Cottesloe Beach, Australia

I don’t remember being afraid of anything until I was six years old.

That’s when my mother, unable to get her children inside for dinner,

started a nightly ritual of yelling out the back door, “The bats

are coming, the bats are coming!” Bats lived in our barn, and I’d

never been afraid of them until my mother told us the story of a

local boy who was bitten by one when it became entangled in his

hair — at dusk. That story — most likely created over a cocktail by

my parents and used as a tool for my mother to corral her children

— planted the first seed of fear I had for another animal.

I blame Steven Spielberg for the second seed, planted in the

summer of 1975, when he converted Peter Benchley’s book Jaws into

a heart-pounding, nail-biting, jump-out-of-your-seat movie. The

fi lm about a man-eating great white shark terrorizing Cape Cod

beachgoers caused millions to flee the water and extinguished the

unencumbered joy I, and many others, once felt in the ocean.

Twenty years later, I landed in Australia and was lured into

the Indian Ocean’s spectacularly clear, blue water. A peace washed

through me as I ventured into the sea each morning, communing

and connecting with nature. Surfing waves and spending hours

snorkeling transported me back to childhood and the feelings of living

in the moment. I became addicted to the experience: swimming

with fish, the awakening of muscles, and the salt in my hair.

It ended in an instant when a man who was doing the same

thing one morning at my favorite beach was attacked and killed by

a shark. And then it happened again and again, in what became a

string of eleven fatal attacks between 2010 and 2017 that led Western

Australia to be named the deadliest coast in the world.

During this period, pretty much everybody left the ocean and

hit the pools. I was one of them. But after many months out of

the ocean, I received a message. It was on a 105-degree day. I was

walking the dogs on the beach and feeling frustrated by the invisible

chain preventing me from plunging into the water. Then a quote

from Franklin D. Roosevelt popped into my head and kept repeating:

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” It was then I

made a conscious decision to conquer my fear of sharks.

The transition came in baby steps and happened over several

years. It started with knuckle-swimming, when you swim so close to

shore you scrape your knuckles on the sand. Eventually, I also joined

a swim group made up of people who were training for open-ocean,

long-distance swims. In the meantime, the Western Australian

government was considering killing great white sharks, which meant

overriding international and federal protections of the species. The

idea of a shark cull ignited an ongoing local debate about what was

causing the attacks and whether a cull would effectively stop them.

One possible cause was identified in July 2012 by Humane

Society International Australia (HSI). HSI reported, “There may

be a possible connection between the export of live sheep from

Fremantle, Western Australia, and reported shark attacks.” When

export ships from Australia carry live animals — such as sheep, cattle,

and goats bound for slaughter in the Middle East and Asia — hundreds

of animals, and sometimes thousands, die en route, and their

bodies are thrown overboard, providing a consistent food source

for sharks. HSI said that six people in Australia had been attacked

between September 4, 2011, and June 20, 2012, when export ships

were nearby. Further, HSI reported that a similar link was found in

Egypt in December 2010, when a string of five shark attacks within

a single week were most likely provoked by a live export ship that

threw sheep overboard while it passed through the Red Sea.

Nevertheless, the Western Australian government dismissed this

potential connection, and in early 2014, the state’s premier, Colin

Barnett, ordered a shark cull.

Contracted fishermen set baited drum lines along the coast, and

on the first day, as I stepped onto the beach for my swim, I watched

as contractors pulled a drowned shark from the water. My morning

joy turned to sorrow. As much as I felt empathy for the swimmers,

surfers, and divers who’d lost their lives, I now felt empathy for this

dead shark. Killing did not feel like the answer.

My husband, Jon, didn’t agree with me. He believed the cull

should happen. One morning as I set off to attend a shark rally, he

suggested it would be a waste of time and that I’d be sitting on the

beach with only two hundred people. To his surprise and mine, six

thousand people were there, protesting to voice their opposition

to the cull. A poignant sign at the rally pointed out that, the year

before in Australia, twenty-five thousand people had died of obesity

related illness, twelve hundred from car accidents, ten from lightning

strikes, and two from sharks. Overwhelming empathy for the

sharks was shown by the very people who loved the ocean and were

at the greatest risk: swimmers, divers, and surfers. Even more poignant,

relatives of those who’d been killed also protested the cull,

as they believed those who’d died wouldn’t want the sharks to be


After four months, the cull ended. Of the 172 sharks that were

caught, none were great whites, the species blamed for the attacks.

Publicity over the cull brought awareness and change. Surf Life

Saving Western Australia, a rescue organization, became an alert

center for shark sightings and public safety warnings. Using information

from helicopter beach patrols, drones, shark sightings, and

transponders that detected and sent alerts when tagged tiger and

great white sharks passed beaches, the organization delivered alerts

via Twitter and a beach safety app. I got into the habit of checking

Twitter before heading for the beach, just to see who I might be

swimming with.

