Sunday, July 22, 2007

shark attacks, with video (or, phobias of the ocean)

one of the most intimidating things i found in triathlon when i first started was swimming (for various reasons, including the subjects of the pictures above...just keep reading).

not just because i had little experience in swimming (like most people, i learned how to swim as a 7-year-old, but never did much else besides that), but also because i had never swam in anything other than a shallow play pool (what i call the little kidney-shaped pools sitting in so many American backyards). this was problematic for me, since triathlon, particularly in a coastal region like California, often holds races in open ocean water.

for someone who was just learning how to swim lengths in an olympic-distance competition pool (the 50m length ones with lanes), the open ocean was daunting. i discovered i had a number of phobias that i did not know i had:
  • fear of waves--i was intimidated by the sight of waves, particularly anything bigger than i was tall. the power in ocean waves is overwhelming, and it gave me an immediate, visceral sense of just how insignificant and powerless a human being can be compared to nature.
  • fear of currents--i was alarmed by the thought of powerful, unseen currents capable of sucking a swimmer down and out into the deep sea...and holding them under until they drown.
  • fear of missing direction--there were no lane lines, no pool lines, and no markers. meaning no sense of direction. sure, the coastline is always an indicator of location, but it's not so much when you are caught in waves obscuring your line of sight.
  • fear of murky water--in California, the water is murky, and you're lucky to see beyond your outstretched arm. this creates an air of the unknown, and an air of mystery. which brings a certain level of tension and suspense in not having any forewarning of what else lies in the water.
  • fear of the vast deep--the ocean just seems to generate a greater realization of bottomless, infinite, awesome depths, and the disconcerting prospect that if anything happened to you, you would be an insignificant speck in the vastness of the deep, with very little prospect of anybody ever being able to find you, either to rescue you or (more likely) find your carcass.
  • fear of sharks--last, but not least, sharks. the realization that a human being is not always the top of the food chain, and that we can be prey just as much as we are predators.
in the process of progressing as a swimmer (an ocean one), i had to make a conscious effort to work on and overcome these phobias. for the most part, i managed to do this. as i progressed in fitness and experience in the water, i became more acclimated to the coastal ocean environment, and lost a lot of the anxiety i had as a novice--either that, or i just faced my fears so often that i became numb or jaded to them. i learned how to deal with waves, currents, direction bearing, murky water, and even the presence of the vast deep. i didn't eliminate my fears entirely, but i learned how to manage them and recognize them as a mechanism of the respect a human being has to have for nature in order to be safe.

one thing that i have not yet dealt with, however, is the last one: sharks. i still, after all this time, still have a fear of sharks. it's persistent. it's lingering. to a much greater extent than the other ocean phobias i have (you'll see what i mean...keep reading).

i think i know why: the other phobias i listed largely deal with drowning. and drowning is something that can be prevented or mitigated, and to some degree treated. you can train to become a better swimmer, you can learn the principles of buoyancy, you can apply the principles of water safety, you can stay within reach of lifeguards. and it always helps that most of the time in California the water is cold enough that you have to wear a wetsuit (if you've ever worn one, you'll know that a wetsuit is so buoyant that it is near impossible to sink in one--you have to consciously try to drown to actually drown in a wetsuit).

in contrast, my shark phobia isn't about drowning. it's about being eaten. which, i suspect, ties into the deep, primal fears of human species and to our origins as edible fodder in the evolutionary food chain. it doesn't help that in the water humans are not in their natural environment, but sharks very much are. it makes my fear hard to shake (again, you'll see what i mean...keep reading).

it's funny. because apart from having become a swimmer, i've also become a surfer. meaning i'm spending even more time in the ocean than the average triathlete...and even more time dealing with the ocean and ocean phobias.

