Leaving my world far above me, I entered into theirs. As the water engulfed me I descended 100 feet below the ocean surface, seeking respite from the stormy skies and enormous waves above. Along with fifteen other scuba divers participating in this unique marine biology Academic Treks course, I settled behind a wall of coral, admiring the arena stretching before me. This was the first of many dives I completed last July, in one of the world’s most renowned adventure ecotourism spots: Shark Reef Marine Reserve, Pacific Harbor, Fiji.

When I told my friends and family my plans for the summer, they were shocked. “You mean you’re going to swim with sharks without a cage?! Haven’t you seen Jaws?!” After a life-changing experience studying dolphins in Belize the summer before, I was motivated to continue learning about marine ecosystems, and particularly to challenge the misguided view of sharks as horrific human predators. But entering the water for the first time, I admit, I was scared. Ten-foot, quarter-ton bodies of muscle began to slowly circle: bull sharks. My fear vanished as I watched local Fijians interact with these graceful creatures, so well adapted for the vast blue realm that is their home. These are the sharks described as unpredictable, aggressive, and most likely to attack a human. And yet I never could have anticipated how comfortable I felt as they swam within ten feet of my gaping eyes. Back in the classroom, we learned how exaggerated the danger sharks pose to humans really is; bad publicity breeds misunderstanding, and misunderstanding breeds fear. Consider this: while fifty people worldwide may get bitten by sharks every year, fewer than ten of which cause fatalities, in an average year in New York City more than 1600 people report having been bitten by people!

Sharks are just one of many animals I have been compelled to protect since I was a child. In preschool, I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up; I said a lion. I vividly remember saving worms washed out onto the sidewalk after a heavy rain. I still run to catch and release roaches and wasps in my apartment before someone steps on them. Some find my hyper-consciousness about the environment annoying” I scold my friends for using paper towels instead of sponges, or for not recycling plastic bottles” but I cannot bear to see such waste. I am also driven to learn more about how to preserve global ecosystems, and have been thrilled to learn directly from people of local cultures, who often have a remarkable awareness and connection to nature. This was true in Fiji, where I learned infinitely more from the Fijian guides on the dive boat than I could have ever learned from a textbook. They taught me that contrary to popular belief, sharks are not human hunting machines, but are crucial to the preservation of their lifestyle as well as to the global fishing economy.

Always eager to learn more about the natural world, I have found my inherent adventurousness extremely useful. Whether it be diving with sharks halfway across the world, eating live termites off a tree in the Belizean rainforest, living for two weeks with a Costa Rican family in a tiny village of 400 people, or jumping with Fijian locals off thirty-foot cliffs into the river below, I am willing to throw myself entirely into my quest to discover ways for humans and nature to coexist. I love to climb trees, to see the world through the eyes of a squirrel. I love to do gymnastic flips, to taste what it feels like to fly. I am overcome by an insatiable desire for knowledge and adventure, and every experience leaves me wanting more.

-Claudia Villar