There were a lot of thoughts racing through my head that day on January 14th, 2021, before I boarded the plane into completely unfamiliar territory. I had always thought about taking off and going to chase an adventure I knew nothing about, but once it was actually happening, it was quite scary. What if I am terrified of being in the water with sharks? I mean, I had never even snorkeled in the open ocean. But, an even scarier thought, what if I don’t make any friends? What if there’s no one that I will talk to?
People sometimes ask that question, “If you could go back in time and tell yourself that everything was going to be alright, would you?” The truth is, no, because I would have missed so much. I wouldn’t change a single thing.
The person that I am now was always in me. Second by second, hour by hour, I was growing and evolving. It was all happening so fast through every encounter and interaction. I had always loved the ocean, and getting to experience it firsthand was changing my life. It had a great impact in shaping me into who I am now and has given me so much. A new appreciation for life. A sense of gratefulness for every day I’m given. A renewed sense of peace from all the beauty surrounding me. But it’s not what was having the greatest impact on who I have become. It is and always has been the people and community that is so unique to the Shark Lab.
For the people that know me, you may find it hard to believe that I was a quiet and reserved girl when I first arrived at the Shark Lab. That’s the beauty of this place. You see yourself change and grow right in front of your eyes. I get asked when it all changed, when I started to become more like the person everyone that has walked through here knows and recognizes. I say it was in the every day. It was during the dinners that always have absurd topics. It was while scrubbing pen mesh at Back Beach belting out tunes at the top of our lungs or trying to guess riddles. It was deciding to host a karaoke night in the lab to entertain ourselves while the power was out. It was playing soccer on Shell Beach at sunset and doing silly jumps in the waves. But this was all just the beginning.
There have been numerous silly scenarios and moments. Honestly, do you have 3 years to listen? There was something every single day. As I look around the lab, I can relive and replay all the memories in front of me. All these moments are definitely a part of who I am now. But what was truly waiting for me going into this experience were the friendships that were going to become like family.
This is what no one prepares you for. You know that you are all going to be living together in close quarters. You know that you are all going to be around each other 24/7. For some reason, though, you don’t quite fully grasp it.
Some of the people I’ve met at the Shark Lab have been the most welcoming, genuine, and open-minded people I have ever met. It felt like we were truly meant to meet. This is a feeling I had never quite experienced in this way, and something I definitely did not expect before coming to the lab. The complete acceptance towards one another shaped me into someone that always wants to strive to be better, always wants to show up for people, and always wants to be the biggest cheerleader for others. These people were making me more and more into someone that I’d always dreamt of being and was so indescribably proud of. My family has grown, and I am so grateful for this.
You come to the Shark Lab for an opportunity to gain field skills, but what you get out of it is so much more. If I had known the way it played out beforehand, I would not be half the person I am now. Looking back on it now, I realize that all along I was just a girl trying to find what it was that she loved. And in that process, I found more.
I found home.
I’m also an avid lover of birds, and we often take in fosters whether that be dogs, cats, or other animals in need of help. We always joked that if an injured bird came to me, that I had to take care of. After 3 years, a bird decided to show up during my last week living at the lab. It had an injured foot and wasn’t flying. I kept it in a crate for the night wrapped all in towels to keep her warm. The next day, she was standing up in the crate. I let her go on Back Beach, and she was walking around but choosing not to fly. She wanted to swim. She kept swimming all around the mangroves and looking back at me while doing so. She taught me one of the most important lessons that day, something that summed up my whole experience at the Shark Lab:
“Even if I can fly, I will never forget how to swim.”
Leaving the Shark Lab is never truly leaving. You become part of a great, big, beautiful family. Our hearts are all there, though, because there is no place quite like home.