I was nine when the movie “Jaws” came out. My otherwise smart parents decided it was a good idea to expose a child who lived on an island, Balboa, who went out in a boat weekly and who was an avid surfer, to a movie in which an enormous rogue shark terrorizes an island full or swimmers and boaters.
It did not go over well.
In fact, the weekend I saw “Jaws,” we went to our Palm Desert condo, where I was afraid to go in the pool. In the desert. Big Corona and 54th Street were out of the question. And I wasn’t alone. After “Jaws,” an entire generation saw sharks as vicious man-eaters and indiscriminate killing machines that targeted humans. B-movie sensationalism trumped reality. Let’s just say Steven Spielberg owes us a few summers.
But, fortunately, Orange County turned out to be a shark-free zone. There was the very occasional sighting, of course, but there were exactly zero confirmed attacks during my high school and college years. So, eventually, I returned to the ocean and got over my fear of what one of the characters in “Jaws,” Hooper, referred to as “a perfect engine, an eating machine.” For the next few decades I surfed, I swam, I even spearfished for dinner without a worry.
Then came 2015 and the sharks seemed to revert to 1975 cinematic terror tactics, attacking anything in a bathing suit. Suddenly I surfed with my legs up. I swam with the “Jaws” theme pumping through my mind.
And spearfishing, my true passion? That was about as relaxing as hand-feeding a lion.
The problem only got worse. Shark attacks in 2015 and 2016 hit record numbers in many places, and in usually safe Orange County, there were two shark attacks in 11 months. To put that in perspective, according to the University of Florida’s International Shark Attack File, there were four confirmed unprovoked shark attacks in Orange County from 1926 through 2017. And worse were the shark sightings, which became a daily headline: Great White Sharks Surround Paddleboarders, Shark Attacks Hit Record High, Rogue Family of Great Whites Kills 6 in Thanksgiving Day Feast.
OK, that last one I made up, but my fear was not fictional. My relationship with the ocean, the one thing that provided me calm and solace and kept my life on track, was in peril.
So I had two options:
1. Move to Kansas. (Zero confirmed shark attacks. I checked.)
2. Seek professional help.
I called Suzanne Anthony, a clinical psychologist whose clients include young kids who are scared to go in the ocean for fear of sharks. She helps terrified 6-year-olds, so I gave her an outside shot at helping me.
I told Anthony I needed to stay calm while I surfed, swam or chummed up the ocean with bloody fish guts while spearfishing.
“You know, some fears are healthy,” she said. “They keep us safe and from getting eaten.”
I told her I needed more for $90 an hour.
Anthony said she’d help, but when I ventured offshore to spearfish in sharks’ natural habitat, I was going up against the primitive human fears of being eaten by a large apex predator and the fear of the unknown triggered by that big, blue foreign environment.
“Typically, what happens in the human brain when we have an unknown is we fill in the blank with the worst-case scenario,” she said. It goes back to caveman days; the best way to stay alive is to treat anything unknown as a threat to survival.
It’s why “Jaws” worked so well. Faced with three malfunctioning sharks that were ruining his budget, Spielberg came up with another plan: show the shark as little as possible, playing on the fear of the unknown lurking beneath the surface. Bingo, a box office hit and a terror so intense that almost 40 years after scaring me out of oceans, pools and nearly the bathtub, it was still ruining my dives.
Anthony suggested cognitive behavioral therapy, the first half of which was exposure therapy. “It’s almost like an inoculation theory,” she said. “The more that you’re around the fear stimuli and nothing happens – like you don’t get eaten – your anxiety response will lower.”
So to secure my love of life on the ocean, I had to get over my fear of sharks by diving with them. A lot. And not get eaten. That not-getting-eaten part was really the key to knocking down the fear.
Of course, that was only half of the cognitive behavioral therapy Anthony prescribed. The other part involved the rational thought process (the cognitive part): talking to shark experts and learning the facts – such as I’m less likely to die from a shark attack than from a deer in the road, a vending machine falling on me or just falling out of bed.
Anthony admitted that my goal was a bit tougher due to the uptick in shark attacks. Not necessarily because my chances of getting attacked had risen, but because of media exposure.
“Even though shark attacks are low-incident occurrences, because they’re everywhere in the news, our brain interprets them as highly likely. Our brains get tricked,” she said.
Right, I thought, this whole fear of sharks thing is just silly. I mean, I’m the father of a teenage girl with the last name Loose. I can handle anything. I started to feel pretty darn good.
Then Anthony added a final thought: “Of course, my personal theory is that part of you wants to keep a little healthy fear about things like high places, bears and sharks. After all, being far offshore in the middle of a ball of chum is not exactly safe.”
“Maybe I could pay you more to say less,” I said.
Before working on the exposure therapy, I decided it was far less terrifying to call a shark expert and work on the cognitive therapy. So I contacted Chris Lowe, the director of Cal State Long Beach’s Shark Lab and one of the country’s most respected shark experts. I asked him if I was crazy to want to get more comfortable with sharks in a period when shark attacks are on the rise.
“Technically, the number of attacks on humans has been rising, albeit very slowly, over time,” he said. But, if you factor in population growth, “the per capita rate of bites on humans in California has declined.”
I told him that terms like “per capita” and “technically” are no match for terms like “vicious man-eater” and “killer shark.” He understood but assured me that sharks, even great whites, were not man-eaters. In fact, he said, “Sharks only remove flesh in 18 percent of the unprovoked incidents, which tends to suggest that they don’t consider humans as a viable food source.”
