Last month, I braved one of my biggest fears and played chicken with a 10.5ft Tiger Shark! Swimming with sharks has been on my bucket list for around ten years. The reason it was still on the list until this year is, I’ve long-held a fear of a shark encounter and dark water. I was the girl who had to be persuaded to jump in the swimming pool and was twenty-one before I ever swam in the sea. Even then, I always stayed near someone else and only swam in the clear water. It was the fear of what the unknown, of what I couldn’t see, of what I imagined might be DOWN THERE!
Being a writer means I have a widely creative imagination filled with all the possibilities that unleash when I feel afraid. And so, swimming with sharks kept getting pushed further down the list. Meanwhile, I ticked off globe-trotting, sky-diving, white water rafting, paintball, cliff diving, Tough Mudder, and I’ve climbed literal mountains, lived in five countries, and braved other adrenalin junkie adventures.
In fact, earlier this year a Facebook reminder popped up from 2014, where I’d posted about wanting to visit Deep Sea World to finally tick it off. Yet four years later it was still unticked. Then this summer, I was emailed an invite to Deep Sea World to try out their Shark Encounter Experience. I immediately shut the email and ignored it for about 24hours…
However, it was coming up on the one year anniversary of my dad losing his fight with cancer, and in that year I’d done nothing on my list. So it felt like some kind of cosmic sign to tick off another adventure! My friend Kirsty bought me this good luck gift which is funny in hindsight, not so much at the time.
On August 8th, I headed over to North Queensferry, Inverkeithing semi-ready and sort-of psyched-up to finally jump in the water – the whole experience was caught on camera which you can check out at the bottom of this post. I’d been warned not to watch any shark movies beforehand (not that I ever did that anyway) but I had done a little research to reassure myself. Tip: be specific in your online searches, just Googling ‘sharks’ is not recommended.
I was welcomed on arrival by the lovely Fraser who explained the timings, where I would be going, and what would happen. My two guests, my friend Hazel and her daughter Emeli were invited to watch my swim through the 112-metre, walk-through, acrylic tunnel which surrounds the 4.5 million litre tank. Before I got started, we had a couple of hours of fun exploring the rest of the aquarium before my time was up – I mean, my time came to go swimming.
Behind The Scenes
Fraser escorted me through and I was surprised to walk into a large behind-the-scenes, decontamination room which sounded very scientific. And there is a lot of science that goes on back there as they have ongoing breeding projects and research, as well as housing endangered and rescued species. I also learned they use natural Scottish seawater from the Firth of Forth to help save energy and provide essential minerals to the animals.
Next, I was introduced to the team – Shareen, Mike, Keith, Maciej – who helped me into my dry-suit (a new experience for me as you wear it over normal clothes), and talked me through the different hand signals. Pay attention to these, even if you forget everything else, you need at least to know how to signal that things are good (okay sign) or not (thumbs up – surface now!) Something unexpected, I developed a new appreciation for what it must be like not to have the ability to talk since you obviously cannot use your words underwater.
In a few minutes, I was going to drop down into a huge aquarium and freely mingle with Tiger and Angel Sharks up to 10.5ft long. Shareen took me through my paces and a trial with the breathing apparatus in the small practise tank. This was my first moment of pure, instinctual fear. There is a doorway from this small tank into the main one, half above and half below water level. I looked through it and saw a shark fin above water and my whole body bristled.
It’s Not Like The Silverscreen
It’s exactly like in the movies when you see a shark fin because your instinct is to get away, definitely not to swim towards it. Not to sound too dramatic but I was about to be mere inches from Tiger and Angel Sharks as well as venomous Stingrays and I’d been told they might swim over for a nosy as it was getting close to their ‘lunchtime.’
It wasn’t as dark as I expected and so I could see if anything was coming towards me. In the movies, it’s so dark that things just appear out of nowhere right next to you but that’s partly done for dramatic effect. And let’s face it, I was in a nice, clean tank, not out in the ocean with miles of water and pollution blurring my vision.
For the first five minutes, I stood pretty much in the same position looking down into the glass tunnel waving at my friends and passers-by, giving fist-bumps and seeing the delight and shock on their faces. I could see shadows passing over me but I was too afraid to look around. And then, I realised this was a first-in-a-lifetime opportunity and if I didn’t turn around and face my fears then it would have been a terrible waste.
