Facing My Fear Of Sharks

“Try a thing you haven’t done three times. Once, to get over the fear of doing it. Twice, to learn how to do it. And a third time to figure out whether you like it or not. ” ~ Virgil Thomson

Sharks. Among the most feared of all animals.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve lived with Selachophobia. No, that’s not a wheat allergy. Selachophobia is an irrational fear of sharks that was misnamed. I shall rename it Horriblehorriblesharkydeathophobia!!! (Multiple exclamations not optional.)

Some who suffer from this phobia cannot get in a bath without worrying about being attacked by a shark. While I’m not quite neurotic enough to fear for my life during bath time, I will confess that, as a teenager, I once ran from a residential pool screaming “Shark!”

Of course, snorkelling has always been a problem for me. I’ve explored some of the most stunning snorkeling sites on earth without ever getting in the water:

Funny … and so very, very lame. As you can see, this technique leaves me vulnerable to other potential violations.

So, as I mentioned in my last post, I decided to take up scuba diving to overcome my fear.  

This is what unfolded:

Dive One.

I stood at the side of the boat preparing to jump into ten meters of water. Easy, I thought. Ten meters isn’t that deep.

I geared up, took a deep breath, jumped in, peered down, spotted the bottom way below, and began FREAKING OUT.

Which sounds pretty melodramatic, but when I panic, it’s kind of a dull affair. My most extreme attack is quite discrete. My body goes stiff and my face twists into an expression that could easily be mistaken as erotic pleasure. I let out tiny “Oh” and “Ah” noises that sound like whimpers of gratification. To the casual observer, it can look like fear, or it can look like I left home wearing Ben Wa balls. (<– Go on, click it. I dare you.)

Lucky for me, my partner was my diving instructor and he knows the subtle differences between my trauma face and my pleasure face. (I hope.)

“Do you want to stop?” he asked, when he noticed the tears slowly filling the inside of my mask.

“No,” I breathed. “I just … oh, ohhh … need some … aah, ooh … time to calm down.”

I put my head below the surface to watch the other groups of divers descending. They looked like giant sea creatures with long, elegant limbs. Streams of expelled air bubbles created crystal chandeliers over their heads. They were serene and graceful, and I wanted to be one of them.

I was overwhelmed with sadness over what I’d miss if fear beat me.

I wiped my tears, took a few deep breaths, and said, “Okay, ready.” I bit down on my regulator and sunk down.

Ivan took my hand and gently tugged my stiff body to the ocean floor. I was as animated as a cardboard cutout. He towed me over coral reefs and curious fish until I was confident enough to swim solo. I swum nestled up to his side, which may seem romantic, but I was really just using him as a human shark shield.

After twenty minutes, my neck regained mobility and I looked around at my environment. No sharks. No danger. Just corals, fish, white sand below, and the surface above us like a rippled mirror to another universe.

Everything within me relaxed: my heart, my breath, my tight grip on the Ben Wa balls. (I kid. I kid.)

Hovering over the corals and the fish with zero gravity, I began to feel like I was exploring a denser version of our own world. Rather that experiencing the ocean as a thick mass of liquid horror, it began to seem as though I was taking a leisurely hike through a forest. Only it was better than that because (a) The flora and fauna was different, and, (b) I was flying.

Dive Two.

By now, my excitement was much more prominent than my anxiety. The ‘S’ word was obscured by the sound of my inner dialogue saying: I love this. I love this. 

The ocean floor is heaven for an introvert like me. Even in the company of a crowd of divers, there’s no chatter, no noise, no hustle and bustle. There’s only the clicks of sea life chewing snacks off the reef and the sound of your own steady breath.

You can tell how relaxed you are by how much oxygen you use from your tank. I used less air than Ivan, less air than most people. “You’re fearless,” he said, shocked at the reading on my air gauge. “Nothing frightens you.”

Dive Three.

My lifelong Horriblehorriblesharkydeathophobia!!! was almost gone. Going down was like entering into a meditation. Under the waves, I could escape from the troubles of the real world and just be.  The ocean floor was officially declared as my new happy place.

