There are some things I never thought I’d do in my life. Some experiences are so petrifying that they are unfathomable. That was cage diving with great white sharks for me. It combines all of my greatest fears in one situation. Using a regulator in the water, being surrounded by massive, man-eating monsters in the ocean and being confined to a cage were the epitome of torture, but I learned that knowledge breads comfort in even the most terrifying situations.
I spent the last five days on an all-inclusive great white shark diving trip with Islander Charters. I needed to learn more about the behavior of great whites to try and overcome my fear of such ancient creatures. I’ve always had a vision of them lurking in the water waiting to attack humans. Blood thirsty, gigantic monsters was my vision of them, but I was naive. I used movies and tv shows as my basis for knowledge and I had a ridiculous version of what what out there. Getting in the water with them and learning from the trained crew aboard the Islander has completely changed my perspective on these beautiful, majestic, graceful animals, but it wasn’t without great struggle.
When we arrived at Guadalupe Island off the coast of Mexico, we were divided into groups. There were two cages in the water at all times with four people each and we worked on an hour rotation giving us a total of 12-15 hours of dive time.
I was in the first group of divers. I’m not PADI certified and I’ve always struggled with using a regulator. It feels completely unnatural and I usually have a panic attack. This time was no different. Three other people in my group, including one guy who’s never even worn a wet suit, put the regulator in their mouth and climbed down the ladder into the cage. They made it seem fine.
My heart was pounding out of my chest. I couldn’t breathe and I wasn’t even under water yet. I was overcome with fear. I couldn’t function. The dive master, Jimmy, tried to help me calm down, but my wet suit felt like it was choking me. I couldn’t catch my breath. I started to cry, which I can’t really explain. Then, I didn’t want to look at anyone because I was crying. It was all too much.
Once Jimmy realized that I couldn’t handle it, he left me to sit on the top of the cage and never questioned me. I was grateful that he didn’t force it or try to give me more directions. Out of the hour, I might have stayed in the cage for a total of 15 minutes. I did see a shark while I was in the cage and I wanted to stay down and experience more but it was complete sensory overload.
The next try was slightly more successful and I managed to stay under water for 30 minutes. The more sharks came around, the more comfortable I felt. Isn’t it ironic? They distracted me from my other fears. I expected them to be vicious and frenzied, but it was nothing like that. Usually, there were only one or two sharks in sight and they moved gracefully through the water. Sometimes they didn’t even take the bait and they had no interest in coming too close to the cage. When no sharks were in sight, that’s when my mind would wander and I would panic.
By the third try, one of the crew said to me, “You’re a mother. You got this. Mothers are fearless and capable of anything.” It really resonated with me. I tried to eliminate some of the issues I was having by unzipping the wet suit and getting in the cage last so I didn’t feel rushed. I took several deep breaths and closed my eyes to relax. I climbed down the ladder and there was a great white shark directly in front of the cage. He wasn’t as large as some of the others but he was still about 10 feet. I looked him in the eyes as he moved closer and closer. It felt like he was looking at me. We stayed like that for a few seconds but it seemed like a lifetime. Unconsciously, I smiled. He looked like he was smiling at me. I felt water hit my face through the creases of my mask when I smiled but I didn’t look away or move. Then, as quickly as it happened, it was over. He moved along and disappeared in the distance. And that was my moment. Every other second in the cage felt more comfortable after that. The wet suit didn’t feel as uncomfortable. I wondered why I struggled so much with breathing and the sharks didn’t appear quite as monstrous.
I didn’t get out of the cage early again. I utilized every second to learn more about their behavior and movements. Even when larger sharks ate the bait directly in front of the cage, I noticed their gills and the different shapes they made with their mouths but I wasn’t fearful. The true test was when there were no sharks in sight and it became a waiting game. Even then, I held my composure.
Everything changed. Watching the behavior of 15 different great white sharks over a total of 12 hours has been one of the most eye-opening experiences of my life. Thousands of professionals could have explained the behavior of great whites to me but no explanation could truly do it justice. I needed to experience it for myself.
I no longer see them as monsters lurking in the depths. They are magical. I don’t know if I’m ready to hop in without the cage just yet, but I certainly have a new appreciation and respect for one of the most feared creatures in the ocean.