And so, I took a few breaths and turned to my left, looking up and around. There were so many fish and other creatures, some I recognised and others I didn’t. In my head, I was thinking, people are friends not food and ‘just keep swimming’ over and over.
Suddenly, one appeared. A shark swimming only metres away from me and heading in our direction. It barely glanced our way and continued on into the darkness. I think I held my breath until it was out of sight.
The only thing that was starkly different is that in films and videos, I’ve watched sharks with their mouths open wide and showing rows of sharp, glinting teeth. Throughout my swim, most of the sharks had their mouths closed or almost closed and the teeth looked remarkably small even when I could see them.
My second moment of spine-tingling fear was at the half-way point when we have to climb through a large opening in some rocks. I turned and Shareen had moved away from to climb through and the cameraman was a few feet away too. That exact moment, when I was standing by myself was exactly when two sharks choose to swim towards me from different directions and I felt what it must be like to be prey. For the first time, I wasn’t the dominant species and in their environment. You can see how close on came in the photo below or if you’re brave enough there is a video at the bottom.
The team had told me, it’s like the scariest game of chicken you’ll ever play and you need to get out of their way so it’s best to drop to your knees and just let them pass over you. Imagine it a bit like a scene out of the Matrix, only it’s a 10.5ft shark crossing over your head while you kneel in the sand.
The tank and all the equipment is pretty heavy so you also need to be aware of your balance. At one point, I leaned a little too far back and almost ended up on my back on the aquarium floor but Shareen steadied me. The team are constantly checking in on you but they’re also keen to show you and educate you on the creatures you meet. Shareen made a sign for babies by rocking her arms in front of her from side to side and pointed out sacks on the ground. She also gifted me with two shark teeth that had fallen out and were on the sandbank. When I climbed back out about half an hour later, my whole body was shaking. Shareen was kind enough to say it was probably just adrenalin.
Warning: Reading May Cause Facts To Replace Myths
I later learned that a study by National Geographic revealed we have an approximate one in 3.7 million chance of being killed by a shark. And supposedly you’re more likely to be taken out by a cow! Peter Benchley wrote the book that inspired the movie Jaws, about a vengeful, killer shark that preyed on and ate many people. The author has since confessed he regretted writing it.
“What I now know, which wasn’t known when I wrote Jaws, is that there is no such thing as a rogue shark which develops a taste for human flesh. No one appreciates how vulnerable they are to destruction.’’
A week or so after my swim my friend invited me to go see a movie in the cinema about sharks – giant sharks, and it was in 3D. If you’d asked me before doing this dive, I’d have laughed and probably changed the subject. But I went to see it, we even sat near the front. I’ll admit, I hit behind my hands for a few bits but you might guess what my thoughts were by the end of the movie. The sharks didn’t deserve the ending of the movie! They were following instincts, humans entered their environment. I felt sorry for the humongous creatures because the reality is that sharks are harmless for the most part. The terrible truth is, media and movies have created monsters out of them.
Back On Dry Land
I’m definitely not fearless of sharks now but I have a new found respect for them and it was such a peaceful experience, I’d recommend it anyone. Aside from my two freak out moments, it was a really surreal, exhilarating experience. Before my swim with sharks, I would automatically associate fear with sharks and dark water but now I have a new perspective and I’m so glad I got to discover it.
Before agreeing to do this, I’d been in a bit of a rut with my writing and my career. After losing my dad, inspiration felt a bit out of reach and it was harder to say yes to things I’d wanted to do and try. Saying yes to something I was terrified of definitely pull me out of that and also had another unexpected result. Now I’ve come face to fin with a real shark, my goals for next year don’t seem nearly as intimidating! So I’d definitely recommend saying yes to fear…
Check out the video below, if you’re curious the second moment I panicked a bit is about 4:22mins. Turn on the sound but I’d recommend keeping the lights on! And when you’re ready to conquer your fear or if you’re an adrenalin junkie looking to try something new, check out the shark encounter and other experiences here.
Looking forward to my next bucket list adventure,