This Article is from Trek and Run magazine, Winter 2018
‘It’s called The Big Scare,’ Juan, our divemaster, said, ‘because although the Pacific looks clear on the surface there's actually 3 stages of visibility here; clear, then as you go down it turns a murky green - that’s where the Bull sharks hang out - and then on the bottom it’s clear again. It’s the descent and the suddenness of the sharks coming out of the murky water that gets most people, they just seem to appear from nowhere. If it happens, and it probably will as we almost always see them here, remember to stay calm, they’re harmless.’
For a few minutes the thought of the forthcoming scuba dive frightened me. I remembered the talk of friends back home, warning that Bull sharks were the most dangerous of animals due to their high testosterone levels. Their fear infected me, overriding the science based knowledge I’d acquired whilst preparing for this Costan Rican adventure. I knew that sharks weren’t the monsters the media liked to make out and that we humans had already hunted them to the edge of extinction, yet the claustrophobia that came with thoughts of scuba diving in low visibility alongside an animal that society had registered in my psyche as a menace was primal and temporarily overwhelming.
The Sharkwater ship rolled in the swell. I watched the white surf crashing against the rocky outcrops below which we’d soon dive, backlit with the early sun. Shaking my head I began to banish the fear. What did testosterone have to do with matters anyway! If that had a bearing on things, wouldn’t all those corn fed guys running around the world with flags, fishing boats, hungry bank accounts and guns be dangerous too!!!
We’d been told not to talk of this adventure on social media before we travelled, the shark finning business is worth a lot of money, a group of tourists coming to scuba dive whilst engaging in shark conservation, looking to disrupt a source of great wealth for many, might not be so welcome. They could track us from our social media posts, we’d been told, kidnapping, or worse, could result. Tourists travelling to Costa Rica to kill sharks and other fish are welcomed with open arms by the mainstream tourism community, but those looking to ensure a future for sea life and locals alike are in a different boat; they have to watch themselves very carefully indeed. That's what we'd been told, anyway, and without any other knowledge to the contrary it seemed a good idea to take notice of it.
There were 2 groups of divers, the more experienced band of 8 filled another RIB whilst in our inflatable there were just 4. Before we arrived at the dive site Juan signalled to us to make ready, fins and mask on, air flowing, he wanted us to get into the water and down with no delay.
‘There’s a swell today, no good staying on the surface, let’s just get in and get down,’ he’d said whilst briefing us aboard the Sharkwater ship. ‘And, these sharks, they’re shy, if we get down before the other group, maybe we’ll have a good experience, before the sheer number of our other diving group scares them off.’
Our skipper slowed the outboard engine, Juan gave the signal and all 4 of us flipped backwards out of the RIB and into the waves. Within seconds we made eye contact, hand signalled we were ok, expelled the air from our buoyancy jackets and began to descend into The Big Scare.
I breathed slowly, conscious that I’d use my air up in no time at all if I let fear get the better of me. At 5 metres the visibility was fine, nothing great, about 15 to 20 metres I guess, at 10 metres down there was no change, at 15 it was still good. When was the green murk going to hit us? My ears hurt, I’d been having trouble with them equalizing pressure the past few dives, the pain pierced both sides of my upper neck, for a minute I kept my depth stable, breathing steady as the other 3 divers moved down and away. I pinched my nose, tried to force air into the sinus channels although not so hard as to rupture anything, considered tapping my tank loud and signalling to the others that I was going back to the surface. But the sharks, how I wanted to see them, this was the one place in Costa Rica where you could see Bulls close to land, I tried forcing air gently again and my ears eased open, thank goodness. I flipped myself forward and kicked head first down after the group.
Then we were on the bottom. Huh, that wasn’t so bad, I thought, I’d been expecting a green soup of an ocean but it wasn’t anything like that, in fact I'd hardly noticed the change in visibility at all. Juan put his hand to his forehand, fingers pointing straight up, the sign for shark, we looked past him and saw the first of the days’ Bull sharks, gliding away. I felt no fear, this was the only known meeting place for Bull sharks on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica and, there was just a single shark. Of course, it could probably make short work of us or any other small creature if it wished, but it wasn’t interested in that, it was avoiding us, and maybe if there were 20 of them I’d have felt different but here we were, in it’s home, and there was just a single shark, moving away.