Dive Four.

I finished my Open Water Diver certification and I wanted more, so I did four more dives. I plan to sign up for the Advanced Open Water, which involves a night dive. The idea of sinking below black water used to make the hairs on my neck prickle, but now I’m strangely excited.

And now?

This may be the oxygen talking, but by dive eight I was hoping to see a shark. I’m fearless now. I can handle it. (At least, that’s what Ivan says, but he’s a master of cajolery.)

For more info on learning to dive with Sunshine Divers in Koh Tao, click here.

Torre DeRoche is the author of two travel memoirs, Love with a Chance of Drowning (2013) and The Worrier’s Guide to the End of the World (due out September 2017). She has written for The Atlantic, The Guardian Travel, The Sydney Morning Herald, Emirates, and two Lonely Planet anthologies.

Leave a Comment

  • Carmel August 8, 2012, 2:42 pm

    Wow. Now that’s taking it head on. Congrats! What a beautiful setting, too. I love the water…just about any body of water is my happy place. I can’t wait to be near a body of water that won’t cause hypothermia within an hour.

    • Torre DeRoche August 9, 2012, 2:25 pm

      I imagine that hypothermia would really take the joy out of diving. 😉

  • Sky August 8, 2012, 2:51 pm

    Good for you! The idea of diving terrifies me, though I’m more terrified of drowning than sharks (though I’m not very big fans of them either). It looks like fun, though!

    • Torre DeRoche August 9, 2012, 2:26 pm

      I’ve been on the boat with a few people now and it seems more people are scared of drowning / not being able to breathe than of sharks or deep water. I guess that’s reasonable! Most people adjust after the first few minutes in the water, though.

  • Meg | One Love Meg August 8, 2012, 5:38 pm

    Congrats!!! You did it! And isn’t beautiful under there…. I am glad you are finally able to see the life of Ariel! 🙂

    • Torre DeRoche August 9, 2012, 2:27 pm

      I watched that movie a million times as a kid. I still remember all the lyrics to the songs.

  • Debbie Beardsley @ European Travelista August 8, 2012, 8:35 pm

    Enjoyed reading about your adventure with scuba diving! Very entertaining but more than that, it will teach us all to confront our fears instead of letting them control us. Wonderful post!

  • Patricia Sands August 8, 2012, 8:41 pm

    Way to go, you! My intro to scuba was much like yours … from crippling fear to the calmest euphoria within an hour as the peaceful and amazingly beautiful underwater world welcomed me without prejudice. If only the rest of the planet functioned with such acceptance. I kinda think my oxygen intake would increase dramatically if I had a close encounter with a shark and I still haven’t got the nerve to do a night dive, so you are way ahead of me there. Enjoy your new happy place!

  • Karen August 8, 2012, 11:14 pm

    Very proud of you Torre. x

  • Greg August 9, 2012, 12:46 am

    I grew up watching Jaws which made me dislike sharks but not the sea. Underwater you see beautiful creatures which can be relaxing and inspiring. Congratulations on facing your fear.

    • Torre DeRoche August 9, 2012, 4:16 pm

      What impact did Jaws have on kids of the 70s and 80s? Probably more impact than any other film.

  • David August 9, 2012, 1:29 am

    Love the quotes and photos! Good job to you for doing the thing you think you cannot do. Most never even try

    • Torre DeRoche August 9, 2012, 4:17 pm

      Why thank you, David. Most never try, but I’m a sucker for punishment.

  • Ayngelina August 9, 2012, 2:59 am

    I just finished my open water as well. I thought I would be terrified but I was surprised how calm I felt below the surface. Congratulations!

  • Robyn August 9, 2012, 4:55 am

    Amazing, amazing story! You should be very proud.

    BUT don’t look for sharks. They’re trouble! 🙂

    • Torre DeRoche August 9, 2012, 4:19 pm

      But I have to look out for them, otherwise I won’t be able to put up my human shield in time.

