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By Shelley Murphy
The middle of summer is here and so are soaring temperatures. Most residents and tourists crowd San Clemente’s sandy beaches to beat the heat and splash in the saltwater—but not me.
Years ago, I spent carefree summer days in the surf. But thanks to Peter Benchley and Steven Spielberg, those days are long gone.
As a kid, I sat in a dark movie theater watching an unsuspecting Chrissie Watkins leave an evening beach party and run along the shoreline; when she reached the water, she jumped into the warm waves off Amity Island and into the jaws of a great white shark. Spielberg doesn’t show the shark in the opening scene of Jaws, but the thrashing attack haunts me and keeps me out of the murky ocean.
Shark sightings in San Clemente and nearby Dana Point help fuel my fears. I know my worry is irrational, and statistics prove it is unjustified. According to the International Shark Attack File, in 2017 zero shark attack fatalities were reported in the United States.
More people die from being struck by lightning or falling down the stairs. I have heard it all. But what I hear instead of logical reasoning is John Williams’ terrifying Academy Award-winning two-note score increasing in speed and intensity: Duuun-dun. Duuun-dun. Dun-dun-dun-dun.
Despite my phobia, when my kids were young I didn’t discourage them from playing in the surf. To be honest, I also didn’t encourage them. I wasn’t the mom loading our car with chairs, towels, sunscreen, and boogie boards and joining beachgoers along the sandy shore.
When my boys did splash in the seawater, it was usually on vacation. On our family trips, my kids spent fun-filled days snorkeling, swimming and bodysurfing while I kept watch from my beach chair for a powerful predator’s dorsal fin.
I’m happiest spending my summer safe on the sand with a good book. My family loves to joke that the only time I am ever in the water on vacation is in the hotel shower.
My selachophobia doesn’t seem to have a lingering effect on my sons—well, maybe, it affects my younger son. We are both obsessed with “Shark Week.” But, unlike me, my son’s fascination with sharks isn’t based on fear and phobia but curiosity and knowledge.
As a youngster, my son started watching Shark Week and shared his favorite fun facts, including shiny jewelry attracts sharks because it can look like fish scales, and great whites can smell a drop of blood from 3 miles away.
This month marks the 30th anniversary of the Discovery Channel’s summer pop culture phenomenon. Shark Week debuted in July 1988, airing memorable episodes such as, “Caged in Fear” and “The Shark Takes a Siesta.”
Shark Week is often criticized by animal rights groups for perpetuating fear and sensationalizing sharks. I support their stance favoring a focus on conservation efforts and correcting misconceptions, but also admit my interest in Shark Week is selfish.
This Sunday, Shark Week starts and enthusiastic fans will tune-in to watch action-packed adventures and explorations. I can’t wait for Shark Week to begin because it brings eight days of treasured time spent with my younger son.
Together we’ll watch shark-centered programs, laughing at the fictionalized dramas and marveling at the wildlife footage. For a few days, I’ll ride the wave of nostalgia remembering my little boy cuddling next to me on the couch and curling-up closer as the shark closed in on its prey.
After Shark Week ends, and the last great white swims out to sea, I’ll help my son pack his bags and prepare to leave home—again.
I’ve learned that life with a college kid is a series of goodbyes; as time marches forward, farewells become more familiar but not much easier. Next month my son starts his senior year of college and his visits home become fewer and further apart.
Shelley Murphy has lived in San Clemente with her husband for the past 18 years, where she raised her two sons. She’s a freelance writer and has been a contributor to the San Clemente Times since 2006.