“What are they doing here?” I asked, looking over the ship’s edge at 10-foot-long sharks circling. It was after dark a few hundred meters from the coast of a remote island in the Galápagos. I was safe aboard the M.V. Origin, a ship from the sustainable expedition cruising company Ecoventura, yet a chill ran down my spine. A flashlight shining in the water revealed a dozen sharks, the beam bouncing off their beady eyes.
When we travel, we encounter moments that push us to the edge of our comfort zone. Sometimes this disorientation is thrilling, while other times it can flirt with the frightening. I am not claustrophobic or afraid of heights. I’m not bothered by germs or clowns or wasps. But my one true fear is sharks. I am not a person who gets excited about shark week on the Discovery Channel. I’ve never even seen Jaws.
Incidentally, I found myself in a destination that would practically force me to face my fear. Located approximately 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, the Galápagos Islands are beloved by nature enthusiasts for their wild landscapes and tame animals (a lack of natural predators means that animals don’t fear you). I knew when I signed up for a seven-night tour on a live-aboard vessel that I would come in close contact with nature. I was ready for the sweet sea lions and comical blue-footed boobies. I was prepared to hike around an island among thousands of large iguanas (plus a few iguana skeletons). But when it came to sharks, I confess to being hopelessly unprepared. Somewhere in my consciousness, I knew that sharks could be present, but I blocked out the possibility of swimming with them. When faced with the decision—would I be able to get into the water?
We started slow. On the first day, I snorkeled near a massive sea turtle, watching his clumsy body glide slowly through the water. I watched baby sea lions blow bubbles underwater and toss rocks at each other as if playing catch. Then came an afternoon of snorkeling at Devil’s Crown, an isolated rock surrounded by whitetip reef sharks.
The idea of sharks didn’t seem to bother the rest of our small group. Some people were excited to get close to them. When we reached Devil’s Crown, everyone eagerly jumped into the water. I sat hesitantly on the edge of the tiny inflatable boat (that, surely, a determined shark could sink if it wanted to). I felt as if I had a fever. The only thought I could muster was: In what logical world would I actually choose to jump into shark-infested waters? I tried to remember why I wanted to confront this fear in the first place.
Our kind naturalist guide swam over to me. “This is the ring of happiness,” he said, holding an orange flotation device. “Nothing can happen to you when you’re holding the ring of happiness. Plus, these sharks are vegetarians. Promise!”
I slid into the water. Placing my mask under the surface, I saw the graceful wavelike motion of rays. Schools of colorful fish darted in different directions. I could hear the hard, fast sound of my heart beating. I saw the dreaded sharks about 40 feet beneath me on the seafloor. But they were still, seemingly taking an afternoon nap. After about 20 minutes, I had a realization: I was snorkeling in the open ocean, in close proximity to sharks, and actually enjoying myself.
After Devil’s Crown, I was feeling remotely safer in the water. The next day our guides again warned us: Expect sharks. We were told that these sharks are often seen swimming along the reefs. I swam in the opposite direction, choosing to admire fish and watch sea lions propelling underwater rather than search for sharks.
The water was cloudy and I could only see 15 feet in any direction, although light did penetrate down 40 feet to the seafloor. After about 15 minutes in the water, right as I was starting to think that my long-standing shark fear might be silly and ungrounded, I looked up to see a six-foot shark at eye level, swimming straight toward me. This was no motionless shark resting on the seafloor; all I could see were his nose and tail behind him sweeping menacingly from side to side.
It wasn’t a decision to get out of the water—it was a reaction. I swam freestyle as fast as my arms and flipper-clad feet would take me. Until I reached the boat, I didn’t think. I did not look back to see where the shark went. I climbed into the boat and stripped off my mask. Adrenaline pumped through me. It took hours before my heart rate slowed to a normal pace.
I remember feeling completely out of control in the shark’s world under the sea. But before my close encounter, that experience was thrilling. Some may say that getting out of the water the moment a shark snuck up on me doesn’t count as overcoming my fear, but it felt like a first step. I began to think that maybe it’s more important to face a fear than to overcome it—to challenge our preconceptions and question where they come from rather than to expect to conquer a deep-seated anxiety in a single trip.
Over the course of a week in these remote islands, there was a small—but present—change. After a hike on one particularly hot morning, I joined the rest of my group in a spontaneous cooling-off exercise. The boat sat far offshore and without hesitation of what might be in the water, we all ran and leaped into the chill of the open sea.
Knowing that my phobia hadn’t kept me out of the water, I let others seek out hammerhead sharks while I kicked back in a hammock on the boat’s rooftop sundeck with a piña colada. I opted for afternoon excursions that went looking for Galápagos penguins instead of Galápagos sharks.
Now when I look out at the ocean, I no longer feel an instant pang of fear. I know what lurks beneath—I’ve looked it straight in the eye.