  • Sarah Somewhere August 9, 2012, 1:17 pm

    Woohoo!!! You make it sound like a dream, I’m inspired. Good on you, Torre, you write wonderfully about a very special experience. And now I’m going to click on those balls. Just read Fifty Shades of Grey so I’m totally prepared for it.

    • Torre DeRoche August 9, 2012, 4:19 pm

      I just read it too. Perhaps that’s why obscure sex toys are on the mind.

  • Eric Nepomnaschy August 9, 2012, 3:12 pm

    Toughen up princess! haha

  • Christina August 9, 2012, 3:28 pm

    Beautiful Torre, just beautiful–and funny too–as usual. XXXX

    • Torre DeRoche August 9, 2012, 4:24 pm

      Who else would get my Ben Wa balls jokes if not for my mother?

  • David Newton August 10, 2012, 12:50 am

    Good to know that you did not only face your fear but also enjoyed the experience. Do you own an underwater camera? I recently purchased one and I’m currently into underwater photography.

  • Savvy Scot August 10, 2012, 8:33 am

    Welcome to the club – so glad you got over your fear 😀

    One thing – you may need to change your URL to the fearLESSadventurer 😉

  • Widism August 10, 2012, 3:00 pm

    Inspiring story!
    We all have in mind this scary picture of sharks, but they are also one of the most endangered species on Earth, and one of the most important to our planet’s health…
    Check this link! http://widism.com/experiences/shark-tagging-expedition/

  • Bree August 12, 2012, 8:56 am

    Love the pic of you diving some of the world’s most stunning snorkelling sites without getting in the water. You duffer 🙂 Very proud of you for conquering another fear. X

  • Hannah August 15, 2012, 11:56 pm

    This was totally inspiring – congratulations! I’m definitely going to try and overcome my own fear of sharks when we get to Koh Tao next year. I’ll bring my gimp mask to stifle my screams.

    • Henry April 7, 2013, 7:59 pm

      Dont hold your breath if you want to see sharks in Koh Tao…I was an Diving instructor there. Never saw one. No whale sharks either. Anyway, sharks dont care for humans as food. Our Iron content in the blood is to high and fishes have high copper in their blood….. I cut myself once surrounded by sharks. They didnt even notice me.

      • Torre DeRoche April 7, 2013, 10:54 pm

        Hmm. Interesting about the blood. I saw two baby black tip reef sharks in Ao Leuk, Koh Tao. There are also a few bull sharks at sail rock. Are you still an instructor? If so, where are you working from?

  • Tracey August 18, 2012, 2:40 am

    Well done! I’ve always been fascinated by sharks, but there’s always been a healthy dash of fear mixed in there too. I have friends who tell me how amazing diving is … but I’m yet to try it myself. I do like the idea of finding peace below the water and uncovering a whole new world.

  • Lauren August 20, 2012, 4:39 pm

    Dave showed me this post a while ago and I forgot to leave a comment, but I’ve just remembered!

    I couldn’t stop laughing when I was reading this because I AM YOU! Except you are braver than me as I booked THREE discovery dives while we were in Thailand and every single morning I seemed to wake up with an extremely severe, but surprisingly short-lived, disease. Oh no, time to cancel the lesson!

    I know I’m not going to be able to get out of it when we return now that you’ve done it and survived! 🙂

  • Rease August 24, 2012, 6:48 pm

    This is so great! I am so glad you faced your fears and actually came to love it! I grew up in the landlocked midwest so I also have some issues with water. For some reason, I am terrified that I will get cut by a coral reef and start gushing blood and not know how to get out of the water. I went snorkeling for the first time a few months ago and I swam (or floated, stiff and scared) very close to a coral reef, but I made it!

  • Amanda August 25, 2012, 3:31 pm

    I have the same problem! I don’t have a phobia as such but I keep putting off scuba diving because I’m afraid of sharks. I did one dive a few years ago, lived it, didn’t even think of sharks. Didn’t scuba but snorkelled in Hawaii, forgot about sharks. But now I’m going to WA and my boyfriend wants to scuba but there have been so many sharks in the news I’m terrified! I know it’s a tiny chance but I don’t rant to risk it. Any advice?

