Ichthyophobia

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Behold the reason I can’t enjoy swimming at the beach anymore.
I’m terrified of these things. Gerald Schombs.

It turns out my problem has a name. It’s called Ichthyophobia. The word comes from the Greek “ichthus,” meaning “big fish,” and “phobos,” meaning “scare the crap out of me.”

I’m honestly not afraid of a whole lot. I have faced my own mortality a few times and prevailed. I’m naturally afraid of Democrats in the White House and, sometimes, of my wife. However, stuff like monsters, dangerous animals and horror movies — not so much.

Med school will ruin you to slasher movies. I’m the guy in the back mumbling, “That’s not what an eviscerated pancreas really looks like. This movie is ridiculous.” However, I really do have a thing for big fish.

Does it seem like a good idea to swim among these?
I didn’t think so, either. Betty Wills.

Nature Versus Nurture

I am a product of my environment. When Jaws came out I was nine years old. With the benefit of hindsight, that big mechanical shark looked like some kind of comical epileptic rubber submarine, but it sure got my attention back in 1975.

I grew up in the Mississippi Delta. We admittedly had a relative dearth of sharks there — but we did have the next best thing.

I’ve never been terribly good at it, but I can water ski. Our weekend getaway was DeSoto Lake a few miles outside of town. DeSoto Lake is an oxbow lake that used to be part of the Mississippi River before the vagaries of fate and hydrology cut a fresh channel. Now DeSoto Lake remains connected with the Mighty Mississippi. It is a massive freshwater lake with some comparably massive freshwater fish.

I once leapt into the lake, donned my skis, and waited patiently for the boat to putter far forward enough to take the slack out of the rope. The water was deep, dark and black. Something enormous and slimy rubbed across my right leg. At that moment an alligator gar roughly the size of a Winnebago breached right alongside me. I still recall seeing deep green scales — each about the size of a golf ball — as the ghastly thing slid past.

Google claims there has never been a documented case of an alligator gar attacking a human. The record gar ever caught weighed 327 pounds and stretched 8 feet 5 inches long. The one I was apparently swimming with seemed at least twice that.

I’ve honestly never really been right since then. As an adult I appreciate this fear is irrational, but I nonetheless cannot swim in a swimming pool if I can’t see the bottom. DeSoto Lake is attached to the Mississippi River which is attached to the Gulf of Mexico which is attached to the ocean proper. That means those gosh awful huge Great White Sharks could technically get from the Great Barrier Reef to DeSoto Lake without having to hitchhike or hail an uber.

This monster alligator gar was caught in 1910 in Moon Lake right down the road from where I grew up. One such gar brushed my leg while I was out swimming in DeSoto Lake in my foolish youth. Public domain.

Relativity

Back when I was in flight school at Fort Rucker, Alabama, one of the most popular training routes was to fly down to Panama City and then skirt along the beach. The Gulf was pretty, and then there were the girls. At altitude you could clearly see where the shelf dropped away. The water went from light green to dark. When the weather was nice, people swam all over the place, sharks cruising blissfully among them like big black tadpoles.

Conservationists tell us sharks are our pals. They’re gigantic, carnivorous, aquatic teddy bears who are more afraid of us than we are of them. I just don’t buy it. You wouldn’t visit the local zoo if there was a big placard outside that read, “For Your Convenience All the Doors to the Predator Cages Will Be Left Standing Open.” That would be crazy. Swimming with sharks seems at least philosophically similar.

Ruminations

A guy was attacked by a shark while diving from the same boat from which I did my first open water qualification dive when I was learning to scuba. That could have just as well been me. I’m pretty much done with big fish now.

Fret not. I am living proof that you can still have a amply cool life without swimming amidst giant toothy predators. Though there has never been a documented case of an alligator gar attacking a human, I’d just as soon not entrust my mortal safety to a creature whose brain is the size of my fingernail. So long as I never go swimming again, I suppose I should be pretty safe.

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