Thursday, February 16, 2012

Shark Waters

For as long as I can remember, I have been afraid of sharks. I was around 10 when Steven Spielberg came out with "Jaws," and everything about the ocean changed for me after that. Before "Jaws," I spent hours in the surf, swimming out past where I could still touch bottom and riding waves back in. We grew up making summer trips to a place called "Caney Creek." I couldn't have dreamt up a better place than Caney back then. My mom's dad, we called him "Paw Paw," bought this house back in the 50's. It sat on one of those salt water creeks that was only a mile or so from the Bay. The house was on stilts with a flat back yard. Paw Paw had a garden in the back, and he spent hours watching over us, teaching us how to fish, bait crab lines, check crab traps, and shuck our own oysters. I remember being so sunburned I'd have to wear one of my dad's white T-shirts over my bathing suit all day, with zinc oxide on my nose, and a ball cap on my head that never fit. I never wore shoes. I slept with Off Spray all over my body because I was too tired to shower. The hum of the window a/c units put some sleepy kids out like tiny lights every night. (Now I have one of those units in my bedroom at the cabin in Wimberley and it's heavenly). My mom would stay up with one lamp on in the living room and kill all of the mosquitoes in the house before she went to bed. We would stay sometimes for a month in the summer. We would go to the library before heading out of town, and each of us brought a stack of books down there. We didn't have TV. We had books, cards, dominoes, a garden, a salt water creek teaming with fish, crabs, and sometimes sharks. We spent hours fishing off of the pier in the back. Each house had its own pier, and at night the whole creek came to life under the pier lights. I remember watching the creek during the day, often wondering how it was the same creek at night, the one that lit up with fish and shrimp under the pier lights. There was always something a little frightening about that water at night for me. During the day, I would jump in and float around with my mom and Aunt Sue. I was certain the water was safe while the sun was out.

I remember the night a shark bumped up against the crab trap on the side of the pier. I must have already seen "Jaws" by then because I remember my legs shaking to the point of near collapse. I was convinced that the shark, which was probably no bigger than 4 feet long, was going to bite through the support beams in the water, and cause our entire pier to collapse, and then it would eat all of us. The side of the pier where the crab trap was didn't have enough light for me to be sure that the shark was gone. Needless to say, I turned in early that night. The fear inside me was overwhelming. It made my chest tighten and my whole body shake. I was super mad at that shark for ruining my fishing night. I think sharks went from being mysterious, large fish with lots of teeth, to the fiercest, most calculating predators on the planet for many of us after Spielberg released "Jaws" to the world, and then followed it up with a few more monster shark movies, just to be sure the fear had solidified and completely consumed most of us, and he had raked in as much money as he possibly could on the shark-sea-monster idea.

I can tell you this. My greatest fear is of deep ocean water at night. I dream about it, I paint it, I stay off of cruise ships because of it, and I don't like to fish off shore unless it's in the morning and I've convinced myself that the boat won't sink that day. I have said many times that I would die of a heart attack if I had to swim in the ocean at night. The thought used to make my throat and chest tighten. I remember once about ten years ago, I was in Florida out in a kayak with my ex-husband. We were only about 50 feet out from land, but the water looked to be about 20 feet deep. He rowed over to a bowie that was bobbing around, and at that same time, I saw a dark silhouette of a big fish swimming under the boat. I started to panic. I didn't do yoga back then, so I didn't know how to control my breathing or stay calm. The fear consumed me quickly. I convinced myself it was a shark, and that it was following us, waiting for the right time to attack. Gary saw what was happening and paddled us back to shore quickly. Are you seeing the picture I'm painting here? I was 30 years old then and I was more afraid than I was that night on Caney Creek. I've been feeding my fear over the years with video clips of shark attacks, more movies about those "killers" and hanging on to every word in the news on attacks on our beaches. I even obsessed over "Planet Earth," watching the Great Whites leap out of the water to swallow a seal. All I've been doing is feeding my fear.

At the same time, I am completely obsessed with ocean waters. I watched "The Cove" about a year ago, the documentary on the slaying of Dolphins, and it absolutely broke my heart. Dolphins are such beautiful, intelligent animals. They are our teachers, our friends, and they share this planet with us. AND THEY NEVER ATTACK US. I think this makes it easier for people to want to protect them. It felt like watching cold-blooded murder. It's infuriating and embarrassing.