  • Leif August 26, 2012, 3:11 pm

    Fear is only as deep as the mind allows. Great. Leave it to the Japanese.
    Do they even have sharks around koh toa? I guess they must, but I have never heard anyone talk about it. Australia, Florida, now those are places where I get a little, howd you put it lol, Horriblehorriblesharkydeathophobia.

  • Katherine | Kapcha The World August 28, 2012, 12:56 am

    Yay awesome. I’m so glad you love it as much as I do. It’s totally like escaping one world for another. I’m addicted and can’t get enough. Am so jealous you’re in an amazing spot for diving (it’s a tad nippy in New Zealand right now!). Get yourself an underwater camera too – so fun just floating around taking photos of things. Can’t wait to hear more about your underwater expeditions! Bet your other half is so proud of you and pleased that he can take you along on dive trips.

  • Lauren from Explore Australia September 3, 2012, 6:12 am

    What a fantastic story! It’s inspiring to see how you haven’t let your fear stop you having some amazing adventures underwater. Now, if only I could get over my fear of brown snakes …

  • Veny (@MissLaiLai) November 6, 2012, 9:27 am

    “The ocean floor is heaven for an introvert like me. Even in the company of a crowd of divers, there’s no chatter, no noise, no hustle and bustle. There’s only the clicks of sea life chewing snacks off the reef and the sound of your own steady breath.”

    That, is exactly why I am addicted to diving (said she who’s now four months without any dives! Dammit. Aarrgh!).

    I took up scuba diving after one snorkelling trip, simply because I wanted to get closer to the sea creatures I saw when snorkelling. But more importantly, I did it to overcome my fear of the ocean, because I couldn’t swim. (Well, I sort-of-could, but I wouldn’t count on me to save myself from drowning!)

    I still get intimidated by the sea, but every time I get a little scared, I think of that moment underwater, when it’s just me, and the sound of my breathing. Well, also maybe the sound of tank-banging by the dive master calling me whenever I ventured too far on my own. (Yes, I am sometimes silly underwater, bad example). But it’s so…peaceful. It’s so heavenly.

    Well, at least until a pregnant Triggerfish come right you…but hey, even after that, it hasn’t stopped me from diving. It is addictive. It’s one of the best things in the world.

    So, congratulations, very happy you finally took up diving. Having a partner as a dive instructor AND living in Thailand, well, you kinda had to do it, right? 🙂

    By the way, you know Indonesia has superb diving sites, rumoured to be, ahem, better than Thailand? 😉

    Have fun getting your Advance Diving license. The night dive, is quite a surreal experience. Can’t wait to hear more stories from it.

    • Torre DeRoche November 9, 2012, 8:27 am

      When pregnant trigger fish attack. (I hate trigger fish.)

      It’s amazing that you learned to dive even though you’re not a confident swimmer. Congratulations to you too!

  • katie January 24, 2013, 2:15 am

    Thank you for writing about this experience! I suffer from horriblehorriblesharkydeathphobia but I love travel and would love to snorkle and scuba dive someday; you’ve inspired me to try it! (I just need a human shark shield!)

    • katie January 24, 2013, 3:02 am

      Can I just add, on the main page of the Sunshine diving page it mentions a nearby bay named “Shark Bay”…it’s kind of ironic.

      • Torre DeRoche January 27, 2013, 12:45 pm

        Yes, it is. But there are no sharks there, thankfully.

    • Torre DeRoche January 27, 2013, 12:45 pm

      Just grab any random man, woman or child in the area. Bang! Human shark shield.

