Just When You Thought it Was Safe to Go Back in the Water….

Great White Shark cage diving was the “play” experience I was looking forward to the most on this trip.  Francesca had done it when she was in South Africa in 2004 and said it was amazing.  But as I stood in the small boat looking out towards the cold, black ocean at 8am on an unusually overcast day off the coast of Kleinsbaai it didn’t seem like all that spectacular of an idea.  I had already been shark cage diving in Hawaii a few years ago.  So what if they weren’t Great Whites…..that counts, right?

James, Francesca and Lalo on the upper deck of the ship.

Standing next to me was my trusty travel companion Francesca and James, a tourist from the UK.  His pregnant wife Emma had decided, at the last minute, not to go along – taking Franny’s professional medical advice – due to the potentially rough water heading out to the dive site.  And it’s a good thing because the ride out of the bay was as rough as you could imagine.  We were told to stand up and hold on to a metal saftey bar above our heads or as we called it, “the Oh shit bar”.  We were bounced around so much that all three of us sustained injuries.  I injured my spine and labrum and Francesca her deltoids.

Once we were anchored about 1km off the coast and less than that from Dryer Island one of our guides, Lalo, briefed us on how the day would go.  Lalo wore dark, mirrored shades and sported a scruffy, black beard.  When we asked him where he picked up his American accent he informed us that he was born in Maryland and came to South Africa on vacation six years ago and never left. Man, I love those stories.

He told us the captain would start chumming the waters and then they would wait until there was significant “shark activity” before putting the bait, er…I mean us into the cages.  This, Lalo informed us, sometimes took ten minutes, sometimes thirty minutes……and sometimes, the sharks never came.

Lalo pointed out the numerous birds that flew by including the ubiquitous    Cape Cormorant and of course the ever poopular sea gull pictured here.

After about thirty or forty minutes it appeared that Lalo had drawn out his briefing as long as he could and was running out of the filler chatter he used for stalling until the sharks showed themselves so we thought we’d help him out a bit and ask some questions.  We were aware that there was some controversy over Great White shark diving in South Africa and so we asked him about it.  When we told the owner of our B&B the night before that we were going Great White shark diving he gave us a disapproving look, shook his head and said that it was not good.  He told us that many South Africans are against this activity claiming it makes Great Whites more comfortable with Humans than is good for us and also teaches the sharks to equate human contact with food.  Lalo didn’t skip a beat as he had heard this question a million times before and had answered it each time, not defensively, but matter of factly.  He told us that he understands those peoples’ concerns, but they are misguided.  First of all, he said, the activity is strictly regulated by the South African government and they cannot use any mammals as chum and they can’t dump blood in the water either.  So they most often just use a large tuna head and some oily fish chum (no blood) to attract the beasts from the deep.  It takes longer, but its more environmentally sound.  Secondly he said there is no evidence to support the claim that it makes the Great Whites more comfortable around humans.   The studies that have been done have proved inconclusive.

I questioned the governments ban on chumming with any mammals?  I mean, why could they not use whales & seals since sharks eat them anyway?  It’s not like they were trying to feed them cows or goats.  Lalo shrugged and just then we heard the captain shout the one word that every swimmer dreads; “SHARK!”  Only this time we were supposed to want to hear that word as it would mean it was time to go into the cage.  At the risk of tarnishing my reputation as a man among men, I have to admit there was a part of me, however small, that was hoping that maybe there would be no sharks today and we would return “disappointed”.

Me giving the thumbs up but my face betraying ‘thumbs down’.  But it was only later when the Great White’s pectoral fin came through the cage nearly touching us that I crapped my wetsuit.

Alas, into the cage James and I went.  Since Francesca had already done it and was not excited about getting into the cold water, wet suit or no wet suit, she opted to take over photography duties from the safety of the top deck.

Me (left submerged) and James watching a Great White swim straight up from underneath us to take the tuna head bait.

James and I would sit in a crouch position with our heads above water and wait for one of the crew to spot a Great White and then they would yell out “Down!” followed by the direction we should look in (ie Left, right, center).  Then we would take a big gulp of breath and submerge hopefully in time to see the shark.

Sometimes we just saw a dark torpedo shape moving in the murky distance, but more often than not we came face to face with those leviathans of the deep.

While these pictures convey some of the awesome power of the Great White a video clip is worth a thousand still photos so I put together a little 3 minute clip of our dive experience that I think will show you just how big these guys (and gals) were and how close they were.

Actually, while we thought they were pretty darn big, Lalo told us that these were all young sharks (the largest around 3.7 meters long) who had less life experience than the older sharks who were not as interested in a small tuna head or had experienced the unsatisfactory result of chasing the tuna head once before.  Apparently they are a very smart fish.

It was an amazing experience and I would definitely do it again given the chance.  Maybe on a scuba dive trip without the cage next time?

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One Response to “Just When You Thought it Was Safe to Go Back in the Water….”

  1. awesome !!

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