The first time I saw a great white shark in real life, I barfed rainbows. True story.
You see, the boat ride over to Dyer Island in South Africa is a gut churner; choppy waters, winds, the smell of salty seaweed in the air, and all the while, sloshing back and forth in my stomach, was the big ole' bowl of Fruity Pebbles that I had for breakfast.
That, and OK, I was nervous. I mean after all this time, for me this was like meeting an A-list celebrity I'd grown up watching on TV! A celebrity with rows and rows of gleaming white triangles for teeth, mind you; and one that, in about 5 minutes, I was going to have to get into the water with.
So, as the petrol fumes mixed with nausea, I hung my head over the side of the boat and retched. And out of the corners of my watering eyes I watched as a slurry of pinks, greens, yellows and blues fed the little fish behind us.
Now, of course, I was there entirely of my own volition. In fact, this had been something of a lifelong plan. If you talk to my parents, they'll tell you that I've been fascinated by sharks since I was a kid. I planned to get married on 'Shark Island', my first school report was on sharks, and during the summers in the pool, I'd place my hand on my hip in a triangle, and swim sideways so that my elbow poked out of the water like a fin.
But I had a little problem, because my love of sharks was slightly at odds with my fear of sharks. So here I was, doing exactly what all the cheesy self-help books say about fear: if you want to conquer a fear, you've got to jump right in.
Flash forward to today, and if you've seen Shark Week on Daily Planet, you'll know that these days I go out of my way to swim with sharks. I've been face-to-face with everything from great hammerheads and white tips, to leopard sharks, whale sharks and sand tigers. In fact, by now I've hopped in the water with at least two dozen different species.
Co-host Ziya Tong in the Daily Planet studio.
So here's the thing: I understand where the fear comes from -- after all, you've got to have a healthy respect for the power of these magnificent animals -- but at the same time, our fears really are wildly over-exaggerated. For one thing, vending machines kill more people per year than sharks do.
So to put things in perspective, I thought why not offer a little 'how-to' guide on swimming with sharks. To keep things simple, I'll share five tips that I've learned from diving with shark experts over the years, and list them in a handy acronym that's easy to remember; kinda like when you're at the beach and you hear someone yell: "SHARK!"
OK, so here we go, number one:
Stay Calm -- I know you're thinking, "What the f*&$# do you mean 'stay calm'?! There's a bloody shark in the water!" Well, yes there is, but let's take a moment and dial things down a bit because it's a lot easier psychologically if you stop thinking you're swimming with sharks, and realize you're really just swimming with fish. Now, if you've gone snorkeling before, you'll know that fish don't randomly go out of their way to attack humans. So keep that in mind, they are fish,
Hold Eye Contact -- Now, if you are in the water with a shark, say if you're diving, a good trick is to look them right in the eye. That's because they're smart animals; they know when you can see them, just as you know when they can see you. And, as on land, with big animals there's a bit of dominance game. Looking them square in the eye says 'Hey, I'm a predator too -- back off." In fact, when filming we try to avoid making too much eye contact, that's because our job is to get close-ups, and if we intimidate our stars, they'll often swim away.
Arm yourself -- And by arm yourself, I mean with something you can hold in front of you like a stick or a camera. No, a selfie won't come to the rescue if a shark gets too close, but putting a big black object between the two of you may help. Often you'll see our Discovery camerawomen and men hold the camera right out toward big sharks if they're getting a little too close. Usually, the sharks will just bump it, realize that it's not food, and then get out of the way.
Rotate -- When I'm underwater with sharks, for one, I have a dive buddy, but for another we do the occasional 360 to scour our surroundings. It's important to be aware of what's around you, below you and above you when you're diving. Another great tip is to release bubbles. Sharks are scaredy cats when it comes to the strange and alien contraptions that we dive with. A few big exhales and even great whites will swim away.
Keep a safe distance -- Now of course, like all wildlife, you should keep a safe distance from sharks, but it's also important to keep your distance from other mammals and while you're at it, keep away from murky water as well. Murky waters are shark hunting grounds, so you don't want be in a place where the sharks can't rely on sight to identify you. At the same time, avoid swimming near other mammals like seals, because really, that's like swimming in the middle of a shark buffet.
! -- With all that said, the feeling of being around sharks is really a lot like being around dobermans. You know you're near an animal with tremendous bite force, but in the case of a doberman, you probably wouldn't avoid an entire city block with a dog on it just to get out of harm's way.
As for me, seeing great white sharks live and in the flesh in South Africa that day somehow flipped a switch. I got up close and personal with an animal that I came to realize is just as afraid of us as we are of it. And the best part is, I had finally lost my fear of my favourite animal. You might say it was almost like being granted that wish at the end of a rainbow.
Tune-into Shark Week June 26 - July 3 on Discovery, and the Canadian-exclusive special Shark Week episodes on Daily Planet, June 27 - July 1.
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