It was the Monday of Labor Day weekend 2015. My husband and I had only been living in our newly adopted state for 33 days. We had driven from the Chicago area to our new community east and south of Orlando, Florida; just a 20- minute drive from the Atlantic coast. We were renting an apartment while we waited for the closing date on our new home. Our furniture would arrive two weeks after that. Life was good.
On this unofficial last day of summer, it seemed that a logical way to celebrate would be to hit the local beach. Well, one of them anyway. There are so many beaches just a few miles apart from one another down the A1A coast; we landed on Pelican Beach.
Armed with our newly purchased beach chairs and umbrella and an old cooler from Chicago, we set up our home base in the crowded sand between some teens spread out on ginormous beach towels and a couple that looked a lot like us: retired.
After taking a walk and watching the swimmers for a while, we decided to take our turn conquering those bossy Atlantic waves. For over 30 years, we’ve been opting for beach and warm water locales for our vacations; it’s one of the reasons why we had moved here. We love the ocean and the Salt Life vibes.
The water is quite warm in September so we had no toe-dipping “this is freezing” reaction. We pushed past the initial breaking waves bashing against our legs; testing our balance. We successfully navigated outward towards calmer waters. We leaned back, letting our legs float up and lay on the water feeling the occasional soft rise of a wave beneath us. We paddled out a little more and put some distance between ourselves and the other swimmers.
Before long, we noticed something new. Four pelicans were flying right around us and dive-bombing for fish. We dog-paddled watching them move all around us. We were right in the middle of it and couldn’t believe our luck. I wished I had a water-proof camera.
We were so absorbed in the scene that we weren’t paying attention to our surroundings. When I finally looked back at the beach, every swimmer was exiting the water.
“That’s odd” I thought. Then I saw a lifeguard, standing at the water’s edge, madly waving his arms and blowing a whistle. It’s sound finally registering. And he was waving at us.
“Dennis, I think something’s wrong – look” Everyone else was out of the water.
“I’m not sure what’s going on, but he wants us out, let’s go” he replied and we both started back to the shore. But I was now alarmed. I could see people standing on the sand pointing their fingers; some were pointing to the left and some to the right. Then we got to within earshot range.
“Shark! There are sharks!”
Now, I was one of millions who watched the movie “Jaws” during that infamous summer back in 1975. Everyone’s having a wonderful time on the beach during the Fourth of July weekend, then someone yells “shark.” And here I am, in the water, on a holiday weekend and someone is yelling “shark.”
I have never moved through water so fast as at that moment. I tried my best mermaid moves; except that my clunky legs were stopping any forward momentum because of the strong water outflow. It’s like that dream where you’re running, and moving all your body parts, but you’re only gaining ground by a fraction of an inch. Finally, we both got to the water’s edge safely, out of breath.
“Didn’t you see the shark?” one beach-goer asked. I turned around to see what they were seeing.
“See, it’s right there.”
I couldn’t see it. I ran to our beach bag and got my glasses out. People were shouting at glimpses of grey fins appearing here and there, but I couldn’t see anything.
There was no consensus on the type of shark. Some thought the pair were Bull sharks, while others mentioned Blacktip sharks.
We sat in our chairs and thought about eating, but the word “food” suddenly had an unwelcome connotation. The lifeguards allowed swimmers to return to the water maybe 30 minutes later, but I noticed several families dragging their bare feet to get back in. And they weren’t alone. In fact, we decided to leave.
I knew about rip currents and how to escape them. I had visited the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, so I was familiar with the Stingray shuffle. But I just didn’t know much about sharks. And to be fully honest, even if I did, what were the chances of a shark encounter on this particular day? Pretty good as it turns out.
With summer vacations already underway here and abroad, here are a few useful facts:
- Never swim near feeding birds because they draw the sharks.
- Always swim near a lifeguard.
- Don’t swim with shiny jewelry.
- September is the month with the most shark attacks in Florida and along much of the U.S. eastern coast.
- Swim in groups.
- Experts say that if a shark gets close enough, use your fist and punch his nose. It scares them off.
This last one feels so improbable. Not only because I don’t think I would have the nerve to hit a giant, wild fish, but also because I will never put myself in that vulnerable position again of being anywhere near a shark, unless there is glass between us.
Yes, we have returned to the water many times since that day, but I am always aware now. I don’t float obliviously over an extended length of time anymore. I keep one eye out for fellow swimmers and the other for feeding birds. Naturally, we haven’t had a shark sighting since. But, we’re ready.