I’m not sure exactly how diving with sharks got onto my bucket list. I think it was more of a ‘everyone else has it on the list so I should too’ kinda thing. It seemed like the kind of thing I should want to do. I love wildlife and if I could I’d go off in search of every rare animal on the planet so I guess it’s natural to want to get up close and personal with a great white shark, considered one of the world’s top predators.
The first time I ever came across sharks in the wild was when I was 18. I’d spent the afternoon surfing (badly) with some friends in Brazil and we were enjoying a few beers on the beach afterwards when someone pointed out to us the myriad of fins swimming around in the sea. Needless to say, that was the last time we went into those waters but luckily the beer allowed us to see the funny side. I had wondered why no one else had been surfing there.
Many years later on a trip to Thailand I came face to face with my first shark. Fortunately, it was only a black tipped reef shark but I was fascinated. Despite being on a snorkelling trip to an area called shark bay, for some reason I didn’t expect to see any sharks. Especially not within 30 seconds of jumping in. I was happily bobbing around near the boat as everyone else went speeding off around the bay hunting for sharks when Jaws appeared less than 5 metres in front of me. I didn’t even know it was possible to freeze up so completely whilst swimming so I’m glad I had a buoyancy vest on. I’ll never forget that sharp angular face coming towards me. What struck me most, other than the fact that I didn’t expect it to look like a shark (go figure), was that it seemed so emotionless as it swam past. I actually had a waterproof camera with me and I was so shocked by my encounter that I completely forgot to take a picture. Back on the boat our skipper for the day told me not to worry as they only feed at night. I spent the rest of the journey thinking that I normally eat during the day but that’s never stopped me having a midnight snack when one has so conveniently presented itself.
Fast forward just a few months and I found myself on an adventure of the Garden Route in South Africa with my now wife and her brother. If you’re looking for a fun filled tour there are few better places. In the space of a week you can travel along the Garden Route and partake in such delights as the world’s highest bungee jump at Bloukrans bridge, Ostrich riding, zip lining through the Tsitsikamma forest and of course cage diving with Great White sharks.
Mossel bay in South Africa is arguably the most accessible place in the world to dive with Great Whites but there are a number of secluded bays between there and Hermanus which also offer trips out to the reefs. We took one of the tours that claims to be more ethical in the sense that they don’t feed the sharks although we later found out that they don’t need to as most of the passengers add their own chum to the water due to the choppiness of the waters.
Breakfast was included during our briefing on shore and it was accompanied by a sea sick tablet which probably should have alerted us to our impending future but we were soon loaded on the boat with the rest of the group and on our way out to the anchor point. To be fair the water was choppy but I’ve never had a problem with seasickness before so I wasn’t overly concerned. That was until we laid anchor and I noticed just how much our small boat was rocking. Still, I kept my gaze on the horizon as the crew went about their business and we donned our wetsuits. My mistake was heading down to the toilet. As soon as I lost the horizon I felt the motion of the boat and even returning to the deck didn’t help. I didn’t feel too bad though as pretty much everyone on the boat was in the same shape.
It wasn’t long before we were pulled from our rocking malaise by a crew member shouting of “look out, look out, on the line!” Although the crew weren’t throwing chum in the water like some other companies do, they did have a huge chunk of meat dangling in the water which they pulled in once the sharks drew near. By this point a few of the greener faced passengers had lost their breakfast over the side which probably made the area more attractive to our predatory friends. Within minutes we could see the shadows of three monstrous sharks circling our boat. Occasionally coming close enough to the surface for us to get a view of these magnificent beasts.
I didn’t need any encouragement at this point, my stupid gene had kicked in and I was first in the cage with my wife and her brother in tow. I’m not sure exactly what I had expected, perhaps a cage that would be lowered into the water but that wasn’t the case here. The cage was already in the water and the waves were lapping over the top.
The crew signalled for me to climb over the side of our boat and down the ladder into the cage. I’ll admit it felt like I was jumping into the sea with the sharks and it wasn’t until I was secure inside the cage that I started to feel safe. Looking up I could see one of the crew pointing to my left, I submerged myself and was shocked to find a dark blue eye the size of my fist right next to my face on the other side of the bars. Two things flashed into my head, firstly, wow I thought sharks had black eyes and secondly; holy crap there’s a great white shark less than a foot away from me. I don’t think anyone would blame me for popping straight back out of the water at that point.
The scariest thing for me wasn’t that there were great white sharks outside of the cage but rather the design of the cage. The space between the bars was, in my opinion huge, I could have easily squeezed in between them not that I would have wanted to but the problem I had was that to keep myself under the water I had to pull myself down by holding onto the bars. This often resulted in my hands or feet slipping between the bars just as a shark came gliding past.
I was amazed by how graceful the sharks were, they were immensely huge and covered in scars but I felt completely safe as they didn’t seem to have any interest in us at all. I didnt sense any malice or foul intent from the Sharks, it was clear that they weren’t interested in us, perhaps it was more that they were in their territory and knew that they had nothing to fear from us. It was like watching a group of battle scarred war veterans chilling out in a bar.
As usual I seem to be completely incapable of enjoying an experience without adding some flair or drama, in this case I popped up to the surface for a break and was instantly overtaken by nausea. I knew immediately that I was going to be sick but my one and only thought was that if I was sick in the cage it was going to wash over everyone else so I did what I thought was logical and grabbed hold of the side of the cage and proceeded to empty my stomach into the sea. I was vaguely aware of someone on the boat yelling at me and I presumed it was because I was throwing up. Turns out they were yelling at me to get back in the cage. Just as my sickness abated, my tear-filled eyes cleared just enough for me to see a great white shark pass just a metre below me.
Needless to say, I didn’t waste any time hanging over the top of the cage and our turn was soon up. I spent the rest of the trip wrapped up and staring back at the coastline.
One unexpected result of my time out was seeing a humpback whale surface not far from our boat which made the queasiness all worth it.
All in all it was an incredible experience to get so close to such a magnificent creature and I’ve never met anyone else that has thrown up on a great white shark so that’s a bonus!