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Never bitten, twice shy

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I can trace my irrational fear of sharks back to when I was 5. My brother, who was much older than I (I was a pleasant surprise), and a few of his friends were watching Jaws and I snuck down the stairs to sneak a peek at a movie I knew I wasn't allowed to see.

My little eyes lit up when the giant great white broke into the wheelhouse of the Orca and I squealed in panic when it looked like Hooper had been turned into live bait. And that was it.

Up the stairs I went screaming, and my fear was born. That phobia was fueled by countless hours of shark week, I thought I should "knowledge up" on my foe, that huge hulking shadow just beneath the water.

For years I never went to a beach, in fact I'd always double check pools - you know, just in case.

But after meeting my wife, my fears had to be realized - and not my commitment ones. No, she loved the beach and swimming in the ocean. Four years ago I psyched myself up enough to dip a toe in the Atlantic. Thankfully, I pulled my toe intact out of the ocean. Last year I took it a step further and braved the Caribbean on my honeymoon, and once again I came out of the water unscathed, and without seeing a shark.

So last week when we traveled to the Gulf of Mexico for the first time, the only thought running through my head was "I hope there's no sharks."

Our first day on the beach helped calm my nerves. The water was as warm as bath water. The sand was soft and comforting. And there were dolphins playfully splashing further out past the buoys. That really relaxed me. Everyone knows dolphins don't like being near sharks.

As the week went on I casually asked fellow beach-goers if they had seen any "superorder Selachimorpha" swimming near our beach.

"There's a hammerhead nursery about a mile or two out to the south," a woman said, causing my blood pressure to spike. "But you'll never see any this close in."

After I drank a couple of adult beverages to calm my nerves, I focused on her last sentence. "You'll never see any this close in." For the next two days I floated in the Gulf, soaking in the rays and never once thinking of sharks. I had finally kicked my fear.

Until Friday.

I was sunning myself like an overweight sea lion when I happened to hear a father/daughter duo chatting about a fisherman. "You think he has a shark-," the daughter asked. "No, probably  a stingray," the dad answered.

Shark. That's all I needed to hear.

My interest piqued, I ambled 50 yards down the beach to where the leathered fisherman was fighting his line.

A crowd started to gather as five minutes became 10. Ten became 20 and 45 minutes later he still had something on the line.

Little kids in front of me jumped up and down in excitement. A couple of kayakers paddled out to where the line was taut and reported back it was just a stingray. Then the fin emerged from the surf, bucking and weaving trying to get free.

That's the first stingray I've seen with a really big fin, I thought to myself.

Seconds later, the little kids in front of me started screaming "shark, shark, shark."

Sure enough, there was no doubt. It was a shark. I kept the little kids in front of me, thinking the shark would probably like a tasty young morsel over a lumpy tough man any day. But soon, the shark was on the beach. And it was pretty big. At least a 5-foot nurse shark lay exhausted in front of nearly 200 people and one weary fisherman.

The kids all ran to touch it, people jockeyed for camera position. And then the fisherman released it.

"WHAT!" I silently screamed to myself as I watched the nurse shark swim back out to sea. Everyone else jumped right back into the Gulf and started swimming and playing, like nothing happened.

I walked back to our seat and my wife asked, "want to swim-"

As I gazed back out into the ocean, I'm pretty sure I saw a fin glint in the sun.

"How about we just head to the pool," I said, "but first I have to check it for sharks."

Jeff Say made it home safe and sound, but he didn't go back in the ocean after that. He can be reached at 825-0771 ext. 115 or at jsay@starexponent.com.

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