I swam with sharks.
Actually, I swam with 200 whale sharks.
It was terrifying.
It was magical, in the way that seeing a dinosaur would feel like magic – awe inspiring and frightening as hell.
It was humbling, to throw myself into an environment (the ocean) that isn’t designed to support me (I have no gills or fins).
It was a dream come true.
But here’s the funny thing about dreams, there’s this “thing” that we want (swimming with sharks). Then, there’s the unspoken/inflated/childlike bundle of expectations we place on the “thing.”
I’ve wanted to swim with sharks, dolphins, and whales since I was 5 years old. I had National Geographic documentaries on repeat, between multiple viewings of The Little Mermaid. At this point in my life, I had decided that I was going to be a mermaid when I grew up.
So, I did what any what any mature person would do when they set a goal – prepare.
I would cross my feet at the ankles during bath time, I would hold my breath as long as I could underwater at the pool, and then wait for the moment when my legs became a tail, at which point my dream would be made manifest.
After I saw the movie Splash, I realized my mistake had been not adding salt to my bath water.
Time passed, I grew up, and explored the idea of being a marine biologist. You see, in my mind marine biology meant swimming/playing with dolphins vs. years of studying science, applying for grants, and dissecting dead animals. It was a rude awakening when I applied for my first summer job at the zoo and was told my options were serving ice cream or shoveling poop. Didn’t they need a baby elephant playmate?
Coming to terms with these hard truths wasn’t easy, but I came to the next logical conclusion – become an actress. So, I couldn’t BE a mermaid, but I could PLAY one on TV. I could play a marine biologist, a mermaid, or a superhero with the ability to communicate to animals with my mind. This totally made sense, right?
While this wasn’t entirely the reason I started acting, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a small part of it.
My passion for the sea and the creatures that inhabit it never went away. I watched shark week religiously, stayed current on the latest studies/stories regarding sharks or whales. Half of the people I follow on instagram are either wildlife photographers, researchers, and/or conservationists.
In July 2014, I was watching shark week, and I saw something so mind blowing that my jaw dropped to the floor. A man, Eli Martinez, flipped an 18ft tiger shark vertical in the water, without the use of force. He gently lulled it into a sleep like trance, and with perfect grace and gentleness, LIFTED THE SHARK VERTICAL ON HIS HAND.
Unable to contain my excitement, I did the only thing I could think of – post it on Instagram. To my complete and utter surprise, two months later, he responded to my post with, “thank you.”
What JUST happened? This person. This person who FLIPPED A TIGER SHARK, responded to me?
That means he’s, like, a real person. A person who exists, and everything.
The funny thing about dreams is that we tend to put them on pedestals, and while they can feel lovely and special up on our pedestal… they can also feel vastly out of reach. They become like a collector’s item; a toy we can never play with.
His reply to my message felt like a gentle invitation. It was an opening to the possibility that the very thing I had dreamed about doing my entire life…was a decision away.
This gentle invitation asked me simply, “Do you want to play? Yes? Or, No?”
Two years later, I said, “Yes.”
This person, who FLIPPED A TIGER SHARK, takes people on dive trips around the world with his family. Saying “yes” was as simple as booking a trip and showing up.
Booking the trip was easy. The “showing up” part, was a lot harder than I thought.
I feel it’s important to mention at this point that I had virtually no experience in open water. I mean ZERO experience.
My husband and I arrived in Mexico with our brand new snorkels and goggles. I practiced with them once in a pool (didn’t want to arrive unprepared). The next day at 8am, we are loading our gear into a small 25ft boat (a whale sharks average length is 30-40ft), and heading out into open water. The reality of what I’m about to do starts to crash down on me, and I can feel a knot is starting to form in my stomach.
To pass the time out to sea, the other six people on the boat started making small talk. I learn, very quickly, that EVERYONE else on this trip has had hundreds (more like thousands) of hours at sea. They are oceanic videographers, photographers, divers, and enthusiasts who explore the world on the most epic diving expeditions. I can feel myself wanting to shrink inside myself, or become invisible.
