I got really into distance swimming while living on Hawai’i. It all started by joining a friend in his daily lunchtime ritual: a quick, 30 minute swim along the coast to a large, penis shaped rock a few meters deep. He’s brilliantly queer.
It was the first time I really swam in the open ocean, and I quickly became obsessed. Within a week, I was wandering off alone, swimming ahead or slightly further out. And when I couldn’t make the lunch meet-ups, I went solo. One afternoon, I found myself alone at the rock. I can’t recall if I had gone out that way, or had simply strayed far enough, that most everyone was already heading back to shore. But either way, I was alone.
The water was murky from a recent rain, and so it wasn’t until I turned and was pretty close up, that I saw my first shark. At the time, it didn’t phase me at all. To me, it was something cool to encounter.
Looking back on it, I realize that I had a long standing fear of sharks – watching JAWS when I about 5 years old, then being forced into the Gulf of Mexico at 6 … in the middle of the night, while being warned to ‘watch out for sharks’. Needless to say, there was some residual fear.
But still, when I saw this one, I felt fine. Basically non-plussed. I reported it to a friend later, and the first thing he said was, “Swim at it. Next time you see one, just swim at the thing.”
Sorry. What? WTF!?! (my obvious response).
“They’re apex predators, and used to being in charge. Most things swim away in fear, so if something approaches them, it freaks them out. So you swim at them.”
Fast forward a few months… I was living on Kauai, and swimming solo daily. I arrived on the island during whale season, and had never seen any in the wild. When I finally saw one breach, I nearly cried. It was amazing. So once I found my favorite beach, and learned to swim past the crazy Hawaiian breaks, I would listen for their songs, and follow where they led.
I’d go as far out as I could, for as long as I could. It became my multiple-hour meditation of sorts. Small boats would stop and ask if I was ok, a friend sent a surfer after me once because ‘she couldn’t see me anymore’. When he found me, he was shocked I was there by choice. But there were definitely days when I hit some rough patches. On rainy days, or totally clear ones when the swells would pick up and lifeguards began warning people to stay on shore (thank the ocean gods I always made it back – sometimes just barely). Those were some of the days I remember most vividly. Those and the auspicious one with shark number two.
The water was clear, but it was dusk, and all the surfers had gone in. I was out alone and was, quite literally, the only one left. For anyone reading this, and familiar with Kauai – it was Donkey Beach* (my favorite at the time), and one hell of a place to be alone.
About 400 meters out, is the edge of the continental shelf (aka, the floor drops out). It brings whales close in, but sharks as well (apparently). It’s also beautiful, fairly secluded, and can only be accessed via a quarter mile path from the parking lot. A horrible place to have something bad happen.
Anyways, I realized I should head back soon, and while catching a final whale song, saw something massive pass beneath me. Again, it was dusk – and harder to see – but I could tell that it was light grey or white, and was about twice my size. It was after all, only about 15 feet below me. My first thought was ‘dolphin’, but I swam with them on the Big Island, and knew what it felt like. Plus, this guy swam side to side. Dolphins pump up and down.
My heart stopped, and I froze. Bad call. So I gathered my shit, told it I loved it (they sense fear, so I thought what the hell – maybe it will balance my panic) – and I was down.
I repeated the phrase as if a mantra, and it swam slowly onward. I caught my breath, and calmed slightly, but a few seconds later, it returned. It approached from behind, and seemed to be swimming in the direction as me – just closer. So as held it together, and swam at it once again. As nonchalant as this motherfucker, it swam away.
Meanwhile, I sung to myself and the sharks as ‘calmly’ (with the facade of ease, masking terror) returned to shore. When I finally made it back, I collapsed in shock.
When I got home, I looked up what they meant – as a totem. Animals as messengers is a pretty prevalent belief (staple? system?) within many ancient and native communities. I became really interested them while working with a native Canadian Indian Band on Vancouver island one summer. So I looked up what shark means to native Hawaiians: The Unconscious. The deep, dark places within ourselves where we refuse to go, or that we refuse to see.
It kind of made sense at the time, but as always, does more so now, after some time and distance.
I didn’t realize the resounding repercussions it had until weeks after. I had a harder time getting in the water than I’d like to admit, but I desperately missed it. It was the one and only thing that felt safe – my quiet time, alone with the whales, and the expanse of the sea. So I compromised – found my way to shallower, reef-bearing beaches, and looked for other swimmers to accompany me. It ended up helping a bit, but I still couldn’t shake this strangely new (possibly old???) fear.
Months later, when it was time to leave the island, I still felt empty and sadly distant from this thing that became so integral to my happiness living there. So imagine my surprise when in April of 2015, four years after having left the islands, that I wake up with a start. A shark dream. One so pronounced and vivid, that I decide to lay in bed and reflect on that era, that experience for a little.
Then it came. An inspiration. It may have been what the ancient Greeks call a daemon – a spirit who inspires creative acts – but whatever it was it started as a thought, and over the course of a few days became what is now, a seamless surge of sharks.