On a cold January night, I checked my iPhone to see an email from my boss. "Would you like to go on a press trip to the Bahamas to cover their ‘mancation’ activities?" he asked. "I AM SERIOUS." My editor received an invite to stay on Nassau Paradise Island but had a previous engagement that he couldn’t break. At the time, I was sitting in my friend’s apartment drinking white wine (with ice!). "Um," I said before reading the email aloud, to which my friend guffawed loudly. "A mancation, huh?" she howled. "Of course you have to go, if only because I am already excited to get all of the angry emails from you when you’re down there."
I might be the only person who has ever complained about a trip to the Bahamas. I’m not really a beach person. I’m not particularly fond of being shirtless in public, I don’t really like hot weather, and the idea of doing "manly" activities with strangers did not strike me as something I’d enjoy. Considering I’ve been what you could call an "inside kid" for nearly 29 years, I wasn’t really looking forward to the trip. My friends and boss all found some glee in the idea that I’d be deep-sea fishing and snorkeling with sharks, as they, as well as I, anticipated that I’d silently loathe all of the activities planned on the trip while vocally expressing my interest because I’m too polite. But, hey, it’s a free vacation away from the cold February weather in New York. I couldn’t pass that up, could I?
Luckily, it all turned out all right. Hell, even more than all right. I joked with friends that I’d be heading to Nassau to get my groove back (albeit without my version of a Whoopi Goldberg-esque sidekick). I’m not sure if my trip to the Bahamas changed my life, but it certainly improved it in the sense that I realized sometimes you just have to bite the bullet, ignore those nagging pessimistic tendencies, and find a little enjoyment in the unexpected—especially if the unexpected involves being in close proximity to some terrifyingly large sharks.
After landing in Nassau (and gladly receiving a stamp in the brand-new passport I got just for the trip) and spending a night at the Sheraton on Cable Beach a few miles from downtown Nassau, I met my tripmates (is that a word? I am making it a word!) to head to Stuart Cove’s, a Bahaman mainstay when it comes to snorkeling and diving. We hopped on a boat with nearly fifty other strangers to head out into the ocean to snorkel. I’d never done it before, but in my head I pictured the pilot episode of Enlightened in which Laura Dern finds (temporary) inner peace during an interaction with a sea turtle underwater. Obviously the show did not specify that her character must have snorkeled extensively, as ocean snorkeling is really hard, especially on your first attempt. I dove into the ocean eagerly, feeding the tropical fish with pellets purchased from the gift shop. I never quite got the hang of swimming around with flippers and a snorkel; at both of the first two dive spots I managed to ingest plenty of seawater. Despite of the discomfort, I can’t deny that it was somewhat peaceful under the clear, blue water, an entirely different feeling than that of frantically zipping past tourists outside of my Union Square office.
At the third dive, our leaders warned us to enter the water slowly after the handlers dropped a bait tank full of chum to the ocean floor. Here was where we would see some sharks. I was dubious, expecting them to be the kind of three-foot fish you see in aquariums, but I still lowered myself into the water with ease for fear that the teenager keeping watch would fuss at me for making a splash. Once I was submerged, I looked down and saw a group of ten to fifteen Caribbean reef sharks, all about ten to fifteen feet long, hovering around the bait box. "Hmm, that’s a lot of shark," I thought. Then I noticed about ten other sharks within close proximity making their way over in our direction. "OK, cool sharks, bye bye now!" I thought as I struggled to push past the other tourists back onto the boat, as I had quickly gotten over the novelty of being twenty feet away from something that could at any moment decide to chew my legs off.
After returning to our hotel at Cable Beach, we packed up our things and drove over to Paradise Island, the vacation Mecca on which stands the massive Atlantis resort. I checked into a massive room at The Cove one of the newer complexes that, while overlooking the giant water park that sits between the Atlantis and the ocean, has an air of sophistication about it despite standing next to a fake Mayan temple out of which tourists scream as they slide down the handful of water slides every few seconds. (The Cove offers an exclusive pool and beach for its guests who may want to avoid the packed water park—there’s even an "adults-only" pool, which is actually less shocking than the description alludes, offering a quiet retreat from screaming children.)
But how could I not take advantage of the slides or even the lazy river? (Another life lesson: it’s impossible for anyone too look attractive while awkwardly reclining in an inner tube.) But I found that the exciting attraction was the shark tank in which guests can don wet suits and oxygen tanks and actually walk around while sharks swam around them. As a recent shark enthusiast, I couldn’t not jump in that tank.
After squeezing into a wet suit, our guides instructed us to, you know, not bother the sharks. There were two varieties in the tank: the Caribbean reef sharks (the same we had seen the day before) and nurse sharks, the latter of which sprawled out on the bottom of the tank (they’re one of the few varieties of sharks that don’t have to keep moving in order to breathe, so why wouldn’t they just lounge around, waiting for food?). The guides attached some heavy tanks to our backs and slipped on a large plastic hood, which resembled a spacesuit or perhaps the tank that Ed Harris wore in The Abyss. One might assume being in such close proximity to a deadly animal might be slightly terrifying. On the contrary, the sharks didn’t freak me out. Rather, it was the suit that was the scariest part: the air rushing out of the hood every time I exhaled was deafening, and the plexiglass cover distorted my peripheral vision (I realized later that it was probably to prevent one from freaking out in the event that a big ass shark swam by one’s head).
I’m not sure I felt more manly once I came back above the water, but it was pretty exciting to have a Fear Factor-lite experience, after which I could proudly (and, perhaps, smugly) proclaim that I’d cavorted with some deadly creatures. And I’d gladly risk my life for another stay at Atlantis (getting my groove back, of course, being a requirement), especially as I look out my office window and see the dreary, rainy New York weather.