Armed with just a mask and snorkel, I left my girlfriend to tan on the beach and headed out into the waters of Shark Bay. I wasn’t nervous. I had been to plenty of snorkel sites with the word “shark” in their name but had yet to see a fish longer than my arm.
It never ceases to amaze me how easy it is to completely detach yourself from the world by simply sticking your head underwater. I instantly forgot that I was on a very popular island in the Gulf of Thailand and absorbed the alien sights and sounds that surrounded me.
After swimming out for a good 20 minutes I paused and took in the vivid scenery. I watched the colourful fish sway with the current and listened to the sound of the coral being churned by the waves. I stayed in the same spot for a while, gently treading water, before I saw the shark.
I have seen countless nature documentaries and am well aware that sharks are mostly harmless. However, in that moment, I suddenly felt very vulnerable. I had only had a brief glimpse of the animal but its silhouette was unmistakable. I was torn between a need to get back on dry land and a desire to see more. As it turns out the choice was not mine to make.
Another glimpse, this time much closer. The sea was slowly becoming more agitated and the water was quickly becoming cloudy. I had read that shark attacks are largely a case of mistaken identity and poor visibility and decided to start heading back.
I began to paddle backwards keeping the shark, or at least where I thought it was, in my field of vision. My calm peaceful environment suddenly appeared threatening and dangerous. Everywhere I looked I could imagine rows of razor sharp teeth torpedoing in my direction and tearing me to shreds.
Finally I got a clear sight of the fish. It was a Blacktip Reef Shark, easily identifiable by the black markings on its fins. I breathed a sigh of relief and was able to relax. The species is not considered a threat to humans and is actually reputed to be a timid creature.
Despite this, the shark remained an imposing presence and as it was my first time in the water with a fish almost my size, I didn’t feel entirely comfortable. This apprehension slowly melted away as it became clear the shark had absolutely no interest in me.
The animal was a pleasure to watch and all my initial fear evaporated as I watched the shark glide through the sea. After a few minutes I noticed a couple of its friends making an appearance in the distance.
At this point I began to feel unnerved. I have no doubt that I was in no actual danger but being alone in the sea with three sharks, two of which were dipping in and out of my field of vision, was not a calming experience. I began to head back.
As I slowly emerged from the water, inching myself out to avoid cutting my feet on the coral, I was hit by the difference between above and underwater environments. The sunny, loud and busy beach was the polar opposite of the world just a few meters from the shore. I took a breath and headed back out.