Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Unmentionables, Part 1

It's only fitting that they day I embarked on my first (non-race) Pacific Ocean swim, was the 56th anniversary of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay's successful ascent of Mt. Everest. Undoubtedly, swimming in the open ocean is minute when compared to scaling the world's largest peak. But for me, on May 29, 2009, the two were one in the same. Voluntarily swimming in the Pacific Ocean in a non-race situation, was my Everest.

And for the first time in my life, I did it.

We all know my fear of sharks, errr, Unmentionables With Really Big Teeth. They are there. Always.

And I know that - trust me, I do.

However, rationally, I also know that I'm more likely to get struck by lightning while riding my lawn mower, than to get eaten by a shark. I know this. And while I don't own a lawn mower, and I certainly wouldn't ever intentionally ride one during a thunderstorm, well, shit can always happen. You just never know.

So what is it with me an The Unmentionables?

Good question.

Well - first, I'd like to admit that I've got a wild imagination. I always have, and always will. I still take a flying leap into bed at night, for fear of whatever lies beneath reaching it's scabby, dead hand out from under and grabbing my ankle. See? Vivid imagination.

So while that's great for some things, its awful for others.

Case in point - I'm fascinated by Ghost Hunters, mostly because I used to be terrified of ghosts. Correction: I still am. But I have a better understanding of the supernatural and while I hope to never ever come across one, I'm no longer afraid to venture down to my parent's kitchen in the middle of the night.

Okay - I'll go down. But I'll still thunder up the stairs as though being chased. You just never know.

Back to sharks.

Imagine this: a seven-year-old spending the night at her best friend's house, watching JAWS for the first time, while getting ready to embark on a summer full of swimming lessons and other fun...
And then, over the next few days, watching JAWS 2, JAWS 3, and JAWS 4 in mixture of horror-induced fascination. Thank you Gina! Nothing could tear me away from the television, and I spent the rest of the summer convinced that sharks were just on the other side of the drain in the local pool.

Hence, pool sharks.

But, according to my Dad, my fear of sharks began well before my seventh year. As a spry three-year-old, I was afraid of taking a bath, claiming that, "sharks will come up through the drain."

Well, it wasn't exactly how Samuel L. Jackson's character in Deep Blue Sea was taken out, but a shark did in fact defy every law of physics and eat him while leaping through a drain hole. His last words? "First, we're going to SEAL OFF THIS PORTAL!"

And BOOM! He was gone. Shark bait. I nearly wet my pants in the theater when witnessing this spectacle. Hell, I nearly wet my pants NOW while re-watching the clip. Luckily, the only damage happened to the lady sitting directly in front of me. To this day, I'm not sure if her ear drums have recovered from my piercing screams.

See. It can happen. Drains...pools... they lurk...

As I got older, my fear turned to fascination. I read as many books as I could, devouring the pages and processing the information faster than I could RUN out of the water. If it was about sharks, I would read it. I learned about the history or sharks, their biology, their incredible sensory systems...Rationally, I knew that Lake Phalen, where I spent time life guarding, and the Mississippi River, where I could be found rowing many an early mornings and afternoons, did NOT have sharks. Not even the Great White - the BIG one that JAWS was based off. But others, well, I stood corrected.

Enter: bull sharks.

After reading as much as I could about Carcharodon carcharias or the Great White Shark, I went on to learn about others. Tigers, bull, nurse, grey nurse, whale, cookie cutter, seven gill, lemon, leopard, and endless other types that have little or no interest in human consumption. But bull sharks piqued my interest.


Because they can swim in fresh water!
This map shows the waters in which Carcharhinus leucas (bull shark) is found.

They have been found 2,220 miles up the Amazon River in Peru, in the fresh waters of Lake Nicaragua, up the Ghanges River in India, after Hurricane Katrina in Lake Ponchatrain, and more recently in Lake Michigan. Yes, my friends, there was a bull shark encounter near Chicago, Illinois (gained entry through the Illinois River), and verified by a University of Illinois biologist as a female bull shark, between 6 and 9 feet, and weighing up to 300 pounds.

