That Time I Swam With Sharks

Something life changing happened when I was in Sri Lanka. I went snorkeling at a reef without knowing there were sharks there. And… here’s the awesome part: I was fine!

My Irrational Fear of Water

Let me start by saying how I’ve always been a little nervous in the water. I grew up in the pristine freshwater lakes of Northern Michigan, where there is literally nothing that could hurt me. But I’ve had an irrational fear that a large fish would come and bite my toes. Silly, right?

In recent years I’ve lived closer to the Atlantic Ocean, and I’ve had incredible privilege to spend a lot of time in the water and on boats. There I intentionally worked on understanding my fear of water, and faced the unknowns of the deep.

We Aren’t Delicious to Sharks

I say “irrational” fear because I am not a delicious shark meal. Sharks prefer things like luscious seals, not bony people.

There has been only one “attack” on Cape Cod in the past couple years. A shark unfortunately used it’s mouth to test what the guy was, and crunched his foot before realizing he was not delicious.

If sharks had hands, it would have turned out differently, but they don’t- their mouths are their way of exploring new things.

I was thinking of this the night before our snorkeling trip on the other side of the world. Back in Sri Lanka, even though I didn’t know there were sharks where I would be the next day, I watched a video a friend had shared. In it, Anna Breytenbach, a famous animal communicator, gives a beautiful description of her communication with great white sharks off the coast of Australia.

But I still didn’t know what I was in for.

A Huge Surprise

You must understand just how many locals were part of our pre-snorkeling experience.

We told the couple that we were renting a room from. We told the restaurant owner where we had breakfast. Then we bought tickets from the government official for the state park on the mainland. There was the guy who took us to the island in his boat and rented us gear. Finally, another park official checked our tickets on the island.

Not one of these people mentioned the sharks.

We got our gear together, and I decided to do something Anna had recommended in her video about sharks. She said that before we get in the water, it’s good to check in with the life that calls the ocean home.

I went to the water’s edge and sent a gratitude blessing out to the creatures in the sea, saying that I was excited to be a visitor, to witness their beauty, and I had the best of intentions while I was there.

Right then, an octopus swam up in about six inches of water, about two feet from where I stood. It was so beautiful and so rare! The friends I was with both saw it too, and acknowledged how unlikely it was.

I felt my heart open even more to the sea.

We got in the water, fins and masks and all. Still in the shallows, I immediately spotted a baby shark ahead of us. Wow! I was in full ecstatic wonder: My first wild shark. It was cute, just a foot or so long.

Moments later we were whisked away by a sea turtle encounter. It appeared to be an old one, and it let us swim with it for some minutes. So special!

Now I was in deep water, farther from shore. Reef was below me, with unknown shapes and colors, and brightly colored fish everywhere. My group had gone in another direction. There I was, exploring for a moment alone.

I felt them behind me first, the presence of something that caused me to spin around.

A five-foot adult and a smaller juvenile swam past, about ten feet away. I didn’t know it then, but they were black tipped reef sharks, known for being perfectly safe to swim with… which I guess is why no one mentioned them!

They were beautiful. The way they moved, their shape, their black tips- it was so cool!

Quickly they faded into the further waters. And like that, my second encounter finished.

The third time I saw them was after taking a break on the beach. By now several tourists were talking about seeing sharks around one particular place where I hadn’t swam out to yet.

We decided to go intentionally look for them. And they soon let themselves be found!

A group of 6 or so swam past, sleepily seeming. But a juvenile showed some curiosity by swimming right towards us, then circling around me at about a five-foot circumference. I literally could have touched it.

That’s one of the top intense experiences of my life, being circled by that little shark!

The Medicine

What did I learn from these close encounters?

1. Anything can hurt me, at any time.

Yes, sometimes sharks can hurt us, but so can car accidents, eating, and legos, (and dogs and bees).

How many times have you bumped your funny bone, without malicious intent toward your elbow? Or hurt yourself on a romp around nature, no animals involved?

Our bodies are vulnerable, yes, but don’t let that keep you from experiencing life!

If you had been told there were sharks at the snorkeling spot, how would that have affected your enthusiasm to get in the water? I like to think it wouldn’t have mattered, but honestly, it might have put me on edge.

(I’m not saying to go disturb wildlife just to test the limits, but just be with the fact that every single thing you do is risky!)

2. Feeling things around animals is normal… especially when we don’t know about them!

I don’t mean to sound noble that I was able to experience this time in the water with sharks and have no fear.

In fact, right after the closest shark encounter, a very long fish seemed to be following me, and I sort of panicked. I just didn’t know what it was, and whether it might be territorial and try to draw a boundary with me. Turns out it was just a needlefish, harmless.

But being aware of your feelings is what’s important. Breathe, and be in the moment with them.

Oh and say a little blessing before you get in the water, (or go to the woods, desert, jungle, etc.).

You are a guest in someone’s home, receiving a gift. You can set your intentions clearly and be open to the magic of animal encounters that way!

3. Fear is part of the medicine.

When we feel fear, it’s for a reason. At some point, somewhere in our family history there was probably something that conditioned that response in us.

I actually learned I had an ancestor who had drowned in the lake where I grew up swimming the most, where I feared my toes being bitten and pulled under. He had gone out on the ice in winter and fallen through.

So exploring your fears around animals can be a great tool, if you are willing to look at those shadows.

I have a lot of this to explore around monkeys. Seriously. They totally freaked me out when in India. No masks of false perfection here! I’m still working out what the monkey medicine is about in my life…


So that’s my encounter, my first swim with sharks! I feel so much gratitude toward them for showing me their power and helping me understand myself.

The ocean is amazing. If you can get to her soon, do it!

P.S. Before getting in the water this summer I really recommend Anna’s video about the Great White Sharks, which I referenced. Here’s the YouTube link!

Photo credit: Aria Everts – View of the island where the black tipped reef sharks hang out, from the shore of Nilaveli Beach in Sri Lanka. It’s that tiny spec on the horizon.

5 Comments That Time I Swam With Sharks

  1. diane gracy June 1, 2016 at 3:55 pm

    What a wonderful read. I love the symbolism of the circle made around you. Perhaps the shark was in awe of the human entering his/her home. What a beautiful experience.

    Reply
    1. ariamae June 1, 2016 at 6:14 pm

      Thanks for reading Diane! I think that awe was definitely mutual 🙂

      Reply
  2. Dawn June 3, 2016 at 2:04 am

    So glad you had that wonderful experience…i had many myself growing up in the south and of course here !!

    Reply
    1. ariamae June 6, 2016 at 10:13 pm

      Awesome! Ha- I know you have 😀

      Reply
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