Thursday, March 01, 2007

Diving with great white sharks

Picture the scene at Kleinbaai, a small fishing village on the furthest tip of South Africa. Between you and the Antarctic there is nothing but sea. Very cold sea. It is early in the morning, and the village, harbour and the sea are shrouded in a cold, damp sea mist, which just adds to the sense of foreboding I am feeling as I look at the people around me listening to a safety briefing about what we have come here for.

We are going in a boat to find and observe great white sharks.

Freezing water viewed from the cageHighly dangerous, they grow to 21 feet (6 metres) and they are the world’s largest predatory fish. Some of the methods used by such boat trips (such as chucking dead, bloody fish in the water to attract them) are alleged to contribute to the increasing attacks by great whites on humans.

They tell us there are risks involved as we sign a wide legal disclaimer. In the back of my mind I recall in this very place a couple of years ago a furious great white shark, in attack mode, launched and landed on top of the shark cage while people were still inside it under water. Clearly there are risks involved, but they don’t mention this incident. We sit on an unfeasibly small, unsteady boat reeking of what is quaintly called “chum” which is smelly, fermenting bloody fish heads and entrails, with which the great whites are – hopefully –attracted to the boat.

It has to be bloody and smelly to tempt the sharks away from their usual meal, seals, as they patrol a place called Dyer Island, a food hypermarket for great whites, as the hundreds of thousands of seals living there frolic in the water.

On the way out we are completely enveloped in a creepy thick mist, so that neither land, mountains, islands, other ships or anything at all is visible to us. It is slightly unnerving, reminiscent of tales of the Marie Celeste as a complete, tense silence breaks out on the boat. We cut the engines after a while, the stench of the seals coming to us on the wind, their noise drifting towards us, but nothing at all can be seen.

The Shark attacks underwater, rolling its eye to whiteAll we hear is the distant, gentle break of waves, the noise of seals and the creaking of the boat. The captain pulls a festering fish head from the bucket, to much general revulsion at the stench, puts it on a hook and hurls it into the small patch of visible sea surrounding us. He trails it like a lure on many occasions at different locations over the next hour and a half, but, as nothing shows in the water, I begin to think today will be an anticlimactic waste of time.

I look at the flimsy, small dive cage resting on the back of the boat and wonder how something so delicate can keep out an angry great white and its gnashing jaws. After a couple of hours of absolutely nothing, the mist completely clears, leaving us still overcast but with a spectacular view of the distant mountains of the southern Cape, seal-festooned Dyer Island in front, and three other boats in the vicinity. Suddenly everyone cheers up and new purpose is injected into the venture. Almost immediately we had a shark contact.

From nowhere a gigantic silver mass, much bigger than our boat, slid gracefully if worryingly under the hull, circled the bait then attacked it. It missed. The shark attacked again, but the bait was pulled away. The next time it came from directly BENEATH the bait, shooting upwards like a missile launched from a submarine, and it was successful. Clearly they are resourceful and clever. Another, smaller shark joined us, and we stood on deck marveling at the sight and the size of these incredibly powerful, beautiful creatures, staring down their mouths as they breach the water to snap at the bait as it is pulled away from them.

The boat captain then lowered the cage into the cold, murky water, told us to put on our wetsuits, and jump in. I have to say I was very nervous doing this.

Great White Shark lurches at the boatI had serious second thoughts about it, but others were, so I did. Jumping into the cage, knowing you were only feet, then inches, from a great white shark, gave me an adrenalin rush, but the water was so cold my teeth started chattering and I began shivering almost immediately, and stayed that way for 45 minutes, as we stood, swam and dived in the icy water as we had more shark contacts during the afternoon.

It was absolutely freezing, but very exciting. The best contact came from nowhere - the largest great white launching a frenzied attack at the bait, which it caught right in front of the cage, inches away from our faces, so fast I could only fire of one photo, which, whilst poor, conveys something of the moment. The water became a boiling mass of foam, bubbles, blood (from the bait) masses of sharp teeth, dead eyes, and the huge silver bulk of the shark as it flashed before us at an incredible speed.

The smell of oil from the shark and the stench of the bait and the blood mingled in our noses and mouths as we sucked in seawater through our snorkels. The shark's massive body on the turn must have hit the cage at an incredible speed, as we were thrown back with great force On getting out of the water everyone was speechless. Well, not so much speechless, as uttering long sentences of expletives as our minds tried to grope for words to describe the experience we had just shared and as the adrenalin rush hit us like a train.

On the way back to land, we were kept richly entertained as another great white shark, following the boat, with its huge fin out of the water, weaved and chased an albatros's shadow on the surface of the sea, and twice it reared its head, jaws open and gnashing, to attack it, but found only water and the shadow, the albatross lazily soaring along at a safe distance above the drama. A highly recommended day out.


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