August 31, 2011

Face to Face with a Great White Shark

"Do they ever attack the cage?"

Jabulani asked this question, somewhat hopefully, as we settled into the briefing at Marine Dynamics in Kleinbaai.We had flown to Cape Town the day before, this being Jabulani's 13th-birthday-trip, and then we had driven all morning to this little town about two and a half hours along the coast. The closer we got, the more I was berating myself for my utter foolishness in including me, of all people, in this undertaking. It was HIS birthday, after all, and HIS excitement about swimming with sharks, and no one prodded me along - it was entirely of my own doing. There is something about living in South Africa that makes me fly in helicopters, balance above yawning precipices, and mingle with all manner of wild and dangerous animals. After being done as expats here I won't even have to come up with a bucket list anymore as I'm sure I'll have done it all.



So here I was, a nervous wreck, about to board a boat to go through some seriously huge waves and then lower myself into a cage, hold my breath, and look at sharks. Don't get me wrong, it wasn't the sharks that bothered me, and whether they would or would not attack the cage. It was the cold water I was deathly afraid of. I'm a whimp, at the best of times, when it comes to cold water. Technically, Gansbaai - the Great White Shark Capital of the World - is on the Indian Ocean, but barely, with the frigid Atlantic just a few hours to the West. Check out any online temperature chart, and you will learn that the current water temperature in these parts is more or less 15 degrees centigrade (about 60 Fahrenheit). Most decidedly not warm. Of course we had to time this trip such that August is actually the low point on such charts. (Timing is not our strong suit: In another example of what is quite typical for this family, our new underwater camera will arrive next week, precisely seven days after we've undertaken perhaps the most exciting underwater adventure of our lives).

Anyway, here we all were, listening to some last-minute advice and instructions from our assigned biologist, who assured us in response to Jabulani's question that he had never seen a shark attack the cage (I somewhat qualified that statement later when I learned that he had been in South Africa all of two weeks). Let me just say that if you plan on going shark cage diving, it is a good idea to keep your hands inside the cage.

After we were sufficiently briefed and fed and handed some coats and life vests, we boarded our ride:


I was barely warm enough on our trip out to Dyer's Island bundled into four layers including a down jacket. Thankfully, I was not among the first to get wet. We had to take turns of seven people each in the cage and other people went before us, while we struggled into our 7mm wet suits. Which is not an easy feat in and of itself, let alone on a violently rocking boat if you're also trying to take shark pictures every time somebody yells "watch left!"

We're getting in that? It looks tiny!

Loading time

It didn't take long for the first sharks to arrive, since we had left a trail of "fish chum," a lovely broth made from fish oil, in our wake. Noisette felt compelled to point out the fish chum smell at every opportunity, until we were all thoroughly sick from it. Add to that the pitching boat and the fact that several people were already making good use of their barf bags, and it's a miracle none of us got seasick, especially Jabulani, who cannot even look at an airplane without drammamine.

There comes the first one

Take note that the cage is still open on the left. And doesn't it look a bit flimsy?

Then it was our turn. We lowered ourselves into the cage and I couldn't breathe for about two minutes, it was so cold. And there isn't actually that much air at the top part of the cage, especially when the boat is rolling and there is no air at all. The best thing to do was to breathe in and go down, hooking your feet under the lower bar and waiting for a shark. And they obliged. Constantly baited from above with a bundle of fish heads on one side and a seal decoy on the other, they kept circling our cage.



Making off with the bait

Still, it didn't really feel scary. In fact, you kept wishing for more of them to come and to come more often, just because it was getting cold down there and you knew you'd be done after 15 minutes. And I was also quite sure I wouldn't be doing this again. Do I wish we would have had that underwater camera! Although in all honesty, with all that swaying and being knocked about and swallowing water, I'm not sure how many decent pictures we would have come up with. It was hard enough to take them from above.


My only picture approaching Jaws, at least a little bit

All in all, a must see for visitors to South Africa and anyone who likes a good thrill and to perhaps get a glimpse of these awesome creatures before there are none left. According to Marine Dynamics, there are only about 3500 Great Whites roaming the world's oceans, and still declining.

I personally appreciated the fact that this particular adventure didn't involve any heights! Like all adventures, the actual event wasn't something I enjoyed all that much, and I couldn't decide whether the violently swaying boat, the foul smell, the biting wind, the freezing water gushing down my back, having to squeeze in and out of a wet suit in frigid temperatures, or the barfing passengers were the worst. But the "having done it" feeling is awesome!

Next up: More Diving with Sharks

6 comments :

1986 CR Swart Matrieks said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
cat said...

It does look fantastic although I think I might skip this one. I am much better with heights than sharks.

2summers.net said...

I'm enthusiastic about most kinds of animal adventures, but for some reason this one freaks me out. I'd rather just sail around in the bay and look at the sharks from above the surface. Bravo to you for braving the waters!

- Suzie - said...

OMG! What a special birthday gift!!
I hope my boy will never have that wish. Or at least I would stay watching from above and taking the pictures :-)
Very brave! For sharks and water temp.!

Sine said...

I'm glad I actually got in the water, though ahead of time the option of staying in the boat and watching seemed more appealing, just like you are all saying. The thing is, I felt queasy the entire way, but that stopped as soon as I got in the water. You don't get seasick when you're swimming, especially under water! So, in the end it was a welcome reprieve. Our kids keep us young in this way. (Or maybe they make us age prematurely?)

W. A. Jeffrey said...

Too scary for me! Although I don't get sea sick which is a plus. Didn't know that great whites were in decline. I suppose they won't go extinct if marine biologists can come up with a fix. If not, then I guess there will always be pictures, films, and stuffed ones in museums. I suppose nothing lasts forever.