There’s just something about Australia that gets into you blood that makes you feel like you can take on anything. Australians have this go get ’em attitude that seems to say they’d be willing to wrestle a 15-foot croc to the ground, without shirts or shoes of course, if that’s what needed to be done. I hoped a little of that bravado would sink in to help me with my irrational fear of sharks.

Forget about sharks, there's crocs in them there waters.

It’s hard confronting a fear that has no foundation. I can blame it on my overactive imagination or whichever cousin or uncle (I can’t remember which) told me there were sharks in the deep end of my grandparent’s pool. But neither of those excuses stands up to the truth that I am a grown adult and should know better.

I am a good swimmer and grew up going to the beach so it’s not like I am a fish out of water when it comes to the ocean. I am not afraid that a shark will kill me. I am afraid that a shark will try to eat me and I will live to remember baring the scars to prove it.

But in Cairns, Australia, we had the opportunity to sail out to the Great Barrier Reef and snorkel. This experience has to be a top bucket list contender. I couldn’t get so close then chicken out. And besides I need to win back the title of “cool Aunt” to my nephews and niece. I am hoping to leverage the whole “I saw Nemo and his friends” angle to get back on their good side.

Roughly 30 people sailed out to the Great Barrier Reef with us that day. Our destination was the Pinnacle Reef right off the coast of Green Island. It took about two and a half hours to get out there and after we’d reached our mooring, the four person crew gave us a few instructions.

“Yes these are shark infested waters…,” the Captain said, “But you have nothing to worry about.” First of all, why do they always use the word “infested” when referring to sharks? According to the meaning of infest: to live in or overrun to an unwanted degree or in a troublesome manner. If the water really was overrun with sharks then something would be seriously wrong and out of balance and we probably shouldn’t be jumping in.

They also announced that one of the crew members, Paul, would be giving reef tours. Paul would pull around one of the orange lifesavers and those wishing to snorkel with him could hold on to one of the many rope loops and be dragged along. The reef tours were primarily for people who wanted help identifying the fish below or those that felt a little sheepish about their swimming skills. I wanted to go along for another reason – strength in numbers.

In the past, I’ve asked Nellu to snorkel with me to calm my fears. But unfortunately, if I go into panic mode, I leave him in the dust. I couldn’t ruin this experience for him, holding him back from going to far because I was scared.

“I am going to tag along with you,” I told Paul. “It’s not that I am a bad swimmer. I’m just chicken.”

I figured Paul had some special shark defense skills that he learned in snorkel boot camp or that I would be able to climb on top of the orange lifesaver faster than those other slow swimming suckers if need be.

So we geared up and jumped in the water. And when I say I jumped in the water, I mean I walked up to the edge, hesitated, let someone else go in front of me, hesitated again and then jumped in.

The moment I took the plunge, I felt like I was on someone else turf. The boat was moored a distance away from the reef so there was nothing around it but a deep blue something. A deep blue something and huge fish that congregate underneath the boat. For the most part these fish just looked like television-sized versions of their cute little cousins you find in pet stores, but there was a big black menacing looking one that a German kid decided to call Darth Vader. “He’s got teeth too,” he announced.

I quickly made my way over to the group of people snorkeling with the lifesaver.

The actual snorkeling part of this story couldn’t have been better. The fish out there were beautiful and they were everywhere. Not only did we see Nemo and his clown fish friends, we saw Dory, and angel fish, and a turtle, and a giant clam, and these little rainbow looking fish, and so many more fantastic fish. It was amazing.

Photo by Matt Kieffer

At one point, I think someone said they saw a shark. But I was pretty sure they only meant a tiny reef shark. Still I pulled myself on top of the orange lifesaver while Paul went down to investigate. When he came up for air, I ignored the report and didn’t ask any follow-up questions. He didn’t look worried and that’s all I needed to know.

Overall I felt pretty safe. And the longer I spent in the water, particular by the reef which was pretty shallow, the safer I felt. I even went back out when we had some extra time to snorkel after lunch. This time, I was the only person dangling off the lifesaver.

When our time was wrapping up, I turned to my new best friend Paul and asked, “Can you help me get back to the boat?”

Our crew in Cains Harbor

So while my progress has been slow, it’s still progress. We’re in Cape Town now and one of the popular things to do here: shark cage diving. One of the company’s brochure boast celebrity clientele including “Brad Pill (3x visits)” and “Matt Damon (2x visits)” and delightfully says of its crew, “Sorry Brad Pitt no longer aboard!” For now I am sticking to the excuse that it’s too expensive.  But hopefully in the not too distance future, I will have no more excuses.

~ Molly