When we arrived in La Paz at the end of November, all our new sailing friends were doing the local tourist thing, which is going swimming with whale sharks. James asked if I wanted to do this. I said "F*CK NO! ARE YOU CRAZY? THAT SOUNDS TERRIFYING AND HORRIBLE!" One of my friends said she got bumped by a shark! Another said she had to swim very hard and fast. I am not a strong swimmer. I wasn't sure what a whale shark was, but it sounded bad-and-scary-and-no. People also snorkel with sea lions; maybe I wanted to do that? "HELLS NO!" No, I did not. Okay, so, the whale sharks just sift for plankton, so maybe... "NOPE. WTF. NO WAY." Whale sharks are the biggest fish in the sea. One banged into my friend! What if I like... ended up in its mouth somehow?

A couple weeks later, I said "Hey, baby? You know what I'd really like to do for my birthday? That thing where you go swim with whale sharks. And sea lions." He did a little double-take, burst into a grin, and said "I love you so much."

I've recently realized that this is a long-standing pattern for me: I am fascinated by what terrifies me, and given time and a baseline of safety, I will seek it out to explore it. As I get clearer and clearer in the long arcs of life, I am more and more interested in what I am afraid of, and less limited by it.

This is natural, normal; we see it in children who are often deeply curious about "scary" things, or enjoy playing with being startled or afraid. Fear is a natural response, but so is curiosity. Somehow, these days, fear has become sacrosanct in much of American culture. I am particularly fond of the Oxford Dictionary's definition of sacrosanct as, "(especially of a principle, place, or routine) regarded as too important or valuable to be interfered with." We have enshrined fear in our desire for safety because our lives have lost meaning here in the days of late-stage capitalism and less-easy faith. What is it all for? Where do we go when we die? We don't all agree on the answers anymore, so we fear, and instead of examining our fear or our questions, lots of us do what the ads tell us will make us happy: build walls of material possessions and food and datastreams and stories to keep us feeling contained and falsely safe from our questions and fear. But what if, instead, we got really curious about all that? About what life is and can be, and how best to live? I'm giving that a try just now. I'm holding hands with my fear a lot.

Out on the water, I was very, very excited, and pretty nervous. We suited up; we being me and James and Michael; we waited for our dear friend Michael's Christmas visit so we could share this adventure.

And then we drove around looking for whale sharks for a while with some nice folks from the Carey Dive Center here in Marina de La Paz, where we've been since late November. Did I mention that I was excited? And nervous? This was my first time using my gear: wetsuit, mask, snorkel, fins. I had snorkeled on a trip to the British Virgin Islands years ago, but that's it! I felt great trust in our guide and our captain, though. BRING IT ON.

THEN WE DID IT. We climbed on the edge of the panga (which took some doing for folks not used to walking in flippers), hopped off the boat into the water (eeeeee!), got our masks and snorkels sorted, put our heads down... and the whale shark we were tracking was RIGHT THERE. I had to scoot so as not to be in his way; he was just a few inches from me. Each of us had that experience at some point during the day: "Ooops! Right there!" Whale sharks skim along just under the surface of the water.

We did not take photographs, because we were busy being with whale sharks. Incredibly, though, the day after the tour I received a message from one of the people on our tour (who has a great account on Instagram: memog.lap) with this incredible footage. Thank you, Memo, forever. Sorry I photobombed your whale shot, but WOW. My endless gratitude to you for your kindness in sharing this with me!

The memory of what I experienced matches this video below very clearly, down to the color of water and light. It was incredibly beautiful, peaceful, and frightening all at once. The sharks are gorgeous, enormous; they are aware that you are there, they are not interested in you. There are remoras clinging to their tails, hitching a ride.  

It turned out that a man in our group got some footage of me swimming with the whale shark! He kindly shared it with me.

Me! Really me! OH MY GOSH. For more like this, check out photographer, Memo.

We swam with each shark for as long as we could, got tired or lost him (they are generally juvenile males in the area where we were), got into the boat, drove around to find another, and repeated this a half dozen times. I WAS SO HAPPY.

Right after this photograph I curled up on James and sobbed with joy for a good while. Ahhhhhhh. As I did so, we zoomed over to another site to swim with sea lions. The zooming is really very fast. I love zooming on pangas. One of the two women who got bundled with us for the tour did not and was vomiting over the side with remarkable good spirits. May I swim with whale sharks and puke very calmly when I am in my 70s! Our wake was gorgeous.


The sea lions chill on a little islet.

James has a particular love for sea lions and would like to run away with them.

It was a really amazing day. My sweet friend Judith saw me posting about it on my Instagram story and texted me; I adored our conversation, which went like this:

Judith: Whale sharks! Amazing! I hope to see them someday. Leo has a stuffed one he adores.

Dahlia: currently sobbing with joy

Judith: I'm so delighted for you! It seems just moments ago when you were not comfortable swimming, and now you SWIM WITH SHARKS like the queen of the sea!

Dahlia: I am still not comfortable swimming!

Dahlia: I just do it anyway!

And that, my friends, is the moral of today's story: fear is not the end unless you choose to make it so. Fear can, in fact, be the beginning.

Thanks to Toa Heftiba and Unsplash for the lead image.