Getting Over My Fear of Sharks

03/07/2017 10:26 am ET Updated Mar 18, 2017

We are all afraid of something.

As a stunt woman, the thing I get asked most often is: Do you get scared? Yes, I do get scared. I am not fearless, I just know how to fight my fear. It has taken me many years training and perseverance through terrifying events to be able to handle the things I am afraid of. The one thing I could never shake though was my love and fear relationship with the water.

Overcoming fear has been something I have dealt with over and over again since a very young age training in gymnastics. As an athlete, stunt woman, solo traveler and woman I overcome fear often. You could say I am an expert on overcoming what scares me. Whether I am learning a new skill, performing in a movie, traveling to a new place by myself or just walking the streets at night. A good dose of fear is often with me.

Luckily for me I was trained from an early age to suck it up and get over it. So much so that after being the victim of a home invasion, I was able to get right on back to living in my house one night later. You see when I was 22, four men entered my home with AK-47’s, they pistol whipped my dog and dislocated my shoulder, I was home alone, I was also lucky that I didn’t die. I was terrified when I went back to my home the following night but I stared fear in the face, and guess what? I won!

Overcoming my life long fear

You see I have always loved the water, just being near it makes me happy. But throw me in deep water and I will start to panic. My parents and sister were all certified scuba divers and I grew up with the tales of ship wrecks, sea creatures and marine animals.

In my youth I spent my summers boating, swimming, water skiing and floating on my favorite raft in the waters of Squam Lake in Sandwich New Hampshire. I was on swim team as a child and later went on to compete in springboard diving in college. Water was my happy place. Several incidences also made me scared of it, from run-ins with water snakes, to too many reruns of Jaws. Couple that with my sister’s love of the all things slimy and I developed a fear of being eaten by sharks.

Playing at the beach with my older sister
Gordon Ford
Playing at the beach with my older sister

My sister is a wonderful human but she loved to torture me when she knew I was scared of something. She often left me outside right as the twilight appeared and told me that it was witching hour. As I looked into the woods as the darkness over-took it, I would sprint as fast as I could into the house to join her. Afraid the witches of the woods would get me. When it came to the lake she was my number one adventure friend and we loved swimming, snorkeling and exploring together. She was always way more into snakes, bugs, worms and fish than me. My dad often took us to the reefs around Loon Island, full of fish, big rocks and lots of great places to swim around with our masks. It was here that she often would collect mussels and feed the fish. I loved looking at the fish in our fish tanks at home and didn’t mind seeing them far off through my mask, but up close and personal was a different story. I would always scream her name while guzzling air through my snorkel in these moments and try to stay far away. Having her turn me into human fish food was not my idea of fun.

As I got older my fear of what lurks beneath grew, swimming out in the deep always raised the hairs on the back of my neck. I could hardly ever bare to look down into the deep thinking that some big creature would come up and nibble on my toes.

In my 20’s I went on a trip to Cabo San Lucas where I went on a snorkeling trip . When I jumped into the water there were so many fish, they all ran into me, my heart raced, and I desperately wanted to swim away. Fish for the most part don’t bite and hardly pay humans any attention but still I was frightened. As an athlete and self-described tough girl I was quite ashamed of myself for being such a baby.

Bahamas
Alice Ford
Bahamas

So many incidents where I should have been enjoying the beauty of the water and the creatures within but I was paralyzed with fear. Several years later I was working in the Bahamas, where I would slip out early in the mornings for a swim in the ocean and a run along the beach. It was heaven. Being so close to the ocean reconnected me with my love for it and I knew I had to become a certified diver.

I got certified at Stuart’s Cove in Nassau and soon after my friend declared that we should go on a dive. A shark dive that is, with no cage.

“SHARKS!!!!! Be Brave I told myself- you’re an adventurer, you can do this.”

So off we went to meet the sharks......

