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Diving with South Africa’s Great Whites

Despite the warm weather at sea that day, I was shaking like a leaf. I had just watched a Great White shark rip a hundred pound tuna to pieces in seconds. The boat crew was asking me to slide into a metal shark cage that floated just above the water and looked about as secure as a shopping trolley. I could even see the dark shadow of one shark move through the water far below me. Now, considering that I have an acute case of the common fear of being eaten alive only made this all the more crazy. Had I gone mad?

Ever since I’d watched the film Jaws as an impressionable ten year old, I’ve had a healthy fear of the Great White shark. After seeing what the man-eating star of that film did made me forever cautious when swimming in the sea. Yet, here I was, sitting on a boat off the coast of South Africa, about to go into a cage with the object of my fear. Despite my fear, something drew me to these creatures so I’d decided to go and see if they were as fierce as I feared. What better place to look than in South Africa.

The small fishing village of Gansbaai is only three hours from Cape Town in South Africa. Dyer and Geyser Islands, just off the coast, are home to a large colony of over fifty thousand seals and is thus a favourite feeding ground for the Great White shark. The deep channel between these two islands is known as Shark Alley and is acknowledged as one of the best places in the world to view the Great White. Boating companies run trips out to Shark Alley and shark cage diving has turned the small, sleepy village into a mecca for thrill-seekers from all over the world.

Piet Smal has been running shark cage diving trips for years and has appeared in many documentaries featuring the Great White. His knowledge and understanding of the Great White makes him second to none. His company offers both half-day and full-day trips at sea with the sharks, both watching them tear tuna bait apart and also getting into a cage to see them up close in the water. No diving experience is necessary as you can simply use a snorkel and mask to view the sharks from within the cage.

Before setting out to sea that day, we all eat a light breakfast as Piet briefs us on what to expect during the trip. After eating, everyone has to sign an unsettling legal waiver of the type; “I will not press legal changes if I get an arm or leg bitten off…” Not what my nerves needed. We finally boarded the well-equipped cruiser and, with seagulls swirling above us, we chugged out of the harbour in search of Jaws.

Once the crew found a good spot and dropped anchor, Piet casts crushed sardines called chum into the water in order to attract the sharks. The Great White’s acute sense of smell can detect blood in the water from over 5 kilometers away.  It doesn’t take long for the first of the telltale fins to appear. A group of four started to circle the boat, the largest of them being about 4 meters long according to Piet and well over two tonnes in weight. Piet attached a rope to a large tuna head and threw it into the water. One shark circled the bait cautiously for about five minutes before it unleashed its attack. The Great White shark has several rows of over three thousand teeth and made good use of them all as it tore the tuna to pieces in seconds. We all swallowed hard as Piet hauled in what was left of the mangled fish. “Right”, he smiled “time for you lot to get in the cage”. It was my moment of truth.

With the flimsy-looking cage floating on the water, Piet throws some chum near it, and beckons me to jump in. My knees weaken. “Don’t worry”, he shouts, “the shark may brush his nose against the cage but he’ll never attack it. They’re just curious.” Yea, right I think to myself. Fear, bubbles and a thudding heart all slid into the cage with me. My feet found the floor of the cage and my eyes adjusted just in time to see a Great White loom out of the shadows. The shark swam by me slowly, seeming to be completely oblivious of me. To see this mighty and ancient creature up close in the water was a truly amazing experience. It glided through the water with the absolute minimum of effort. It was magical, beautiful and about to become scary.

I headed to the surface to for air. Piet shouted at me to dive down again and look straight ahead. I dove down in time to see a huge shadow glide past me with the same effortless ease as before. Suddenly, it turned slightly and headed straight for my cage. With jaws agape, a dead cold stare in its eyes and showing rows of its deadly teeth, its nose brushed against the cage. My face was about two feet from the mouth of a Great White. I think I nearly let my bladder go at that point. I burst to the surface like a cork with the rest of the boat gasping at what had just happened. By the time Piet had helped me back into the boat, I was smiling broadly. Despite my fear, I was thrilled by my close encounter with the Great White and I wanted more. I got back into the cage twice more that day and continue to marvel at those amazing creatures of the sea.

As the trip came to an end and as we sped towards shore, I felt thrilled to have finally met the Great White. It wasn’t the man-eating Jaws that had greeted me but one of the oldest creatures on earth and one of natures finest and most perfect creations. My fear of this creature had finally gone and had been replaced by awe and respect. Still, I don’t think I’ll be swimming near Shark Alley in the near future. Just out of respect, you know.

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