But even then, I still felt the fear of sharks and dark ocean water swimming through my body. Dolphins were one thing, those innocent creatures who never attack us humans, and I believed in protecting them fiercely, but sharks??? I honestly felt like it was okay if they were getting killed for Shark Fin Soup and shark steaks since they are the most feared predator on the planet (and in my world). I felt like maybe that would reduce my fear somehow, knowing that so many of them are being caught and killed. I remember having thoughts like "well, maybe they can just control the population of the really big sharks, and that will cut down on the number of shark attacks each year." I just didn't care about their well being on this planet because of the amount of fear they have caused me over the years. I didn't care whether or not they were thriving as a species. I remember feeling like it would be a safer planet if THERE WERE NO SHARKS IN THE OCEAN. And again, I think my thoughts represent those of a few hundred million people world wide. Spielberg and the media gave me an education on sharks, but it was a false one. And I let that perception shape my experience every time I put my feet in the ocean. I was a prisoner of my own fear. My chickens in my brain LOVED fearing and hating sharks. They loved letting that fear run through me each time I went waste-deep in the ocean and couldn't see around me because the water wasn't clear. Those chickens have a job to do, and that is to warn me of danger!! And SHARKS are terrifying, so all they've been telling me over the years is to get out of the water!! But my heart says something different. I indulge her every now and then and swim out a little farther until the chickens start screaming at me. Once I even floated on my back in ocean water that was about 6 feet deep. And when I put paintbrush to canvas, I end up painting water. Sometimes it's at night under the moonlight, and sometimes it's at daybreak with a hundred colors bouncing from the sky to the water and through the palm trees. It's all my heart ever wants to paint. And now I know what she has been trying to tell me.
I was told by a good friend recently to watch "Shark Water," to help me with my fear of sharks. Hmmmmm, I thought. How is that little documentary about a guy who likes to swim with sharks going to make any lasting impression on my chickens who have held on so tightly to the fear of sharks for most of my life?

I sat on the couch Saturday morning and watched "Shark Water" without the expectation of anything spectacular happening. I loved the depth and eeriness of the soundtrack (I now own it and I'm using it in my yoga classes). I loved the photography because it's what I love to paint - without the schools of hammerheads of course. Facts started popping up on the screen...

Fact: "The have survived for 450 million years" Me: wow, that's a long time. So they were here when dinasaurs were here. I bet they ate those, too.
Fact: "They are the world's top predator" Me: yea, I know about that one. They're sea monsters!!!
Fact: "They control two-thirds of the planet" Me: yes, and that's why it's okay if some of them die and end up on our plates.
Fact: "But they are not our enemy" Me: blank.

And so I watched. I watched as someone who has loved sharks since he was a little kid, do everything in his power to show what their life underwater has become. It took him four years. He thought he was going to make a movie that was beautiful about sharks - one that showed us that we can and should co~exist with this predator because they are just as necessary to the underwater ecosystem and the survival of this planet as we are. What he ended up making gives us a glimpse into how dark their world really has become. WE have taken out 90 percent of the shark population over the last DECADE. (450 million years, remember?) We kill around 100 million sharks a year (they kill about 5 of us) for "Shark Fin Soup" that is on most menus in Chinese Food restaurants, even in Austin, Texas. Shark "fining" is when the fishermen cut off just their fins, and throw the shark back in the ocean, while it's still alive, where it is left to breathe it's last few breaths and sink to the bottom and die. The meat isn't valuable enough to justify the effort and expense in taking and using the whole shark. The fins are worth an astronomical amount. Shark Fin Soup is a luxury. The myth is that it helps cure cancer, since the sharks have survived for 450 million years, and hardly get cancer, maybe eating their fins will help keep cancer away. (The absurdity here actually makes me smile because it's so huge, and we have a long way to go.)

We are literally wiping out another species. We are wiping out an animal who has been here longer than any other animal. I cried harder than I have in years. It hit a level of sadness in me that was deeper than when I have had close friends and family pass away. It hit me in the center of my heart, and I couldn't stop. Maybe I just needed to cry over something other than my own life. Maybe I needed to break through my perceptions of what sharks are really all about. Maybe I was PMS'ing. (I wasn't.) It was too much, really. I think any therapist would've said it was just the catalyst, and obviously I needed to release something that's deeper than just the fact that sharks are being murdered at a rate of about 15,000 every couple of hours. Maybe that's true. Here's what I think, though:

They are the catalyst. They are the thing that I have feared the most in my life. It seems so silly now. A shark is a fish. If it could shoot a gun, it would be a much fairer fight out there as it is raised to the boat to meet its death, but it can't. And I can't protect my body from a shark bite if I choose to swim in the ocean. It's about real risk . We've forgotten that there is a certain mysteriousness and thrill in knowing you're swimming in waters that are the home to fish who could eat you if they chose to. The fact is, we aren't shark food, and never have been. They just mistake us for their food sometimes. So take the risk if you want to swim in the ocean, but let's not kill off the thing we think is causing the risk. Some of us die from shark attacks each year. More of us die from soda machines falling on us each year. Do we have the right to kill them simply because they have killed us? Do we have the right to wipe them out because we're afraid of them? I'm tired of being afraid of taking risks. Boom. That's the catalyst part.

I got my paintbrushes out this week. Mermaids showed up underwater. I don't feel that same fear of dark water. My heart is happy. She won the shark battle. The chickens are just watching quietly. And now I'm just wondering what my part will be in raising awareness about these beautiful teachers of fear we call sharks... this blog post being my first baby step, of course...

As I was watching the documentary last weekend, I found myself saying "I'm sorry" to the sharks, over and over again, grieving their losses, and mourning the fact that I've feared them so much. But it wasn't enough to say it from my comfortable couch. I told Rodney I'm ready to get certified to scuba dive. I'm claustrophobic, have vertigo, and a tired, old fear of deep water and sharks. I'm going in. ~ experience their beauty for yourself.

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