It was a beautiful sunny day in April when we pulled out of the harbor. I was terrified but tried not to think about what I was about to do. My friend had done this before and his confidence and reassurance comforted my nerves. As our boat approached our mooring you started to see the fins and shapes under the water. I just kept telling myself that they wouldn’t bite me because the water is clear but I was internally freaking out. When we finally stopped and got our gear ready I was having second thoughts. There were dozens of sharks swimming around the boat and in order to get under the water we would have to jump right through them. My friend ushered me to go first. And I said “no way”!!!!!

Second thoughts!
Alice Ford
Second thoughts!

He thankfully jumped in first and showed me everything was fine, just get in. Taking a deep breath and closing my eyes for a brief moment; I jumped off the boat. I quickly put my regulator in not wanting to look like a meal, and descended.

My heightened senses were on full alert as I looked around at a dozen or so sharks swimming below. We were heading towards a shipwreck about 50 feet below the surface. Near the ocean floor there were fewer sharks, as most of them were hanging out near the boat- fully aware of their coming dinner. We swam around the wreck for a while and explored the area. While I was swimming around a 10 feet black tip shark looked as though he was swimming right for me.

Alice Ford
Alice Ford

My heart was beating out of my throat and I knew I needed to chill or I would use up my air too fast. “But oh my god, he’s coming right for me”!!!! Or so I thought. To mister shark I was just another creature similar to him, he swam right over my head and didn’t pay me any attention. With my second moment of intense fear passing with no incidence I started to relax a little more and realize that they didn’t want to eat me. Soon we were lead to the bow of the shipwreck to witness a mass feed for the sharks.

Alice Ford

One of the head divers from Stuart’s Cove came swimming down from the surface in a chain mail suit, carrying a metal box. Behind him was the train of sharks, ready for their easy meal. He came and stood on the bow of the ship with his box of fish and piece by piece pulled out bits of fish for the hungry beasts. There were dozens of sharks, too many to count. They swam all around us, bumping me with their tales and brushing past with their fins. The amazing thing was how gentle they were. It was magical really, and my fear had subsided. Now I was just mesmerized.

Hanging with the sharks.
Stuarts Cove Bahamas
Hanging with the sharks.

Our feeder even flipped some of the sharks over and patted them on their bellies. Along with the dozens of sharks was the biggest goliath grouper I have ever seen. It must have weighed 400 pounds easily. Goliath Grouper are one of the oldest fish in the world and fishing for them is strictly forbidden in Bahamian waters. Seeing one of these megalithic beasts trying to steal fish from sharks was pretty incredible.

It’s hard to explain how much this dive changed my experience with the ocean. After the shark dive we had the opportunity for a second dive along the reef shelf. It is here that the reef ends and drops several thousand feet into a deep abyss. It is along this edge that often you can spot tiger sharks coming up from the depths. I went down to 130 feet looking into the deep, glancing behind me and hoping to spot more sharks. Now instead of being afraid I was curious. I didn’t see any other sharks that day, but the experience that I had made my love for the water even stronger.

Leroy an Endangered green sea turtle- Great Barrier Reef
Alice Ford
Leroy an Endangered green sea turtle- Great Barrier Reef

A year later while diving and snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef I was free of fear and actively looking for sharks and other sea creatures on our dives. I was happy as a clam swimming with an endangered green sea turtle, free diving to see giant clams and swimming along the surface where I spotted rays and a small reef shark.

I still have some fear when it comes to the ocean, but it is based on my respect of the animals that live within it. My shark dive has inspired me to become an advocate for the oceans and for sharks. Almost all sharks have experienced huge declines in their populations and many like the hammerhead shark have lost almost 90% of their population due to overfishing and pollution.

As humans we are often afraid of things and circumstances that we know little about, or haven’t tried before. With that in mind the next time you are afraid of something, take the time to find out as much as you can about it, and take it head on. The more knowledge you have the less fear you will be allowed.

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