Fast Company

Swimming with Sharks

Q: How is the ocean like your office? A: Everywhere you look, there are sharks. To swim with the big guys, you've got to look fear in the face.

It's almost always unspoken. It's almost always unacknowledged. But it's there, in just about every workplace. It's the four-letter F-word that paralyzes people and organizations. It's F-E-A-R. Fear of change. Fear of losing control. Fear that something you've created - an idea, a plan, a product - will be shot down.

How can we get over the things that scare us, and break out of that deer-in-the-headlights trance? FDR uttered the famous line "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," but it was Eleanor Roosevelt who offered a prescription for overcoming fear: You must "look fear in the face. . . . You must do the thing you think you cannot do."

Recently I put her advice to the test. I looked into the cold, unblinking eye of a seven-foot Caribbean reef shark while about 30 other sharks circled all around me. And I discovered, 35 feet underwater, that sometimes fear is good. Because if you're never scared, you never take chances.

"When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully." - Samuel Johnson, 18th-century English essayist and poet

I've stopped telling friends that in two weeks I'll be diving among sharks. Their reactions have been less than encouraging.

"Isn't that, ah, awfully dangerous?" inquires one buddy, a marketing VP.

"You'll be inside a cage, right?" asks another, an editor.

And from my attorney: "Sounds like a death wish to me."

I just smile and explain that sharks are essentially shy and that a cage won't be necessary. According to everything I know about dangerous animals, I'm far more likely to be attacked by a domestic pig than by a shark. Jaws made us silly on the subject, I tell my friends, by depicting every sleek, stiff-dorsaled creature as a demonic eating machine. My friends remain silent, but I can tell they're unconvinced.

To reassure myself, I call up Dr. John McCosker, senior scientist at the California Academy of Sciences. McCosker, a renowned ichthyologist, has co authored a book with Richard Ellis on the most dangerous of the breed (Great White Shark, Stanford University Press, 1991). He sets me straight.

"Sharks have a lot more to fear from us than we do from them," he says. Worldwide, they've been overfished for their fins and meat, and for sport, and they've been terrorized by humans made stupid by fear. But of the 369 species of shark, just three - the great white, the bull, and the tiger - have attacked people without provocation, and even then, only on rare occasions.

I lodge all this comforting information safely inside my brain. But in my amygdala, the part of the brain that relates to our most basic survival mechanisms, I'm replaying the theme from Jaws.

I admit it: I'm scared by the prospect of slipping into the ocean and getting bumped a couple of notches down the food chain by a creature more merciless than a CFO.

As I pack for my rendezvous with dorsal-finned destiny, I tell myself that I'm the genetic victim of the flight-or-fight syndrome. We battle fear with great explosions of adrenaline, or we run from it. That was a useful reaction when we lived in caves. But today a more rational response is required. I figure that if I can use my scuba-diving skills to exorcise the most basic fear of all - that of being eaten - I can cope with most anything.

"It is not death that a man should fear; it is never beginning to live." - Marcus Aurelius, second-century Roman emperor and philosopher

I've arrived at Stella Maris Resort Club on Long Island in the Bahamas, my shark-diving base for the next few days. Around the world, there are more than 150 resorts and dive companies that feature shark diving. Stella Maris is the granddaddy of them all. If you're going to swim with the sharks, you might as well do it with people who have a great deal of experience in such matters.

At 9 a.m. sharp on my second day at Stella Maris, I climb aboard a 32-foot inboard cruiser, which will take me to the sharks. Joining me are photographer Norbert Wu and our guides, Bahamians Omar Daley and Christopher Carroll Smith ("call me 'Smitty' "). Soon they've maneuvered the boat over Shark Reef, 35 feet down. "Here we have the fish and the coral - everything we need for the beautification of the reef," says Smitty. Then, as an afterthought: "And here, especially, we have the sharks."

Years ago, Smitty remembers, a German documentary team arrived on Long Island to film sharks. But finding candid subjects to terrorize the reef and to smile for the camera wasn't easy. So local dive masters obliged by spearing fish to draw blood - a surefire shark dinner bell. Other photographers followed, the shark-baiting continued, and soon scores of adventurous divers were joining in on the action.

I hoist on my scuba tank and perch on the stern of the boat to put on my fins. Looking down into the gin-clear water, I see great, gray shapes moving in slow circles. Sharks have appeared as if lured by the sound of our motor, offering a Pavlovian display of fins and tails. The show has begun without us.

Omar settles down beside me in his scuba gear. He is carrying a long metal pole. "Omar," I ask, as casual as can be, "if this dive is so safe, why are you carrying that big stick?"

"It's my cover-your-ass stick, mon," he explains, before putting his regulator in his mouth and slipping into the sea. Like a true believer, I follow him. This will work, I tell myself, because Omar has done it many times before and he isn't even mildly scared. Then again, he has that stick.

"A good scare is worth more to a man than good advice." - Edgar Watson Howe, late-19th-century essayist

A dozen Caribbean reef sharks are circling me. I concentrate on trying to fin about in slow, even strokes, just as I would if I were on the reef without sharks. I check my air-pressure gauge, neutralize my buoyancy, and then - reminding myself that this is perfectly natural - drift down to the sandy bottom.

A lone seven-foot shark swims straight toward me. I want to run but I can't, and for the most fleeting of moments, I feel as if I'm trapped in an all-too-real B-movie. Remembering the old adage about not showing fear to a mad dog, I stay my ground. At a distance of three feet, the shark turns abruptly, as if pulled by an invisible chain. The shark repeats its run-and-dodge several more times and then resumes swimming overhead.

Norbert Wu, who seems completely fearless underwater, signals for me to ascend to the circling predators, so he can photograph me with them. I rise, ever so slowly, and the sharks widen their circle just a wee bit to avoid bumping me.

I reach inside myself for something - anything - to help me keep my cool. Breathing, which I take for granted back on the surface, becomes a tangible, auditory event down here. In comes the good air in a long, sustained suck; out goes the exhaust air in a stream of exploding bubbles. To control my nerves, I control my breathing, turning it into a meditative exercise. As I do so, the environment seems to absorb me.

And then something magical happens. I see the sharks more clearly. Their gill slits, eyes, and mouths come into focus. The grace of their swimming begins to awe me. They barely twist their bodies to make a turn; in their movements, they expend hardly any energy. Far from being mindless eating machines, they are elegant, even beautiful beasts. I begin to admire them.

My fear slips away with the exhaust bubbles. I drift back to the bottom and settle down on my knees. Omar gives a signal to Smitty, who is back on the boat, watching the action through a glass-bottom bucket.

Down into the water comes a plastic can full of fish heads and guts. Sharks I have not seen before dash to the can from somewhere just beyond my range of vision. There must be 30 of them. They are fired up. That can of chum is theirs.

The sharks attack the chum, slashing and biting at it, like panthers on a feeding rage. The can drops in slow motion, sharks slamming into it from every which way. As it settles on the bottom, the sharks' thrashing kicks up a storm of sand that spreads toward me. Sharks veer in and out of the sandstorm, their eyes ablaze. I back off gingerly, careful not to overreact.

As quickly as the feeding frenzy started, it is over. The chum bucket, now scored with teeth marks, is empty, lying next to me on the sand. Slowly, deliberately, I ascend.

Midway to the surface, I pause and listen closely to my breathing for signs of alarm. But there are none. There is only the steady, confident rhythm of my inhale and exhale. Never has it sounded so reassuring.

Coordinates: Stella Maris Resort, 800-426-0466; www.stellamarisresort.com

Freelancer and veteran diver Bill Belleville billybx@gate.net lives in Sanford, Florida.

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