The Whale and The Shiny Little Thing Paradox

Sometimes, when I can’t sleep, I put on a nature documentary, preferably on marine life. There’s something about the sea that is smoothing and allows me to tune off. The other night, I found an episode on high seas I hadn’t seen. As I started it, the contradiction of my action hit me yet again: deep water scares me. By this I don’t mean I get a bit hesitant when it comes to swimming in open waters; as soon as my feet cannot touch the ground, terror runs through my veins. It floods my muscles and I feel them spams while I frantically swim. My mind spins out of control at the thought of something huge – most certainly a shark but why not a behemoth never before seen – grabbing me from the darkness below.
Snorkelling around the Whitsunday Islands in Australia was not really anxiety-inducing as we were brought from the catamaran to the reef on a dinghy and the reefs look like something one can lean on. Of course, you can’t: you could break it and it would cut you, but the idea of a formation I could step on reassured me, I guess. Once, as I was floating around looking at the colourful corrals, I caught a glimpse of divers below me. “Oh, the divers from my group”, I thought, and smiled before realizing they were deep down. I controlled my breathing and kicked away, consciously deciding to forget about them.
But this self-imposed zen training was useless when I took a boat to the Great Barrier Reef, kilometres away from shore, and it stopped at an understandable safe distance from the reef.

“Listen up, people, you will have to swim in open waters to get to the reef. That abyss is a thousand kilometres deep and we do not know what kind of creatures live down there, nor their size. What we do know is that these waters are shark infested, which is something you are aware of if you’ve read Bill Bryson’s Down Under and the story of the couple who was forgotten when they came here to dive. I am sure you saw the movie Open Waters based on those same facts too.”

That is what the clipboard guy was saying in my head. I was scared but I was not alone. There were dozens of us, accompanied by people who did this for a living and knew what they were doing; I needn’t fear.
Despite of my reasoning, I could feel my legs turning to jelly as I gaged the distance to the reef. I don’t remember going down the ladder, I don’t remember putting on my flippers (I must have done it in the water) but I do remember the swim. It was a moment of sheer fear; it was my moment of daring greatly. I convinced myself I was a professional swimmer who did not look like a wounded seal* and sensibly avoided rocketing to the reef. I had learned the speed lesson the hard way a couple of weeks prior.
On my Whitsundays sailing trip, one morning we had gotten up before sunrise to try and spot sea turtles. I was still on the dinghy approaching the point of release when the group in the water waved from a distance and yelled “Turtle!”. I jumped off the boat and swam for my life, my flippers propelling me like never before. I did not want to miss that. People on the dinghy cheered, those observing the turtle where impressed by my dive and how fast I got there but me… my only thought was “I didn’t think this through.” I had pushed too hard and had gone into what seemed like an asthma attack. All I know is I could not breathe and there was nowhere to rest. I’d put my head in the water, look at the turtle below for 10 seconds, unable to inhale enough air through the snorkel, come back up gasping for another 10 seconds, go back down, and so on and so forth until the century old turtle swam away. Only then, did I allow myself to float around to regulate my breathing.
That experience was too recent for me to forget my burning lungs and the stupidity of using all my energy at the start of a prolonged exercise, so I paced myself while heading to the Great Reef and kept mentally repeating “You can do this. Do not to look down.” Not only did I manage to get to the snorkelling spot without having a full-on anxiety attack but letting the waves carry me, listening to the parrot fishes nibbling on the reef got me into a meditative mode. So, when I swam back to the boat and had to wait my turn to climb up the ladder, I did not hyperventilate. I let myself sink to spare my strength and got face to face with a Maori Wrasse. If you do not know it, that is 140 cm and 60 kg (give or take) in one fish with pouted lips and a look that says “I am utterly bored”. I moved away as it obviously was not planning on avoiding me and I marvelled at its grandeur and funny face as it passed me.
It was a beautiful experience, one where I showed myself – and nobody else – I truly was brave, one that made me – and only me – proud.

Does this mean that cured me of my thalassophobia (which is its actual name)? HELL NO.
And why am I telling you all this? Because to stop my brain from spinning out of control, weirdly enough, I watch deep sea documentaries, which is similar to watching a horror movie… but not really, as with deep water phobia, you know that you are safe on dry land.

So, the other night, I got to the part with humpback whales which are the only whales I have ever seen in real life, a mum teaching her baby to jump – imagine that. So, humpbacks get my attention, you know?
But then, they didn’t, and I got a revelation. As the camera followed the whale twirling up towards the surface, a shiny little thing in front of one of its fins caught my eye. Was that a camera? A reflection? Not that deep… oh, it didn’t disappear when the fin moved… a jelly fish! It must be a jelly fish. Mesmerizing creature. The frame changed, I snapped out of it; I had missed the whale because I was looking at a shiny little thing. That’s when it dawned on me: that is what I do in life.
My first thought was it is a bad trait to have, I lose myself in a detail and miss the big (as big as a whale) picture. Then I deemed myself deeply empathetic and poetic: that beautiful little shiny thing nobody would notice it if weren’t for me. Did I have an attention deficit disorder or was I just a keen observer able to make out a tiny little shiny thing in that vastness?

It is all of the above and more, I suppose. In the end, there are facts and the facts are these: I am fascinated by the whale and I am mesmerized by the shiny little thing.

*I read somewhere that sharks sometimes attack humans because when we are swimming, from below, we look like wounded seals. Hence, the bite and the ensuing “Yuk! It tastes like feet!”

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