Yesterday I was swimming six miles offshore in eighty-something feet of water. Foam blew in streaks down the faces of the westbound swells, pushing me backward. Every couple of seconds, whitecaps buried my head and shoulders.
Just another day at the office.
About two hours in, I felt something large near me--I sensed it in my spine and lower back. I shoved my head underwater. The LED on my Shark Shield was glowing green. At least it's on.
As I squinted down, I felt exposed, spooked. I prayed fast to Poseidon, to Athena, to anyone listening.
For all intents and purposes, I was alone. My escort boat was 25 meters away. I was wearing a SharkShield antenna on my leg and my fists were gloved in neoprene but it wouldn't matter much if some animal wanted me.
I couldn't see anything down there, but a deep thrumming nagged at the base of my spine. I knew I was in the water with something bigger than I was, with something that only half cared what I might be.
I pulled my head up and yelled back to my boat. I turned and swam hard from the spot thinking, get out of the area, make it harder, more confusing. I grabbed the swim ladder and hung on. I shoved my head underwater and scanned again. Am I crazy?
Slowly, the buzz dulled into the feeling you get after you almost have a terrible car accident, but somehow, inexplicably, don't.
I got out of the water.
I believe I'm still alive because I trusted my instincts. Yet I am plagued by doubt, afraid of what other people will say, and stuck wondering what really happened out there. Maybe some power did intervene. Maybe the Shark Shield worked. Maybe an animal turned away from an attack. Maybe I just cracked up.
I can't prove there was a shark near me. But I have read interviews with people who've had shark interactions, and almost everybody who got hit says, thinking back, that they had a feeling they were being hunted. They might not have realized what that feeling was at the time, but they recognized it looking back.
(I've gotten out of the water before when I've had a similar feelings. Off Gloucester, Massachusetts in 2010, I made the turn around an offshore buoy and had that feeling, and I got back into my escort boat. Minutes later, a charter fishing boat rounded the same buoy, and their clients photographed a 9 foot great white shark.)
I've been swimming in open water for 20 years. There have been only a few times that I have gotten out of the water because I felt afraid. I know for sure that at least one of those times there WAS a large predator in the water near me.
I talk a lot about sharks during school visits. Sometimes, with high school students, I joke about all the bad things that could happen to me out there in the ocean.
But in the moment, in the actual moment when you think you are going to be attacked a toothed predator, I can tell you it's not funny, it's not a joke. In that moment you feel like food, like a weak, too-slow mammal in the wrong place at the wrong time, readying yourself for one last stupid struggle.
I know I share the ocean with predators and hunters. Still, I push myself to be open and vulnerable and receptive as I swim. I open up my awareness so I can feel what's happening in the water around me.
We all have our fears, and our our delusions. Yesterday, I brushed up against something big and cold and dark and powerful and disinterested. I felt terror. I was ready to fight. I fled.
This morning at 3:23 a.m., I felt wrung out thinking of what might have been.
But another calmer part of me knew that this was my work: to accept the terror, to stay open, to listen to my body, to scan, move, fight, even flee.
And then to find my way back.
To show up in that same piece of ocean again, and to find a way forward, whatever it takes.