I think it’s obvious that I am happiest on, or around, the water. Doesn’t have to be the ocean (though for this transplanted Gulf Coast girl the sea will always reign supreme) – I’m perfectly happy kayaking on a lake or river; I’ve hiked up to waterfalls in the low Appalachians, and I’ve snorkeled in the 68 degree water of the Ichnitucknee River in Central Florida, while sensible friends stuck to giant inner tubes, convinced I was going to be eaten by a stray alligator the whole time. I wasn’t, but 5 miles in sub-70 water turned me an extremely fetching shade of blue. Besides, I’m not exactly the poster child for aerobic fitness, so the wet stuff suits me – I’m buoyant and insulated, like a seal.
So it may come as a surprise that I can be be terrified of the water.
Not of being on it – please let me live on a boat one day, lord – and not of being under it; when I’m snorkeling I can see what’s going on around me, so I’m totally fine. But swimming, particularly in murky water where I can’t see what’s going on underneath me, can freak me out completely. I still almost never do it. I’ve learned over the years that it’s not a particularly unusual phobia, either – there’s something about not knowing what’s going on under you that grabs you by the reptillian ganglia and sends your mind racing. I’ve been know to be treading water in gentle surf, and have a strand of – seaweed? octopus tentacle? underwater aliens? – brush my calf, and suddenly I’m treading water on the surface, like one of those crazy lizards that runs across the Amazon. And I was like this before I started watching Shark Week.
Growing up in Florida this was something of a problem, since you spend approximately one hundred and eleven percent of your time in or around the water. I was additionally handicapped by one of my friends having a dad who worked for the Dept. Of Natural Resources, and who came home with stories about flying small fixed-wing planes over the beaches to do population surveys, and counting the dozens of sharks they could see cavorting in the water just off the beaches, like so many visitors to the human zoo.
Though I’m still wary in the water, I finally was able to get past the red-zone version of it and downshift to “concerned attention” rather than “forgot how to breathe” panic. I didn’t set out to conquer it, either; one serendipitous encounter set me free.
Honeymoon Island is at the end of a causeway, not far from the house I grew up in. I used to go there all the time – it’s a nature preserve, so it looks like Florida is supposed to, used to, before somebody decided that hacienda-style strip malls and car lots were acceptable substitutes for live oaks and ospreys – and I always waded clumsily, swam nervously, watching the sailboarders further down the causeway dance across the water. And feeling hopelessly ashamed of my fear.
One afternoon, though, I was paddling cautiously in the shallows when a few yards off the beach a small boat pulled up, just outside the surf line. It was a guy fishing with an old-fashioned cast-net, surely one of mankind’s coolest inventions, and I knelt, transfixed, rocking in the water, watching him send the fabric in a perfect arc, catch the late light like a golden spider web, and haul it in squirming with small fish. I remember thinking that his smooth, practiced actions were like a direct line back to biblical times, that people had cast and hauled with these same motions for thousands of years.
And then the surface of the water broke. And broke again.
Suddenly, there was a pod of dolphins, circling the boat. They were there for the smaller bycatch the fisherman was throwing back – clever creatures that they are, they knew his discards could be their easy dinner. I watched, fascinated, as they gleamed brightly on the surface for a moment and then sank again, rising and falling like a series of carousel horses. Before I knew it, I had paddled out to halfway between the shore and the boat, to where I could just stand in the surf chest deep, and watch the ballet. I’d never realized how big dolphins were before – these were 400, 500 pound animals – and they moved through the water like graceful torpedos, all power and momentum. And then they saw me.
Curious – what was this large pasty fish? would it be tasty? about four of them came over and began to splash and circle, momentarily distracted from dinner service. I suppose I should have been frightened – I may have mentioned they were three times my size – but all I could do was stand, breathless, in the water that I found so frightening, and laugh at them, at me, at my amazement. I felt completely unthreatened, just awed. One of the dolphins actually pulled up in front of me and lifted up from the water, looking at me with it’s head cocked to the side, like a puzzled labrador retriever.
The fisherman gave a wave, and started his trolling motor. As his boat puttered away, the dolphins gave up on their inspection of me, and streaked off after him, giant grey children chasing an ice cream truck. And then there was silence. The whole episode had lasted perhaps fifteen minutes, long enough for the sun to begin to drop and and send long golden rays across the sand. I stood in the water for a few more moments, feeling the evening breeze on my wet shoulders as the day cooled.
And suddenly I wasn’t afraid anymore.