A Shark Tale

I push the button to dump the air from my BC and slip beneath the surface of the Caribbean. ¬†Blue hued water replaces the crisp white boat my eyes witnessed only seconds before. ¬†In through the regulator, out through the regulator becomes my internal mantra as I sink toward the ocean floor. ¬†¬†The sinking isn’t always the easiest for me. ¬†As I watch the other divers in our group drop to the bottom like sinking anchors, I hover above struggling to equalize my ears. ¬†It is always in these moments, the moments of descent, that my heart thunders in panic, my ears pound under pressure, and I wonder why I am doing this. ¬†Why do I enjoy being uncomfortable? ¬†Why do I enjoy stuffing myself into a sausage casing of a wet suit? ¬†But then my ears pop, I sink, and I am rewarded with ¬†pink coral, a loggerhead turtle, a school of blue fish. ¬†And when my eyes land on those sights, the panic diminishes, my breathing slows, and I start to enjoy myself.

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A  curious loggerhead turtle we encountered in St. Marteen.

Diving is all about the secrets of the ocean revealing themselves to you.  And on a day in March 2012 one of the ocean’s top predators was going to reveal itself to me off the coast of St. Maarten.  I was going to intentionally dive with Caribbean reef sharks.

‚ÄúIn a cage?‚ÄĚ

‚ÄúAre you crazy?‚ÄĚ

‚ÄúAren’t you scared?‚ÄĚ

‚ÄúWhy?‚ÄĚ

These were many of the questions posed to me by family and friends upon my telling them of my plans for St. Maarten.  My answers: no, yes, yes, why not?  I’m not going to lie, diving with sharks was not my idea.  I’m more of a swim with dolphins type girl, but my husband had his heart set on it, and I do love adventure.  So when I found a shark dive offered through Ocean Explorers Dive Center, I knew we were set.

We arrived at Kim Sha Beach on the Dutch side of the island and were introduced to Jef, our dive master.  He quickly helped us find some gear. and before long we were loading into the boat and motoring towards the dive location.  The waves were choppy, but Jef assured us we would be in the water soon.  Thank goodness because after about ten minutes on the boat I was ready to provide chum for the fish.

We located the shark dive site and were quickly in the water. ¬†I was to descend first along an anchor line. ¬†This created great anxiety for me since I never descend quickly, but Jef had mentioned that since I always had trouble equalizing I should try to blow out my nose as a dropped instead of my mouth. ¬†His advice was the best I had ever received. ¬†Not only did I have no trouble with my ears, I dropped to the ocean floor in record time. ¬†(In fact, I dropped so fast, my husband told me that he couldn’t find me for a few minutes.) ¬†I found a concrete block, made myself comfortable, and waited for the rest of our group to catch up.

Coral at the first dive site of the day.

Coral at the first dive site of the day.

One by one the members of our group joined me in a half circle. ¬†As I laid on the ocean floor the shadows of sharks beginning ¬†to school ¬†appeared in the dark blue abyss. ¬†They knew it was dinner time. ¬†I just hoped that they wouldn’t be tasting me as an appetizer. ¬†Not two seconds after I thought that, I felt a sharp, quick bite on my calf muscle. ¬†I whipped my head around looking for the culprit, but I saw nothing but the cloudy water around me. ¬†I looked to my husband thinking he was screwing with me, but he was looking the other direction. ¬†I chalked it up to my imagination and nerves playing tricks on me, but just as I convinced myself that there was nothing behind me, I felt another quick bite. ¬†This sneak attack continued for the entirety of the dive. ¬†On the boat ride back, Jef asked if anyone had gotten bitten. ¬†I immediately said that I had, and he laughed. ¬†He proceeded to tell us that there is a Sergeant Major fish that lives inside of the cement blocks. He apparently doesn’t like it when the divers invade his territory and he bites.

One of the fish that makes the concrete blocks his home--not my aggressor though.

One of the fish that makes the concrete blocks his home–not my aggressor though.

