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How I Saved My Soul (and Some Sharks Too)


"Are you crazy?" That was the reaction of many to my plans to go to Mexico and swim with sharks. It was anything but madness. Well, unless happiness is considered a form of madness.



I'm forty-two years old, and for a long time, my life revolved around everything but me. Then came COVID, the war in Ukraine, too much work, and social problems in Slovakia. It didn't take long for exhaustion and pain to set in. Mental pain. And I decided to do something about it. I was sitting with my therapist when she asked if I had any personal desires. "Me? Well, health and happiness for my loved ones." But she meant for me personally, what I desired. I didn't know. So, I got a homework assignment to find out.


In that time, the National Geographic channel had a month of shark documentaries. I watched one, then another, and suddenly, something awakened deep inside me. My childhood passion for the ocean. And especially for sharks. In the hustle and bustle of adult life, I had completely forgotten about it. I remembered how I longed to blend with the ocean, to swim in it with all those magnificent creatures. I found my answer.



How a Dream Becomes Reality


I started following a lot of profiles on Instagram and shared my passion. I also shared my self-pity, thinking it was impossible for me to experience it. Because of work obligations, family, finances. Then my friend told me about Blue Religion – a marine organization that runs eco expeditions in Mexico with sharks.


Being a journalist, I was interested in the project itself, so I contacted the girls who lead it. I did an interview with Lucia, the founder, and during our conversation, she mentioned their spring ocean safari. No tourist masses, but a combination of a shark protection project and an ocean safari that respects marine life. I was intrigued by the expedition in Baja California, where you can experience several species of sharks, orcas, whales, sea lions, mobulas, dolphins...


And the idea stuck. But then, the thought that I didn’t have enough money for it followed. And that I not only didn’t know how to dive, but I also didn’t even know how to use a snorkel. When I learned that the expedition can be booked a year in advance and could be paid in 3-4 installments, suddenly I had no excuses. I decided to go for it! I signed up for a freediving course (although you don't need to be a freediver or diver for this type of expedition, just knowing how to swim and snorkel is enough), started saving money, and told my family and friends that if they wanted to give me something for my birthday, they could contribute to my dream.



Go, go, go!


Cut to April 2024, my expedition date, and I found myself after a long journey in La Paz, Baja California. A place where many endangered marine species are found. And my sharks! Honestly, a few days before, I panicked, wondering what I had gotten myself into. I even dreamt about being attacked by a shark. I thought about all the rules, like looking them in the eyes and staying calm. And all I could think was that I wouldn't be able to do it.


We set off for the ocean. Lucia and Nikol from Blue Religion, my five great expedition partners, our captain, and marine biologist Miguel. The first day was dedicated to encounters with sea lions and their colony. We were sitting comfortably on the boat, excited to have seen our first dolphins, waiting to arrive to the sea lion colony, when the captain shouted, "There are two big mobulas!" We were excited, but then he said, "Go, go, go!" We looked at each other, realizing we weren't ready, not even wearing our wetsuits. He said it didn't matter, jump in! Into the open ocean, just in swimsuits? And Lucia and Nikol said yes, we didn't have time if we didn't want them to swim away. So, we stripped off our clothes, obediently put on our fins just in regular swimsuits, and jumped into the water. We swam as fast as we could towards Miguel, who was pointing to where the mobulas were swimming. We dove in, saw their graceful movements like from another world, and the fear of the Pacific was left somewhere on that boat. I don't think I even felt the cold ocean water, it was that incredible.



Sea Lions, Dolphins, Whales, Whale Sharks and Mobula Rays


The sea lions were hilarious. And the most adorable ocean creatures – total ocean pets. We got instructions on how to invite the pups to play and how to avoid the alpha males. Because they protect their ladies and pups. The pups and their moms swam curiously towards us, sometimes nudging us, and we enjoyed it. Just like the hundreds of colorful fish and coral beneath us. And that was just the beginning. We saw a rare mega-pod of dolphins, whale mother with her calf, and swam in close proximity to a magnificent whale shark – so close that we could watch the movement of its eye.


