What’s one of the biggest adventures I’ve been on?

My hairiest adventure was one I went in more than on. It all started with the belief (hope?) that anything that was OK for my daughter Becky to do should be alright for me to do as well. “Don’t you worry about sending her off to travel on her own?” other mothers asked from the time she was 15. That was way before COVID and the rude, nasty travel behavior that came along with it, but I’d still get some wide-eyed judgy kickback from the helicopter moms when I said airports and hotels were no big deal for my Becky.

“Listen, this girl climbed Grand Teton on her seventeenth birthday. She hangs off the side of cliffs and rafts places with names like Desolation Canyon and Maytag. I’m just relieved she hasn’t been in an episode of I Shouldn’t Be Alive. Or worse.

So I went on a shark dive.

Or, rather, I was one of the snorkelers tagging along on the shark dive. Sounds like window shopping versus full immersion, right? Read on.

As a work-study intern at a dive resort on Andros, Bahamas, leading a shark dive was just another assignment for Becky—way better, she thought, than senior algebra. So there I was on my first visit down there, bolstered by rum punch, booking a spot on the next shark trip with my travel buddy and sister, Jan. (I’d made similar questionable commitments to roller coasters and Comic Cons in solidarity with my other daughter Helen. But those are different stories for different days.) Content to keep his shark viewing at a distance, Tom—who got me hooked on my favorite water sport and had been swimming alongside me ever since—opted to “hear all about it later” and went bone fishing.

Proud to be the first one in and the last one back on the boat, I can usually tune out the Snorkeling 101 instructions from the tour operators. Why I shouldn’t stand on the reef or walk on deck with my fins on. Why I shouldn’t touch anything out there, especially the sea urchins, or expect to see stuff with a leaky mask. Why I should wave at the camera so I can see how much tropical fun I’m having each time I watch myself from my cold, lumpy couch back home. “Yup, second nature, thank you very much, just point me toward the coral.” But this time I listened rather intently. Because it was my baby girl—all tanned and sure of herself in her official staff shirt—telling me what I should and shouldn’t do. With the sharks.

The divers would kneel in a circle in the sand below us, she explained, waiting for the “chum ball” of frozen fish to be lowered in the center. This was just a surprise snack for the Caribbean reef sharks, “a small amount of supplemental food provided on an irregular basis so they aren’t dependent on us for food.” But we’d definitely see some, because the sharks would see our boat coming first, and sharks had really good surprise snack memories. “Uh….OK….” I thought, “I think I’m ready.” I’m not a strong swimmer, but when it comes to floating, I can drift endlessly on the surface like a bobber without a worm. Turbulence isn’t even a problem, I just bob along with the pretty fishies and hope I get to be a mermaid in my next life. So I jumped in, followed by my equally floaty sister, and got ready to watch the feeding frenzy.

“Holy f***ing sh*t!!!!” I yelled into my snorkel the second I realized what Becky and the dive crew didn’t tell me (or I didn’t hear well enough to fully fathom). Before plunging toward the chum ball, the sharks swim along the surface—just like in the movies when everyone is tearing ass to get out of the water. They come from all directions, seemingly out of nowhere, guided torpedoes aimed at a bull’s eye of fish guts above the divers who are already in calm repose in the sand. “They might nudge you on the way by, but they’re just curious and really interested in getting to the food, so don’t worry.” I dimly remembered being told something like that in the part of my brain not filled with the sound of my heartbeat. Underwater it sounded like a cranked-up ultrasound and I was the baby. Sharks were everywhere, bumping me, sliding past the bare skin between my shorty and my fins, sizing me up with their oh-so curious sword-colored slitty eyes. Did I look better than a chum ball? Did I smell pretty tasty? At this point in my vacation, I knew I was probably exuding conch fritter out of my pores, not to mention the tiny shaving cuts on my legs and whatever perimenopausal scents I happened to be giving off at that particular moment. A vision of an ice cream truck flashed in my my head and I could hear its plinky, playful Entertainer tune as it rolled toward my house, until the theme from Jaws drowned it out.

The visceral but moderately reliable survival instinct I’d fallen back on my whole life kicked into gear. I grabbed onto my big sister. Seeing her expression inside her mask as I put a death grip on her hand was strangely comforting. It was somewhere between her “go do this crazy thing so I can watch you and laugh” face, and her “we’re both in big trouble but I’m faster than you so I won’t get caught” face. Except we were watching each other. And she knew a fast exit was out of the question. So we stayed very, very still and eventually reverted to the shared strategy that automatically engages when nothing else can save us. We burst out laughing. As I remember, mine was a submerged version of my “roller coaster laugh”—a shrieky, maniacal best-time-of-my-life-right-before-I-die reflex. It was calming, though, And I think I finally heard David Attenborough narrating as I became the “incongruous spectator watching the powerful, majestic, often misunderstood apex predators make short work of their free lunch of frozen fish.”

“That was so cool!” we gurgled the minute we got back on the boat, high fiving and swapping impressions with our dive tribe till the retelling turned into our Bahamian shark version of Dances With Wolves. The story doesn’t translate well to general audiences, though. And over the years, I’ve learned to edit the occasional, farther away shark sightings out of my snorkeling stories, along with the sting rays, barracuda, and morays.

“You’re just shark bait when you snorkel,” some friends respond to even my most placid trip reports. They prefer to stay topside, immersing themselves in culture, architecture, and other “safe” cruise ship itineraries. “Don’t you watch Shark Week?” No…and no, I tell them, silently remembering how I wasn’t really the bait but pretty far above it. “Those shark shows are just Hollywood’s way of sensationalizing something that happens once in a great while. I don’t watch any of that.” But neither do I watch the dive video of me and Jan, star-fished and muckled together alongside the boat, random flotsam in an undersea adventure.

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Building my life story one question at a time