Memories of South Africa: oh, the thrill!
On my first trip to South Africa, I somehow figured out that great white shark diving was possible there (one of the few spots in the world, actually).
I told my South African wife that this was the one thing that I wanted to do on this trip. During our two-week getaway, I remember repeatedly asking her when we were going to fit it in, given that we had other family and friend obligations. She kept saying “end of next week.” When next week came, and there was no sign of a break in the schedule, I asked again. This time I got a different answer. “Never, are you crazy? There is no way you are going!” How did I not see this coming? She got me, and never intended for this to happen. Fool me once. I vowed that for the next trip, I was definitely going.
Fast forward to the next trip. I take no chances and make a reservation beforehand on Dyer Island Cruises and arrange for a pickup from a nearby suburb of Cape Town, in Gordon’s Bay. It is a long, winding trip, up and down mountains passes, to our destination in Gansbaii.
The outfit is very professional. We get a talk on land about what we are about to do, then board a sturdy 40’ catamaran power boat for a safety briefing and start heading out. Despite the fact that it is a beautiful sunny day, 10 knots of breeze, I am thinking, for the first time…this is not smart. If anything happens to the boat, we are in shark infested waters. Not just any shark, GREAT WHITES! Oh well, what is the worst that can happen…
On the way out, they start chumming the water in search of sharks. Nothing. They start towing a seal shaped piece of Styrofoam on a few hundred feet of line behind the boat to lure one of the big fellas out. Nothing. There is an air of anxiety, high expectations, but after two hours of this, the mood turns pretty somber. Maybe we won’t see one?
Then I see something. Big splashes! Something is breaching repeatedly as it attacks our fake seal! It is big. My pulse is racing. This is now very real!
Eventually, we have three 15-foot great white sharks circling our boat! So, I kit up. This is not scuba diving actually, you are in a thick 7mm wetsuit, as the water is low 60’s Fahrenheit, it’s very cold (the way the sharks like it), and all you have are a mask and snorkel. The cage runs along the side of the boat, about one foot above the waterline, about eight feet below. The bars are awfully far apart, making you wonder if a shark can fit through. How do you get into the cage? Good question. They open the top and you jump in. Do the sharks know not to do the same from the other side? Apparently they have a shark spotter on the boat that is watching for them, confirming when to open the cage and load people, and when to close it. Sure.
They take groups of 6 into the cage at a time. Finally, it’s my turn. My heart is pounding as I get into the very open cage. The visibility is very poor, just a few feet, so we have a spotter on the top deck that signals us to go down when he sees a shark coming. I hear him yell. I hyperventilate myself with three short breaths, a free diver trick, so I can hold my breath longer. I go down. I find the only way to stay down is to hold onto the cage bars, something they tell you not to do. Then out of nowhere, the great white shark swims right by the cage! I lose my breath when I see it, partially because you can’t see it until it is literally right there, and mostly because it is a great white shark and you are in his house, so to speak. All divers come up immediately, gasping for air after having just screamed under water! The people in the cage are all smiling, apprehensive, excited, and talking about what just happened. I make nervous jokes myself to anyone who will listen. Then, I hear the signal again. I’m looking again, can’t see anything, then finally, I see an open set of jaws (yes, JAWS) coming right at me. I jump back, lose my breath (again). CRASH! It hits the cage violently, and I’m physically jolted! I come up even faster this time. I now understand why they tell you not to hold on to the bars…
All in all I get about a dozen shark encounters, each one more exciting than the last since you can’t see them until they are right upon you and you don’t know what direction they’re coming from. But alas, time to start heading back. As scared as I was heading out there, I am now thrilled and a bit exhausted. What an amazing experience. Great whites are beautiful, graceful, and powerful. Crossing one more item off the bucket list!