It is important to respect wildlife for what they are. Wild, free beings. I don’t necessarily believe that we are placed in their lives for a reason, but occasionally, we help make a difference in theirs. If we were not on this planet, they would carry on just as they are. And possibly, even better. What I do fully believe is that they are placed in our lives for a reason. For this, I am certain.
Nurse sharks have always been special to me. Upon hearing about them for the first time in high school, I couldn’t specifically explain why I was drawn to them. I didn’t realize that our story was already being written.
Flash forward quite a few years as I am about to embark on my journey at the Shark Lab as an intern at the beginning of 2021. A day or two before leaving, my grandfather had been admitted to the hospital. COVID was a difficult time for him as he could not leave the house as much, so he was not as active as a result. I always felt guilty for not visiting him during the pandemic, even though the rest of my family did. A day before leaving to come to Bimini, I said, “I just hope nothing happens before I get back.” This phrase and me not being able to visit him haunted me as I learned of his passing only a few short days after beginning my internship. We had not even got a chance to go out in the field yet.
The ocean provided healing for me the first day in Bimini’s waters and continues to heal me to this day. It’s not a coincidence that the first sharks I saw that day were nurse sharks. Initially, I did not realize what was evolving before me. I was too enthralled with this new feeling and the scenes unfolding in my every direction. In all the chaos, I did remember a specific moment. A nurse shark approached me particularly close, and I could see its eye examining me, acknowledging my less wild presence. In that moment, though, I felt wild because I was beginning to be set free.
A pattern started to present itself to me some months later. I noticed a few features that seemed to be recurring in a nurse shark. I discovered that a nurse shark missing half its face on the left side and a notch missing from its right pectoral fin was present in almost all of my photos. Through everything, it has been there for it all without fail. On even closer examination, I found out it was the one that I had locked eyes with on my very first dive. This large and independent and curious nurse shark, which I now call Fred for absolutely no specific reason at all, never needed me. But I needed him.
I started paying close attention for Fred once I discovered his presence, but it was past the end of hammerhead season. I had only ever seen him at a specific site where great hammerheads frequent, so I did not see him again for quite some time. It was okay because during the time I had already spent with Fred, he did so much without me even realizing it. It’s not that I didn’t need him as much, but I needed to spread my wings for a bit before trusting that we would find each other again at the right time.
Our story continued on a random day in September. We were heading near a wreck close to the great hammerhead site to just snorkel and see what we could find. On the way out, I even said out loud, “What if I see Fred again today?!” Out of any nurse shark that could have showed up, I saw Fred’s silhouette appear before me. Since this day, I would like to think that a piece of my grandfather is present in Fred, and he is sent to check up on me and make sure that I am doing okay. We have had many encounters since the one in September: one where he came right up to me and did a circle around me upon entering the water, one where he swam right above me posing for the camera, and one where he caught the light just right and gave me quite a breathtaking view.
[Photo by Baylie Fadool]
From not being experienced in the water at all to taking most of the underwater photos for the lab now, Fred has seen every new milestone. He has helped me become more vulnerable, making me fall in love with life more and more every day. He reminds me of my purpose and how healing the ocean can be. But out of it all, it has shown me what can be done when a girl believes in herself and is constantly reminded that she is exactly where she is meant to be.
The story was always written. It was just waiting for me to be set free.
This story is dedicated to Raymond Phillip Fadool I.