A shark tale: A trip from fear to empathy

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I admit, I was terrified the first time I found myself sharing the sea with sharks. Now I wonder if the majestic creatures will soon be gone. If that is their fate, I will grieve their passing.

As authors, we are called upon to write about emotions. Part of our job description is to get readers to experience what our characters are feeling. Not a simple task. What I’ve learned is that it’s easier to write about emotions if I’ve experienced them. I’m not saying this is absolutely necessary, but when one can look back at a personal moment and say, “Yeah, I want my character to feel that!”, perhaps writing about their response to an intense situation is just a little bit easier.

Let’s take fear, for example. In my upcoming novel The Scent of Rain, my two young protagonists grapple with all kinds of fear. Fear of an uncertain future, fear of punishment, fear of physical harm. We have all faced fear in one form or another. I admit I’m afraid of a few things. I finally quit umpiring baseball after 25 years, because, though I’m loathe to admit it, I’m scared of screaming line drives. I’ve been hit by baseballs way too many times, often accompanied by a fan yelling, “Don’t rub it. It only hurts for a minute!” Which is, of course, the biggest lie in baseball. Those bruises last for weeks. And let’s not talk about the balls that hit boney parts. I’ve been afraid in a few doctors’ offices over the years, waiting for a prognosis. There was that all-consuming fear when one of the boys was out late and didn’t call, making my mind whirl about the frightening scenarios that might have befallen them. And then, there was that moment when I jumped into the ocean, bobbed to the surface, and saw the dive boat being sucked away in a swift current.

I willed myself to be calm, as I watched the boat shrink away. I could see the distant shore of Cayman Brac, a small Caribbean island Christopher Columbus was said to have sailed by and which he called “Las Tortugas,” because of the many turtles he’d sighted in the area. I was a novice diver at the time; still not entirely comfortable with the life-support gear that allowed me to breathe under water. I knew the current would dissipate if I descended, and, as I feared being swept away and lost at sea, I lifted the tube that would allow air to exit my buoyancy control device – called a BCD – and began my descent.

I was just a few feet beneath the surface when I noticed the outline of the creature near the sandy bottom directly below me. A shark. I panicked, kicked hard, and forced my head above the water, struggling because I had let too much air out of my BCD. I intended to remove my mouthpiece to warn the others, but the boat was tiny now. No one would hear me.

I stopped kicking and looked down again at the shadow thirty feet below. Then something approached. I was startled to see another shark directly in front of me. Then a third circling to my right. Eight, maybe more, of the smooth-skinned beasts whirled around me and I thought I might cry.

But then, near the bottom, coming at fast clip, was another diver, showing not the least hint of fear. Later I would learn that nurse sharks are gentle creatures unless harassed, and though they can grow as large as fourteen-feet, they eat primarily fish and shrimp, and can be considered the kittens of the shark world.

Like many Americans, my view of sharks was tainted by the movie Jaws. Until I’d seen the film that put Steven Spielberg on the path to fame and which coined the phrase Summer Blockbuster, I had fearlessly paddled far out into the ocean on those family trips to the Jersey shore, body surfing and swimming without any consideration for what might lurk below.

We think of sharks as indiscriminate killers, but research shows that humans slaughter about 100 million sharks every year – roughly 11,000 every hour. Sharks are responsible for less than ten human deaths annually in what are generally cases of mistaken identity. Surfers, arms and legs dangling off the sides of their boards, look to sharks like floundering seals – a favorite meal. Sharks have been on the Earth over 400 million years. Man now threatens their existence.

One summer, near the coast of Roatan – an island off of Honduras – I listened as the dive master outlined what we were to do. A much more seasoned diver now, I paid close attention to the weathered but handsome Italian who repeatedly explained the plan. He went into the water first, with me close behind. Hand-over-hand I pulled myself down a thick buoy line, where seventy feet below a tall rock wall was fronted by a half moon of white sand. As instructed, I lined up with the other divers, our backs tucked tightly against the rock, hands under our armpits. The Italian knelt out on the edge of the sand and waited.

Soon, shadows appeared in the distance. Then one, two, three, a dozen Caribbean reef sharks swirled their thick gray bodies in a dizzying dance before us, the Italian kneeling in the middle of them as if in prayer.

Then he motioned for us to join him. Remembering to keep my hands held close to my sides – fingers can sometimes be mistaken for small fishy treats – I ventured among them. Above me, below me, on all sides: sharks. Divers and animals swam together close enough to touch. One huge female came near, a thick silver hook poking through her lip with a length of line trailing past her gills.

Finally, we were motioned back to the wall, where once again we held our bodies still. The Italian opened a white bucket and backed away as dead fish floated up. The sharks wrestled one another for the snacks then slowly swam away, disappearing into the distance. He pointed to the buoy line, but before the ascent, a white triangle caught my eye. A shark tooth lay in the sand. A gift.

Back on the boat, I would hear the Italian speak in a worried tone about the nine-foot shark he called Maria. The hook, which had probably become imbedded when she had snatched a meal from a fisherman’s line, was taking too long to disintegrate and fall out. I envisioned the animal, could almost feel the cold steel of the hook on my cheek.

Afterwards, I wondered how the abject fear I’d felt when I first swam among those majestic beasts had, somehow, morphed into empathy. Clearly, it was the vision of the Italian, as he stared out over the water, speaking quietly about Maria as if she were a lover.

Anne Montgomery’s new YA novel, The Scent of Rain, tells the story of two Arizona teenagers whose fates become intertwined. Rose flees into the mountains to escape from her abusive polygamous community where her only future is marriage to a man older than her father. Adan, whose only wish is to be reunited with his mother, is on the run from the cruelties of the foster care system. Are there any adults they can trust? Can they even trust each other?  The Scent of Rain will be released on March 28, 2017. The book’s launch will take place at the Poisoned Pen Bookstore at 4014 N Goldwater Blvd #101, Scottsdale, Arizona on April 2, 2017 at 2:00 PM. 

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