Eagles vs. Sharks: Thoughts on Surviving a Really Bad Moment

19 03 2008

By Jill Ettinger

Sometimes the worst experiences are also the best. Profound adaptability comes to us in stressful times. Like all things in nature, we face challenges. Usually in these moments, instinct takes over and we are not as helpless as we thought. Or at least, we hope.

I was pondering this during a recent trip to Hawaii. It was my first solo vacation; free to do everything and anything I wanted, whenever I so chose. It seemed no greater opportunity to thrust myself into strange situations. No one around to remind me of any embarrassing moments after they’d passed. No one but myself.

I’ve known for many years that the open sea and my stomach have a very turbulent relationship. I admire the ocean a great deal, even feel a need to live coastal, but I keep a safe distance from its ebbs and flows, especially on a full stomach. (Long story short: don’t eat lunch right before scuba diving.)

So there I was, the north shore of Oahu in March. The ocean is teeming with Humpback whales, a sight not to be missed. As I was researching whale tours, I noticed several area shark cage tours. This caught my eye for several reasons. (1) I am terrified of sharks and (2) I am terrified of sharks. I knew I had to go.

The tours are quite safe. The shark cage sits in the water about two miles off shore. Steel bars enclose human visitors and a Plexiglas front on one side allows the more squeamish (me) to peer out with more comfort. The sharks are Galapagos, which typically stay nearer to the ocean floor, but years of crabbing in the area has trained them to respond to the sound of boats. They hit the surface looking for leftovers from crab fishers and a tourist trap (literally) was born. They pose no real threat to humans, though sticking your finger in their mouth is not recommended.

Occasionally a tiger shark will appear in the mix with the others. They are the breed most common in local surfer attacks. One shark tour a few years ago caught footage of a 21-foot great white – the only Hawaiian great white encounter caught on film.

When no one else volunteered to be first, I felt my hand go up. Might as well get it over with, I thought to myself. I knew there was no real danger. I remember fearing stepping into the early morning cold water more than the sharks. Two people need to go in the cage at the same time (for time restrictions) so another girl accompanied me. We climbed in, holding onto the bars and the boat let out the slack, cage and us in it, drifting.

As lungs took their first breath through the snorkel, eyes gulped in the beast only a few feet beyond the bars. How strange nature is, I thought. To call their eyes beady is unfair, but there is a dull predatory blankness that points at you with every glance. It’s as if they see right through you and not at all both at the same time. I was not afraid.

There were a good dozen of them scattered in every direction, spinning me around the 6-foot enclosure to catch glimpses of them glimpsing me. Then, it hit me. I came up for air and felt the choppiness of the sea. Just the day before I had gone whale watching. I took an anti-seasickness pill to be safe, and it had worked fine. I repeated the dosage that morning before the shark dive, but it was a different ocean than the day before. All I could feel was the even choppier ocean inside of me. The captain suggested that if I was going to get sick that was fine, I should still go under and watch the sharks until I threw up. His words just seemed to charm it right out of me and all of a sudden, the sharks and I were connected in a much deeper way. There are a few of them out there now with a little bit of my breakfast glistening in their sleek fins.

I crawled back into the boat and took respite in a sunny spot on the floor. My eyes sought the stability of the horizon. There are few things worse than feeling completely nauseous. One of them is knowing that you have to feel that way for at least another hour while two more cages drop. The other is realizing that you are the only person on the boat having this reaction, and quite possibly the worst thing: having to listen to the Eagles while you wait for it to end. Glen Fry and Don Henley blared out of the captain’s radio, sounding about as soothing as Celine Dion singing Ethel Merman (heaven forbid). It was, as far as I could tell, the worst possible moment of my life, ever.

My mind raced to recall The Life of Pi, and how Pi used his imagination to survive being stranded at sea. But his might have been a different story if he had been stuck listening to “Desperado.” It was too much. I thought about thrusting myself overboard and letting the sharks tear me to pieces, but then I remembered they aren’t really known for eating humans. I could run over to the radio and call the coast guard. I’d tell them a shark attacked someone and surely they’d hurry. But the thought of taking my eyes off the horizon to walk towards the radio was too big a task. Then suddenly, I felt different. My gut was still wrenching, the boat was still rocking and someone was urging me not to let the sound of my own wheels drive me crazy … but now, I was smiling. A little laugh slipped out between my lips as I realized just how awful this moment was and that I would forever look back on it fondly. It was so bad that it was simply perfect.

While I’ll probably avoid becoming a pirate anytime soon, I continue to enjoy finding those moments that force me to surrender some parts of what I think myself to be. Every once in a while, it’s important to be reminded that we have the opportunity to consciously make choices in this life that may go against our desire to be self-serving. The natural world, as fierce as it can be, is still so fragile. We know this now more than ever. Our choices stand to change the face of nature permanently. Other animals seem to rely solely on their instincts to guide them without sentiment. Well, we’re not sharks (and aside from a few California guys, we’re not the Eagles either). We’re just a bunch of humans being. Being what though, is entirely up to us.

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