Before I get too far into this, I have to place blame where it belongs. When I told my good friend Jason Burritt I was heading to South Africa, he told me I should go shark cage diving. I believe "Are you F(*#$&% crazy?", or something to that effect was what initially went through my head. But, when I actually looked into it a bit, it seemed to become not only possible, but something that sounded pretty interesting. Anyway, thanks Jason. This one's for you.
I woke up at about 6:00 in a little beach town called Hermanus, which is about an hour east of Cape Town by bus. As I made my way back from the bathroom, I heard the all-too familiar sound of puking coming from another bathroom down the hall. Some poor girl was lying on the floor, propped up against the toilet yacking her guts out. As this is somewhat of a normal occurrence at a backpacker's hostel, I internally wished her well, and went on about my business. 15 minutes later I was ready to roll, and was waiting outside by the van with Riaan, an employee of the hostel, who was going diving as well. We were waiting on someone however, and after an extra five minutes, the little gal who had been expelling her innards tumbled out of the front door and hopped into the van. Alrighty.
Our destination was a town called Gansbaai, a small little coastal berg about 20 minutes away. Around 8:00, we arrived at "Shark Diving Unlimited", housed in a compact little house-converted-into-a business near the beach. It had a nice little sign outside, and looked to have been painted relatively recently - all subtle signs which provided me a little bit of comfort. The interior was clean and fresh - shiny marble tiles with a few tables and chairs, and a white cloth couch in the middle. The walls were bright white, and ornamented with framed pictures of big sharks, shark divers and three or four images of some crazy guy who apparently gets his giggles from touching the noses of great white sharks as they lunge out of the water.
A little old lady was fluttering in and out of the kitchen, cooking up sausages, eggs, and toast, as well as setting out yogurt and cereal. I couldn't smell it, as I had been harboring a little sinus infection for the last few days (yes, I self-diagnosed this, as I've had bout 378 of them in my life). We were allowed to eat and relax for about 30 minutes while we waited for a few other potential shark snacks to show up. As I waited, I picked up a brochure, which was actually semi-professional. They've had a few celebrities come through the doors, including Prince Harry, Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt - all good signs in that I believe all of these people are still alive and are in possession of all their limbs. This group has apparently also done work with the Discovery channel and other documentary groups - and according to one of the employees, they were apparently scheduled to take one out this afternoon.
Soon, the room was filled with about ten people, all willing to pay to stick themselves into a metal cage with great white sharks swimming about. We gathered around a small, fuzzy television to watch a video of yesterday's dive, which actually succeeded in quelling some of my fears, and making me even more excited. It was good to see how it was actually done. "Diving" is a bit of a loose term - I'm sure they allow for real Scuba Steve's to deep dive with the sharks, but my trip was much less technical. Essentially they drop a large five-person cage over the side of a boat and tie it to the side. The cage is never totally submerged, and you stick your head out of the water until a shark comes by, then you duck your head under the water to get a good look. Seems easy enough.
We heard a quick briefing about the company, and some safety stuff (I mean safety is important, but if you're going shark cage diving, you've only got so much tolerance for safety information). We grabbed our gear, allowed the last couple of people purchase an overpriced disposable underwater camera, and then headed out to the boat. It was a beautiful warm day. A few wispy clouds were forming over the small ridges in the land, but the skies over the water were perfectly blue. I could see waves hitting the rocks in front of the beach, creating a sporadic white spray. There was a little wind coming in off the water, but the air it pushed was pretty warm, and actually fairly soothing.
As I saw the size of the boat, and then the size of the waves hitting the shore, the cold memory of the Drake Passage hit me like a punch to the gut. Crap! I hadn't even thought about that. I didn't really want to spend the entire trip leaning over the side of the boat. I stepped on board gingerly, trying my best to remember all the tricks I learned on the Explorer to keep my stomach from smashing into my tonsils. I then thought about the poor girl who came with us from the hostel. If she was puking before, just wait until we hit the waves.
Unfortunately, the seas were a bit rough, and the boat wasn't all that big, a fact underscored by the lamentations of my fellow travelers as we made our way into open water. However, it handled the waves pretty well. About 15 minutes into the ride, I realized that my trip through the Drake must have equipped me with some measure of immunity to sea sickness that I certainly didn't have before. I was actually feeling pretty good; while at the same time could tell some of the others were really struggling. The signs are easy enough to recognize.
Our destination was already marked by three or four other boats from competing companies. We were told that our cage was already floating in the water somewhere. Though I really don't know how, we found it really easily, and pulled up to retrieve it. We then motored out to an open spot a few hundred feet away from the nearest boat, and dropped anchor. Our captain barked some instructions regarding the next steps and logistics. We would get into the water five at a time, switching groups every 15 minutes or so. They'd use a variety of methods to bait the sharks toward the cage, and when one came close, one of the crew would yell "Down!", the signal for the people inside the cage to duck under the water to see the shark up close, and to snap some pictures if you weren't already scared sh!&less.
