If you’ve been following this blog then you’ll have read about my adventures in Mozambique, Swaziland, South Africa (at Kruger, and around St. Lucia), Zimbabwe, and Botswana. It was, to say the least, a hell of a trip. Starting in Mozambique, I mostly hitch-hiked or travelled by combi through thousands of miles of the greatest scenery on earth, seeing the most incredible wildlife up close. I couldn’t have been happier with the journey.
Yet, one thing was missing… The reason I’d gone to Southern Africa was to see a Great White Shark. I love sharks, and I’ve always wanted to see a Great White up close. I decided to go to Cape Town to go cage diving and the rest of the holiday unfolded as I did research into killing time between shark dives… I had no idea it would turn out to be such a brilliant part of the world.
Unfortunately, upon arriving in Africa, I found that the sharks had disappeared, and it had been a long time since anyone had spotted one. Someone said that a pod of orca had come into the area and chased them away. I never did find out the real reason. I even went to Durban, where they always have sharks, but visibility was zero because of the weather. It seemed I was doomed not to see any sharks.
But I’d come all the way to Africa for this one purpose, and even if it was going to be a waste of time and money, I’d give it a shot. So I booked a trip with SharkDiving.co. I was repeatedly warned that they never see sharks any more, and I got the impression that they’d put up with a huge number of pissed off tourists. But I was willing to take the risk.
The trip started very early because, apparently, the boats launch not from Cape Town, but from Gaansbai, which is several hours away from downtown Cape Town by bus. It was a long journey, and everyone seemed a bit down at the prospect of not seeing any sharks.
We arrived in lovely Gaansbai – a town that seems to exist due to the shark diving companies that operate from there. At least when we arrived the only people in the streets were either waiting to go dive, or working for the dive companies.
In the office, we signed release forms and were told over and over about the no refund policy for when we inevitably would go home disappointed. The guide was friendly enough, but had obviously gotten fed up with the lack of sharks lately. He joked: “Gaansbai is the only place in South Africa where the Whites still have power.” There were some awkward laughs.
Soon we were waiting on the dock for our boat. People came and went, and the boat before us brought good news: a shark had been spotted! Or maybe it wasn’t good news… Did they see our shark? Were they the one boat that day which would get to see a shark? By now I was nervous. It had been a long journey just to see a shark, and I wouldn’t get another chance.
The boat ride out was choppy. I used to get seasick and I could feel it coming on a little, but thankfully it never set in. About half of the people on the boat, though, soon became violently sick and were vomiting over the side into the sea.We had been warned to bring medication but I hadn’t brought anything. I just stared out towards the horizon, hoping to see something.
When the boat anchored at the dive site the choppiness worsened. The boat was positioned to block the waves from hitting the diving cage, and it rocked tremendously. We were told to suit up, which was difficult while rocking back and forth so violently. The crew chummed the water and tossed a large tuna head on a rope out as bait.
When they asked who wanted to get in the cage first, I didn’t say anything. I assumed that it would be a few long hours of waiting, and that whoever got in first would see nothing, then stand around cold. There was a rotation system – four or five people in the cage at any given time. I went to the top deck to look down…
And there it was. A Great White Shark. The call came just seconds earlier. One of the crew spotted him and he exploded out of the water, crashed into the cage, and swam off back into the deep. I saw him clearly but couldn’t get a photo. My camera was too slow and wouldn’t even take an unfocused shot. A few minutes later he came back again, and again I got no photos, except one of his tail as he returned to the deep. What should have been a happy moment was one of frustration.
I was annoyed that a) I wasn’t in the water to see the shark, and b) I had no good photos of the shark. Given that it was incredibly unlikely to see one, I should’ve just been happy to see the damn thing, but I felt robbed, because I couldn’t imagine the shark would come back again.
I went to the lower deck to stand by the cage. I wanted to get in the water, but I was too late, and the next group got in. From here, though, I did manage to shoot some photos of the shark with my iPhone, which was far faster to focus than my camera.
Eventually it was my turn and I was certain I wouldn’t see the shark from the water. Maybe it was because my luck in spotting wildlife over the trip had been too great. Anyway, by now I was happy because I’d seen the shark several times and gotten some reasonable photos on my phone.The captain had already warned us that from under the water it’s pretty difficult to see anything.
I jumped into the cage and was immediately left winded by the cold. It was the coldest I’d ever been. Even the waters off Scotland aren’t that bad. The wetsuit helped a bit, but it was nonetheless an incredible and painful sensation. I tried dunking my head under the water to see, but it would take only a seconds to get a splitting headache from the cold.
By now, the people who’d been in the water didn’t want to get back in, so the cage wasn’t so crowded. I tried to look around above and under the water, but occasionally got a lungful of seawater when a wave hit me, and I was in a great deal of discomfort from the biting cold – particularly in my hands.
Then the shark came back. And again. And again. And again.
I could see it far better from the boat – under water it was mostly a grey blur – but that’s not the point. The raw power was what struck me. While I was in the cage the shark managed to move so fast that it ripped the bait from the line, as the crew hadn’t seen it in time. It was just a massive explosion of pure prehistoric violence – a predator so perfect it has remained unchanged since before humans came into existence. To be in the water with it, even protected by a solid steel cage, was a privilege.
As we sailed back to the harbor, I tried to reflect upon my luck, but the cold was too much. I had stayed in the water for about an hour and it had been too long. But when I finally got back and warmed up in the sun, I was able to appreciate our fortune. It had been a long day and we’d been warned that we wouldn’t see anything. Indeed, no one on the other boats had seen a shark while we were out.
Fortunately, since then the sharks have returned. Our shark – a young male – was one of the first to reenter the area. Hopefully they continue to thrive off the coast of South Africa and elsewhere. Truly the are among the most amazing creatures on this planet.
Of course, they’re probably not such majestic creatures from the perspective of these guys, who thoroughly enjoyed the Great Whites’ absence.