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  • Writer's pictureruthannelphillips

Karma, sharks and the fear of deep water

Updated: Jul 22, 2018

My mother has always been afraid of deep water. She tried really hard not to pass this fear to her five children. She was successful. We all learned how to swim. My father used to take us out past the waves of the ocean and we would swim with him. He would dunk his head under the water and we would gamely look for him. When we were close to panic, he would pop up and we would laugh. I would hug my father around his neck, and hold him close, relieved and happy that he was there. My mother let us go into the deep. She didn't follow, but she let us go, and watched and encouraged us, even though she was afraid.

Once, at Zaca Lake in Northern California, in a fit of teen mischief and wickedness I pushed my mother off the small dock where we were sunning and fishing. My mother sank. Then she rose... and flailed. My little brother and I watched in horror as she gulped in massive amounts of the green water. She struggled madly as her fingernails dug into the rotted wood and she tried to get a grip on the slippery dock. We were frozen and somewhat awed as we watched our strong, imperial mother writhe and flounder in the calm, warm waters of the lake. No one, not even my father, jumped in to save her.

"God Damn it!" my father shouted, "Stand up!"

And she did. Which made it worse. Because now she wasn't just afraid. She was embarrassed. And angry. We didn't laugh. We didn't dare. At that moment I understood how frightened my mother was of water. Unconsciously, I probably knew before, but now I really knew. I honestly thought she was going to kill me. She didn't, but I know the feeling she must have had, because I have felt it many times. Especially now, with my own children.

I do not have my mother's fear of the water. I fear sharks. I was eleven years old when the movie "Jaws" came out. It ruined me. I had gone to spend the week with a girlfriend from Texas. She had never seen the ocean, so her grandparents rented a house on the beach and we spent the week there. They also took us to the movies. "Jaws" has been - by far - the scariest and most influential movie I have ever seen. After that, going into the ocean took a great force of will. Every shadow, brush of seaweed, bird, or fish became a great white shark ready to eat me.

Like my mother, I have tried to overcome my fear. My mother can now snorkel for hours. Her love of what the sea contains is greater than her fear of deep water. My motivation to overcome my fear of sharks is somewhat conceited: I don't want to be a wimp. However, my endeavor to look strong and confident in the shark infested waters has been sorely tested, courtesy of Mother Nature and her own wicked sense of humor.

In my twenties, I was invited to spend the weekend touring the coast of the Channel Islands via yacht. We put down anchor in a small cove with an enormous cave. A challenge was made as to who could snorkel into the mouth of the cave. I decided to accept the challenge. I was the only one and I was afraid. I was not afraid of the rough ocean water or the dark cave. I was afraid of the hundreds of bloodthirsty sharks I imagined were lurking beneath the surface.

Calming my beating heart I fell backward off the steps of the yacht with my flippers and snorkel and I swam toward the mouth of the cave. Everything would have been fine if I hadn't swam into the anchor line. I didn't see it and my snorkel caught on the chain. Of course, this sent me into a total panic and the Karma God from Zaca Lake came back and bit me squarely on the ass. I flailed, sucked in water, and ran into the chain again and again. I truly believed I was under attack. When I did not initially die, I made it to the surface, frantically gasping for air and spitting out copious amounts of sea water. When I finally decided I was going to live and was able to calm down, I looked up and saw the amused expressions of the spectators on deck who had been watching me.

After assurances were made that I was alright, I started toward the entrance of the cave. This time I swam low enough to clear the anchor line, but when I looked down I saw a shadow on the bottom of the ocean floor. Like a cartoon character, I looked again. Yes, there was my shadow and next to it was another. There was nothing below me, so whatever it was, it was above me. I was sure I was going to be eviscerated and made a beeline for the island.

The jagged, rocky island.

My hands dug into the rocks and my knee was sliced open by the sharp edges as I scrambled to get out of the water. Teetering precariously on a mussel encrusted outcrop, I furiously scanned the water for sharks while the waves tried to unseat me from my perch of relative safety.

It was a seal. And I swear to you, it was laughing at me.

The cave forgotten, I contemplated the distance to the yacht while blood seeped from my knee. At that moment I had become my own worst nightmare. I was shark chum. I believe it was the threat of hypothermia combined with the massive waves smashing me into the rocks in addition to the ridicule I was receiving from the yacht passengers that finally gave me the courage to get back in the water and swim for the safety of the boat.

Twenty years later, like Roy Scheider, I thought I had come to terms with my fear of sharks. I was wrong.

My girlfriend and I were in Florida, sunning ourselves on the beach and drinking Mai Tais. It was hot and I decided to leave the shore and cool myself off in the shallows of the ocean. There were two other women farther out. They were older, slower, larger and therefore more delicious. In my mind, they acted as a buffer between me and the sharks that were probably lurking farther out.

When the shark swam by me it was close enough to touch. Like a bad dream, I could not actually wrap my mind around the fact that a five foot shark was literally at my feet. I did not jump, scream, flail, or panic. I did not want to give the shark the idea that I was a juicy mackerel. I glanced at the women who were supposed to be acting as my buffer. They were still floating and chatting away. They hadn't seen the dark form in the water. I looked again. Nothing was there. Did I really see a shark? Maybe it was simply another cheeky seal. Maybe I had imagined it. I slowly crept from the water onto the beach and woke up my friend.

"Tracey, a shark just swam by me," I whispered as though the shark could hear me.

She sat upright and looked at me like I was crazy. I knew she was calculating the odds that a person with a shark phobia would actually get brushed by a shark. She knows I can be a drama queen and prone to overreaction and exaggeration. She said it was probably a piece of drift wood, nothing else. It had to be.

I was almost convinced.

"Shark!" The cry reverberated up and down the coast and we stared at each other dumbfounded.

Tracey and I moved to the pool area.

I am grateful my "buffers" did not get eaten. I feel guilty that I thought of them that way and that I had not warned them. Thankfully no one was injured. Apparently, I am more fearful of looking like an idiot than I am of sharks.

That Karma god has a wicked sense of humor.

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