Some fears you run from — like turning 30 — and others, you lure in with a bait box.
When I realized that my thirtieth birthday fell on a Sunday in February, I knew what the day at home in Maryland would be like: relentless cold and gray weather, coupled with the frustration of trying to coordinate schedules with friends on the least convenient day of the weekend.
The year before, snow piled up in unforgiving droves and forced me to postpone the evening’s karaoke festivities. The prospect of another potentially-canceled party — particularly in a milestone year — seemed too depressing to plan.
If I couldn’t avoid facing the big 3-0, I figured that I could at least decide where I in the world I would be when it happened.
In the months leading up to my birthday, everything I lacked — marriage, babies, mortgage — seemed to tower over all of my efforts from the past decade.
I chose the Bahamas. Most of my travels are activity-oriented. Over the last 10 years, I let the passport stamps accumulate as I wandered through Paris, London, Belgium, Amsterdam, Berlin, Prague, Reykjavik, and Panchgani. But for this particular trip, I wanted only to lie on a beach, bask in the sunshine, and sip frozen daiquiris from an open bar.
By the time I landed in Nassau, I knew I’d made the wise choice by opting for relaxation. In the months leading up to my birthday, everything I lacked — marriage, babies, mortgage — seemed to tower over all of my efforts from the past decade.
“It’s an arbitrary number,” my best friend reassured me. “You’re at a good place in life.” She then reminded me, with unfailing patience, of what I’d achieved thus far: completing my education, moving forward with my career, pursuing writing opportunities.
But with those fears at the forefront of my mind, it wasn’t exactly easy to focus on the positives.
And yet, it was impossible to be in a bad mood while lounging in the hot tub on a moonlit night, Bahama Mama in hand. Over the next few days, I read books without interruption. I lingered for long afternoons on a lounge chair in the sunshine. I booked a massage late in the day and slept for hours afterward, fully content to let my phone charge on the other end of the room.
I didn’t worry about being old or alone — if anything, I felt more like myself.
Hoping to see more of the island, I wandered off the resort with a local tour group who offered up an interesting twist to their snorkeling excursion. On the first two dive sites, I’d swim through schools of tropical fish and the wreckage of an underwater airplane. At the third dive site, they said, I could get in the water with Caribbean reef sharks — without a cage.
To me, the idea of swimming with sharks didn’t seem any riskier than spending my thirtieth birthday alone in a foreign country.
With measurements up to 10 feet long, Caribbean reef sharks are among the biggest apex predators in coral reefs. They have two dorsal fins, lean and tapered gray bodies with white bellies, and better eyesight than most other sharks. Combined with a sharp sense of smell, they are skilled hunters with a taste for crustaceans and bony fish.
Caribbean reef sharks are in the family of requiem sharks — the ones who are largely responsible for reported attacks on humans. In defense of the sharks, most of these attacks are provoked by fishermen.
But I didn’t know any of this when the tour group leader pulled up to the dive site known as the “Shark Wall.”
“You’ll need to avoid splashing and kicking near the surface,” he said, warning that we’d only have 10 minutes in the water. Two of the guides would wait by the ladder to remove the snorkeling fins from our feet. “We don’t want anything to slow you down when you're getting back on the boat,” he said. “Who’s going in?”
A third of the group held back. Yet, to me, the idea of swimming with sharks didn’t seem any riskier than spending my thirtieth birthday alone in a foreign country. In that moment, jumping into shark-infested waters felt like the most natural continuation of the journey.
I grabbed my snorkeling mask and got in line.
Once I jumped in, there was a surprising ease in my breaststroke as I made my way over to the group’s tether rope. Below me, dozens of Caribbean reef sharks circled a bait box on the ocean floor that was filled with gutted fish. I took a breath and looked down into the water, staring through my goggles as the sharks poked at the bait box with their snouts.
They seemed smaller from this distance, but they would eventually notice the potential meals bobbing at the surface of the water. A few sharks started to drift listlessly upwards, though none aimed in any particular direction. It seemed as good a time as any to make my way back to the boat.
All of us made it onto the deck safely and watched as the guides lifted the bait box to the surface, luring the more curious of the Caribbean reef sharks along with it. Bursting with exhilaration, we laughed and clapped as their forceful movements sliced through the waves.
I felt braver than I had since turning 30.
Back at the hotel, I wandered downstairs to watch the sunset. Another guest walked over to where I sat on the sand. He looked like he was around my age, maybe a few years older, tall and dressed in a button-down shirt and slacks.
“You're beautiful,” he said.
For once, I didn’t dispute the compliment. “Thank you,” I replied.
He asked where I was from, if I was traveling alone. Then he asked if I wanted to have dinner with him on another part of the island.
I thought about how my friends had teased me about vacation hook-ups, how I wouldn’t have to be afraid about spending a birthday alone. If I wanted, I could share it with a cute stranger.
But when I declined his invitation, I felt braver than I had since turning 30. I didn’t worry about whether he would be the last guy to ask me out or if I might be single for the next decade.
When I thought about the woman who jumped in the water with sharks, the rest of my life didn’t seem so scary.