Swimming with the mobula rays was also on the itinerary. I took it as a nice bonus, but I wasn't particularly excited about it. Until the moment I was in the water, when a huge school was swimming right below us... That was one of the moments when we could also dive deeper among them. I used my freediving training and fully enjoyed this magical moment. It's indescribable, you have to experience it. At that moment, you completely forget about the whole world. You spread your arms, swim just above them, and for a moment, you belong to them. Then you understand that there truly is something between heaven and earth.




With Sharks in the Open Ocean


Sharks got two days in the itinerary of the expedition. In the morning, we headed from La Paz to Cabo San Lucas, where is the best place to encounter them. In the marina, shark conservationist Felipe and the captain were already preparing fish blood to attract them. "This is for real," I thought. I was also glad there was enough fish and blood because I had just started my period. Hopefully, I would be less interesting to them. It is said that period blood doesn't attract sharks – research shows they aren't interested and don't react to it. "We'll see," joked the girls from Blue Religion. And I imagined that cartoon shark from Finding Nemo when he smelled blood...


Then the boat stopped. We were at the spot. Sharks are attracted at a place where there is a strong current to carry the scent of fish blood as far as possible. The blood is poured into the water around the boat – chumming. One, two, or rarely more sharks might come. We waited about an hour and a half when the bait moved. "It's here! Get ready!" The chill atmosphere on the boat turned into action. Everyone dressed in wetsuits, put on fins, masks, and gradually jumped into the water. There, our shark woman Lucia escorted us to the line. Two lines go from the boat: one with the bait for the shark and the other for people. You hold onto the line, breathe through a snorkel, and line up like little chickens about a meter apart. This is so the safety divers can keep an eye on you, knowing where you are and where the animals are. And yes, you also need to be aware. And if you feel comfortable, you can move closer to the sharks when the safety diver gives you the signal.



Eye to Eye


The moment I thought I would hesitate the most – the dilemma of whether to get into the water with sharks – never came. You're in such a trance, you just go (but even if you panic, no one pushes you). I'm always quick to get ready, so I was the first to get into the water. Not realizing that this meant I would be at the end of the line. That means the furthest from the boat, closest to the incoming sharks. And they came in numbers...


At first, you see a shadow in the distance. Some come from below, others directly. They come to look at you, you look at them, and suddenly you realize you're not afraid. You look into those black eyes, marvel at their beauty, their interactions – between you and among themselves. Fear disappeared, leaving only natural respect and awe. Then you truly understand that sharks don't want to eat us. I even caught myself telepathically saying to a beautiful blue shark, "Come closer!" A lot was due to the excellent briefing by the girls, knowing they were super experienced and always with us. When a shark got almost to our face, they would gently nudge it with a camera to change its direction.


The key is always knowing where the sharks are, trying to face them, looking into their eyes, and staying calm. It's possible. Only when there were many at once, you spin around like a ballerina. I almost lost it once when I dove deeper towards a blue shark, thinking there was no other in sight... Suddenly, a lovely mako shark appeared from behind my shoulder. But it wasn't scary, just a startle – wow! Because makos are fast torpedoes. Toothsome. Little rascals!



When the Pacific Pacifies You


We were lucky. Incredibly lucky! The first day, we saw seven sharks – four species (mako, blue, silky, and hammerhead), and on the second day, five (mako and blue). I will never forget how we signaled to each other underwater, counting how many sharks were among us – one, two, three, four... And there we were, in the open ocean with them. Understanding them more than from watching countless documentaries and reading books. They are magnificent, not the villains of the ocean but treasures. Perfect. And while it's partly an adrenaline rush, it also brings incredible peace, no matter how strange it sounds. You get out of the water, and I swear something inside you changes permanently.


The sad part of this beauty is that their populations are alarmingly declining. That's why Blue Religion was created – to protect them. And to help people understand them. To make us aware that we can't do without them, that their significance for the oceans is crucial. The primary goal is to protect the ocean ecosystem. And the profits from the expeditions are used for ocean conservation projects.


And that's huge. You fulfill your dream, find yourself, and as a bonus, you get the feeling that by contributing to the organization's activities, you've saved several sharks. It's a mindset reset and it gives you a deep understanding of the ocean. I can't even describe what happens to you. It's forever. Thank you.




 

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