When I took Johnny to visit South Africa for the first time, I had one main goal: dive with the white sharks. Johnny was a little more skeptical about jumping into the freezing Atlantic with only a flimsy-looking cage between us and these 15 ft long killing machines.
Shark diving is not cheap so we ummed and ahhed for a few months before my parents eventually ended up buying us trips for Christmas.
Nerves aside, we were really going shark diving on our trip to South Africa!
It was a perfect, typically South African day when departed Cape Town for Gaansbai, where we would meet our boat. We had about 2 hours to watch the sea sparkling in the distance from the comfort of our mini-bus and breathe in the smell of fynbos through the open windows.
I was home. I was in my element. The drive bought back memories of beach holidays at the end of the school year.
Our group was smaller than I had expected and all foreign tourists. We quickly put aside any fears and doubts as we watched a guy in wheel chair lifted onto the boat. If he could do it so could we.
Out on the water the bay was still, with nothing to indicate that this was the great white shark capital of the world.
After squeezing into wet suits and a brief safety discussion, we were finally allowed to clamber into the cage hanging next to the boat.
At the back of the boat one of the guides was tossing chum into the water to attract the sharks. On top of the boat another guide was our spotter.
In the movies, the classic shot is of the shark fin cutting through the water as it approaches its victim. In reality, it’s really difficult to spot an approaching shark once you’re in the water. The swell makes for an uneven surface and it’s almost impossible to spot a grey fin against the shifting blue. I guess this is what makes sharks such effective hunters.
We hovered in the water for several minutes, clinging to the edge of the cage and water for the signal that a shark was approaching.
“Down, down, down,” came the instructions from our guide. And, down, down, down we went. My stomach lurched as there, gently nosing the cage, was the biggest white shark I have ever seen in my life.
I could have reached through the bars of the cage and stroked its side.
No visits to the local aquarium could have prepared me for this. I kicked my legs and popped back up to the surface, tingling with adrenaline. Next to me Johnny was still bubbling away happily beneath the water.
After a few calming breaths, I dropped below the boat again. The shark had disappeared into the hazy blue. I stayed beneath the surface for a while until Johnny motioned for me to turn around.
Behind us (BEHIND US!!) another shark had approached and was silently suspended in the gloomy shadow of the boat. In that moment my fear disappeared and was replaced with awe.
I had only ever experienced sharks lazily circling the tanks of aquariums. Seeing them in the wild was like seeing a leopard in the zoo and then being fortunate enough to finally see one while on a game drive.
There’s a lot of controversy around diving with sharks. While we were visiting my family in Durban I was taken aback when my cousin shook her head and declared that she would never consider such an unethical activity.
I loved the experience and came away with a much deeper understanding and respect for sharks. The guides took time to discuss several conservation projects in the area and the importance of referring to the sharks as white sharks and not great white sharks, to remove the stigma attached to them.
There is something incredibly profound about floating in the water and staring into the face of a shark. I can understand some of the arguments against shark diving but there are also lots of arguments for it. It’s one of those things you need to decide for yourself.
Have you been shark diving? What convinced you?