“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:
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.