The first thing Rebecca Romijn notices on the boat is the cage - you know, the one that will stand between her and
a sea full of circling sharks. It is constructed of PVC tubing. It lies, folded, on the deck. And, with apologies to whoever constructed it, it does not appear to be an impenetrable fortress of protection.
"I mean, it's plastic," Rebecca smirks. "I have beach chairs that look sturdier than this."
"It looks like it's made of croquet wickets," says Rebecca's friend Kent, who has come along to lend moral support - even though this is not a particularly supportive thing to say.
"Apparently, they just built it. No one's ever been in it. I'm the guinea pig," Rebecca says.
"Maybe they'll name the cage after you if it works," says Kent. "They'll call it The Romijn."
"She didn't die!" Rebecca chortles. "That''ll be the catchphrase: The Romijn - she didn't die!"
"Yeah, you'll be in the commercial - with one arm. 'Hey, I didn't die!"
And that's when Rebecca Lets loose with a laugh - a joyful, wheezing cacophony that sounds a bit like a hyperventilating seal. It's not the laugh you might expect from a supermodel-turned-actress. Then again, there's not much about Rebecca Romijn that's what you might expect.
Team Rebecca Hoists Anchor
"Team Shark?" asks Rebecca, as our captain steers the 80-foot boat from Southern California's Long Beach Harbor and begins the two-hour voyage to the shark-infested waters off Catalina Island. Rebecca has noticed the logo on the shirts of the six members of our shark-expedition crew. "You guys are all wearing Team Shark shirts? Whose side are you on here? How about some Team Rebecca shirts?"
She's kidding, but a little concern would be understandable. After all, Rebecca grew up in Berkeley, CA, and spent her childhood boogie-boarding in the chilly, Great White - scal feeding waters near San Francisco known as the Red Triangle. While she was attending the University of California at Santa Cruz, a friend got "tangled up in a wave" with a shark while surfing. Rebecca knows from sharks.
"I'm scared of the Pacific Ocean - but I love it. It's a place of mystery," she says, standing on the bow of the boat as it cuts through the wind and four-foot swells. "And being from northern California, that coastline up there is where I feel really close to God. When I die, I want to have my ashes scattered in the Pacific Ocean."
I suggest that this might not be the best time to be talking about dying and scattering one's ashes. But before she can answer, Team Shark begins to move into action. John, our barrel-chested, goated marine biologist and team leader, ushers us into the boat's main galley for a quick training session.
'First things first. Rebecca, do you have any desire to go outside the cage?" The entire crew faces her, and she recoils a bit in surprise.
"Uhhh, maybe?" Rebecca says, turning to Kent for support. With the look of that cage, she's probably thinking, What difference does it make?
"Well, if you do, you'll need to stay inside us and stay near the cage, or else you'll start drifting with the current. Once you start drifting out, the sharks will follow you, and that is not what we want to have happen."
I make a mental note. A drifting Rebecca + pursuing sharks = bad.
"The sharks we see will most likely be blue sharks," John continues, "which are not predatory by nature. They won't attack unless they feel provoked. They can get a little rambunctious, though, and if that happens, you'll see me slapping their noses. Sharks have a lot of sensory organs on their snouts, and just like a dog, when they get too frisky, you just give them a nice little rap on the nose."
"Got it!" Rebecca says. "Slap the sharks! Smack them in their noses!"
"Well, hopefully you won't have to be doing that," grins John, apparently impressed by Rebecca's enthusiasm for aquatic self-defense. 'Just be sure to keep your eye out for sharks that are skinny. The skinny ones are usually the hungry ones." And with that comforting thought in mind, our captain cuts the engines. It's time to start pouring a trail of chum - bloody bait - into the ocean. Our boat has arrived in shark country.
Into The Deep Blue
It's one hour later, and Rebecca is suited up in a fullbody, four-millimeter-thick, neoprene wetsuit, hood, and booties. Of course, she still looks stunning. Other people look like stuffed sausages when they're wearing wet-suits. Other people are not international supermodels.
The cage has been dropped in the water, and it appears to be doing its job. Still, as Rebecca stands on the platform and prepares to dive in, the sharks - and the cage - are no longer her primary fear. "I just can't get my head around the fact that I'm going into this water. It just looks soooo cold," Rebecca says.
