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Last week I got in a metal cage in the middle of the ocean, as hungry great white sharks circled around it.
This is not something that had ever been on my bucket list.
In fact, I’ve had a phobia of open water, confined spaces and most certainly sharks ever since I can remember.
But, over half way through travelling the world with my boyfriend Joe, this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity presented itself.
Not only did it present itself, it did so at absolutely no cost to us because Joe happens to be related to the head honcho of the Rodney Fox shark expedition boat we were to be sailing on.
Considering that a two day trip like this costs around 2K, I was in a bit of a conundrum:
No part of me felt excited about the prospect of being mere feet away from a deadly man-eater – steel cage or no steel cage.
I felt perfectly content respecting the sharks (admiring them, even) – so long as there was a computer or TV screen separating their reality from my own.
You see, although I’ve always been terrified of sharks (to the point where I wouldn’t swim in the deep end of the swimming pool as a kid because I thought Jaws might get me), I’ve also been peculiarly fascinated by them - in the same way that I was always intrigued by T-Rex and raptors:
Because dangerous things are exciting things.
(Perhaps this explains my former pattern of dating drug addicts, dealers and narcissists).
I’ve watched most shark films out there (except, thankfully, the one where Mandy Moore gets in a steel cage in the open water, only for it to plummet to the bottom of the ocean with no cord connecting it to the boat above).
But, however much I was pulled to virtual shark viewing, I had no intention of ever – ever ever ever - floating in their turf.
Not in a month of sunny Sundays.
My apprehension stood in stark contrast to my (slightly unhinged) fella who, being an advanced diver, was overjoyed that he’d get the even more extreme opportunity of seeing these vast creatures from a similar steel cage, but one that would sink over twenty metres below the surface right down to the sea-bed itself once the divers were inside (don’t worry, unlike Mandy Moore’s, this cage is firmly attached to the boat by three separate cords).
This is an experience that no other shark-diving boat in the world currently offers.
Truth be told, like most things I’m afraid of doing I pretty much put off thinking about it until we were on the boat itself and I could no longer pretend it wasn’t real.
The day of the dive, I hung back and allowed a family of six to go in to the surface cage before me, while I observed the crew luring the sharks with vile-smelling tuna gills from the safety of the stern.
Surprisingly, as the colossal grey silhouettes began circling, my curiosity piqued.
Now they were close, I felt strangely less afraid than when we were separated by technology and thousands of miles.
I made my way to the deck above, poured myself in to my scuba gear and headed back down towards the cage.
Suss – Joe’s cousin and the second in command of the boat after the Skipper – had kindly agreed to do the dive with me (she could tell I was bricking it).
She spent some time showing me how to breathe through the regulator – something I’d never done in my life.
It wasn’t too tricky when your head was above the water, but under it – another story.
Suss led me to the surface-level platform that the cage was attached to, leaving me exposed to the open water on both my right and left hand sides.
This was the moment I’d expected myself to freak out and bail because the night before, I’d kept having Jaws-inspired visions of sharks breaching out of the ocean and grabbing me in one fell swoop as I was preparing to get in to the cage.
But freak and bail, I did not.
Suss placed the weight belt around me to stop me from floating up to the surface once inside the cage, and then asked me to dip my face in the water and practice breathing through the regulator.
Eager to get this whole ordeal over with as quickly as possible, I followed her instructions.
“Yup, fine,” I said, spitting the regulator out.
“Sure..?” said Suss, clearly aware of how I’d probably rather be anywhere else right now.
I nodded my head.
Suss went down in front of me, signalling for me to follow her.
The moment my body and head were fully submerged - that’s when I lost my shit.
A word of advice:
If you’re claustrophobic, scared of the sea and terrified of sharks, don’t let the first time you try scuba diving be simultaneous with the first time you get in to a cage in the middle of the ocean, surrounded by great whites.
It’s a lot to take on board.
Within seconds I’d shot out of the water and, panic-stricken, was trying to heave my seal-like form out of the cage.
“I hate it I hate it I HATE IT!!!” I screamed.
Suss came up immediately after me, as the dreaded symptoms of a panic attack began to take hold.
“Don’t worry, don’t worry Pers let’s get you out, you don’t have to do it,” she said over the top of my whimpering gasps for air.
But then, something unexpected happened.
Being given permission to get out of the water flicked a switch inside of me.
I recognised this switch.