“What the hell am I doing here?”
An hour later, we approached a small cluster of boats, and that’s when I see them. The sharks. For a brief moment, I forget my fear completely, my inner child takes over, and I squeal and clap my hands with excitement. Then, the leader of our trip says, “Who’s up? Three in at a time!”
“Wait, what? That’s it? We just jump in? Just like that?”
My panic hits – HARD. I let everyone else go ahead of me. I watch shark after shark cruise around the boat, under the boat, each larger than the last.
Then, the moment of truth. My husband and I look at each other. Fins on, goggles on, snorkel on … we plunge in.
Immediately my face is in the water, and I’m expecting to see sharks in every direction.
I don’t see any. I don’t know which is worse; seeing or not seeing. “Where the hell are they?!” Then, the guide on the boat yells out to us, “Ten yards to your left! Swim! Swim!” My body responds to the direction I was given, but ONLY because all higher functioning in my brain had shut down. I was in full terror.
Then, I see it.
I was later told that when I saw a shark in the water for the first time, I pulled my head up and screamed, “Oh my GOD!” This was interpreted by the others as childlike enthusiasm, but I honestly can’t say. Terror, fear, excitement, shock… it was liekly all of those things.
After 15 minutes in the water, I get out, and think, “This might have been a mistake. I don’t know if I’m cut out for this.” In my moments of panic, I forgot to swim and would tread water in a vertical position, which cut off the airflow through my snorkel. Nothing makes you relax like not being able to breathe. Then, I’d remove my snorkel, thinking something was wrong with it, and get a face full of salt water (which was also full of fish eggs – the whale sharks’ food source).
I skipped my next turn to get in the water, and seeing everyone else move in and out of the water so confidently made me feel worse.
Then, our guide announced that we were going to have to head back to shore soon. My window was closing to get back in the water, and the pressure gave me a little burst of courage.
I thought, “Just do it. If not or you, do it for the little girl that had been dreaming of this moment for 25 years.”
I jumped in, and something magical happened. A 40ft whale shark, named Rooster, stopped swimming right next to our boat, and went vertical. It’s called “coke-bottling.” The shark goes from a horizontal swimming position to a vertical feeding position. It holds this position to filter tons of egg-filled ocean water through its gills.
It was as if he had stopped just for me.
I jumped in and swam circles around Rooster for almost 30 minutes. My breathing began to slow down and my body relaxed. I began to marvel at this incredible animal. All of it’s unique spots, its fins, it’s eye that was the size of a grapefruit. It was during this time that, unbeknownst to me, one of the photographers was free-diving around the same shark and captured an image of me that I will treasure forever. It wasn’t just photo of me having a cool moment with a shark. It was me rounding the corner of fear. The fear of living a dream.
Four days passed, and I had gotten into the water with sharks 8 more times. It got easier. It became fun. What was once terrifying became thrilling. It was better than I could have ever imagined.
After it was all said and done, I never become a mermaid.
When I came out of the water, I had fish eggs in my hair, I wasn’t radiant. I was exhausted – mentally, physically, and spiritually.
It was perfect. It was perfect because it was real.
We all have dreams. The bigger they are, the less attainable they can feel. It’s difficult to imagine a dream that’s larger than a 40ft fish, but what about dreams that are harder to define – like emotional states of being, or measures of success.
Achieving your big dream could be as simple as booking a flight, making a phone call, or saying “yes”.
Sometimes the most difficult step is the first one. Would you like to get started?
Try finishing the sentences below:
- I have always wanted to __________.
- Wouldn’t it be great if I ___________.
- I feel silly saying it, but I’ve always wondered about _________.
Then, what would the first three actions steps be to making those ideas a possibility?
- Time: Do you need to schedule something in advance?
- Distance: Does this require travel?
- Resources: Do you need to save money to make it happen?