Getting Below The Surface: A Shark’s Tale
I had so many good reasons not to get into the water that day. First off, there was the newspaper headline that greeted us on arrival at the Maui airport —
“Snorkeler Attacked by Shark in South Kihei. Beaches Closed.”
And where were we headed with a suitcase full of snorkeling equipment? To our time-share in South Kihei, of course. The weather was cooling off back home, and we’d been so looking forward to the extension of summer that our October Hawaiian vacation would provide.
Jeff and I visited a church the next morning, and I tried to bolster my confidence about the troubling matter of shark-infested waters by consulting with some of the locals. Their input only made it worse. Quoting an ancient Hawaiian proverb, “When the wiliwili tree flowers, the sharks bite,” a Maui mom told us she keeps her kids out of the water for the whole month of October. She explained that this is the month when tiger sharks migrate and give birth. They are therefore more plentiful, more aggressive, and closer to shore.
Unlike my unflappable husband, I never seem to be able to let this kind of intel just roll off my back. I immediately began searching for data on my smart phone. I found a website, sponsored by a company in the tourist industry that hoped to keep us all in the water, called “Why You Shouldn’t Worry about Sharks in Maui.” They supported their position with a helpful infographic informing us that we had a 20x greater chance of being killed by a cow than by a shark. In fact, oysters, falling icicles, room fresheners, and Christmas trees all kill more people each year than sharks do (mauikayakadventures). While this didn’t trigger any new fears, it did nothing to reassure me either.
Still unsettled, I continued to gather information that I hoped would salvage our vacation. The concierge at our time-share just shook her head at the news and commented that most bites occur in murky water. It stood to reason, therefore, that any idiots who get bitten by sharks have only themselves to blame. Call me a skeptic, but I wasn’t certain her words were reliable. People who sell snorkeling trips are likely to have a convenient bias.
Or maybe we come up with theories like hers to convince ourselves we’re in control of our circumstances.
Taking the Plunge
The morning of our prepaid tour was cold and rainy. I felt the thrill of hope that our tour might be cancelled. No such luck. My husband, who is afraid of nothing but wasting his hard-earned money, was undeterred. As we drove the 45 minutes up the coast to meet our tour guide by 8 am, I felt a sickening knot of dread forming in my stomach. What was that about swimming in murky water again? Doesn’t the water get murky when it rains??
Turns out my husband and I were the only two people on this tour. Our youthful instructor casually showed us a flip chart out in the parking lot with pictures of a few of the fish we might see. When I probed him about the possible dangers, he repeated what was starting to sound like the party line— idiots who were bitten by sharks had simply failed to take the proper precautions.
The rain, it seemed, was not going to stop either my husband or the instructor, and they urged me to suit up in a hurry so we could get out in the water. I anguished. I dawdled. I called on the God of Heaven and earth to have mercy and intervene. I took one more sip of my water and one more swipe of my lip-gloss. I wondered if I might be teetering on the brink of gastric distress. Or maybe I just wished I were so I’d have a legitimate reason to back out.
This was not an unfamiliar scenario. I’ve been here before—many times. These fear-provoking situations are never cut and dried for me. My more matter-of-fact friends would just simply say, “No. I’m not going. It’s too unpleasant, it’s too risky, and who on earth wants to snorkel at 8 am in the rain?” Then they’d just cut their losses and head to the nearest coffee shop with an adjacent tropical clothing boutique.
So why such a fuss about an activity that is supposed to be relaxing and fun? I’d dreamed all year about communing with my Creator and some gorgeous fish as beams of light illuminated the blue water around me. I love snorkeling! I Why couldn’t I just feel the aloha and chill out?
It is because I feel compelled to contend with the spirit of fear. I know God is not its source. I know that I am in a spiritual battle. So this recurring struggle is always a big, big deal. I text my friends to ask for prayer. I recite scripture. I sing praise songs out loud. I bind and I loose and I come across, I’m sure, as a neurotic mess.
In God We Trust
My guiding word from the Bible that year was TRUST. Whenever I faced any kind of spiritual struggle, I would go back for direction and reassurance to this powerful word and the scriptures that contained it.
I had even started noticing pennies on the ground at the most remarkably appropriate times. Since they bear the inscription In God We Trust, I viewed their sightings as little nods from God. In fact, the previous night, we’d had to walk through empty, unfamiliar streets to an unlit parking lot. I felt familiar twinges of alarm starting to rise until I caught a little gleam on the sidewalk. Leaning over, I quickly snatched up a one-cent reminder that God was watching out for us.
And now, as Jeff and our instructor waited for me to quit fiddling at the car and get myself ready for adventure, it happened again. I looked down and saw a penny that had been dropped on the ground right next to my car door. Another copper reminder that I could trust the God who had created not only the gorgeous angelfish but the tiger sharks too.
Okay, Lord. I see it. I don’t like it. But I am going to choose to trust you.
Getting My Feet Wet
From the pictures you’ll note two things. One is the rainbow. Of course it stopped raining the minute we stepped our toes into the water. Of course it did. Why had I ever doubted?
In the other picture, taken by our instructor, you’ll notice that I’m clinging for dear life to a boogie board. Would a flimsy piece of Styrofoam save me from a shark? Of course not. Did it allow me to feel a little more secure as I swam out of my comfort zone? Yes. And I was grateful that neither God nor my instructor was harsh enough to insist I swim without it.
We were at Black Rock, one of the premier snorkeling spots on Maui, and made our way slowly along the long rocky peninsula, marveling at the variety of beautiful ocean creatures until we’d gone far enough to reach the open ocean. At just that moment clouds darkened the sky, and the wind and waves picked up because we were no longer in the protected bay. Our instructor wanted us to round the point and swim down to a “really cool cave where we might see an eel.” Things were taking a turn that didn’t feel right.
No. No cave. No eel.
Then he pointed out enthusiastically that there was a stingray following us.
Oh great. Isn’t that the creature that killed that Australian crocodile hunter? And now it’s chasing us?
No, no caves. No snaky-looking eels. No menacing stingrays. No murky water. And no sharks. Please, Lord, no sharks.
Bobbing now in the chilly chop, I hauled myself up on the side of the boogie board, pulled off my mask, and pleaded with my husband,
“Please. I’ve had enough. Let’s go back.”
And though he probably had had his heart set on swimming into an ominous sea cave to see an eerie eel, Jeff had the wisdom to take me seriously. He nodded and then motioned to our guide that we wanted to go back in.
As we swam toward shore, the waves stilled, the sun came back, and the stingray took off in the other direction. I was now comfortable enough in the water to push the boogie board away and to freely dive down without it. It was an exhilarating feeling to have had at least a small victory over fear. Not that I had overcome it completely, but that God had held my hand as I took some small steps in that direction.
At the end of our session we were cleaning up and gathering our stuff when another guide came over to greet ours.
“Hey, dude! Did you see all those cool tiger sharks around the point right by the cave! Awesome!”
Awesome, all right. It was awesome that God spared me that sight. If I had seen a tiger shark up close through that little mask while clinging only to a piece of Styrofoam, I would have had a heart attack on the spot. And they would have had to put wiliwili blossoms on my grave.