While the crew started throwing chum (buckets of horrendously smelling stuff which I assumed to be fish parts and other such disgusting elements) into the water around the cage to gather smaller fish and thusly the sharks, we started getting fitted for wet suits - which again caused me a pang of worry. Do they make wetsuits for 6-9 people? I was filled with doubt has the crewman handed me an XXL. However, with enough pulling and jumping around like an idiot, I got it on and was actually pleasantly surprised at the fit. I then selected some heavy dive weights, which were to be slung over the shoulders to help keep us at the bottom of the cage when the sharks came by. Right - you wouldn't want to be headed out of the water, but further down into it.
So as a few smaller fish started to converge, and we were zipping up our wetsuits, sea sickness started to wrap it's tendrils around some of the passengers. A few people were looking really pale, and the smiles on everyone's face had disappeared. About that time I heard a horrific sound come from a guy behind me, who had his head over the side of the boat opposite the cage. He went through a set of those ridiculous gut-wrenching convulsions that bring tears to your eyes. I figured he was simply baiting the sharks in his own way. Upon hearing this, a couple other people decided to lie down on the benches for a while. Poor folks. Oh, do I know that feeling. I was doing surprisingly well though, as was the girl from the hostel - a bet I certainly wouldn't have made an hour ago.
As the last of us were selecting some goggles, I heard Riaan say, "There we go". I looked back over toward the cage, and saw a great dark mass gliding through the blue-green water toward the cage, and then pass in front of it and out of sight. Holy crap. I thought some of the fish looked pretty big. This thing was about six or seven feet long. About 30 seconds later, another one came by, this time a little closer to the surface - it was even bigger than the first - probably about ten feet from nose to tail with a concrete-gray top and a white belly (what little of it I could see). I ignorantly asked one of the crew what kind of sharks they were. He laughed and said, "They're all whites. They eat everything else." Ummm... Yeah.
One of the crewmen took a long white rope with a large white plastic bobber and a hook, and proceeded to shove a big severed fish head to it. He then proceeded to throw it out over the top of the cage, the end landing about 20 feet in front. About a minute later, a shark - a big one, glided near the bait. The crewman started to slowly draw the rope in towards the cage. The shark moved quickly, and rose up in the water exposing its dorsal fin and most of its back. It lunged at the bait, and actually caught it (which I'm told isn't supposed to happen).
The crewman pulled hard on the rope, which then kicked off a struggle between the two. It then started to thrash around in the water, spraying everything and everyone in the boat with water, and giving the crew member a good fight for a few seconds. The shark managed to get the fish head off the hook and swam off. All of the passengers (me included) had a strange agitated/excited/nervous look on their faces.
It was time for the first group to get in. I was still taking pictures from up above, and decided to go in the second group. Internally, I figured this would also give the integrity of the cage a good trial run before I got in. One by one, the crew helped five brave people lower themselves into the thin open metal container. Once everyone was securely inside, and appeared ready, the baiting commenced.
About two minutes later, the crew member throwing the bait said "down!" The group clumsily dropped themselves under the surface. I watched as a massive shark followed the bait right up to the front of the cage. The crewman pulled the bait up and out of the water right as the shark it reached the cage, which it narrowly avoided at the last second with a quick turn to the right. The entire sequence happened in the span of about five seconds. Wow.
This series of events continued for the about next 15 minutes, and afforded some great views of sharks lunging at the baited hook, and thrashing right as it reached the cage. It was exhilarating. At the same time it seemed to me there were some really big sharks in the water. These couldn't be normal sharks, but obviously some mutated ones that were approaching Jaws-size. One of the crew smiled and said they were actually pretty average, if not a little small. Right. They looked pretty damn big to me.
The captain called for a change in divers, at which my heart ran into overdrive. I waited for the first five to exit the cage, and then for the first four in my group to get into the water. I reached the edge of the boat and looked down. Holy crap. Holy crap. I gingerly made my way down into the last open slot on the far right of the cage, suddenly realizing in mid-stride there was really very little to stop one from falling into the open water if you slipped on the descent. To make things more interesting, the seas hadn't calmed any since we arrived, and the cage was bucking against the boat pretty fiercely. I tried not to think about that as my bare foot hit the Atlantic (oh yeah, I forgot to mention - a couple key parts to the wetsuit are the shoes. Little booties that zip up around your feet to keep them warm. While I can manage to squeeze into a wetsuit, they didn't have any water boots even approaching size 16 - too bad for me).