I was forced to ignore my phantom menace and redirect my attention to Jef.  He wore a chainmail shirt and carried a spear and box with bait.  Each diver was firmly planted to his or her concrete block.  We were instructed before the dive to stay as still as possible.  I glued myself to the ocean floor and hugged that concrete block like it was a stuffed animal.

Then it happened.  Sharks glided into our makeshift arena.  They swarmed around us and took turns going to Jef for their snacks.  It was rhythmic to watch.  They each took turns getting food and removing themselves from the circle like dancers in a ballet.  In and out, over and around, the sharks continued their dance for food.  Hypnotized by figure eights these graceful fish made around me, I thought they acted rather like dogs.  Each seemed to have its own personality and Jef seemed to know how to greet and gage each one of them.

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The sharks arrive in the arena.

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Feeding time begins.

 

 

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Jef treats these guys like puppies when he feeds them their snacks.

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Sometimes the sharks would get a little impatient, but Jef kept control the entire time. If you look close, you will see my attacker with the yellow and black stripes.

As one shark glided over my head, a tooth fell out of his mouth settling on the sand directly in front of me.  It was tiny, no bigger than the size of my pinky fingernail. And out of sheer determination I managed to rescue the tooth as a souvenir of the day.  Now that tooth sits on my dresses in a jewelry box.

Finally, we received the signal that it was time to ascend.  Our shark encounter was at an end.  I watched as the divers left the arena in reverse order making me last.  I savored those few extra moments with the sharks, most of my fear had dissipated as they left their feeding grounds one by one.  And with one last glance over my shoulder I too started to ascend the line tied to the boat.  In a few short minutes I would surface.  All of the anxiety and discomfort of earlier in the day had disappeared like the sharks into the depths of the ocean.  And I knew that this close encounter would become a fantastic shark tale.

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An unforgettable day.
So, what do you think, would you like to dive with sharks?

 

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A Backpacking Debacle

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Grand Canyon Overlook

A few months before I was to be married my mom and I went on a road trip through Arizona. Filled with laughter and female bonding, my mom and I scratched an item off of the old bucket list–we went backpacking¬†in the Grand Canyon.

The key to backpacking in the Grand Canyon is preparation. So, twelve months before, I researched the possible trails we would hike. We had decided on the traditional Bright Angel Trail that descends to the canyon floor and rewards the steep descent with views of the Colorado River. ¬†Nine months before, I secured our backpacking permit, and about six months before, I began training for the steep hike. ¬†Everything was planned out, but you know what they say about the best laid plans…

Fast forward six months to the morning of my flight. ¬†I was to catch a plane at 8 AM and meet my mom around noon in Phoenix–she was flying in from Chicago. ¬†I arrived at the airport, and upon check in was told that I would not be able to check my luggage since I was leaving in less than 30 minutes. ¬†What! Apparently my flight had been moved an hour earlier, and I was never informed. I should have realized then that this was a clear sign that all my planning wasn’t going to work out the way I intended.

10 hours behind schedule, I finally found my mom. We rented an SUV and were on the road to the Grand Canyon. ¬†Driving north, we were noticing the higher the elevation the more precipitation we were encountering. ¬†Isn’t Arizona supposed to be really dry? ¬†When we neared Sedona, the road was covered with snow and ice forcing us to stop and find a motel to stay in for the night.

The news that evening delivered the biggest blow to the meticulous planning I had done.  The Grand Canyon was closed due to snow and was unlikely to open for at least two days.  After some discussion, we decided to do our road trip backwards and hope for the weather to improve before we would continue on to the Grand Canyon.  We knew that we would forfeit our backpacking permit but decided to take our chances with the permits they distribute daily.

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Our arrival

So one week after our planned arrival, we rolled into the campground to make camp for the evening. ¬†It was twenty degrees. ¬†The cold ground penetrated every layer we donned and kept us from getting a good night’s sleep.

