As a child I always relished being in the water. Whether it was the local swimming pool or rivers or lakes, come the summer months you just couldn't keep me out of them. There seemed nothing better on a warm day than splashing around, duck-diving down and imagining what was underneath. Trips to the seaside were the highlight. Once in the ocean the world seemed to open up. There were no concerns for depth or conditions and many hours would pass by with just mask and snorkel for company.
Everything changed one dramatic day at the age of eight after, of all things, a trip to the cinema! The summer of 1975 saw the release of a film that distorted the perception of one of the most graceful creatures on earth. The animal, the shark, the film, Jaws! The dramatic music score by John Williams, combined with Spielberg's idea of having many of the shots from the viewpoint of the shark, had all who watched it shivering with terror and suspense.
From that moment on the ocean became full of hidden dangers. The faintest of touches from some floating seaweed would send me racing back to the beach in a state of panic. Gone were the days of care-free pleasure that the sea had once offered up. Now it only offered unknown horrors in its hidden depths with shark attack being top of the list.
Over the years the implied threat of the oceans reduced but never diminished completely. You could still find me out there floating on the surface with mask and snorkel studying the marine life below but there was always this nagging doubt in my head that something might be down there. My perception of sharks had been so badly distorted that I believed all sharks were dangerous man-eaters ready to attack as soon as you took a single step into the water. Even though I'd read articles of people swimming with sharks I didn't believe them.
This fear continued right through to the start of my diving career. I learnt in the cold waters of a lake in England. No problem there as there was reportedly only one fish in the whole lake! But my first proper diving trip was to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia where it was well known that those big, nasty fish "with sharp, pointy teeth" were commonly seen. In fact, on arrival at Cairns airport whilst waiting for a taxi I got chatting to a fellow diver who was off on a shark safari! My immediate reaction was that the guy must be completely mad and when he said that sharks were generally harmless it just confirmed to me that he really was a complete lunatic.
As much as I tried to allay my concerns I came to the conclusion that the only thing to do was to face the fear head on. So I embarked on a 3 day liveaboard trip to the outer fringes of the Great Barrier Reef with the intention, if I came back alive, of completing my advanced course at the same time. After a day of nervous anticipation, and the fear of being eaten alive, I started to realise that these "shark-infested waters" weren't quite that infested at all. In fact, many of us started to wonder if we'd actually see a shark at all but on day two that moment finally happened.
We were alerted to the fact that something unusual was happening by our instructor's persistent banging on her scuba tank. Filled with adrenalin I gazed in the direction of her pointed finger, scouring the underwater horizon for those monsters of the deep that I had often dreamed about and finally, there it was, my first shark. Far from the fear and dread I had been expecting I found myself enthralled by its sheer elegance of movement and streamlined design. From that moment on myself and my diving buddies couldn't wait for the next viewing. All sightings held the same fascination but were never as long as we'd hoped for. What a turnaround.
Now, as a diving instructor, I find myself in the ironic position of having to allay the fears of others. To the experienced diver the prospect of encountering a new species of shark is a joy, to the student diver on dive number one ... "no thank you". My reassuring words combined with the fact that "I wouldn't be in the water if there was any real danger" usually do the trick. Otherwise, out come the stats.
If you take the average number of fatalities per year for various causes then consider the following:
You have more chance of being killed by a deer than a shark!
There's more chance of being killed by a dog!
There's more chance of being struck by lightning!
According to the International Shark Attack File there has been one (unconfirmed) fatal shark attack in Thailand since records began in 1580! In reality more may have occurred but good international records were not really kept until the 1980s. The only reported fatal attack occurred this month, in September 2005, although this incident, which occurred in the Gulf of Thailand, involved a fishermen on a boat who did not realise a shark was trapped in his nets.
No amount of talk or statistical persuasion will convince the average person that the threat from sharks is insignificant. To be honest, it never would have persuaded me either. However, experience does. From the "cuddly" leopard shark to the largest of all sharks, the immense whale shark, there are many species on offer around the waters of Phuket and beyond. Come and try it for yourself and you too will soon appreciate the majestic beauty of these elegant underwater creatures.
1US Department of Transportation
2International Shark Attack File
4Lightning Fatalities, Injuries and Damage Reports in the United States from 1959-1994, NOAA Technical Memorandum NWS SR-193