  • Elle-Rose Williams February 19, 2013, 8:29 am

    I actually have a similar thing to this – So it’s nice to see a fellow traveller write about the fear instead of just jumping in! I’m travelling Australia in a month and doing the Great Barrier Reef and Whitsundays…. hoping very much that I somehow manage to (miraculously) get in the water (and stay in the water) for more than 5 minutes. It’s funny though – I’m fine in a swimming pool, and a super confident swimmer, I used to swim competatively. It literally is just the thought of sharks. *shivers*

  • Hannah February 24, 2013, 2:21 am

    Hey, I’m 12 and I am a junior rescue diver (one certification after advanced) I’ve been diving for just under 2 years and I love it, it’s now a part of my life. But. The place where I do all my diving (Fuerteventura I recommend it) the only shark you get out there is an angel shark. They aren’t very threatening or scary. In a few months I am going to the Maldives and I am not the biggest fan of sharks, and just reading this really helped in a way, to make me see I should be wanting to see sharks, not avoid them. Thank you so much and nice work on not getting out the water and carrying on! But I can’t help but feel scared about seeing something with sharp teeth and double my size. My older brother might be diving with me but he has only dived once before and is counting on me to keep him calm, and how am I supposed to keep him calm if im freaking out? The time of morning I’m writing this is showing how worried I am and am searching the Internet to try and reassure myself I won’t get harmed. But at least I found a post saying I would be more likely to die from a toaster or a toilet 😀 made my day. But seriously, any tips? Thanks,
    P.S. sorry for the long post and again good for you!!

    • Torre DeRoche February 24, 2013, 10:59 am

      Hi Hannah. My partner dived with a bull shark in Thailand. They’re one of the world’s most dangerous sharks, and yet you can dive safely with them, as they’re not really interested in eating people! Here’s video of it https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=10151028731407011 Remember that they attack very, very rarely. Mostly, they’re just peaceful fish. So if you’re feeling panicked, just keep reminding yourself that there’s nothing to be afraid of – it’s only in your imagination. Take slow, deep breaths and keep reminding yourself to enjoy it.

      Maybe it’ll be better for you to buddy up with someone who isn’t scared? If you dive with your brother, then not only do you have to worry about your own fears, you also have to worry about keeping your brother from being panicked. That’s too much responsibility, and you need to be able to focus on yourself as you overcome your fear.

      Good luck, Hannah. You’ll love it! Come back and fill me in after you return from the Maldives.

  • Makenzie April 1, 2013, 1:39 am

    Wow! Such inspiration. I really want to dive more than anything but I also have an irrational fear of sharks. And I’ve learned to understand them-I’ve watched countless Shark Week episodes explaining why they are they way they are and I actually defend them when people say they are man-eaters. But no matter what I still have this fear of them, not that they will attack me.. just that they will be there. I think I’m intimidated by their monstrosity. Just thinking about being in the water with them makes my throat close up a little. I’m determined to overcome it though because I am fascinated by the ocean and even wanted to be a marine biologist when I was young.

    • Torre DeRoche April 2, 2013, 12:21 am

      That sounds like anxiety over the ‘when’ of seeing a shark. I think you need to help this by diving with sharks. 🙂

  • emily June 1, 2013, 9:44 pm

    I have a massive fear of sharks. since I watched jaws at a really young age I have been terrified of sharks. I remember waking up in the night crying and being to terrified to put my feet back under my blankets because I worried a shark under there would attack me. I did dive once last year in Barbados but I didn’t see any sharks. Im still terrified.

  • treating toenail fungus July 17, 2013, 6:32 pm

    It’s perfect time to make some plans for the future and it is time to be happy. I have read this post and if I could I wish to suggest you some interesting things or suggestions. Maybe you could write next articles referring to this article. I want to read more things about it!

  • Olive... August 1, 2013, 3:31 am

    This might interest you…
    It´s about a specialty dive course for anxious people named No Fear Diving

    have a look @ nofeardiving.com

  • Aaron February 7, 2014, 2:13 pm

    Great blog Torre. Chances of getting attacked by a shark are almost non existant, and they aren’t as aggressive as people make them out to be. Plenty of people dive with them on a daily basis!

  • Nana March 20, 2014, 10:31 am


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