When Georgie Codd decided to tackle her phobia of fish, she had more of an adventure in store than she bargained for. Determined to overcome her fear by trying to swim with a whale shark - the largest fish in the ocean, her quest takes her around the world with the hope of tracking down this enormous predator. Her memoir about the process, We Swim To The Shark, is an engulfing, entrancing and inspiring book about grief, fear, and the lengths we will go to in order to confront - and escape - ourselves. I had the opportunity to chat with Georgie about her adventures, and the process of writing her book.
You developed a phobia of fish at a young age. What made you determined to overcome your fear in your twenties?
My phobia crept up on me without me really noticing. I loved swimming in the sea as a kid, but watched Jaws about ten too many times, and was bitten, twice, by fish. Aged 15, I had a panic attack on holiday in Australia: a cluster of tiny fish surrounded me on a snorkelling trip, and I lost it. I realised just how frightened I really was.
In the years afterwards I’d torment myself with thoughts of creepy creatures underwater – having nightmares about sharks, whales and dolphins – and couldn’t bear to stay in the sea for more than a few minutes at a time. My phobia felt so limiting. I missed swimming without fear.
After university I moved to London. There I felt more homesick for the sea than ever before. I was stuck in a rut, unfulfilled by my job, and daydreaming about a life with no anxiety. I wanted to be a fearless explorer, not an office bod filing paperwork. That’s when I decided I would leave the city and try to conquer my phobia. I planned to become the next Jacques Cousteau, and to work my way up to swimming with the biggest fish in the world: the whale shark.
What was the most scary moment in the whole process? Is there one particularly memorable experience? What were the biggest surprises?
Well, trying to dive in a British lake in February with an instructor who swam off without me was the pits! Pure horror.
But there were many other scary moments too – so many times I convinced myself that I was going to die. Once I set out to learn scuba diving I became utterly fixated on tales of diving-gone-wrong, deliberately freaking myself out by talking to people who’d done terrifying things in the water: dived the deepest; swum with the deadliest; navigated through pitch-black cave systems; even watched their buddies die in the water. That meant the scariest moments were often just before I embarked on a new stage of my quest: I’d be totally pumped up with horror stories.
Surprise-wise, I think the biggest revelation was learning just how poorly we humans treat sharks; how speedily, and horrifically, we’re butchering them. In fact, learning this was the most frightening lesson.
At the time I was writing, official figures put shark and ray killings by fisheries at three per second. In the time it take you to read this interview, there will be 900 fewer sharks and rays in the ocean. Although they may be amazingly efficient predators, sharks are an integral part of a balanced food chain. Wiping them out is horrible news for our ocean and our planet.
At what point along the process did you begin to write about the experience?
I always keep a notebook on me, so was scribbling details about my travels from the moment I set off for Thailand. As a child, nearly all of our family holidays were with my grandmother, who I was very close to (Granny Codd was like a second mother to me). The older she got, the less able she was to come with us. I felt terribly guilty leaving her behind for this adventure, and so, at her request, wrote every day while I was travelling. By doing that, Granny could experience, in some small way, the atmosphere of the trip when I came home.
As well as overcoming a fear in an extraordinary way, We Swim To The Shark is also a beautiful exposition of loss and grief. At times it is extremely emotionally raw. Did you find writing those elements cathartic or was it challenging?
Thank you – that’s a really kind thing to say! It was definitely a challenge. Some grim things happened in my life over the course of this book. Recalling the details would bring my old feelings back into sharp focus – unpleasant flashbacks too. But these events were so integral to the path I was taking that I felt I couldn’t exclude them from the story. It did feel cathartic to know that something creative could be formed out of those experiences.
You spent a lot of time learning about diving, and meeting with and talking to divers of different disciplines. What compelled you to be so thorough in your understanding of what you were taking on?
I believe that all fears are connected with a fear of the unknown – and that, if you can manage to face that unknown and shed some light on it, that fear takes on a more manageable shape.
Once I started speaking to other people in the diving community, I realised that there was goldmine of helpful advice and experience out there: a lot of these divers had attempted terrifying challenges and had felt terrified in the process too, but they’d handled their fear. It gave me space to think: Maybe I can do this. It made me feel much less alone.
A lot changed during your life over the years you spent trying to find a whale shark. Do you think the process of searching helped you steer those changes?
Making the decision to try and find a whale shark gave a sense of purpose to my life that I felt I had been missing. At the same time, however, the journey took me away from other scary things that lurked closer to home – things I felt I also ought to be confronting. I struggled with getting the balance right. I still do.
At times it seems as though diving has become an addiction, and the thought of swimming with whale sharks an obsession. Did you enjoy putting yourself so far out your comfort zone?
I’d love to be the kind of person who could say yes, unequivocally, but the truth is it seemed like the weirdest form of masochism, given how anxious I was getting. I couldn’t seem to help myself.
I may not have enjoyed the prospect of a lot of the things I did, but it raised my self-esteem to be out there, trying. Besides, some of the dives I experienced on the journey were out of this world. I would have been gutted to miss them.
How has the experience of learning to dive, and trying to overcome such a big fear, changed you? Do you think you learned more about yourself?
Learning to dive, and immersing myself in this project, has brought me to new places and new people, some of whom I hope will be buddies for life. I’m glad to have found that camaraderie in fear – it crystallised my sense that, when you feel like the whole world is sinking, other people can help keep you afloat.
We Swim To The Shark by Georgie Codd is published by Fleet and is available now for £14.99. You can read an extract of the book on the Barefoot Bookseller blog now.