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July 30, 2021

How a Great White Shark Taught me to be Intimate with my Fear.

Before we entered the water to descend into our dive, the skipper decided that if a Great White Shark was sighted from the boat, we’d hear a series of big thuds on the side of the aluminum hull and must be on high alert.

Just a year earlier a scuba diver had been killed by a large Great White at the same site and the possibility of an attack felt greater than anywhere I had ever dived before. A few days before I’d gone to book with the local dive shop and they told me they weren’t running chartered dives anymore because of the fear and media coverage around the White shark attacks in the area. So luck would have it we met a friendly local who invited us along on his boat for a dive mission.

I spent that first dive at Cull Island in Esperance unable to shake the idea of a White Shark attack from the forefront of my mind. On the second dive, I was able to borrow a shark repellant and the psychological effect of wearing it in waters known for its high rates of White Shark attacks afforded me a sense of control and calmed me immeasurably.

Growing in South Australia sharing the ocean with these infamously feared predators, I had what I considered a healthy fear of Whites, but as an adult after so many peaceful interactions with sharks, the fear had long simmered to a healthy respect and consideration. I know the risk of being attacked is a possibility, but more likely a White shark will check you out and swim away and you wouldn’t even know you’ve been in contact with one. Yet I also feel it’s naive to believe that a large shark wouldn’t see a human as food if they’re hungry enough. We are a part of nature, made of blood, flesh, and bone.

But let’s consider the reality that over 1 in 10 Australia’s are recreational surfers, let alone the increasing popularity of other ocean-based sports including scuba diving, and rapid technological advancements allowing us to spend greater amounts of time in the water, 25 or so shark attacks a year here equates to very low risk.

Despite the numbers equating to an improbable chance of a “bad” encounter, in that short window of time on the South West coast of Australia, I was surprised and humbled by the experience of being swept up in a crescendo of fear around the idea of being attacked and I have to admit it consumed me for the entire week. I became hyper-focused; I wanted to know the data, I wanted to understand their behavior, I wanted to dig into the rhetoric and the realities of attacks and the circumstances that did not bode well for the victims in an attempt to break through the fear that was gripping me. I thought I needed to go into the fear because for me the potential of allowing it to keep me from doing what I loved was not something that I couldn’t consider lightly. I remember how much it burned inside of me, ruminating and reasoning with the sensation of fear that had appeared around the topic, needing to come to a resolution within myself because my time exploring the ocean and connecting with its inhabitants is a huge source of joy in my life. But I also did not want to be taking uncalculated risks.

I went diving but I found myself clinging to the edges of islands, rock ledges, and dive buddies. I found myself apprehensive to go too deep and stay out too long. Honestly, I found myself reluctant to go at all.

But in facing the fear, I also became intimate with it. Fear can be a treasured instinct integral in protecting us and keeping us safe, or it can overwhelm us and lead us to make choices that aren’t aligned with what we truly value. Choices that might actually make things worse by increasing safety concerns and damaging the delicate ecosystems we adore.

The overwhelming sense of fear certainly exposed a lot in me, and in the end, it showed me that much of it boiled down to the immense power of my mind. After trudging through my personal process, I’m resolved that the only true solution is to continue learning to coexist with all facets of nature and be discerning with fear. There are things we can control, personally and for the collective, in taking responsibility for our safety and wellbeing, but ultimately there is a lot to life and nature that we will never gain true control over.

Letting our fear override us doesn’t allow space for grounded solutions, let alone helpful thought. There’s a lot to say about making our peace with and becoming allies with our fear.

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