For those of you who don’t know, I have a *healthy* obsession with sharks. When I was little, some irresponsible baby-sitter (I can only assume) let me watch the movie Jaws. I was FASCINATED… still am. I am an avid admirer of Shark Week on Discovery Channel (which starts August 12th this year). I have an eclectic collection of shark-y things- a baby mobile, bath toys, squirt guns, posters, many editions of Shark Week on DVD, hats and shirts- that were all gifts. Despite my poor swimming abilities, I have wanted to swim with sharks ever since I knew that was a possibility. There have been a few failed attempts, but when I came to the great white capital of the world, I was determined to see sharks up close.
If you haven’t seen Air Jaws, I encourage you to at least watch a youtube clip, or watch Shark Week- they will replay it. It is an amazing video of huge great white sharks breaching (jumping out of the water at full speed) to catch seals. This is my favorite Shark Week video; in April I sat Carey down and made him watch it- hoping it would encourage him to join me on my dive. He thought the video was great, albeit slightly terrifying, but decided he’d come anyways.
I tried to do a fair amount of research on which company to go with. It is becoming a very competitive industry, offering a variety of trips to see the predators. I knew I wanted to go with a company that focused on preservation, but I wasn’t sure which one. I also wasn’t sure if I wanted to go to Dyer Island or Seal Island. Once I found Apex Predators, my search was over. It is run by the man who discovered white shark breaching behavior, and who is a regular on Shark Week!! The goal of Apex Predators is to learn as much about the sharks as possible, and to conserve them and their environment.
They offer two daily outings to see the sharks and cage dive. I wanted the morning dive because that is the best opportunity to see natural predation- to watch the sharks jump as they try to catch the seals who are making their way back to Seal Island. The seals swim to the island in the early morning because visibility is low so they have improved chances of getting past the hungry sharks. Unfortunately, all the morning trips are booked until the day after I leave, so afternoon trip it was!
On Saturday morning, we drove down to Simon’s Town to meet our crew. I bought more items for my collection. And yes, I did get an autograph from the Shark Week celebrity- its not as bad as you think, he just signed his book for me. Before we knew it, we were getting on a boat to go sharking (an awesome word that was used by a crewmember).
There were 16 people on the boat- 12 divers and 4 crewmembers. It is a 30-minute boat ride out to Seal Island. We were very lucky with the weather, it had rained all morning, but the sun came out just before we got on the boat. The water was not too choppy (actually it was really choppy, but I was prepared for the worst). As we approached Seal Island, we were briefed on how cage diving works and decided our diving order. Carey and I went in the second group.
Once we got near enough to the island, we started trolling for sharks! The crew had some lovely fish heads for bate, a mixture of fish pieces and other things like onions and apple cores that they mixed into the water, and a decoy seal to attract a shark to us. I was prepared to spend all day in the rain searching without even a sighting (I didn’t want to get my hopes up), but we had a shark chasing the bait within the second cast!
My first view of a great white shark!!! He came right up to the boat and sniffed us out. I said he was small, but everyone else thought he was pretty big. Just a baby- but he ended up being the perfect shark for our day. Mature sharks would know pretty quick that this was all a ruse and that the decoy was not the real seal. But the innocent little baby hung out with us for over an hour! He was about 5 years old, 3.9 meters long and 2.5 meters in diameter.
After about 20 minutes of us trying to hurriedly put on wet suits, boots, hoods masks and weights, we jumped in the water! I wasn’t really that nervous about jumping in the ocean when I knew there was a shark just a few feet away. But I was nervous about jumping into a choppy ocean in the middle of winter! Holy moly it was COOOOOLD!!! We did not have snorkels, just masks, so the shark viewing method is to hold your breath and pull yourself underwater.
It is very disorienting at first. Huge swells (they didn’t seem so big from the boat, but now that little me is in the water they are HUGE), freezing water, a SHARK right in front of you, people yelling at you telling you where to look. But it calms down once you figure out where you are in the cage, how to move, and spend a little bit of time under water.
Right when we got in we had directions to go under and look left- and there was the shark! We had about 20 minutes in the water, and he hung around for almost all of it. Visibility wasn’t that great- I think we could probably see for about 20 feet. Sometimes he would just come into view for a second and turn around. But most of the time he was very close. He chased the bait and decoy seal, so sometimes he would swim right at us! He swam along the cage so we could appreciate his size, and the many scars he had on his body. Carey had a pretty intense moment staring into his eye- wondering if he saw us. There were several times when he was only an arms distance away!
Sharks are lazy hunters and try not to expend any energy unless it is absolutely necessary, which is why it is so amazing to see them jump out of the water. During our time in the cage, the shark (I should really name him…) actually expended some effort to try to get the seal. He unexpectedly (at least for all the non-marine biologists) burst towards the seal- so fast, it was amazing!
After 20 cold minutes we got out and let others have their turn with the shark. We had to option to keep our suits on and try to go in again, but it was way too cold! I shivered for the rest of the trip. We were very lucky, shortly after our dive, the shark grew board with us and didn’t hang around as consistently. Once everybody had their trip in the cage, we pulled up the anchor and drove around Seal Island. Home to some 60,000 seals- it stinks worse than the zoo!
Unfortunately, when I was focused on getting in my wetsuit and in the water, I did not have my camera on me, so I only have 2 pictures of the shark. If you look closely during the slide show, there are two pictures where you can just make him out in the water. We have an underwater camera and are hoping for some close-ups, but we haven’t developed the photos yet, so I cannot share them with you.