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Mather Campground

At 5 AM we couldn’t take the chill anymore and moved to the SUV turning the heat on full blast and subsequently ruining the peaceful quiet of the campground with the roar of the engine. ¬†By 6 we were defrosted and enroute to the Ranger Station to plead for a backcountry permit to hike the Bright Angel Trail.

We were first in line and the ranger informed us that the only permit available was for the Grandview Trail, a steep three mile descent into the canyon ending at a campground near Horseshoe Mesa. ¬†The ranger warned us that the switchbacks would be covered with snow for the first two thirds of the trail, and we shouldn’t proceed without crampons. Before I could even suggest that we take a minute to discuss our decision, my mom blurted out, “We’ll take it! I’m almost 50 and I will never be able to do this again.”

Speechless, we signed our forms and returned to the car to drive to trailhead. ¬†Upon arrival, I was under the impression that a three mile hike would be no big deal even if it was steep and covered with snow. ¬†What’s three miles? I can do that in like 40 minutes max.

Our breath froze in white clouds as we hoisted our packs and picked up our poles.  Just as we were shutting the hatch, we saw two girls returning to their car with backpacks.  I asked them if they had just returned from the trail.  They had.  Looking at our hiking poles, they said that we wouldn’t need those, just crampons.  Mom and I looked at each other then tossed the poles back into the SUV.

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At the Grandview Trail Head

Adjusting the straps on my pack, I stepped onto the trail.  Snow crunched under my boots as we descended the first switchback, a stone like staircase, and I was filled with excitement to be doing something so adventurous.

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The beginning of the switchbacks

By switchback three that adventurous feeling switched to nervousness as my feet continually slipped and slid down the trail.  Every step had to be carefully cemented into place before the next step could occur.

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By switchback ten I was wishing for those hiking poles and continually reevaluating my mental sanity as to why I was doing this stupid hike.  My shoulders ached, my back was drenched, and my toes were continuously slammed into the front of my boots.  So much for all the training I had done.

At this point, I looked back to my mom who was smiling and seemed to have no sense of doubt, no crisis of conscience as to whether or not she had made a poor choice.  So, drawing from her courage, I continued the painfully slow process of descending the canyon.  This worked for awhile until I felt my feet give way from under me and found myself sledding down the trail on my rear end, coming to stop only at the end of the switchback.  Heart racing and the fear of death fading, I found myself thinking that the slide was actually quite exhilarating, and it allowed me to make very good time down the trail.

My mom on the other hand seemed pale when she caught up with me.  The thing to know about my glissade down the trail was that there was no buffer on my left side.  One wrong twist and I would have slid right off the trail into the rocky abyss below making for at the very least many broken bones and a helicopter rescue, and at the worst, death.

The further we descended, the harder that trail seemed to get, and we were headed down!  What did the the upward climb hold in store for us the next day?  Coming to that realization was when the panic attacked.  I stopped, sat on a nice boulder, and had a break down.  I was frozen both physically and mentally.  I didn’t want to go down, and I didn’t want to go up.

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Looking to my mom for support, she curtly said, ‚ÄúMake a decision. ¬†If we are turning around, let‚Äôs do it now. ¬†Otherwise we are going to the end.‚ÄĚ ¬†I clearly was not going to find any sympathy here. ¬†It was up to me. ¬†Did I want to accomplish this goal, or did I want to quit?

I took a full ten minutes to eat a granola bar and debate the benefits of continuing versus quitting.  I decided to heft forty pounds on my back and take the next steps forwards.  And so we continued for another three hours picking our way down the canyon.

After what seemed like eternity, the snow gradually became less until it was just dusty rocks covering the trail.  While this made it easier to walk, every muscle in my body screamed to drop that extra weight.  My pack continuously slammed into my back while my toes slammed into my boots.  My knees throbbed with every step, and I kept telling myself we had to be close.

After ten forevers, we found our camp.  And a few other campers as well.  Mom and I made quick work of setting up camp.  We downed some protein bars, finished off our water, shared some hot chocolate with our neighbors, and turned in for the evening at 7 PM.  Hiking downhill through snow is exhausting!