So, I asked, can I assume that when I see a shark while in a column of chum or fighting a speared fish, the shark is more interested in the fish than me?
“Yes, that is a very safe assumption,” he said. “California spearfishermen refer to sharks as the ‘tax man’ who occasionally wants his piece of the profits. Sometimes, it’s better just to pay the tax, rather than suffer the fines.”
Lowe believes there are two reasons California is seeing such a surge in shark sightings. One is that El Niño kept the sharks from migrating south to Mexico in search of warmer water. The second is that over the past 15 years, shark populations have increased because of the protection and recovery of marine mammals, their food source.
All the more reason for humans to get comfortable with sharks. So I asked Lowe what the best course of action is when encountering a shark.
Eye contact, he said, is essential: “When an ambush predator knows it’s been spotted, they usually give up the assault.”
Don’t freak out, he said. “Stay calm, keep your eyes on the shark and assess its behavior. If the shark starts approaching in more rapid movements, then it’s time to get out of the water. Obviously, if the shark is biting you, you hit it in the nose and eyes with all you’ve got.”
Going toe to fin with an apex predator seemed like a big leap, so I decided a nice baby step was a shark cage dive, which I did just a week later. And while the experience was awe-inspiring, it was sort of like watching lions at the zoo, where there’s a moat, a fence and 20 slower tourists between the lions and me becoming lunch.
To really overcome this fear, I was going to have to swim with sharks – without a cage, without a spear gun and, hopefully, without any punching.
Blond, beautiful and weighing in at a little over 100 pounds, Ocean Ramsey is not, on first glance, someone you would bet on being a respected shark expert who swims with very large predators daily. But that is her passion, which is why she and fellow shark expert Juan Oliphant founded Hawaii’s One Ocean Diving, which takes people 3 miles offshore to swim with sharks.
“We want to turn fear into fascination,” Ramsey tells me during the 15-minute boat ride to the dive site. (Thankfully, I had my digital recorder running because I couldn’t hear a thing over the “Jaws” theme song running through my head.) Apparently, she also said, “Most people don’t know any factual information about sharks except that they have teeth.”
To change that, a few years back she and Oliphant made an anti-“Jaws” film. In “Jaws” the blond girl gets eaten. In their YouTube version, Ramsey is seen swimming with a very large great white shark in the waters off California. It generated much-needed good press for sharks.
And despite all the recent sightings and calls for shark culling, Ramsey is hopeful we won’t return to the hysterical days of “Jaws.”
“I realize we still have a long way to go. There are still a lot of people in the old ‘Jaws’ brainwashed and ignorant mindset that will take some time to undo,” she said.
But undo it we must, because we need sharks for the health of the oceans and, ultimately, our own survival. That may seem ironic with the wave of shark attacks in recent years, but Ramsey said nothing could be further from the truth.
“Sharks are the immune system of the ocean. They remove the dead, dying, weak, sick and injured animals and leave only the healthiest to reproduce, keeping everything in balance,” she said. Unfortunately, every once in a while, our graceless swimming can mimic those sick, injured animals.
In return for their help in sustaining our oceans, humans massacre 70 million to 100 million sharks per year – about 11,000 per hour – through culling, longline bycatch, and, mostly, finning for soup.
Frankly, the plight of the sharks was not on my list of concerns as the engines of the One Ocean boat slowed and we
approached the dive spot. I was thinking more about a recent study that found that while sharks are indeed an apex predator – a 5 on the trophic scale of 1 to 5 – we humans are more like a 2.2, on the same level as anchovies and pigs. It’s merely our arrogance and technology that allow us to act as apex predators.
The boat pulled up to a buoy and the engines shut off. Suddenly, my homo sapiens arrogance sank away and I felt very anchovy-like. Ramsey, on the other hand, was beaming like she was about to see her best friends. She jumped in first and reported back. “We have 13 sharks,” she said happily. So, I thought hopefully, that’s too many to dive with, right?
Moments later, as I climbed down the ladder and into the shark-filled water, I clung to all I had learned about staying calm: deep, slow breathing, eye contact, avoid prey-simulating splashing, and keep hands and fingers close to my body so sharks don’t mistake them for squid. I reminded myself I was more likely to choke on a hot dog than get bitten by a shark. Then I remembered that I don’t eat hot dogs …
I hit the water and took a look around. Sharks everywhere. Mostly 6- to 10-foot Galapagos with a few 6-foot sandbar sharks mixed in. They swam mere feet below, making large, sweeping circles. A few swam directly at me, coming close enough for me to see the texture of their skin, the details of their eyes, the sharpness of their teeth.
But after only a few moments I noticed something very strange and unexpected. My heart rate was normal, as was my breathing and my stress level. In fact, far from causing anxiety, the sharks were having a calming effect. Just as Ramsey promised, the way they glided through the water with controlled confidence, establishing dominance without threat, was more fascinating than fear-inducing. It was hard to believe that these creatures were related to the so-called monsters that had generated so many recent headlines.
By the end of our 45 minutes in the water, 27 sharks had shown up, while my anxiety had gone way down.
I have now been in the water with hammerheads, tigers, Galapagos, sandbars and oceanic white tips. I have, on rare occasions, felt slightly threatened. But in every case, a gentle poke with my spear tip or just a firm stare has sent the shark on its way. I’ve lost a lot of bait and a few fish to sharks, but not once has it spurred a feeding frenzy. I treat sharks with respect, and they seem to treat me with respect in return. Which I’d say is pretty darn decent of them considering I’m on par with an anchovy.