In case you haven't ever had the chance to stick yourself in it, the southern Atlantic ocean is frickin' cold. Oh, and in case you haven't ever been in one and didn't know (I hadn't and didn't), wet suits don't keep you dry as I had assumed - only somewhat warm. This was a semi-shocking realization as I got my body all the way into the water, and the fingers of cold water started creeping into my suit. Awesome.
As soon as I was "in" the cage with my head sticking out of the water, a big swell smashed into us, and I swallowed bout half of it. I forgot how bad sea water tastes. I recovered, found half a foothold, de-fogged my goggles, and promptly slipped to the bottom of the cage, hitting my head on the metal going down. I managed to swallow even more water, which was awesome, since it's not like it has little fish parts and stuff in it from the crap they've been baiting the sharks with. Nice.
I found my balance and surfaced again, and as I looked over at my fellow idiots, they seemed to be having the same trouble. It was hard to get situated. The little disposable underwater camera I had in hand didn't make things any easier. The water was rolling, the cage was buckling against the boat, it was cold, and I was frickin' scared a shark was going to ram into the cage in front of me.
The cage is actually pretty big, and is made of a thin wire, but seemed pretty strong. However finding a decent foothold was difficult, especially when you don't have dive boots on. Sure, there's the wire of the cage, but if you're facing forward, toward the sharks, you really don't want your toes hanging out of the cage. I finally figured out a happy medium by wedging myself between a little rubber bumper and the side of the cage, which seemed to work pretty well.
So, there I was, sitting in a thin, open metal cage off the side of a boat in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, waiting for a great white shark to swim up to me. What the hell? Just as I was contemplating that thought, the crewman above us said "Down!" Holy shit! I dropped down as fast as I could, literally using my hands and feet to climb down the cage. I then realized I probably shouldn't be putting my fingers outside the cage either - dummy.
I found a relatively safe handhold inside the cage, and then took a look out into the luminous green water. The rays of the bright morning sun were trickling down from the surface. Visibility was pretty bad, and you could only see about six to ten feet in any direction. A few small brown fish swam by my face, and then, just coming into view, a dark mass was directly in front of me and getting bigger. It got close enough for me to see three fins and some teeth before it leaned to the left and went off. I surfaced, and looked over at the girl on my left. I could see her wide-eyed look through her fogged goggles. Wow.
The crew threw the bait over our heads again with a splash. I defogged my goggles and got ready. "Down"! I dropped, this time with my camera at the ready, trying to keep all body parts inside the cage. A big sucker came into view from the left and did a drive by the cage about five feet in front of us. It was absolutely amazing. Beautiful and terrifying at the same time. A pointed, wedge-shaped nose. Black, lifeless eyes. A bright white belly with a dark grey top. A tall triangular dorsal fin and long, sharp pectoral fins. A tall, grey tail gracefully trailing the angular body.
I did my best, but my underwater photography skills aren't great. First the camera sucks. Second, water is really hard to move in, much less to take pictures in. Third, the visibility was pretty terrible. And fourth I admittedly was a bit nervous about getting eaten and had that pesky task of not drowning to worry about. I've a new respect for those guys who get the amazing shots you see in National Geographic.
I was in the water for another ten minutes or so, which seemed to go by in about 30 seconds. It was actually pretty fun once you got the hang of it, and knew you probably weren't going to die. We switched groups, and I climbed out of the water, again careful not to fall backwards. I was actually pretty happy to have a chance to warm up my feet.
About five minutes later, one of the guys in the water wanted out. He'd been battling sea-sickness the entire time, and apparently wasn't doing much better in the water. They asked if anyone wanted to go back in, and much to my surprise, everyone said no... Except me. Like a true idiot, I climbed back into the shark-infested water.
This second session was even better than the first. Some bigger sharks had showed up - and they were getting close to the cage. At one point, a really big fella came right at us, and then turned, moving from left to right, directly in front of the cage. Time seemed to slow down again - I saw the point of his nose, his open mouth with its many triangular white teeth still with bits of stuff in between them, the lifeless, perfectly circular black eye, the very prominent line of division in the body between the grey upper and white lower, and the large pectoral fins. The big dorsal fin... I was transfixed - and then stunned to realize my left hand was actually reaching out of the cage to try to touch the tail of the shark as it went by. What the hell was I doing? My mind kicked back in, and I pulled back just as his huge tail smashed into the cage in front of me, rattling it hard.
About 15 minutes later they pulled us out of the water. To be honest, I was getting a little tired. It takes a lot of effort to position yourself properly and to keep your head above water. The crewmen pulled the cage into the back of the boat, and we started off toward shore, much to the delight of my fellow passengers. As I was peeling off my wetsuit, I sat back and thought about what I'd just done. I was literally close enough to touch nature's perfect killing machine. I've been inches away from a great white shark! It was absolutely amazing. My heart was still pumping hard. It still does even as I write this...