Monday, July 29, 2013

Confessions of an Oceanophilephobe

I'm in San Diego this week, piggy-backing on a business trip of my husband's so that I can write in a hotel with a view of the ocean. It's just across the street outside my window, deep blue, mysterious, and awe-inspiring as ever. But there's a reason why I love to look at, read about, and watch movies about the ocean - as evidenced by this post, this one, this one, this one and . . . this one . . . and this one . . . I should start using an "ocean" tag, shouldn't I? - while I refuse to go in it more than a few feet. Actually, there are hundreds of reasons, but I feel justified with only a few.

You see, my fascination with the ocean has led me to research it extensively. As I've written before (also here), aquariums are one of my favorite places to visit. But I think I know too much. I know about sharks: great whites and lemons and tigers - all the usual suspects who could eat me* - but I also know about the smaller, sinister looking mako, with its huge black eyes, and the harmless but terrifying basking shark. I know about goblin sharks, frilled sharks with their countless rows of teeth, and the 30-foot-long oarfish, the long-suspected "sea serpent" of nautical mythology. I know about hagfishes and lampreys and moray eels and wolf eels, which aren't even technically eels, but they are very likely the most hideous creatures on the planet. I know about vampire squid and humbolt squid and giant squid and COLOSSAL squid (seriously, those are two different things).

*Before you give me statistics on the likelihood of such a shark making a meal out of me, let me say that I am aware that most sharks bite only to "taste", that they rarely finish humans off, and that of the few victims of shark attacks who die, most do so from blood loss. Statistics, however, are of little comfort to someone who is afraid of everything other than the garibaldi.

I've read about happy incidents where dolphins saved divers from shark attacks, but I've also read about dolphins killing harbor seals for no apparent reason (best theory: food competition) and seen pictures of orcas pummeling sperm whales to death. I've seen a live barracuda in the water (the one and ONLY time I snorkeled) and have a friend who's dumb/brave enough to dive and narrowly escaped being electrocuted by a torpedo ray on an easy dive off Catalina. A few weeks ago I saw giant isopods up close for the first time at the Long Beach Aquarium. If you've never seen a giant isopod, picture a rolly polly (those innocent garden bugs), but make it white and as big as a human head; that's a giant isopod, the albino cockroach of the sea.

I've seen elephant seals fighting for mates on the beach north of Malibu, and you can't tell me there aren't great whites in that water because Google Earth shows me the routes of tagged specimens that swim right along the coast.

My second greatest fear is dying in the ocean. Not drowning. That doesn't even make my top ten. If I were stranded in the ocean, I only hope I would drown before I see anything that would eat me. Remember that movie from a few years back about the couple that got left in the water on a SCUBA trip and died overnight from being slowly eaten by sharks? I didn't see it, but the memory of reading the plot summary and filling in the rest with my tortured imagination has kept me up at night more often that I can say.

When I tell people I write fiction about the ocean, they usually ask if I dive, to which I respond with an appalled, "NO! Why would I do that??" This leads to some confused looks and if I'm lucky, Derek will be there to explain as well as he can that I am both religiously fascinated and deathly terrified by the ocean. I can't explain it, but it's been that way for as long as I can remember. My dad has these giant atlases that are so old they still show the Soviet Union, but all I ever did with them is study the ocean maps, the topographical ones that show the various marine layers with pictures of sample creatures that live there. There's a drawing of an anglerfish in one of those books that's haunted me since I was a kid. I wish I could say there was some traumatic childhood event that caused this bizarre relationship between me and the sea, but there isn't. I remember being a kid and almost touching a dead jellyfish on the beach before my dad yelled at me not to, but I'd hardly call that traumatic.

So what's the point of these confessions? I don't know. The only message I can send you away with is, "People are weird." I'm weird. I don't think my paralyzing fear of the ocean is justified, even though I just wrote a whole post doing exactly that. My real problem is my imagination, not the sea. I suppose I wrote this because I looked out my hotel window and saw the ocean, but I also wrote it to explain myself a little. Derek isn't always there to make my fears sound charming and quaint, so to anybody who's heard me talk about ocean phobia, maybe reading this will help you understand where I'm coming from, or at the very least, convince you that I'm too far gone to save.

Oh, and if you are interested in developing an unhealthy fear of the ocean, this should help*:

Lamprey mouth (it's basically a giant leech)
Basking shark (eats only plankton, but COME ON!)
Giant isopod (ew!)
Giant squid (not even colossal!)
Wolf eel
*All images from and linked to Wikipedia

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