It’s funny how scared everyone gets when you mention "sharks," even though they're mostly docile creatures. Well, Lemon and Reef Sharks, that is.
“Oh please, this is just like having lunch with my agent,” I said as I pulled on my goggles and jumped in the crystal clear water. About 25 feet below me swam a school of about a dozen or so Reef Sharks. They are classically evil looking; little mini-Jaws-es on the prowl. In the back of my mind I thought they'd try to take a chunk out of my thigh. I was only placated when I saw that they instinctually stay away from humans.
This is not the first time I’ve swam amidst sharks. Although I was off the coast of Bora Bora, these sharks are not particularly exotic. Lemon Sharks can be found off New Jersey's coast. This was, however, my first attempt at trying to grab on to one.
I’ve never been a supporter of animal harassment. Beasts of the wild should be treated with respect and dignity. Where is line between interacting with wild animals versus harassing them? In most instances, it’s the animal that will tell you the difference. Recently, daredevil swimmer Grant Murdoch became an online sensation when a video went viral of him swimming up to a reef shark and giving it a big ol’ bear hug (tummy to tummy).
What people don’t realize, is that swimmers and snorkelers have been hugging sharks off Bora Bora for decades. It’s actually an attraction. Naturally I got mega jealous of Grant. I’m an adventurer, damn it, and I wanted to try the same thing. So while I was visiting Bora Bora with friends, Leo Tepeva, a local shark-diving-professional, drove his boat right up to our overwater bungalows, and off we went.
Honestly the most disconcerting part of the journey was not the sharks, it was the fact that Leo would let go of the steering wheel, put his feet up, and play his ukulele. Then again, what could we possibly run into? China? The missing Malaysian airliner?
In order to ease in to it, we started with the stingrays. These guys are like big dogs and Leo greeted them as so. “Hello baby!” he’d yell. They come right up, trying to suckle on your arms and legs. “I screamed like a girl,” Jason Boeckman, a tourist from Ft. Myers, Fla., tells me. “It’s the weirdest feeling.” In the meantime, Lemon Sharks circled about us like it was no big deal.
Then the time finally came to go deep. Leo took us to where two sharks moseyed about. As an example, he dove down, grabbed one by the tail and hopped on it like he was riding a horse.
Leo has been doing this all his life, and so has his father. Countless visitors have come to Bora Bora to do the same thing. In history there have only been 10 recorded, unprovoked Lemon Shark attacks, and none of them have ever been fatal. And none of them have been at this location. One is more likely to be killed by a cow.
Finally it was my turn. I hate to wear masks and snorkels. So I pulled on my swim goggles, took a deep breath, and dove down for my own shark hugging experience. I dove so deep, the pressure from the goggles almost popped my eyes out and I barely had enough air to get me halfway to the big guy swimming beneath me. But I was determined. And just as I got within reach, I followed my instructions, and grabbed the Lemon Shark by the tail. But unlike Grant, the shark did not allow me a hug, though he did give me a swipe of the tail. This Carcharhinus Brevirostris was powerful! In one millisecond, my hands were dislodged and he swam off, leaving me careening towards the surface for air. My attempt to ride a shark was a failure, but a very important lesson learned: not all sharks want to be hugged.
CLARK HARDING is a Los Angeles-based writer and world traveler. Click through to the next page to see him swimming with those stingrays.