I was one of those kids who obsessively watched The Learning Channel, especially when they featured a program on sharks. I remember watching “Jaws” with my hands over my eyes one night with my parents when I was about eight, and getting endless books from the Indio Library with pictures of sharks in them. I have always been fascinated by any kind of shark. So you can imagine my delight when I found myself in an underwater cage in the ocean waters of South Africa, mere inches from a great white shark.
Shark-cage diving is particularly good in South Africa, according to many Capetonians. You will see more sharks in a few hours off the shores of South Africa than many people will see on week-long sharking excursions in other places like Australia. It was something I had always wanted to do, and the experience was even better than I could have imagined.
I woke up groggy and excited at about 5:30 a.m. the day of our excursion. Over mugs of coffee, my friends Matt, Teresa and I discussed the potential threats of our decisions to shark-cage dive. “Do you think they can jump up and into the cage?” Matt asked. Teresa and I stared back at him, wide-eyed.
“I don’t think so,” I replied hesitantly.
We were picked up by a kind man in a van just after 6 a.m., and traveled about 2 hours from Cape Town to the small beach town of Gansbaai, an area where I saw more shark-cage diving companies than people. There we were treated to breakfast (all of this was included in our fee of about R1,000 or roughly $200) and we met the other 8 people who would be taking the trip with us. We were the only Americans, and besides a young Canadian girl, the only people who spoke English. We set out on a boat with our skipper just before 11 a.m., on a gorgeous February day – blue skies, blue sea and a forecast for good shark spotting.
Once out at sea, we were surprised to find that many of the people on the trip were more than happy to just watch the sharks from onboard the boat. We were among a handful who actually wanted to squeeze into scuba gear and swim down into a cage. After only about 20 minutes, we got a look at our first great white. She glided up to our boat after two young Welsh boys threw gaping, bloody fish bodies into the water (this was their job). Seemingly unafraid, she skimmed the blue surface of the water just feet from the boat, while we all scrambled to take pictures and get a good look.
The cage was a giant metal thing attached to the side of the boat, with an open top that was kept a few feet above the water. Three people were lowered into the cage at a time, and while the skipper kept a look-out for sharks, you treaded water and waited to dive at the sound of “Shark!” There were light weights around us to help us get deep enough to see. Teresa, Matt and I were nervous when we entered the cage, but hopeful that a shark would swim close enough for us to see. The water was frigid, even with a scuba suit on, and I tried to focus on keeping warm – instead of the fact that I was willingly being placed within feet of a hungry great white shark.
After about five minutes, we heard the skipper call down to us. “Shark! Dive!” I took a deep breath and plunged into the water. It was murky underwater, and difficult to see much of anything. I thought I saw a flash of silver, but couldn’t be sure. After about 45 seconds, I resurfaced.
“Did you see anything?” I called to Teresa and Matt over the sound of lapping water. They both shook their heads. We continued this patter – treading, diving, looking – for another half an hour until we finally hit gold. “SHARK! Dive!” yelled the skipper. We dove. Underwater I could see a blur of red from the decapitated fish. And then…from the murky blackness appeared the smooth head of a great white shark. She swam forward, mouth open, so close that I could make out her sharp teeth. She bit down on the fish, and just as quickly glided out of sight.
Although shark cage diving was one of the more expensive activities I did while in South Africa, it was by far one of my favorite. It was thrilling – something nobody I know has ever done, and something I will always remember.