*All photographs by me.
The past few days have been spent attempting to fulfil my life-long dream of cage diving with great white sharks. The intent was to be open to shark knowledges and the wisdom this magnificent and misunderstood creature may have to share with me. Unfortunately, things didn’t go to plan. A nasty wind came up the night before I went out to sea, and conditions were poor. We didn’t encounter any sharks save for a brief swim-by that lasted only a couple of precious seconds.
Disappointed, I chose to consider what this absence meant. For several months leading up to this adventure, I had been dreaming of sharks and making an effort to meditate on their lives. This has included engaging with some indigenous Australian stories and Dreaming around the great white shark. From this, I have learnt that the shark represents Law and justice. The shark carries the authority and responsibility of imparting deep lessons around what is and is not acceptable, and the necessary punishments to ensure justice when shark Law is broken. On the trip back in from sea, my imagination ran wild as I pondered these things, and the shadow of the boat on the foamy waves behind us looked eerily reminiscent of a shark swimming alongside us.
The following day, a stark realisation hit me. Casually, I had placed my hands in my pockets only to find the hard, bumpy surface of a seashell tucked away in there. The day before my shark dive, I had been at a nearby beach and – against my better understanding – I placed the beautiful shell in my pocket as a keepsake. I broke ocean Law. I took something that was not mine, that I had no right to, for my own selfish indulgence in its beauty. A sinking feeling appeared in my chest as I put the pieces together.
The beach where I found and took the seashell that started everything!
An indigenous friend has been guiding me in discovering my own sense of place and belonging with nature. One thing he warned me was that in seeking the knowledges of the more-than-human worlds, you also become bound to their Laws. I knew better than to take the shell, but I ignored that judgement and reverted to the self-serving judgement common to the modern Western world separated – falsely – from nature. The punishment for breaking Law had been served by the Great White Sharks – with their absence.
It was a valuable lesson. And a painful one. There are no words for how much I wanted to encounter the sharks, and how disappointing it was to not. But the lesson gained was powerful. It held a strange reminiscence to Val Plumwood’s account of her crocodile attack in the Northern Territory, something she situated around her own self-serving curiosity and disregard of sacred place and Law.
But the story continues. In order to set things right again, I returned to the beach where I had encountered and abducted the sea shell. I offered an apology to the ocean, taking a moment to gaze in awe on the crystal clear cerulean blue waters that I had offended. I realised that the self-imposed separation of humans from nature is what compels us to want to keep parts of nature for ourselves. In this moment, I realised that there had been no need to take the sea shell, that its beauty would have always been with me through the meaningfulness of my encounter with it if I had just been open to such an encounter. Stepping into the waves, I carefully placed my hand into the water and released the shell back to its water-space.
A heavy weight seemed to lift from me in that instance, and I felt a great joy wash over me with each salty wave. For a few moments, it felt as though the beach and I were interacting as friends who had made up after an argument, re-establishing our bond through play and exuberance. I felt forgiven for my transgression. The sensation was confirmed with the arrival of five bottle-nose dolphins, cruising in on the waves towards me. Something about their presence seemed to hold a further lesson – to breathe. These charismatic creatures live perpetually in the watery womb of the earth, and our encounters with them always begin with their act of breathing as they surface. My encounter at this time with the dolphins reminded me that I am still a child, symbolically living in the womb of the Mother Earth who nourishes me and guides me in my lessons. I felt that the ocean was not only forgiving me, but guiding me to forgive myself and to view the lesson as growth rather than as punishment and forgiveness.
I went seeking shark wisdom and found it unexpectedly in a seemingly insignificant seashell. Nothing is insignificant, and the impermanence of the material world is balanced by the permanence of experience and encounter if we allow it to permeate our bodies fully. From this journey, I have learnt some valuable lessons about Law and my place in it.