I Was Terrified Of Sharks, So I Swam In Shark-Infested Waters


Throughout my lifetime, I’ve primarily held onto two great fears: sharks (galeophobia) and heights (acrophobia). These are two fairly common fears, and to some extent, fear is simply a normal part of being human. However, when I became an adult, I realized that my life was an open book and I was the one holding the pen. I certainly didn’t want my book to be about all the things I wanted to do but couldn’t because of fear, so I resolved to face any and all fears I had head-on, beginning with my aversions to heights and sharks.

A significant portion of my fear-facing journey began in Belize, a beautiful Central American country only marginally smaller in size than the state of Massachusetts. My husband, Jeremiah, and I had spent exactly one day in Belize when it had been a port stop on a cruise we had taken, and the quick visit had enraptured us. Ever since then, Jeremiah had been determined to return to Belize and get a chance to really explore it.

Together, Jeremiah and I had previously traveled to Europe to satisfy my Eiffel tower and Roman coliseum dreams, and now he wanted us to impulsively book his fantasy trip to a remote Belizean island miles away from the mainland, called Ambergris Caye. Despite the fact that I was currently living solely off of caffeine and adrenaline at the crux of working on the thesis paper for my master’s degree, I agreed to take a writing break and go with him on this exotic vacation.

To reach our destination, we had to take a commercial flight from Florida to Georgia, and then to Belize’s only international airport, located in Belize City. Once we arrived in Belize City, we had two options to choose from to get to our hotel on the island of Ambergris Caye: we could ride in the undercarriage of a cramped boat, loaded with people, or we could catch a puddle-jumper airplane (so small that we would surely see and feel every bouncing and shaking sensation that entailed being at a high altitude) to fly us the rest of the way. Being as terrified of heights as I was, I opted that we take the boat, and we did. The boat ride over lasted an hour and the flight would’ve lasted minutes.

Once we’d been on the island a few days, we learned there could be some amazing adventures to be had if we booked one of the excursion tours on the mainland that took groups from Belize City into the jungle. The catch? We’d have to choose how to get back to the mainland again: the crowded hour-long boat ride or the quick flight on a tiny airplane? This time, I decided not to let my fear of heights get in the way of what made the most sense for our journey, and we booked the flight.

Once we arrived at the small airport we would fly out of, we were quickly told to walk directly from our plane’s runway onto a ramp to board a tiny puddle-jumper airplane that allowed space for probably twelve people total. For someone with a fear of heights, this size was not ideal, to say the least. I could see the pilot directly in front of me, flipping switches and preparing for flight. I snagged a window seat, as if seeing what was happening outside the plane would somehow give me more leverage to control the flight’s outcome.

I felt the normal surge of anxiety that occurred when I knew I was about to be at a high altitude. I closed my eyes and gripped the armrests. But then, when we took off, rattling and rumbling our way into the air, it happened: I felt an unusual rush of courage. We were on another part of the planet, several countries and a large body of water away from our routines, home, jobs, classes, and normal lives. I was doing something I’d never done before and my sense of adventure overrode my anxiety. I pressed my hand against the tiny glass window and watched as we soared into the sky. As I observed the sky in total wonderment, the less fear and anxiety I felt.

The view around us was unbelievably breathtaking: a vision of impossibly blue, green, and turquoise seas through bright, tufted clouds of white, with tan patches of small islands spotting the scene. I suddenly felt free, unafraid, and accomplished. I was doing this! Our plane’s so-called landing strip may or may not have been made of dirt, but we made it, and it felt incredible.

After we were done exploring the mainland for the day and had taken another flight back to the island, I decided it was time to face my next great fear: sharks. I booked a tour which was designed to take passengers out on a boat ride with the specific purpose of anchoring and stopping to swim with wild sharks. Early the morning of the tour, our boat left straight from the dock of our hotel and traveled out to the deep waters of Hol Chan Marine Reserve and Shark Ray Alley. As the boat cruised through the surface of the water, the breeze brushed past our faces and we surveyed the Belizean splendor surrounding us. It was truly incredible. The setting we were in created the sensation of taking part in a live-action topical vacation destination brochure, but all I could hear in my mind was the ominous soundtrack of Jaws on an endless loop. Somehow, I’d spent my entire life avoiding doing anything that could potentially involve sharks, and now I was about to jump willingly into shark-infested waters for an afternoon swim.

The boat anchored and we began snorkeling as a group. Led by our guide, we swam together through warm, clear waters filled with schools of colorful fish and several harmless jellyfish that looked like tiny ghosts as they floated by, illuminated in the sea. There were alien-looking plants of all shapes and sizes, and as I took everything in, I knew there had to be sharks swimming nearby.

When we encountered the first nurse shark, albeit only a few feet in length, I actually volunteered to hold him while my husband took a picture. I gently stroked his back, feeling his rubbery, slightly gritty texture, and loosely placed my arms around him for the photo. And nothing scary or bad happened. I’d done it—I’d literally looked my fear in the eye. It was exhilarating.

With each “great fear” faced, my fear shrank a little bit. That same trip, I went ziplining hundreds of feet in the air for the first time on the mainland, deep in the Belizean jungles. I was afraid at first, but I faced my fears in that setting as well. In fact, before the trip’s end, I’d ridden in the previously mentioned tiny plane not once, not twice, but three times! For me, this felt like a herculean feat in the battle against my fear of heights.

Since these Belizean escapades, I’ve taken countless flights on small planes (and once a helicopter), I’ve walked the highest hands-free walk in the world on the CN Tower in Toronto, Ontario, I’ve stood upon the glass ledge atop the Willis Tower in Chicago, and I even got a tiny tattoo of the words “fear not” etched onto my skin in New Orleans as a reminder to continue to live fearlessly.

Our repeated travels have ultimately helped me to become a stronger woman, to step outside my comfort zone, to make friends around the world, to eat foreign food I couldn’t identify, to explore Pompeii and Mt. Vesuvius, to play with monkeys in Honduras, to ride a camel in Africa, to stand atop the mighty Cliffs of Moher in Ireland, and so much more. Together, my husband and I have saved up and ventured to more than 20 countries in 10 years, crossing items off our bucket lists and making memories to last a lifetime.

I can’t confirm that, on a psychological level, facing fear head-on would work for everyone in all circumstances. I can, however, attest to the fact that in my life, facing my fears has immensely helped me. When you see that one fear can be faced, others can become less scary, too—like the fear of pursuing more academic degrees, public speaking, or writing a personal essay for friends, family, and strangers alike to judge and critique. When you become less afraid, you grow stronger and more confident, which overflows into all areas of life, and that is a wonderful thing.

As I write this, my husband and I are planning our sixth (yes, sixth) trip back to Belize where we will reunite with people we met there, dine on delicious food and drinks, enjoy lots of sun, cycle around the island, paddleboard, and maybe even go on some excursions involving heights or sharks.