Wednesday, June 3, 2009
The Cove Swim OR Unmentionables, Part 2
Even though I had agreed to meet Shannon and Stephen by 7:30 am at The Cove, I had already been up for hours. Thoughts of Great White Sharks, scenes from JAWS, and a seemingly untimely death later in the morning during my swim kept me from sleeping much. Even Nathaniel wasn't spared: the poor guy was curious about The Cove, but I - thinking he was about to say the "S" word (whispered - shark) - prevented him from opening his mouth.
And it wasn't even 6 am.
To say that I was a little nervous, would be a gross understatement.
I was convinced that I was about to die. Was going to be consumed by a ravenous shark, end of story. My mouth was dry as I gathered my things to leave the house. When I kissed Nathaniel good bye, I made sure to tell him that I loved him. Even though I was mad that he almost said the "S" word. We didn't even talk Unmentionables or anything.
And if you think I'm joking - rest assured, I'm not.
40 minutes later, I was pulling up right next to Shannon and Stephen. After a few exchanges and nervous laughter, we walked towards the concrete steps that lead down to The Cove. (You can see the concrete steps built into the side of the cliff, leading down towards the water.)
Despite the early morning time, I could already see several groups of swimmers in the water. They didn't seem to be flailing, screaming, yelling, "SHARK!" or acting eradically. They were just - swimming.
And truth be told, looked pretty peaceful.
No one was sprinting to make the send off, or worrying about the pace clock or the antics of fellow lane mates. It looked absolutely relaxing - like they were just out enjoying the morning by taking a leisurely swim.
It helped to calm my nerves - we wouldn't be the only poor fools out there. Well, that and Stephens bright pink and orange Speedos. Yes, those were enough to take my mind off teeth and thoughts of dying, if only for a few moments.
Add the plethora of scuba divers, and I realized that we most definitely would NOT be alone. There were plenty of other sorry idiots, errr, people who would be in the water and enjoying the clear views.
Shannon and Stephen could tell how nervous I was, so they proceeded to chat as though nothing out of the ordinary was happening. Me - well I was struck silent. As though on autopilot, I pulled on my wetsuit (although there were many people swimming without wetsuits - just thought I would mention it), applied plenty of body glide to the back of my neck to prevent wetsuit "bite", debated briefly over which swim cap to wear (trusty silver that blends in OR bright pink race cap? Hhhmmmm.....the silver isn't very visible in case people are searching for my body. On the other hand, sharks are attracted to BRIGHT colors, and if BRIGHT PINK isn't florescent enough, I don't know what is. Definitely the silver...), grabbed my goggles and headed towards the water.
Stephen doubled back to pick up my spare goggles - his strap had broken - so it was just me and Shannon at the water's edge. Well, us and two SCUBA divers who were checking their valves and testing their equipment before descending below the surface.
"Take your time," Shannon said. "Whenever you're ready..."
I stood. And waited... and waited....and waited some more....
"Don't look so excited!" one of the divers shouted towards me.
I couldn't even smile. Actually, I had been trying to pee - but for the FIRST time in my life, was too nervous to go. I guess I looked a little constipated? Who knows.
"It's her FIRST time swimming in the Open Water without racing!" called Shannon, being the uber-supportive friend that she is.
"I don't know how you swimmers do it!" One of the SCUBA guys remarked. "Staying on the top of the water ALL the time like that...Now me - I would MUCH rather prefer to be on the bottom where you can SEE everything that's heading towards you and -"
But he was cut off by Shannon's shout.
I have no idea what she said, because I was too fixated and horrified by his comment. "No idea how you swim at the surface....bottom where you can see...." But I was grateful at how quickly her yell stopped the guy off mid-sentence.
Regardless, I felt like such a wimp.
But at a deeper level, I felt small and very insignificant. It was as though I teetered on the personal brink of something great. Here I stood: trembling at the edge of my biggest fear - swimming in the Open Pacific Ocean. And I was stuck, paralyzed by fear yet unwilling to back down from this personal obstacle.