i suppose it doesn't help that shark attacks are a popular topic of conversations and jokes among surfers. we frequently call ourselves "shark bait" (i've even seen bumper and surfboard stickers with that label). there's even some cult classic videos that are passed around in the surf community about shark attacks--check out this deliciously campy, cheesy, garage-video one by the (largely) underground California punk band The Surf Punks (you may want to hold on to your nostalgia meter, it's from the early '80s):

a buddy of mine (who also happened to be related to oceanographers and marine biologists, and was also a licensed diver, making him a local expert on anything ocean-related) once gave an extended lecture on the nature of shark attacks. dispensing briefly with the actual factual probability of shark attacks (more on this below), he went on an extended discourse as to the dangers posed by specific shark species, making the following memorable list of points (here's where we get to the pay-off folks...really keep reading):
  • most sharks are harmless, and if anything fear humans and tend to shy away from human activity
  • some sharks, however, are not harmless, and tend be aggressive as predators
  • sharks, particularly those in California coastal waters, tend to 1) prey on seals and sea lions, particularly lone stragglers, and 2) key in on specific bio-electric emissions and rhythmic auditory patterns
  • humans, unfortunately (particularly swimmers and surfers in wetsuits), tend to 1) look like seals and sea lions from below (especially to sharks, which have bad vision and are swimming in murky California coastal water...hooray sediment and pollution!), and 2) when swimming or paddling on a board, emit a surplus of bio-electric signals and make a VERY rhythmic auditory pattern
  • most sharks making a feeding tend to attack at the surface, meaning you can see their dorsal fin and get some forewarning of danger (and so presumably get out of the water)--in the murky waters of coastal California, this is as good as you can get.
  • the exception, however, are great whites. great white sharks make breach attacks. meaning they attack from below and come directly up. meaning the only forewarning you get is the sight of jaws from below--in the murky waters of coastal California, this is usually when they are within 2-3 feet.
  • humans (especially ones in rubbery wetsuits) are not a favorite food source for sharks, but because sharks have bad vision, the only way they can recognize the type of food source is by getting a taste--that is, by nibbling. unfortunately, for predators like a great white, a nibble is the equivalent of a body part. meaning you are still shark bait.
how lovely.

don't believe me? here's a documentary video of a great white shark attack on a seal (note the breach attack):

and if you doubt shark attacks occur on swimmers or surfers, check out this news report from South Africa (note that it occurred in relatively shallow water):

it doesn't help that there were several notable fatalities involving swimmers in California coastal waters relatively recently...especially in highly public waters:
of course, the truth is that statistically shark attacks really are not that frequent, especially considering the number of shark attacks (even including suspected ones) against the numbers of people (in the millions around the world) who swim in coastal ocean waters every year. that, and sharks tend to be scared off by heavy human activity, which is the condition that occurs in a race or in the midst of a training group (which presumably most people use).

moreover, sharks actually have more to fear from humans than we have to fear from them--sharks are experiencing a rapid decline in population, and are increasingly becoming endangered species. part of it is loss of habitat, part of it is losing in the competition against humans for fish, part of it is that even sharks themselves are now a food source for popular human consumption. check out this excerpt from a documentary:

i've been trying to deal with my shark attack phobia by educating myself, and reviewing the statistics, and also noting the ways in which people have avoided or fended off sharks. in particular, i've been tracking news items like the following:
reading sources like the links above, i do acknowledge some level of comfort. in many ways, i see sharks as just being wild animals, and so should be seen with the same levels of recognition, understanding, curiousity, awe--and respect--as any other comparable predatory animals, like eagles, tigers, bears, etc.

of course, having said this, i still make it a point to stay in a pack with everyone else when i'm in the water. i figure it'll increase the chances that a shark--great white or otherwise--will see my skinny half-breed Swedish-Asian ass and pick on a bigger, fatter, louder, neighbor.

hey, like i said, it's a phobia. i'm still working on it...and if you ever get into triathlon in a coastal ocean area, you will too.

1 comment:

bari said...

Ok, stop it now! You're scaring me!!! Fortunately, most of my open water swims are in the Mediterranean Sea where there aren't a lot of sharks. That said, I just found an article about sharks that were found off the coast of Haifa last year. I particularly liked this observation of the director-general of the Israeli Marine Mammal and Assistance Center:

"He noted that the sharks appeared to be minding their own business and posed no threat to the bathers at sea. He stressed, however, that it was not advisable to come near the sharks, try to hunt them, or pet them."

Yeah, the first thing I'd want to do if I saw a shark would be to pet it...