I thought of how the human hype machine has worked on our minds over the years, as a result there’s so little balance and recognition of nuance these days. Sharks are dangerous, this country or that is dangerous, everybody has an equal say because everybody can have an equal say, we are right and they are wrong, but there’s no right or wrong and that’s not because there’s no right or wrong but because I’m too lazy to work the issue out, so a blanket statement will do in a society that only wishes to keep itself alive and functioning in a way that is now seriously out of date and, without doubt, dangerous.
I’d run the Marathon des Sables, the so called ‘Toughest Footrace on Earth’, in 2017 and the hype had got to me. I and most others taking part completed that 7 day race with hearts filled with great suffering and afterwards looked to social media for affirmation of our bravery. But then I’d felt foolish, Marcus Aurelius was laughing at me, and in 2018 I ran the race again but this time with a smile. Few things are as potentially harmful as settled, frightened humans like to make out, except for settled, frightened humans, I’d learnt that. Now, once again, I was seeing that truth played out before me.
We hovered, waited. I looked out into the empty blue. There were a couple of small yellow fish, the first about 6 metres away, the second twice that. Then there was a shark next to the fish nearest me. How the hell did that get there! I guess that’s where The Big Scare got its title, from moments like that, when you’re looking at a patch of seemingly empty ocean and suddenly this well camouflaged, huge hunting machine appears moving so slickly you’re immediately made aware of your own clumsiness. The shark was gracefully coming straight at me. I glanced over my shoulder but the group were looking the other way. All this that I’m telling you, it happened in a couple of seconds that slowed to what felt like an hour. I wondered if I should get out the way, and also, why didn’t I feel frightened? I was excited, for sure, but not at all frightened. Then when it was just 3 metres away I understood.
I remembered, age 27, walking across the Sinai Desert, finding water every day, being confused at my luck, putting the discoveries down to divine intervention, not understanding that humans can smell water just as well as horses and other animals can if they only learn to get themselves out of their own way, not understanding that there’s a more natural method of interpreting life for those who are ready to discard the layers of negativity, arrogance, hubris and fear that our ancestors have burdened and blinded us with.
I remembered running through a forest. The weather is fine, I’m unencumbered by anything but a pair of shoes, socks and shorts. I’ve no injuries, no illness, everything is as perfect as it can be and I’m jumping over every fallen branch, every rock, making great choices, moving through the forest like it’s my natural home. My pace is not slow or fast, I’ve a couple more gears in me if I want to speed up, but this is me in cruise control, afraid of nothing, powerful and aware. If anybody could see me, they’d think I was exactly like this shark.
Because that’s how it moved, gliding through the ocean like I move through the forest when I’m chilled out. I’ve never seen a shark on the attack before but I was certain this wasn’t it. It was way too slow, way too un-coiled, the vibration coming at me through the water wasn’t that of threat or force but indifference and so I hovered, letting it come to me, soaking this experience up because I knew it was finite, that I’d be remembering this for many years, sadly honoured that I’d felt the presence of at least one of these beautiful animals before they became extinct.
There were to be more shark sightings later in the dive, and a glorious ascent through the middle of a few hundred Eagle Rays packed so densely that I thought they were a cloud blocking the sun. We emerged from the ocean that morning feeling alive, powerful, real, knowing that we had to help protect sharks with all we had.
There will always be doubters when change is required, even when the evidence is overwhelmingly against them. We know now, for instance, that between 66% and 95% of all cancers are lifestyle induced. Meaning, that at least 2/3rds of all cancers are self inflicted, mostly by eating meat, dairy and other crap, and not exercising enough. This fact is backed up by solid science. Yet still many of my pals, who are good people, ignore science on this issue whilst simultaneously demanding it does more to cure cancer, somehow, instead of just changing their own lifestyle, and encouraging others to do so, too.
Running a marathon? Easy! Eating right, for you, the environment and your countries medical system?
‘Well, there’s nothing quite like a juicy steak, and the smell of BBQ, and I like cheese, who doesn’t, how can I give up that! I’m a man child not an adult for goodness sake! And bacon, mmm, bacon, right, eh? And who are you to tell me about cancer, my health is my business, the world is as big as it always was and what I do doesn’t matter, I'm not part of any community, I'm a nationalist not a globalist, and what if you get cancer yourself, then you won’t be talking so smart about it all, then you’ll wish you carried on eating as you want, destroying the climate and being cruel, like me. Life’s too short, you know...’
Especially so if you’re a shark. Or a turtle. Or a dolphin. Because, you don’t think the fishermen really make an exception for the cute stuff when they haul in their nets and long lines, do you?
Learn more about how to save sharks here https://www.sharkwater.com/