And, just while looking up information for this post, I cam across this article about Minnehaha Creek and the Mississippi River. My old stomping grounds. Ahem. Now are you curious?

Okay, I'll admit - that's a little overkill.

Remember: You're more likely to get struck by lightning while riding a lawn mower than to get eaten by a shark....

For me - and trust me when I say this - it comes down to being out of my element. Yes, I love swimming and even better, I LOVE swimming in clear water. But wondering what lies beneath...what I can't see under me...that's a different story. Yes, I was still nervous while swimming in The Gulf of Mexico, but more often than not - the water was clear. So clear, that I could see the ripples that the currents made on the sand under the surface, so clear that every little fish, every bit of sea weed seemed so close that you could touch it.

Plus, while bull sharks were present in The Gulf and even off the shores of North Carolina, I reminded myself that the REALLY big sharks, the sharks that I had feared in my youth and had imagined would "get me" through the bath tub drain - the Great White Sharks - were all in far-away places like Australia, South Africa, and California. I would worry about them only when I swam in those waters.

And THAT, my friends, was on my mind as I walked down the concrete stairs towards the soft sand of The Cove. The Pacific Ocean water spread out invitingly ahead of me, but it was all I could do to keep from sprinting back up the stairs from whence I had just come. Luckily, Shannon and Stephen were there to keep me calm...

Stay tuned to Part II!


Missy said...

I know I should be scared but I don't think of sharks when I'm out there, I think there's going to be a dead body looking back at me. I'm just better off in dark, murky water where I can't see!

Sounds like you made it...

Beth said...

A bull shark in Lake Michigan? Suddenly that swim at Steelhead doesn't seem so enticing... :) And I just signed up for some bay swim in Lake Erie. Let me know if you hear of any unmentionables in that lake too okay?! :)

cherelli said...

Oh I am so with you on the wild imagination - I love to swim and will so so in cold water lakes but the open ocean is frightening, as soon as I'm out of my standing depth I start doig regular checks underwater to see if there are sharks coming....when I was a kid we had an inground swimming pool and if there was no one else in the backyard with me I would sometimes get out because my fear of being chased by a crocodile (we lived 2000km south of the tropics in Oz) outweighed any common sense/rationality. It's been a hard thing to overcome!!!

GoBigGreen said...

I get mini panic attacks in the lakes even. And I hear ya on the imagination...cant wait to hear how you conquered the cove..what was your mantra!???

Angi Axmann said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Angi Axmann said...

...that is all I have to say!!!

Courtenay said...

i might have comPLETELY made this up, but i have been telling people that my friend's husband who is a helicopter pilot in the marine corps at camp pendleton sees schools of sharks in the ocean when they fly out there.

kerrie said...

oh, i know all about sharks. right now rain is reading a book about sharks to lucie - she has confirmed all of my worst fears about bull sharks. i just always try to swim with somebody that looks more delicious than i do while my mind works overtime thinking of all of the possible shark attack scenarios....

Bob Mitera said...

Marit I think you know enough about the conditions that sharks look for.

When I was being trained as a SCUBA diver we had the "shark talk". Understanding that sharks including the GW are looking for "easy" meals put my mind at rest. Although, I admit my heart rate being elevated during my first shark dive. Once they just swam around me, uninterested, I now have no fear of sharks.

Bottom line: you're too much work for the shark and not meaty enough. A shark's eco-duty is to be the "garbage can" of the ocean. It really isn't the sinister hunter it is made out to be.

Stacy said...

I'm scared of the sharks... I'm scared of the fish... I'm even scared of the seaweed.
I think we should go swimming in the cove together so I can face my fears like you!

Kathleen @ ForgingAhead said...

Me too! Every time I'm in open water it's a battle to get the mind off of Jaws. That movie ruined me!