By 2016, my swim team coach, Ceinwen Roberts — a thirty five-

year-old, five-foot-two, sun-kissed blonde with a beaming smile

and matching disposition — was training us for a 12.5-mile (20-

kilometer) open-ocean race from the mainland to Rottnest Island.

Ceinwen had established the race, called the Port to Pub, and she

was convinced I could do it. Her own swimming history includes

completing the Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming: solo swims

across the English Channel, around Manhattan Island, and from

Catalina Island to the California mainland. Two of those swims involve

swimming through the night, and when I asked her about

sharks, she said, “I don’t even think about them. There’s no point.

If it’s my time to go, it’s my time to go. I’m too busy enjoying the

good parts of being out there: the serenity, clarity, salt, fish, reef,

and having nothing to stop me.” She inspired me to enter the race.

Let me be honest: I was scared. But I was also determined. I

knew what the accomplishment would do for me, spiritually, mentally,

and physically. I didn’t know my awakening would actually

come two weeks before the swim.

It was February 22, 2016. The weather was overcast, what

Australians call “sharky,” due to the fact that a majority of shark

attacks occur on cloudy days. I joined a group of fifteen women —

mostly mothers in their late thirties and early forties who called

themselves the Aquabutts — on an ocean training swim, led by

Ceinwen, from Cottesloe Beach to North Cottesloe Beach and

back, a distance of over a mile.

We first swam into deep water, fifty yards from shore, and then

we set off along the coast. The first leg was easy. The swell was pushing

north, and we rode it up the coast. Then, as we treaded water off

North Cottesloe Beach and prepared for the push back, we talked

about how high the waves were getting and how much harder the

return trip would be. We didn’t talk about what we were all thinking:

that we’d congregated in a spot where a swimmer had been

killed by a great white shark years before.

To push us, Ceinwen decided to break the group up. Ten swimmers

would start first, and she would go with them. The five fastest

were told to hold back and start only when the others were about a

quarter of the way down the coast. I was in the second group — not

because I was fast, but because I was wearing flippers.

Finally, my group set off. The water was unusually murky.

Schools of tiny fish moved around me like underwater tornadoes.

I saw a shadow. It was at that moment my goggles lost their seal.

I flipped over and floated on my back, tightening them. As I was

doing this, a shark-spotting helicopter flew overhead. As I watched

it buzz past, I felt comforted just knowing it was there.

I put my head back in the water and noticed that the distance

between the five of us had widened. We were no longer in a pod.

We were spread out in deep, choppy water. And that’s when it happened.

I felt the whoosh of helicopter blades just above me, accompanied

by a deafening siren. I knew immediately what it was and what

it meant. Jaws was with us.

A fear like no other consumed me. Luckily, it came with a massive

rush of adrenaline. I wasn’t alone. I don’t remember much about

the time it took me to swim to shore. The five of us in the second

group crawled onto the beach at the same time. Someone puked. I

stood up and looked out at the angry ocean. Nine of the swimmers

in the first group were almost on the beach, but two weren’t heading

in. We all started screaming. One of the girls was still swimming

and Ceinwen was trying to get her attention. We watched in terror,

screaming for the girl to stop, fearful of the potential horror that

could unfold before us. Thankfully, it didn’t.

The lifeguard at the nearest station told us the rest of the story.

After passing us, the helicopter pilot spotted a ten-foot shark and

radioed that it was heading straight for us. The species was most

likely a tiger or great white.

As I walked away that morning, I was grateful and exhilarated.

Grateful to have been swimming with a very big shark who had the

opportunity to eat one of sixteen women and didn’t. Exhilarated by

the fact that the fear that had paralyzed me throughout much of my

life was gone.

I still get scared swimming in the ocean sometimes, like when

I’m caught up in a swirl of fish and I know that someone is causing

their panic, but the fear doesn’t consume me. I’ve had a great life. I

understand that everybody’s got to eat. I hope it’s not me that gets

eaten, but if it is, so be it.

By immersing yourself in nature, you can experience a form

of enlightenment. This is when the soul is free of fear and absorbs,

almost by osmosis, the energy of life. The connection between all

species becomes clear. I have friends who’ve been given the gift of

this knowledge. They’ve gone on to change the world.”

Excerpted from the award-winning book, Rescuing Ladybugs: Inspirational Encounters with Animals That Changed the World, by Jennifer Skiff. You can get a copy of the book for the animal lover in your life here:

The Aquabutts, minutes after their close encounter