The Real Jaws

Trip Start Mar 04, 2010
Trip End Mar 10, 2010

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Flag of South Africa  , Western Cape,
Friday, April 23, 2010

A shark dive is not Sea World. 

On Friday, the last day of the Garden Route tour, Ed and I went shark cage diving.  Great White Shark cage diving.  Shark cage diving was an optional activity on our tour, but Ed and I were the only ones of the nine in our group who opted in.

Shark cage diving is a misnomer because (1) the cage is more like a metal basket and (2) we are not diving. But there are definitely sharks.  Lot's of 'em.  Big ones.

Our day started at the shark diving shop where we were briefed on the boat, the weather conditions, and the shark dive itself.  The weather was not great--it was sunny, but the wind was high.  We were told there were 3 to 4 meter swells.  Swell. 

We boarded the Barracuda and proceeded out to sea.  The ocean was choppy and the waves were as huge as described.  The captain told everyone "hold on" in a very stern voice like he meant it.  The 20-minute ride out to "Shark Alley" was truly one of the most terrifying experiences I have ever had.  Ed and I huddled in a nook behind the skipper to keep out of the wind, and I gripped the hand rail as tight as I could.  The ship would hit a wave and tip upward at an almost 45 degree angle I suppose and then slammed back down horizontal.  Imagine the worst roller coaster ride you have ever been on.  Imagine it lasting for 20 minutes.  I concentrated on not hyperventilating and prayed that I would not fly off the boat.  When we finally arrived at our destination, I could hardly feel my hands and I was still shaking for a few minutes. 

(1) Misnomer:  Not a cage.

The cage is more like a metal basket, human size, attached to the side of the ship.  Analogous to a bicycle basket, people size, for a boat.  Six people fit inside at a time.  Across the top are widely-spaced bars to hold overhead.  Inside there are pads near the top to lean back on and a yellow handrail below the surface of the water.  The handrail is literally no more than four inches from the outer edge of the cage.   

We were instructed to climb in, rest our knees on the yellow rail, our backs on the pads, our hands on the overhead bar.  Wait until the crewman yells "down!"   On command, hold your breath and grab the yellow handrail so that you are standing on the floor of the cage.  Look at the sharks.  Sharks are very fast.  Don't put your hands outside the cage.  

(2) Misnomer:  Not diving. 

"The sea was polished, was blue, was pellucid, was sparkling like a precious stone, extending on all sides all round the horizon--as if the whole terrestrial globe had been one jewel, one collossal sapphire a singe gem fashioned into a planet."  --Youth, Joseph Conrad

The ocean was a massive wave pool of deep blue water shifting with the wind as a water bed might shift when sat on.  As the captain said, "this is not an aquarium, this is wildlife."  Great White sharks are serious business. 

Our gear consisted of dive suits, booties, and masks.  No tanks.  Only breath-holding. 

The crew coax the sharks over to the boat by shoveling "chum" (shredded fish guts) into the water and then throwing a rope with a huge fishhead attached out near the boat.  The rope serves as a lure.  When a shark is spotted, the crewman pulls the fishhead rope closer to the boat and past the front of the cage so that the shark will follow.  The captain explained that the sharks smell fear.  The calmer you are, the closer the sharks will come.  And do not put your hands outside the cage.  Everything around the boat is fishy to the sharks.  They know that humans are not food, but ...

Truth:  Scarier than Jaws.

The system works.  After we got into the cage, we started to see sharks right away.  

The sharks came CLOSE.  They rubbed up against the cage.  I could see their pointy teeth and bead eyes up close.  The biggest sharks we saw were 3 to 4 meters long (I speak Metric now).  And sometimes one would surface to follow the fishhead lure gnaw on the top metal edge of the cage--very close to the head of the person on the end (thankfully, neither Ed nor I).   The first time a shark came close I was petrified of making any movements, and in a way it was a powerful feeling to be still and watch the shark bump up against the cage only a few inches from my hands, knowing that he could not possibly reach them.  


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