There's not much that rattles me - okay a few things. But they involve people I love and my family. This was somehow very different - this was my personal fear for myself. Other scary things, well, I hate to admit it - I have no control over them. But plunging into the open ocean...that's simply a choice that I have to make.
I don't know how long I stood on the edge of the shore - the place where the sand and water meet. I could feel the cool water at my feet, the hard and reassuring sand a few paces behind. How grateful I was for the shore! The water stretched out ahead of me, and I knew that if I ever wanted to tackle my fear - THIS would be my chance.
I heard myself babbling, discussing (more to myself, but the SCUBA guys overheard, as did Shannon and Stephen, returned from retrieving intact goggles) how in a RACE situation I would SPRINT headlong into the water without a second thought. Sometimes even I amaze myself.
"So by that rational, all I need to do is blow an air horn and you'll run in?" asked Stephen.
I didn't know weather to laugh or cry. But he was right - and I gave him a big grin.
Rationally, I KNEW the statistics... according to the International Shark Attack File, there were 4 fatal shark attacks in 2008 and only 59 unprovoked attacks, down from 71 the year before (that were reported). And how many thousands of swimmers entered the world's oceans (and rivers...remember our bull shark friends) in the previous year? Furthermore, I know that in the waters of the United States, there's an average of one fatal shark attack every two years.
But what good did this do me? Really? Standing in The Cove, and on the very edge of my fears.
I liken it to airplane statistics and crashes. I used to be afraid of flying, but learning about flight, flight systems, and the science of flight with Nathaniel has really helped. And while I'm still wary of the plane crashing, I'm no longer overly anxious to fly.
Besides, I've never heard of anyone getting eaten mid-flight by a charging plane.
Plus, after all of my reading, all of my study - I can rattle off random bits of shark information and science like any good zoology student. But what good does this knowledge do for me if I'm too afraid to enter the water?
It was now or never.
I took a deep breath, pushing aside my thoughts of TEETH and ATTACKS and RED BLOOD IN THE WATER WHILE THE SHARKS CIRCLE and calmly told Shannon, "I think I'm ready to go."
"Okay then!" she replied and started fearlessly wading out.
I followed her, determined to stay asclose! as possible. I didn't want to draft in her wake; instead I aimed to swim right at her side.
Very quickly the sand turned to rock and kelp beds and soon we were breast stroking towards deeper water. OHMYGOD OHMYGOD OHMYGOD! I'm IN THE OPEN OCEAN!
Immediately I tensed, waiting for the attack. One, two, three seconds passed - and I was still alive. I could feel the cold water in my wetsuit, see Shannon's right ahead...and I was still...alive? NOT consumed by hungry man-eating sharks???
Before I knew it, Shannon started swimming and I instinctively switched to freestyle to keep up. On shore (because God knows, we had spent plenty of time looking out towards the water), we had discussed where we would head to first. One of the many wonderful things about swimming at The Cove, are the 1/4 and 1/2 mile buoys, spaced accordingly out from shore.
I glanced up every few strokes towards the buoy, convinced that A HUGE FIN would obscure my view at any point.
Or, better yet: knowing that Great Whites generally attack from below by rushing UP towards their intended victim, I would see this:
Instead...it was...simply nothing.
Shannon wasn't panicked, and Stephen was right behind me. And we were swimming. We were swimming...
Naturally, when one isn't on the breakfast menu right away, one is able to settle down quite a bit. Even though it felt like an eternity, only a few seconds (or minutes) had passed. When I realized I wasn't dead, my focus gradually turned to the other amazing things in my near vicinity.
Almost instantly, I saw a bright flash of orange - and another and another! The kelp beds were thick at times, but the water was extremely clear. One, two, and then three bright Garibaldi fish darted directly under me, and I was captivated by their beauty and the simplicity of their movements.
I had never had the pleasure of seeing such marvelous fish up close. Until that moment, my vantage had always been from the other side of an aquarium - most definitely not in the open water.
I kept my eyes peeled, looking not for sharks like I thought I would, but instead for other brightly colored fish. Yes, I was still extremely fearful, and the thought of BIG SHARKS was ever present. But I pushed it to the far back of my brain and instead, focused on the beauty of the moment.
