If you're like most people, your opinion of great white sharks has probably been heavily influenced by Jaws. Don't get me wrong, Jaws is a freaking phenomenal movie, and Quint's USS Indianapolis monologue is so chilling that it makes me pee a little (probably not a normal reaction). I think we can all admit that, despite its greatness, Jaws isn't the most accurate portrayal of sharks. Even still, I was a little hesitant about getting into a cage with them on our recent trip to Cape Town. I'm glad I did though, because I emerged with a new respect for great whites. Here's what happened:
We booked a tour through Marine Dynamics in Gansbaai, South Africa, a town about two and a half hours from Cape Town and by the infamous "Shark Alley" featured during Shark Week. There are a lot of shark dive options in the area, but we went with Marine Dynamics because it was the best reviewed and has a good safety record. I also heard that this guy is their captain.
We got to Gansbaai, a town that looks suspiciously like Amity Island, at 5:30am, just in time for an incredible sunrise. In Marine Dynamic's headquarters, the Great White House, we checked in and went upstairs for the hot and continental breakfast waiting for us. I sat next to a kid on the plane who made me paranoid that I'd be seasick, so I only ate a little bit of food. After our 33 fellow passengers on the Slash Fin (the name of the boat) arrived, the crew introduced themselves, gave us a brief on the weather conditions (Water was 16 degrees Celsius with 6 foot swells and cloudy visibility), and showed us a safety video on seasickness, the boat name's origin (named for a shark that had a slashed fin...probably not too far of a stretch to figure that out on your own), and how a marine biologist is always on board to answer questions.
We were then given our life vest and a bright orange overcoat before boarding the boat. After a fifteen minute sea-spraying ride, we anchored in the bay. The crew explained that it's important to maintain the ecological balance by not feeding the sharks, so they used a wooden seal decoy and a knotted rope coated in chum slick (tuna, salmon and trout oils) to attract them. We saw Shark Alley in the distance and learned that 60,000 fur seals go there every year to mate and become shark bait. It would have been pretty cool to do the cage dive there, but the best time for that is South African winter.
Eight people volunteered to go into the water first and were helped into the steel cage hooked to the side of the boat. The crew tossed out the decoy and knotted rope, while the rest of us scanned the horizon for signs of activity. Soon thereafter, a tagged dorsal fin appeared close to the cage. I was super surprised to see it because no cello started playing to alert us to her presence.
One of the crew members was geeking out because it was his favorite shark; in fact, he got excited about every shark that arrived. It was flipping adorable. Pun intended. A few other sharks, most no longer than 10 feet but one as big as 15, soon followed, and the crew members would yell 'Down!' every time one got close to the cage. Since we weren't using oxygen tanks or snorkels, we had to rely on pulling ourselves down fast enough to get face-to-face with the sharks. It was so cool to see the sharks swimming by, thrashing their tails, and even, at points, jumping out of the water to grab the chum rope between their teeth. The second group of divers got even more intimate with our fine finned friends due to the multiple sharks thrashing AGAINST the cage. I wasn't scared at all to get into the cage, but had I been in that second group of divers, my fellow divees would soon find out if sharks are attracted to urine.
While I was watching the sharks, I was also keeping my gaze focused on the horizon. The boat was rocking pretty heavily, so I kept telling myself, "It's all in your head; you're not going to get sick." Fortunately for Elliot, it worked and I didn't need to create my own chum slick. A few of my fellow passengers, however, were not so lucky. Most folks in the front of the boat got sick almost immediately after we anchored, and seven passengers were so sick that they didn't even get in the water.
El and I were in the third group and tried our best to squeeze our bodies into the figure-hugging wetsuits. Those bitches leave nothing to the imagination, and a dive into a tub of butter would have helped tremendously. We lined up single-file in front of the cage while the crew put weight belts around our shoulders and suctioned scuba goggles to our heads. We were helped down the metal ladder, one at a time, and moved further to the right as each person got in. The water was fucking freezing and, despite the thick wetsuit, still chilled us to the bone. We bobbed around with our heads barely above water, anxiously waiting for the first sign of a great white.
A few minutes went by before we spotted a dorsal fin about three feet in front of us. You'd think that I'd be terrified being in the water with a great white, but for me it was the opposite feeling. Okay, I get that it's easy to have some cajones when there's some serious steel between you and a shark, but I honestly wasn't scared at all. I didn't even flinch when a shark swam right against the cage. It's not because I have balls of steel or anything; I think the message of the crew members had sunk in. They kept trying to impress upon us that sharks aren't man-eaters and are actually pretty chill. Unfortunately, for scientists and marine biologists, undoing years of sharks getting the Hollywood treatment isn't exactly easy. The shark action was also pretty quiet when we were in the water, so maybe that played a role in my sudden burst of courage.
After about 20 minutes of diving up and down, watching a few sharks go for the bait above the water, it was time for the next group. There was hot chocolate waiting for us when we got out, and I experienced one of those, "I didn't realize that I needed this until it was here" type of moments. On account of so many people being seasick and unable to get in the cage, there were a few open spots for the last dive. I could tell by the look on Elliot's face that he wanted to go again, so I told him to go for it. I sat on the deck and talked to the marine biologist while I watched him get back into the cage. She shared bits of info about the sharks, most of whom they can identify by sight; how they're tagged; and how they study their migration patterns on a computer map.
Elliot lucked out because there were now multiple sharks shaking their tail feathers around the cage; he definitely got a better eyeful the second time around. After that final group finished their dive, we went back to the harbour and took a group photo on the ship. We stripped off our life vests and orange coat and saw the next group ready to cage dive. I took a look at them and woefully thought to to myself, "Some of you aren't gonna make it into the water..." El and I changed in the bathrooms of Great White house but failed to scrub off the "Dangling hairy pirate leg from the Pirates of the Caribbean ride" style black marks on our chins and necks. It was like we both had really patchy and gross neck-beards. Now I know why there were so many sharks in the water that day: they smelled our sex appeal.
After we changed, we rejoined the group and had hot veggie soup and rolls while we got a debrief of the day and watched a video of our trip. The debrief was mostly a big sales pitch to adopt a shark for like a grand, but we did learn that we saw nine different sharks that morning, which was pretty cool.
Elliot and I both left Gansbaii with a new appreciation for sharks. Contrary to the man-eaters portrayed on the big screen, great whites are (mostly) docile creatures just trying to do their thing. If people continue to fear them, they won't be as inclined to support their conservation, something great whites are in desperate need of. I'm not advocating that everyone jumps into a cage with sharks, but I do think it's important to educate yourself on the vital role they play in our environment. As powerful of animals as they are, saving them is going to be our job. So, let's work together to save the head, the tail, the whole damned thing...
To donate to the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, check out their website here
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