Thursday, August 09, 2007

5 hour drive, 3 hour boat ride, 30 second shark sighting

Several people, when we mentioned Cape Town, had excitedly queried whether or not we planned to go shark diving. Apparently, the coast of South Africa is the only place in the world where you can reliably see Great White Sharks year round, and particularly during the SAfrican winter. As they are nomadic beasts, it is impossible to keep them alive in captivity and hard to predict where you might find them in the ocean, unless of course you have an island of Cape Fur Seals who go swimming/fishing every morning. Yum! As I have an irrational fear of sharks, that I was hopeful to overcome, and am willing to try anything once, I was game.
The process of shark diving is simple enough. You pay admission to one of 10 boats in Gamsbaai and catch a ride out to shark territory. They suit you up with a full wet suit, dump some bait into the water, and wait for a sharks. Then you climb into a cage, submerged in the water, and watch the shark swim by, if you're lucky, at very close range.

Day of dive: We woke at 6am to tackle the 2.5 hour drive to Gamsbaii for the boat's departure time of 9am. When we arrived we met other tourists who had spent their lifetimes obsessed with great white sharks and we were reassured that this was the place and the company to be diving with. It was a gorgeous day, blue skies, temperature in the 60's, and the water looked calm, almost flat. Twelve tourists and our 3 guides piled into a boat and headed out to sea. As the boat pulled away from the dock and started to go over the 15 ft lumpy swells that were not visible from shore, all I could think to myself was "don't puke, it will be over soon enough." And the 3 hour struggle to maintain my breakfast and my dignity began. Arriving at "shark territory"(which is anywhere in this bay with more than 8 feet of water), we suited up, dumped our chum, tethered the tuna head, and waited. We learned from the guides that there's quite a bit to learn about tides, currents, boat shadow, chum, etc to increase your chance of attracting a great white, yet these sharks are incredible hunters. Our skipper's knowledge might have increased our chances of seeing a shark by only 10%. The sightings are merely a matter of luck. Also, the mature, and therefore massive sharks, don't bother scavenging for someone else's leftovers, so we should only expect the younger, smaller sharks.
After 30 minutes a great white arrived. It was awesome. About 10 feet long, grayish, scars on its face, and graceful. I was the first one into the cage and I was terrified. I could see my legs dangling below me, little fish all around, and I knew there was a shark circling. I also realized that despite the shock of the f-f-f-freezing water, the cold water and company of fish were far preferable to the above-board stomach turning, rocking of the boat. Rich got in the cage moments later and we caught sight of this shark twice as it powerfully glided by. After about 30 minutes in the water I realized that I could no longer feel my extremities and would have to resume the above-board discomfort.
The highlight of the day came when a shark, unnoticed by any of us, emerged from the depths, broke the surface of the water and displayed 12 feet of silvery grey muscle. This shark was 10 feet from all of us, it tore the tuna head and the rope from the boat with a thrash, and disappeared as quickly as it had appeared. That was the one moment that we'd all spent so much time, effort, and discomfort to see.
Shortly thereafter we headed for shore and embarked on our soggy journey back to Cape Town. I walked away from this experience intending to leave any future shark chasing to Natural Geographic, planning to watch it in high-def from the comfort of my sofa.

1 comment:

Vicarious Trekker said...

Da dum, Da dum, Da dum, Dum dum, dum dum dum.... Cold water, foriegn guides and chum... I love the smell of chum and diesel fuel in the morning. It's the smell of victory.