Flashes of sand, a mere 30-foot below, was interspersed with rocky formations. Beds of Kelp waved their slimy leaves towards the surface, and I was amazed at how they felt gliding past my body. Some were completely smooth, while others left a slight stinging sensation against my hands and exposed skin.
Ever present were my bright orange fish friends, and I found myself sighting and looking out of the water less, and instead enjoying the view below more. The Kelp rose in forests from the ocean's floor - and for the first time in hours, I wasn't convinced that I was about to die.
Shannon stopped swimming and we paused for a moment, waiting for Stephen to catch up.
A few second's later, we were swimming again, the 1/4 mile buoy drawing closer and closer.
As the water grew deeper, flashes of sand and the bottom were less and less. However, there were plenty of fish present. I still thought about a shark rushing from below - but the probability seemed smaller at this point.
And then I saw one. Not the shark from my fears, not the Great White that had scared me so much that I couldn't even speak its name - but instead, a baby leopard shark. He (or she) was a good distance below me, but I could still clearly make out the outlines and patterns on its small body.
I knew that this time of year was the pupping season for Baby Leopard Sharks, as the female leopard sharks will swim into coves and/or protected areas to give birth to live young.
I knew this. But it was just amazing to actually see it. To be here in this moment, actually experiencing it. It was definitely NOT what I had expected.
Sooner than I realized, Shannon and I had reached our buoy marker, and we chatted away and kept afloat by treading water. The surrounding cliffs looked imposing and I could see sea lions asleep at their bottoms.
The fear of sharks still haunted me, and I figured that it would be present as long as I was in the water. But it wasn't stopping me from doing something I loved - swimming. It wasn't keeping me from the water and experiencing the waves, fish, and other sights and sounds.
Yes, I had a healthy respect for sharks, and I am totally in awe of their ability to adapt and evolve as apex predators. But it wasn't keeping me from tackling my biggest fear and swimming in the open Pacific Ocean.
And I think that's really what this was all about, why this was such a big deal to me. Its not often that we face our biggest fear, that we do the (seemingly) impossible and tackle our own personal demons.
Its one thing to hit a specific heart rate or pace or power output - when you know that the workout will hurt and your body and mind scream at you to stop. I understand that. But - to move forward and, after being terrified of sharks for nearly all my life - swim in the open ocean in a non-race situation...? That was huge for me. It's not every day that we face our biggest fear head on.
Shannon, Stephen, and I turned around at the 1/2 mile buoy and headed back to shore. I'll admit - as we got closer my panic increased, and I quickly moved from the Ocean-side of Shannon to the Shore-side. (As though that would make a difference).
Somewhere on the way back, I was mesmerized by the HUGE Bat Ray that drifted slowly past. The eyes were lage and reminded me of a trantula, protruding at the top of its head. I caught a glimpse of the long barb-like tail, and hoped that the not-so-little guy would drift any higher. Finally I focused on its enormous wings, finding peace and solace in the way they moved with the current.
I thought briefly of Steve Irwin, how he lived his life to the fullest, doing exactly what he loved. Though his death was untimely and tragic, he can certainly teach us a lot about living and wildlife conservation (crocs rule!) If he were swimming in the cove, I'm sure he would be sporting his traditional khaki outfit, a snorkel, and swim fins while chasing after fish and other curious wildlife. The thought made me smile.
The towering cliffs grew ever-more present and suddenly the sea floor was within reach. Countless numbers of bright fish darted between rock and bits of kelp, and before I knew it, the three of us had slowed considerably in order to view the marine life. At the point - when I knew I was safe, as the shore was a mere 10-feet away and large rocks would prevent big sharks from getting close - my fear seemed silly.
But that would be another post, for another day.
Eventually, Shannon and I made our way up to the sand, sitting down half in the water, half out. The tide tugged at our toes and I was captivated by the beauty of it all. The cliffs in the distance, the seals barking a few rocks away, the feel of the silky sand under my fingers... And I was grateful for it all, the emotions and feelings, doing something I never thought I would possibly do, experiencing it with close friends, and surviving to tell my story.
Well - we made it.
Stay tuned to Part III...