Why I give all my friends the shark attack question

There is a question that lurks beneath the surface of friendships between people who swim in the ocean together. It’s not always acknowledged, but it’s always there. No one really wants to think about it, although everyone has. The question is this:

“If a shark attacked me, would you come to my aid?”

Needless to say, the only acceptable answer is, “Of COURSE!” But the question itself is a double-edged sword. Because if your friend declares her willingness to help fight off an aggressive shark in order to rescue whatever remains of you, you are pretty much obligated to do the same.

And you’d like to think that you would. This is your friend, after all! Your friend, who helped you get out past big waves when you were afraid of the surf. Your friend, who hugged warmth back into your body after you finished a long swim in 59 degree water. Your friend, who screamed at a surfer who came too close to your fragile skull with the pointy end of his board. Your friend, whom you love dearly.

And yet… imagine the actual scenario.

Or don’t. I really don’t want to. Let’s not.

My group of friends and I swim in the Santa Monica Bay in Santa Monica, California, where the likelihood of a shark attack is pretty much nil. In general, statistics say that you are more likely to be killed by lightning or a falling vending machine than by a shark. But statistics are a cold comfort when you are out in the ocean and you see a large dark shape pass under you. Was it bunch of kelp? You hope so. Dear God, you hope so.

I mean, who among us has ever had a nightmare about an encounter with a poorly secured vending machine? Logic is all fine and good, but the fear of sharks is primal.

My relay team, named “Just Keep Swimming,” thought about sharks a lot when we preparing for the Catalina Channel crossing, a twenty-one mile swim across the open Pacific Ocean. We each had to sign a terrifying waiver that included indemnification from death or maiming by shark. At the required orientation for all swimmers, a representative from the Catalina Channel Swimming Federation told us, “Now, if we see a large shark in the water and it’s hanging around too long, we will stop the swim and pull you out,” which is possibly the least comforting sentence that has ever been uttered. In fairness, he also said that no one had ever been attacked by a shark during an official crossing. But that did not erase the mental image of being alone in the middle of the ocean at night with an 18-foot Great White silently stalking us, while from the safety of the boat our observer might calmly look at his watch and say, “Let’s give it few more minutes.”

As things turned out, we had a lot to worry about other than sharks during our 13-hour Channel crossing. We had high seas, and everyone on the boat with the exception of the crew was barfing their brains out. One of our swimmers was so nauseous that she threw up constantly while she was swimming her leg of the relay. We were all getting the bejesus stung out of us by jellyfish, and we were making such slow progress that one of our observers considered stopping the swim.

But 13 hours is a long time, and at some point or other, we all thought about sharks. From the safety of the boat, it’s hard not to do some self-serving math about what percentage of responsibility you bear for saving the swimmer in the water in the event of an attack. You think, “Well, she’s kind of far away from the boat – by the time I get to her, won’t it already be too late?” And, “Her kayaker is right next to her, isn’t he the first line of defense?” And, “I just got out of the water. Let Steve go. He’s fresh.”

Luckily, we were never tested. There was never any sign of a shark. Meanwhile, over the course of a long and difficult night, my swimming friends and I took care of each other in smaller ways. We grabbed our nauseous swimmer when she came out of the water, wrapped her in towels, brought her tea, and rubbed her back. We hugged each other in a moment of despair when we thought the swim was going to be stopped and said, “Just wait, the sun will come out soon, and everything will be better.” We cheered and applauded for each other when we went in the water, and again when we came out. And in the end, we all jumped in for the final leg of the relay and swam to shore together.

By the end of that swim, we were closer than we’d been when we’d started. We had a bond born of shared struggle and shared adventure. I loved my relay teammates when we boarded the boat, but I loved them more when got off.

And I would like to think that I’d take on a shark for any of them.

But I hope I never have to find out.

Filed Under