"What tipped you off, the ieebergs floating by?" says Kent. "Leonardo DiCaprio's corpse maybe?"
Before Rebecca can beat him to the next joke, John yells out that there's a five-foot blue shark near the cage. It's time to swim. Without hesitation, Rebecca flips herself into the cage. The water, at a temperature in the mid-50s, is stunningly cold. But Rebecca toughs it out until her body numbs over, and for the next five minutes, she floats in the cage, craning her neck in an attempt to see the suddenly coy shark. Finally, she pops her soggy, blond head up and pulls off her mask. "He really doesn't seem that interested in me," she says.
"Tell the shark you were in X-Men," Kent suggests. "Tell him you know Kevin Spacey."
"How about I go back down there and do 'yo mama' jokes? That will get him to come around," she says.
Everyone on deck laughs. But as she once again starts swimming inside the cage, her muffled voice begins to echo through her snorkel. Rebecca actually is telling the shark "yo mamia" jokes. And sure enough, within minutes, the shark begins to circle the cage, then starts swimming face-to-face with her. Apparently, none of God's great creatures is immune to the provocation of the dreaded "yo mama" taunt.
"Oh, he's so beautiful! He's just so awesome!" Rebecca exclaims when she comes up for air. "But I feel kind of silly inside this cage. is it OK if I swim out there?"
Dive-master John nods his head and grins. He's got a live one in Rebecca, and he likes it. "All right. But remember, when you're outside the cage you're part of the food chain.'"
'For me, there's only one way to live life," Rebecca had said two hours before, from the safety of the boat's deck. "In my opinion, you live by experiencing different things: trying weird foods, going to weird places, immersing yourself in cultures, not being too safe. I guess, in a way, this is exactly how I've been with my entire career. I've never known what to expect. I've never felt like I had anything to lose. We always just figured 1 would either sink or swim."
Rebecca's two new movie roles - as a scar-faced motorbiker in the remake of Rollerball and a shifty con artist in Brian DePalma's upcoming thriller, Femme Fatale - bear that out. She clearly has no desire to coast on her looks alone.
"You know, I'm not interested in being 'just a pretty girl. It's so boring to be just a pretty girl. I mean, I know they exist. I've definitely met a few. But I would be bored to tears."
As she plunges into the open ocean, though, boredom is the least of Rebecca's concerns. The plan is for John, a few yards away to hand-feed the sharks to entice them near, then smack them on the snout if they start getting too frisky. Dive-master Shane, floating 20 yards away, is a second line of defense. Since we have already established that "a drifting Rebecca + pursuing sharks = bad," Rebecca will stay right where she is - a couple of yards from the boat.
For a few minutes, all is quiet below the surface - too quiet, as they say in the movies. John and Shane fidget nervously, like bouncers at an empty club. Rebecca peers around for any signs of sharks; all she sees are the men floating nearby and the translucent beauty of the turquoise ocean. On our mental soundtracks, though, the orchestra's strings have begun their unnerving, familiar, two note Jaws refrain: duuh-daaah... duuh-daaah... duuh-daaah... duuh-daaah...
That's when the Big Boy appears. A good-size blue, probably seven feet or so, he swims in slowly from he floating chum line to the south. He laconically buzzes the group a few times, floats within a few feet of Rebecca, and grabs a few of John's buffet fish. A few minutes later, a second shark shows up, and the pool party really starts to liven up.
"The big one was really close to me! I was hanging out right next to him, it was awesome," says Rebecca later. "But that second guy. Wow! He was fast and little, and I got nervous - real nervous - but I couldn't turn away. All of a sudden, he swam up to me and started kind of flipping around right in front of my face. He went vertical, then swam backward, then he did it again. I was like, "Whoa, I didn't know they did that." That scared the shit out of me.'
Within minutes, a third shark joins the party. Then a fourth and a fifth, in rapid succession. John and Shane now seem intent on keeping the situation from getting out of control. But through it all, Rebecca keeps her cool.
"Son of a bitch!" John suddenly screams as he bursts to the surface and whips off his mask. He's clutching his left hand in his right. The good news is that both are still attached. But, from the looks of the blood running down his left wrist, the mackerel buffet has just closed for the day.
I took my eye off a shark I'd just fed, and it whipped around and clamped down on my hand," John says as he ushers Rebecca back onto the boat. "But that's the tough thing about having five sharks around at once. You just can't watch them all."
