Fins: A Summer Memory

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:

  1. Never swim near feeding birds because they draw the sharks.
  2. Always swim near a lifeguard.
  3. Don’t swim with shiny jewelry.
  4. September is the month with the most shark attacks in Florida and along much of the U.S. eastern coast.
  5. Swim in groups.
  6. 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.


    • Thanks Mary. The adrenaline definitely kicked in and there’s just a mental push to reach safety, that helps a lot. But I know you like walks, so I’m pretty sure you would have opted for the wiser, long beach walk. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Oh my gosh Melanie!! I could almost hear the Jaws theme as I was reading this! I remember seeing an oceanographer on a documentary who said “ swimming in the ocean is like being dropped in the middle of a rainforest”! Those words stuck. After many years of swimming in the Atlantic from NY to FL I definitely prefer pools now.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ha! I’m glad you “felt” the story Pam. 🙂 And thanks for sharing that quote about swimming in the ocean; that is awesome. I can totally visualize the vastness and creatures of a rain forest. I haven’t quite given up on the sea yet, but I love a good pool dip too. 🙂


  2. I have swum in the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean (We live only a couple of miles away from the Pacific, but it’s honestly too cold for swimming around us.)

    I don’t remember the subject of Chicago coming up between us before, Melanie, but I’ve spent a lot of time there since both of my parents are from that area. My dad was raised in La Grange, and my mom was from Downers Grove. I still have cousins who live in Naperville.

    Here is a very small world story. After about a decade, the school secretary mentioned in passing that she used to live close to Chicago. She used to live in Downers Grove, but that isn’t the freakiest part. We did some fact-checking and found out that her dad used to be my mom’s doctor way back in the day.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I had no idea your parents were from the Chicago area Pete! I don’t think we ever discussed that. I grew up in Ohio, but moved to the big city after college. After marriage, I moved to the small village of Northfield (about 30 minutes north of the city) where my husband lived with his son. That is too crazy that you visited the area many times. I’m familiar with all of those suburbs. I bet it was a jaw-dropping moment when you learned someone you knew for a long time was from that area AND then her dad was your mom’s doctor? Wow. I have a small world story that is similar. When we were looking at property to build here in Florida, a woman in the sales office walked over when she heard us say Northfield. She had lived a few blocks away from us but sent her children to the catholic school right across the street from our house. We couldn’t believe it! I’m not sure whether I mentioned baseball, but this is why I’m an avid, loyal Chicago Cubs fan. 🙂 I have always loved Lake Michigan (esp. bike rides along it) and the restaurants and well, everything. Thanks for sharing this fun connection! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • The first professional baseball game I ever attended was at Wrigley Field. It was Bat Day, and I still have the bat. I remember a lot of the old Cubs (Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, Billy Williams). Of course, I was fascinated by the ivy growing on the outfield wall. The other memory of that day was that they only gave a bat to kids who were accompanied by an adult. Since one of my brothers was in attendance, they would only give us one bat. Undeterred, my dad found a foreign, dark-skinned gentleman to accompany me. Pretty funny for me to have a surrogate parent for a few seconds.

        Liked by 1 person

      • 😂😂 your dad was quite creative! I love that you still have the bat. It doesn’t get any better than to have your first game at Wrigley. After I moved to Chicago and caught the Cubs fever, I would go to games with friends and sit in the bleachers. Fun times. Many years later, my son went to school with a guy name Clark. His siblings were Ivy, Addison and Sheffield. Those are some hard core fans!! 😂 ⚾️

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  3. Melanie, this is both terrifying and exciting – because you tell the tale. Kudos for your swimming strength.
    I know the bliss of swimming out and then floating, although I only did it in the Black Sea and the Aegean. Here by the Indian Ocean the currents are just too strong, and everyone is allowed to dip their tows only between the lifeguard’s flags.
    Unless you’re a surfer, of course.

    I’m sure I’ve never been in a sea swimming so close to sharks, although that bit about not swimming near feeding birds I did not know – but will try to remember. Who knows, might come in handy in a story 🙂

    There is, however, a giant fish tank at the marine world in Durban, uShaka Marine world, where one can pay to go in (they rent scuba gear) and swim among fishes, a couple of harmless sharks too. But that fish-tank is freezing cold, you feel your head severed just by dipping your face in it. My husband and kids love this experience.

    And they also have a swim with sharks exhibit, although in that one they put you in a cage before dipping you in. We never tried it.

    Thank you for beautiful storytelling. Happy wedding monthnniversary to both of you 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think I can imagine why you haven’t tried the shark cage yet Pat! I know researchers use those, but I’ve never heard of one open to the general public. That’s so cool (literally, I guess haha) about that giant fish tank and using scuba gear. Your family sounds like they enjoy a good adventure; I definitely do too. 🙂 And thank you for your kind comment on my storytelling. I love to write these types of stories. (And it would be so fun to see the birds make it into one of your tales someday too. ;)) Thanks Pat and enjoy the weekend!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Well I had to laugh when I read this since I of course knew you were alright. I could definitely picture this happening. I’ll never forget a family vacation when I was around 5 or 6 to Virginia Beach. I was probably walking on rocks but my older brother said they were crabs! I try not to think too hard about what’s under the water swimming around me.

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