“You might have heard that you should punch the shark in the nose. This is probably not a good idea…. In many situations in which large predators are attacking you, the advice is to ‘play dead.’ This doesn’t work against sharks. Also, it’s hard to do in the water without actually drowning to death.”
– David Schiffman, shark ecologist

I’ve often been told that the best way to fend off a shark is to punch the nose. Really?! This advice bothers me for one major reason; a shark’s ‘nose’ is only inches away from a shark’s mouth and the shark’s mouth is the very thing I wish to avoid.

I’ve heard that when a shark attacks not only is your body being shredded by steel jaws but you are also drowning: water invading lungs, seeping into all vitals and suffocating your brain until it’s a floating raisin bumping against the inner curves of your skull. As a fifteen-year-old I knew risk and still let my dad and brother Jonathan convince me into going on a shark dive. Sharks—huge muscular killing machines—have existed for thousands of years, plenty of time to perfect an attack strategy, whereas I’d only existed fifteen years and had no strategy whatsoever. Any possible strategy I may have had was dead in the water owing to the fact I was strapped to a forty pound metal oxygen tank with another twelve pounds strapped to my waist and was about to jump into shark infested waters.

My rental wetsuit is well past its prime. Originally purple, it has now faded to a splotchy pink vomitesque color and chunks of it are missing—no doubt old shark puncture wounds. Yesterday, in preparation for the dive Jonathan conducted detailed research on every possible terrifying fact about sharks. He eagerly conveyed each new fact to the family while I hid in the bathroom attempting to drown out his voice with the faucet. He had also found that punching a shark in the nose or gills will only probably stop it from attacking: “Guess you’re out of luck Bex!”

I finger the holes in my wetsuit and consider the strength of my right hook.

Brock, the lead instructor—tall, tan and twenty-something—is making an announcement to the boat: “The most important thing to remember is position. Once you reach the bottom, rest on your knees, keep your arms crossed. NEVER allow them to hang loose. When a shark knocks into you, which trust me they WILL DO, and you begin to fall, do NOT put your arms out to catch yourself. Allow yourself to fall, one of the instructors will come by and help you up. If you put your arm out the sharks will assume you are feeding them. People, these are hungry sharks. They will bite.” He made an obscene snap with his jaw while one of his fellow instructors pretends to be shrieking in agony, clutching at the fake stump of an arm. They obviously find the entire scenario comic and laughable. I hate them.

I waddle off the bench and my flippers force me to walk like a weird mix of hop-scotch and high knees. My oxygen tank pulls my upper body several degrees behind vertical so that I’m uncomfortably close to tipping backwards; I struggle towards the boat’s rocking edge. Dad’s in front of me—he turns, gives one last wink, and leaps into the blue depths. I gulp. He was a good father while he lasted. I swallow, inhaling a salty crust from my regulator, and begin to cough. Noticing Brock watching me and wanting to appear suave, I immediately turn my cough into a raucous knee-slapping laugh. But no one is laughing with me. I probably just look crazy, not to mention frog-like.

I take one last glance, one last breath, and jump off the boat expecting Jaws to appear and chomp me mid-air. But he doesn’t, and I land with a splash, submerging my wet-suited body into the warm, salty, crystalline blue. I open my mask-protected eyes and watch the other divers gather on the ocean floor. My descent is slow, my sinuses painfully refuse to adapt, and I constantly turn to check for any sharks that might plan an attack from behind. In this way I spiral like a maniac to the bottom, landing on top of Dad and accidentally kicking the regulator out of his mouth. I kneel next to him and he lovingly takes my hand in his. While on the boat he asked if he could hold my hand during the dive, “So I can feel safe,” he explained. I’m no dummy. He knew I was going to wet my wet-suit the moment a shark appeared so he pretends to be the scared one so I don’t have to be.

Here we are, sixty feet below the surface, Dad, Jonathan and I with a bunch of other crazies, waiting for forty-some hungry sharks to arrive, when it hits me: this is insane. I am about to die and it’s my own fricken fault. We volunteered—no—we paid to jump into the middle of a well-known shark feeding zone. Though this is not the stupidest thing I’ve ever done, it has the potential to be the most fatal. I comfort myself with the knowledge that, at the gates of heaven when God asks me why I committed such a heinous act, I can point to my brother and father, the instigators of the dive, explaining that it wasn’t my fault—“Look what I had to work with”—and then give God a knowing look because, after all, he was the one to give me this particular family so he is at least partially to blame.

3 Comments

  1. Andrew Knot

    “Whereas I’d only existed fifteen years and had no strategy whatsoever.” No strategy when it comes to sharks perhaps, but the couch-to-laugh-and-knee-slap is pretty sly for a teenager. Respect.

    Reply
  2. Avatar

    When I was in Mexico, we observed (definitely did not participate in) other people swimming in the shark tank. While the participants were wet-suiting up, the people leading it threw some bloody fish bits into the tank to get the sharks nice and riled up. Just watching was horrible.

    Reply
  3. Cassie

    “When a shark knocks into you, which trust me they WILL DO, and you begin to fall, do NOT put your arms out to catch yourself. Allow yourself to fall, one of the instructors will come by and help you up. If you put your arm out the sharks will assume you are feeding them. People, these are hungry sharks. They will bite.”

    Comforting.

    Reply

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