the channel and go around the end of the ridge in front of me, or go back the way I had come, and go around the ends of both ridges, but the instinctive, reptilian part was in charge. I went straight ahead. Over, not around, in maybe 8 inches of water.

If you’ve ever been in the water with me, you know that I would never, ever, under any circumstances, touch coral. It’s too precious. It is, in my mind, right up there with ‘Thou Shalt Not Murder,’ because to touch coral is to kill it. If I see someone else touching it, I will yell at them, no hesitation, rudeness be damned. 

I know I brushed up against it in my mad rush to escape, because when I finally caught up to Lee (whom I hung onto with a death grip all the way back to the boat), I realized that a tiny scrape was burning on my knee. I’m still ashamed of that. I knew better.

This was deeper, blinder, somehow, than even my fear of dogs. I don’t know what that means, but I find it interesting. I’m sure a psychologist would be able to make sense of it. Maybe my dog phobia is more learned, rather than instinctive. It’s only certain dogs, anyway. Dogs on leashes—I’ll give them an extra foot of space, if they look like they’re going to move toward me to say hello, but I don’t freak out and refuse to go outside. Corgis and dachshunds are the exception: I actually feel a flicker of interest when I see them. Last week, I even considered petting one (don’t worry—I resisted).

I’m not sure what it says about me, that a glimpse of that one shark was probably the most out-of-control experience of my life. I do find it fascinating that a tiny, deeply buried part of my brain can just hijack my body. Lee keeps telling me I need to meditate; maybe he’s right.

Or maybe I need some exposure therapy. I’m writing this on a tiny little island off the coast of Nicaragua. The reports we’re getting from scuba divers all involve sharks. Big sharks. SHARKS FOLLOWING DIVERS. SHARKS BUMPING DIVERS, JUST FOR SHITS AND GIGGLES. 

Never mind. I’ll just meditate.

From my writer’s notebook:

We all remember (at least, those of us who are old enough) Dr. Robert Ballard’s 1985 discovery of the Titanic, and the subsequent debates over how to manage such a historically significant site, underwater. Many people are not aware, though, that shipwrecks are a common source of artifact theft. If it’s difficult to keep museum secure, imagine how much more difficult it is to stop thieves from plundering the many ships that have sunk throughout human history. Policing efforts have to focus on the black market trade in stolen antiquities.

Sadly, in all my snorkeling and diving around the world, the only artifacts I’ve ever discovered were plastic bottles and grocery bags.

Take care,


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