My First Encounter with a Shark – #ChangeMyShorts

great white shark

photo by: Bill Downey

Last summer, I was gratified to experience my first real-life meeting with a great white. As a long-time scuba diving enthusiast, I had enjoyed exploring the sea for well over a decade. However, I had never before seen one of these majestic creatures in real life

I’ll admit that despite what I knew about great whites, I was always nervous about the idea of encountering one of these animals while diving. Intellectually, I realized that the vast majority of unplanned encounters with sharks are peaceful in nature. In fact, great whites generally have far better reasons to fear humans than the other way around.

Despite knowing these important facts, my emotions were mixed about the prospect of meeting a great white in the wild. I suppose we are all unconsciously influenced by years of exposure to the negative, fantastical depictions of great whites found in films and television programs. Thankfully, my dive buddy was there to share this experience that was initially scary but ultimately very satisfying. I credit my supportive dive partner with helping me positively process an experience that was multifaceted and undeniably surreal.

The day of the dive is a day that will remain imprinted in my memory forever. I still remember the sharp, salty tang of the ocean. I’ll long remember the coolness of the ocean that day. Although each dive is an adventure, this day’s dive started out fairly commonplace. It was enjoyable but nothing beyond the ordinary. I was preparing to wrap up the dive when I suddenly saw a sleek form approaching. At first I thought it was a large fish but as it came closer I began to comprehend the creature’s full size and nature.

As the shark approached, I’ll admit I felt a thrill of fear. It was only a fleeting, instinctive response, which only heightened when I noticed this massive animal circling me. Unlike the ever decreasing radius of the sharks route, the lump in my throat was mounting. During these few blurry seconds of fear and incredulity, there was a moment that defines this entire experience for me. As the shark’s final circle came to a close – I felt his strength defined through the current he was creating with a vortex-like path, and then almost as if in slow motion; he came across my front side, and as I saw my reflection in the onyx color of his permanently dilated eyes, he stopped (as did my heart), seemed to look me over and then moved on.

I now focused on my breathing for a few seconds and then consciously tried to appreciate the grace and beauty of the huge predator that was before me. Almost immediately, my fear slipped away, replaced with the incomparable awe of being that close to a living, breathing apex predator.. As it moved away, I knew that I had experienced something I would never forget. I couldn’t believe that I had been blessed with a dive more singular and exciting than any other. Scuba diving had provided me with plenty of memorable underwater experiences. However, nothing had prepared me for the peaceful, almost spiritual feeling I felt as I boarded the boat and prepared to return to the land. For at least a short time, I had come directly into contact with one of the world’s most awe-inspiring animals. From that day on, my mental image of the great white has remained far removed from the cartoon-like aquatic monsters depicted in horror films. Instead, I think of that day I was eye-to-eye with another living creature, a living spirit that seemed to harbor untold mysteries in its huge, curious eyes.

It is often said that experiencing great whites firsthand can encourage respect for the sea and a spirit of conservation. I know that this outcome held true in my case. Upon returning from my dive, I knew my life had been changed forever. Although I have long loved the sea, I believe I now have a deeper, stronger connection. Despite their imposing bodies and sharp teeth, these majestic giants are all but helpless to protect themselves against the concerted efforts of aggressive humans. Since the 1970s, the great white population has gradually declined. Today, scientists consider great whites vulnerable to extinction. By coming into contact with these awe-inspiring denizens of the deep, I feel a new sense of perspective. Instead of demonizing these magnificent predators, we should celebrate them and do we all we can to protect them. From this point on, I resolve to do what I can to help protect great whites and their habitats.

Prior to my great white adventure, I had dreaded the experience of meeting one of these fabled predators. After crossing this experience off of my “bucket list,” I realized I was actually looking forward to experiencing this again, but this time without the initial #changemyshorts reaction. Whatever their ages or backgrounds, I encourage all curious people to forget about “Jaws” and experience the truth about great whites firsthand. I’ll gladly testify that it is an experience you’ll remember for the rest of your life.

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