Column: Where’s the pool?

“But what if a shark gets you?”

I was discussing with a friend his plans to go scuba diving off California’s coast. I mentioned that large numbers of elephant seals populate the Farallon Islands, which are just offshore. And, lest he forget, seals assured the presence of Great White Sharks.

When he told me he was going further south to dive, I reminded him that according to the Discovery Channel, the migratory patterns of Great Whites are largely unknown. So, assuming the waters nearer the equator were somehow safer seemed like a mistake.

Right then, a commercial for a beach resort came on the television. It had, among other things, three giant beachside pools. I heard him snicker slightly.

“What’s so funny?” I asked. He made a little joke about the kind of person who’d fly to a beach paradise and swim in the pool instead of the ocean. “It’s just so ridiculous. How stupid can you be?” he said, chuckling.

I know he wasn’t referring to me deliberately; I just couldn’t help but feel offended on behalf of everyone else who appreciates the worldwide danger of sharks. And besides, I hadn’t gone my whole life avoiding lakes and swimming pools to turn around and be made fun of for it.

My fear started as a child. Through my continued patronage to the Discovery Network, it has done nothing but get worse. Add to that the widespread availability of video clips such as, “Sharks Invade New Jersey Beach” and “Sharks Invade Florida Coast” and “Sharks Invade Lakes in Australian Golf Course,” and it’s hard for me to accept any body of water as ever being safe.

Even resounding logic doesn’t comfort me. That is, out of roughly 310,000,000 Americans, sharks slay about five annually. This means nothing to me. Not because I don’t feel empathy, but because if I ever ventured into the surf, I know I’d be one of those lucky, select few. Leaving behind a handful of the remaining citizens, friends mostly, to speculate with shock about the freak chances that took my life, which does little to console me.

More times than I care to remember people have asked, “What do you mean you don’t swim in your pool? Even if a shark somehow survived the chlorine, how would it get there in the first place?”

Though I’m not religious, I turn to the bible for an answer. Citing of course the second plague of Egypt. “Listen,” I say, “if hundreds of thousands of frogs could fall from the heavens, a single shark doesn’t really seem like that much of a stretch.”

When I told my mother, years ago, that I was afraid of swimming in the pool alone, she too tried to comfort me. “Why would you think it matters to sharks if you’re alone or not?” She said kindly, pointing out the factual error of assuming I would ever be safe anywhere. “Sweetheart,” she continued, “they’d come for you regardless.”

Instead of the sage advice a child hopes to receive from a parent, it’s become the thought that keeps me from doing almost everything.

Invited to a beachside wedding, I’ll say, “Did you know that more than two thirds of all shark attacks happen in less than five feet of water?” Asked to a lakeside barbeque, I answer that tiki torches and bonfires are fine but “did you know bull sharks can survive in freshwater?”

It’s times like those that I see in the faces of others a glimmer of pity. It’s those moments, which are fleeting and rare, where for a short while I become an observer looking in at my life. I watch the choices made and the opportunities passed over. I can see every clear summer’s day when the thermometer read 100 degrees; 105; 110; times when I looked longingly at the pool. Deciding, ultimately, not to chance it.

I can even see a much younger me, sitting on the steps of the patio beside my mother confessing a deep-rooted, terrifying fear… “They’ll come for you.”

For a moment then, I feel sorry for the boy. I know he’ll grow into a man who avoids the ocean out of fear, and pools out of principle; a man for whom beach resorts are out of the question, because he knows that sharks are everywhere, even off the shores of paradise; a man who I’d like to think isn’t actually me.

EVAN WHITE can be reached at emwhite@ucdavis.edu.

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