Why I Swim With Sharks

Why I Swim With Sharks

Diver and photographer Anai Colyer ’14 discusses what it’s like to swim with one of nature’s most feared predators. 

By Anai Colyer ’14

The smell of chum surrounded me as I sat on the edge of the boat, peering into the deep blue Atlantic Ocean this June. The closest thing to land was the ocean floor nearly 500 feet below. My fins were dangling in the water when I heard our dive guide yell, “They’re here!” Our guide was referring to the bull, reef and sandbar sharks — some of the ocean’s most feared predators — that I was about to willingly join in the water. I took a deep breath, exhaled and slipped below the surface.

A flood of emotions — fear, excitement, curiosity — washed over me as I descended into the water. I watched the light from the water’s surface dance over the sharks’ skin and made eye contact with a reef shark.

Sharks have swum in the ocean for more than 450 million years, nearly as long as the first fish, and more than 200 million years before dinosaurs roamed the earth. As apex predators, they balance the ocean’s food chain. Without them, large predatory fish such as grouper and snapper flourish, depleting populations of herbivorous fish. Without herbivores, algae spreads, killing off coral reefs and collapsing habitats. I have such an immense respect and appreciation for the important role sharks play in the ocean’s ecosystem.

I didn’t always. I grew up fearing sharks as a result of movies like Jaws, but I have been infatuated with nature and wildlife for as long as I can remember. My father first took me underwater at the age of 8. As we approached a reef, a pod of dolphins suddenly surrounded us. I couldn’t believe my eyes. It felt like a dream. That childhood experience is one of my strongest memories, marking the moment I fell in love with the ocean and the creatures in it.

To this day, whether in the water or on land, nature fills me with a sense of peace and happiness.

This feeling of wonder inspired me to pursue a degree in biology, during which time I researched the habitats of porpoises near Pensacola, Florida, and the social behaviors of orcas at SeaWorld Orlando. Since graduating, I have struggled to find a job that allows me to be outdoors rather than in a lab.

To do so, I turned to another passion: photography. A camera allows me to capture nature’s magic and share it with others, connecting me to so many people and opening so many doors. I take pictures to show the beauty and sense of tranquility I find in nature, and share them to encourage others to explore this beautiful planet themselves. I also use my photos to share my view of the world with those who don’t have the ability to venture out, due to health, age or the busyness of everyday life.

Since 2012, I have been posting my photos on Instagram, and earlier this year, I was selected as the winner of the National Geographic “Wild to Inspire” Instagram short film competition. As the winner, I have the opportunity to travel to Africa with Nat Geo Wild to film wildlife alongside one of their cinematographers.

I won the competition with the first video I ever made. That video described my two-week journey from still photography to capturing landscapes and wildlife — from rivers and wheat fields to alligators and great blue herons — on video. It wasn’t easy. I got very little sleep and had quite a lot of stress. But it was totally worth it. Through this experience, I learned that life is too short not to take chances and that the fear of failure leads to a sheltered life.

This new view on life helped me work up the courage to jump into shark-infested waters.

Of course, the so-called man-eaters, with their rows of razor-sharp teeth, could have shred me to pieces. There was nothing between us other than water and my camera.

But they didn’t.

I was far more curious about them than they were about me. As this realization dawned on me, I was filled once again with the sense of serenity that I often find in nature. The same feeling that sparked my love of nature while swimming near dolphins with my father returned.

The only difference is that now I have a better understanding of the important role these animals play in the ecosystem. This knowledge, combined with my years as a diver, turned my fear into fascination, and I find myself longing to get back in the water with sharks again — with my camera, of course.

Anai Coyler, wearing a black baseball cap with the Florida flag, stands in front of a chalkboard illustration, pointing to two logos: one for Nat Geo Wild and one for Sun Valley Film Festival

Anai Colyer ’14 lives in Gainesville and works at a dive shop in Palm Beach, Florida. In March, she won National Geographic’s 4th annual “Wild to Inspire” short film contest. See more of her photos, including this one of a reef shark taken off the coast of the Florida Keys, on Instagram at @anai.colyer and on Facebook at Anai Colyer Photography.