It was the same switch that had stopped me from bailing on my current relationship numerous times whenever I’d felt vulnerable, scared or trapped.
It was the same switch that self-initiated whenever I told myself, “right that’s it, love is just too hard – get out now.”
On these occasions, the switch had jolted me in to a new vibration with a single command:
The voice was quiet, but its message was unmistakable.
I could not ignore the voice, which waited patiently for a few moments before repeating itself:
There’s more for you here, so stay.
Although gentle in delivery, it was not an invitation, it was an order.
And ignoring it, I knew, would have more wretched consequences than obeying it.
But, staying when I wanted to leave was not a familiar course of action for me.
I was a runner; an unanchored, fair-weather-floater who’d spent most of her life drifting - sometimes bouncing - from one chaotic intrigue to the next.
I’d never stayed in any one romantic liaison long enough to know how it felt to truly love or be loved.
Once the initial infatuation had burned itself out, I mentally and emotionally abandoned ship – even if I still appeared to be there in person.
But, by the time I met Joe - having worked through the root cause of my love avoidance, I was finally ready to board a new vessel.
The Skipper guiding this boat did so in an entirely different manner to the last – an impulsive, fickle bellower who steered us in to rocks and icebergs on pretty much every voyage, leaving our home in tatters and making me fraught with anxiety and self-doubt at every turn.
This new one, though – the ‘flicker of the switch’ - I trusted her.
She was direct but kind, firm but flexible and most importantly, she did not rush or hurry our expedition; she encouraged me to take my time and savour it.
I’d never felt permitted to savour anything before – especially when it came to love.
Every encounter was frantically gulped down so that I wouldn’t have to feel the terrifying vulnerability of stillness and intimacy.
Which brings us back to the terrifying vulnerability of being semi-submerged in a steel cage in the middle of the ocean, surrounded by the world’s most feared predator.
Because those two experiences felt acutely similar to me:
In both cases, where there had been an uncontrollable urge to get out, there was suddenly a stronger impulse to remain.
As Suss went to lift me up out of the cage I shook my head and stopped her.
“No,” I whispered as I prepared to put the salty regulator back in my mouth.
“One more go.”
“Sure?” said Suss again, looking understandably sceptical.
Clamping my mouth around the rubber regulator, I closed my eyes, took five extended breaths, then lowered myself back in to the cage.
Suss helped me climb down the ladder to the bottom of the steel structure and led me around to the front for the best view.
The wind had picked up by this point, so the cage was clunking heavily around in the water like a washing machine on a spin cycle, so we had to hold on tightly to the internal bars to ensure we didn’t float back up to the surface.
As I tried to maintain steady, focused breathing, I scanned the surrounding area to see if we were being watched.
The coast was frustratingly clear.
After a couple of minutes, Suss pointed towards the bottom right-hand side of the cage.
Five or so metres below us swam a great white shark, seemingly oblivious to our presence.
It was far enough away for me not to freak out, but not quite close enough to feel like I’d had the full underwater shark experience I’d been compelled to get back in the water for.
However, as I glanced towards the front of the cage I saw an immense shape barreling towards us from only a few metres ahead.
Several rows of razor-sharp teeth were exposed, which made it look like the shark was smiling at us.
Without even realising I was doing it, I instinctively pushed Suss in front of my trembling body.
(I may have had a change of heart, but I was still no Steve Irwin).
Unable to stifle my curiosity I peaked over Suss’s right shoulder - just as the shark took a hard left and glided past the corner of the cage.
It was so close that if we’d been foolish enough to extend our arms, we could have stroked its back.
It was one of the most extraordinary single moments of my life; where I’d expected to feel terror, what I actually felt was more like connection:
Not with the shark, with myself.
As soon as the great white had disappeared in to the shadows, I signalled to Suss for us to go back up.
We couldn’t have been down there for more than five minutes – nearly half an hour less than the family who were in the cage before me.
I didn’t care.
There was no point trying to match other people’s experiences, because we’d all been brought to this divine appointment for different reasons.
I already understood what I’d got back in the water for, and it wasn’t the sharks.
I’d got back in to the water because I knew there was more for me to gain by staying than by running.
NOW, I’D LOVE TO HEAR FROM YOU:
Have you ever faced your fears or confronted something that you’d really battled with previously?
What gave you the courage to get through it?
I’d love you to share your story with me below – hopefully it’ll inspire me to keep on facing my own sharks ;)
All my love,