Before dawn we broke camp. ¬†We were getting ready to take off when our new friends commented on the fact that we had no water. ¬†Mom and I had brought about a half gallon each thinking we would be able to refill at the campground. ¬†Since this was not the trail we were going to hike, we didn’t realize that the water source was another few miles down a side trail. ¬†We were going to take our chances making it back to the car for water. ¬†We anticipated our hike taking about four hours.

Thank goodness our new friends found us to be insane and gave us one of their liters of water to take with us.  So with water hooked on our packs, we began the strenuous trek back up the canyon.

Completely unexpected, I found the upward hike to be infinitely easier than the downward. ¬†My toes weren’t being smashed, and I wasn’t constantly fighting against gravity. ¬†They only issue was that I was finding it hard to catch my breath. ¬†So I greatly slowed our ascent with my frequent rest stops. We moved so slowly our friends from the campground, who left two hours after us, passed us. ¬†As if that wasn’t bad enough, one of the men had seriously injured his leg two days before.

As these men passed us, my mom caught my eye and gave me a you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me face. ¬†I could easily see that she was frustrated with my slowness as her competitive side flashed itself. ¬†For all of five minutes we tried to keep pace with the two men, but I couldn’t keep up, and my mom was forced to concede defeat–a fact she still hasn’t let me live down to this day. ¬†From time to time the phrase ,”an old injured guy passed us,” will work its way into conversation followed by an eye roll from me and a laugh from both of us.

Thanks to those two men we stayed hydrated and slowly gained elevation.  The temperature which had risen to 75 at the bottom of the canyon slowly dropped back into the thirties.  Yet as I gained elevation, I continuously shed layers of clothing until I was in a tee shirt and yoga pants.

The subtle signs that we were close to the top began to show themselves.  We were having to step to the side for downward travelers where we had been virtually alone for several hours.  Those evil switchbacks reappeared to torment us for the last push up the trail.  Finally, we arose over the precipice of the trail to see the camera-snapping tourists that dared only venture a few feet from their car.  Exhausted smiles spread across our tired face as we stumbled to the SUV.

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We conquered the trail!

I‚Äôm so glad that in my weak moment I chose to continue on. ¬†If I hadn‚Äôt, I wouldn‚Äôt have been rewarded with the copper-colored sky I witnessed. ¬†I wouldn‚Äôt have been able to hear the flap of a crow‚Äôs wing in the complete and utter silence. ¬†I wouldn‚Äôt have been able to say I finished something that I started. ¬†¬†¬†¬†I wouldn’t have been able to share that moment with my mom. ¬†We had conquered the Grandview Trail, and despite the fact that it took us six hours to hike three miles, I was proud of our backpacking debacle.

 

Wanderlust: One Girl’s Attempt to See the World

As a child I traveled not on planes but on the pages of books.  A dusty covered wagon transported me through the prairie with the Ingalls family. I hunted coons alongside Old Dan and Little Ann.  I snuck into the secret garden, hid in an attic with Anne Frank, toured The Chocolate Factory with Charlie.  Through these pages my sense of adventure was born and the seeds of wanderlust planted.

My parents are practical people. ¬†Money should be¬†saved for a rainy day not splurged on luxuries like travel. ¬†That’s not to say we went no where, we just weren’t travelers in the traditional sense. ¬†Our family adventures usually involved an Indiana state park, a tent, and a short car ride. ¬†It was on these car trips that the seeds of wanderlust grew taller and stronger.

Those seeds finally bloomed once my parents put aside practicality and drove the family to Walt Disney World.  That one trip is the standard by which I measure all others.  It was on that car trip that I learned about myself, and unknowingly at the time, was finding the person I would become.

Travel is a sexy seductress.  New food. New places. New experiences. All of these things entice me into constantly booking new trips and new adventures all in the attempt to quench my wanderlust.  So with each keystroke, I will attempt to capture my passion for travel and adventure and hopefully awaken the wanderlust in each of you.

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