Creative Nonfiction · Death · Third Culture Kids · Trauma · Travel · Zuzu Irwin

Zuzu Irwin and the Great White Fear

Great White Shark

I am terrified of sharks. The thought of them makes my blood run cold. This fear is so pervasive that I can’t even go into swimming pools without my heart pounding, talking myself down the panic attack ledge.

Would that this were an irrational fear. When I was a child, a little girl I used to play with was eaten by a shark in the Maldives. Her parents had been trying to get pregnant for a long time and it wasn’t working. They adopted a child and, as it tends to happen, they got pregnant with her. She was a few years older than me and I remember her being very kind and very patient. One day at the beach she was playing in the shallows. And then she was gone. Bits of her body returned to shore along with her sun dress.

I wasn’t there when it happened, and though I was very young (3 or 4), I remember. This story was always in the back of my mind as I grew up, though it didn’t stop me from swimming in the ocean and praying to the gods to transform me into a mermaid.

The change from a healthy wariness of sharks became more and more of a pressing fear after Wendy’s murder. I could no longer go in the water. I began regularly dreaming of sharks. Unlike other conflict animals in my dreams, like crocodiles, sharks stop me in my tracks. When they appear those are the times where I am wholly unable to help anyone who may be in danger, regardless of how much I may want to help them. In my dreams I’ve jumped into water to save someone from crocs or snakes, but with sharks I am frozen. All I can do is stand, horrified, and watch the shark do its will.

Last night I had another shark dream. I watched the shark eat a little boy and I just stood there, shaking, too scared to do anything. I couldn’t even cry.

After careful consideration, I realised that to me Shark Medicine signifies trauma. Sharks very rarely kill humans. Many people who have close encounters with sharks lose limbs or have huge chunks of their flesh torn out. They have to find a way to live with those injuries, just as any other traumatised person must. Sharks teach us that nature is wild and has sharp teeth. Nature is hungry, but not greedy. Sharks will take from us what they need and leave the rest. We have to remember where our place in the natural world is and sharks are there to remind us when we stray, giving us scars to never forget.

Like trauma survivors or people with post traumatic stress disorder, sharks don’t ever really sleep. Some even swim around while “sleeping”. Their eyes remain open and conscious, and some species will alternate shutting down one side of its brain while the other rests. All the while moving or maintaining awareness.

Suddenly I feel a slight kinship with sharks, though not enough that would allow me to enter their ocean territories. Kinship or not, the fear persists: I barely managed to find an image for this post because the photos of sharks got my heart pounding and my skin crawling.

What do sharks mean to you?

©Sezin Koehler, image via Twisted Sifter

6 thoughts on “Zuzu Irwin and the Great White Fear

  1. What an interesting article…..just one correction, it was off the Kenya or Somali coastline…..

    And you know me and Sharks….like when I almost was shark food when I planned to swim off the boat in the Maldives, not realizing that the sharks were all around the boat eating the waste just thrown out. That memory gives me the same chills as I guess your fears. And several other encounters….swimming and seeing a small fellow swimming with me and then going to shore and seeing the big guy that they just caught! But, I still love the sea and can’t not go in. I just try to look around and hope that others are also on the lookout.

    sorry that you learned about that horrible experience….so many years ago…..

    1. Shark is the caretaker of my inner waters. Keep swimming in order to stay alive, always “on guard”. I wish I could switch off for a while sometimes…

      1. Sandra, that’s a fascinating idea. I’ve never thought about sharks as a caretaker of water before. It’s actually a beautiful image in spite of the terror that sharks instill in most people. I do understand what you mean by always being on guard. I’m the same way and have been working on trying to let that down sometimes. It’s hard work, but it’s a nice break.

    2. Thank you for clarifying where that attack took place, Marty. What a horrible tragedy. Your stories are terrifying also! Luckily for you in the Maldives they were more interested in the garbage, but one never knows what can happen, especially with a feeding frenzy going on! It makes me feel ill just thinking about it! I’m glad that you were never bit, though I’ll never stop being nervous when you go in the ocean!

  2. Sharks are a cautionary tale. They remind us of what happens when we interfere with natural processes. Normally sharks don’t attack unless provoked or starved or baited. Normally nature carries on regardless. But ignoring the natural order and building on a fault line, on a flood plain, draining land, without proper planning, without thinking how this will ripple out into other natural processes, that will bite us in the ass.
    One example, river diverted in Samsun on the Black Sea coast of Turkey, floodplain drained and used to build government apartment blocks. Heavy rain and flash floods in June and several people died when they couldn’t get out of their basement flats before the floodwaters arrived. And the human factor adding salt to the sharkbite just this week the government blocked two investigations into what happened…

    1. Catherine, I absolutely agree with you. Sharks are such a powerful reminder of nature and our place in it. We like to think we’re at the top of the food chain, but once we’re in shark waters we’re humbled by their presence. The story about the apartment building sounds just awful. I can’t imagine drowning in my own home, what a tragedy. I hope the people involved will keep at it and get an investigation going. It needs to happen!

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