Before he can leave the water, though, John has one more job to do. He casually wipes the blood away from his hand, then he and Shane make one last dive near the platform at the back of the boat. A few minutes later, they break the surface and wriggle back onto the platform - just John, Shane ... and a four foot blue shark.
Meeting Mr. Wiggles
Blue sharks are migratory creatures, traveling thousands of miles a year and hundred of thousands of miles in their 50-year life span. It's like that today's sharks have never seen people, and may never see them again. But in case they do, John will tag one so that future researchers can track its movements.
John brings the blue to the side of the deck and rushes to place a saltwater hose into its mouth so it can breathe. Saltwater begins pouring through the blue's gills and down the sides of his body. John recruits Rebecca to help hold the hose in its mouth. "Hey there, mister," Rebecca says, awestruck, as the shark is placed in her lap. The blue is now only slightly wiggling and has one eye staring up at Rebecca. He's either in shock, or he's about to ask for her autograph. "Wow. He's hanging onto that hose for dear life."
John explains that the blue has about 50 rows of teeth (to which John's still-bleeding left hand can attest). But not to worry - his survival instinct should keep all those teeth locked firmly onto the hose. John's next job is to identify the shark's gender, so he turns it onto its back.
"Boy, look, two penises!" exclaims Rebecca. Apparently all male sharks have two. Who knew?
John asks Rebecca if she would like to name the shark, and Rebecca looks honored. "What should I name him?" she mutters to herself. "I don't want to name him something obvious, or the first thing I think of. This requires some serious thought." "How about Sharkey," her pal Kent deadpans, and Rebecca again sets her wheezing seal free.
"No. Mr. Wiggles. That's what I want to call him." Everyone nods in agreement as Rebecca kisses him. He looks like a Mr. Wiggles.
John measures the shark - 52 inches-then jabs the yellow identity tag into the skin near Mr. Wiggles's dorsal fin. Finally, he announces that it's time to release Mr. Wiggles back into the water and asks Rebecca if she has any parting requests.
"Yeah, can I measure his penises?" Rebecca says. The men on board are wide-eyed and giggling, but John doesn't see why not. He hands Rebecca the tape measure. She carefully holds it up. "Penis length: two inches. Oh, poor Mr. Wiggles." And on that rather undignified note, Mr. Wiggles is set back into the sea.
A New Perspective
As the boat begins its two-hour journey back to shore, Rebecca relaxes in the galley. The sun is setting over the Pacific, and the air outside has turned brisk. She's freshly showered, wearing warm clothes, and kicking back with a Miller Lite. "Nothing like swimming with sharks, then having a beer with the guys afterward," she says, then quietly stares for a few minutes as the late-evening light reflects off the receding cliffs of Catalina Island.
"You know, I miss Mr. Wiggles already," she says. "Actually, I'm worried about that long yellow thing they tagged him with. I'm afraid the other sharks will make fun of him. Seriously, when they brought him on board, I felt sorry for him, like it diminished him. He was so awesome in the water, and then out of the water - it removed some of his dignity.
"Today was so incredible. Being underwater - it's like being on another planet. It's just amazing being with other creatures in their natural environment. You really have to respect them, because you're visiting them in their world, where they know the ropes and you don't. It makes you feel vulnerable - and certainly less sure of yourself than you are when you're sitting on land."
John walks by, a fresh bandage on his hand. "You know, an average of about 10 people a year are killed by sharks worldwide," he tells Rebecca. "And it's estimated that between drift nets and long-line fishing, 100 million sharks are killed by people every year."
"That sure puts things in perspective for you," Rebecca remarks. "Who is the real predator here?"
Rebecca and John proceed to spend the next 15 minutes discussing the length of shark breeding cycles, the complexities of shark courtship rituals, and the relationship between gestation periods and the decline of the California Great White. Once again, Rebecca Romijn is not what you would expect.
An hour later, as the boat nears the harbor, Rebecca is asked to name the day's most memorable moment. She pauses
dramatically, temporarily lost in thought.
"There's no doubt about it," she finally says. "I would have to say it was measuring Mr. Wiggles's penises."
And, from the distant shore, the sound of a hyperventilating scal echoes across the water.
Original article: Marie Claire 3/2002