IF I HAD created a bucket list in my teens, swimming with sharks would have been near the top.
Probably somewhere wedged between scoring the winning goal for Blackburn Rovers and meeting my childhood crush Gillian Anderson aka Dana Scully.
The decade of my twenties brought with it a little less daring, and a little more caring. Especially when it came to life and limb.
In my thirties and perhaps recognising that I wasn’t in fact invincible, evidenced by greying hair and a few tiny wrinkles, a little bit of devil-may-care attitude came back to me. When an opportunity crosses my path now, I am more inclined to jump in feet first – think later.
Toward the end of my New Zealand trip in 2013, my brother, his wife and daughter joined us in Napier where we visited the National Aquarium. We arrived quite early and there weren’t many visitors at that time. The last thing we were hoping for was a crowd of baying spectators watching the potential bloodbath, like two underwater gladiators in a watery Colosseum.
My brother was a certified open water PADI diver and at that point I could barely swim let alone dive (which I later corrected in Honduras a short year later). The instructor gave me a crash course in ten minutes which mostly went over my head, but I recalled the essentials like how to ascend and how to signal for help.
She assured us it wouldn’t be too scary because we would be entering what was essentially a large water tank. The opaque pedestrian tunnel that cut through the water tank had magnified glass walls which made the animals look 1.5x larger than they actually were.
Perhaps when I got down there, the sharks and their accompanying razor sharp teeth would be tiddlers against my giant frame. Framed that way I’m not sure that package would be quite as compelling to the public – ‘Swimming with Sticklebacks – A once in a lifetime opportunity‘.
Wetsuit strapped on and tank fitted, we entered the ice-cold water for final instructions.
Had I been facing sharks in my domain, i.e. terra firma like Sharknado, I would have been much more comfortable. Floating around in a tank like a Goldfish food flake trying not to attract attention wasn’t an exciting prospect.
Since I turned 30 eighteen months ago, I’ve done some bat-shit crazy things which have scared me half to death. Bungee, Skydiving, Biking Death Road, Seeing Sauron’s Eye in a Peru Jungle…this was up there with them all.
People usually have their first diving experience in the secure surrounding of a swimming pool to understand and adapt to the unnatural act of breathing underwater, mastering buoyancy control and the skilful act of navigation. While I had the same raw material, namely equipment, clothing and water, my pool was filled with sharks and stingrays (who I still haven’t forgiven for what they did to Steve Irwin).
We spent around thirty minutes in the pool in total. In that time, I mainly flapped around, upside down, every right way but up. It reminded me of a cruel prank some ‘friends’ did at a house party of mine ten years ago. Unknown to me, they thought it was funny to top up my goldfish bowl of water with Vodka.
For hours we watched in amazement as little Scully performed water acrobatics. I was convinced I had a circus fish that I could bring to Circus Town like Mr. Jingles, but eventually her little gills gave up, eventually floating to the surface bringing hysterical laughing from the party goers.
In the water, I was so uncoordinated and exposed. A sitting duck as Big Bertha, the resident shark suddenly loomed into view. Underwater, everything is slower. Except for the mind. Mine was working overtime as this prehistoric beast was coming straight for me.
I watched it approach and stared at its beady eyes, mind cast back to Leo Di Caprio in The Beach and ready to tense fists and punch it super-slow in the nose. At the last minute it turned, completely disinterested in me. I even had the gall to reach out a palm and stroked its long tail as it drifted past.
The remainder of the time would have been well spent swimming with the other aquatic life, but I was so out of my depth (!) that I couldn’t get around, and the trainer could see it was becoming no more fun for me getting tangled in the various net dividers.
It was a really fun experience and although the shark was (only) eight foot long and probably completely domesticated there is always the fear in your mind that you’ll appear on one of those shows ‘When Animals Attack‘, or become an overnight youtube sensation when a normally wild but domesticated animal flips for no reason like the lions in Las Vegas against tamers, Siegfried and Roy.
Maybe I’ve got an overactive imagination. Nevertheless, box ticked!