A large ominous shadow loomed about two metres away. Then a roll and the distinct white belly. I was in striking distance of man’s most feared predator. How, you might ask, did I — not known among my friends and foes for a love of danger — end up there? After a sprightly 5am pick-up from Greenmarket Square, it was a two-hour drive east along the coast, beyond the whale-watching capital of Hermanus past lovely lagoons and mountains pink in the soft light of dawn. Once again, I was overawed by the majesty of “God’s own country”.
Bleary-eyed, we had dined the previous evening at Jardine’s at which our American friends suggested, kind of amusingly, could be a last supper. On arrival, as we signed our lives away, there was a generous breakfast spread of muffins, pastries, fruits and yoghurt and we, wisely as it turned out, took a motion sickness tablet.
Gansbaai, a pretty town of brightly coloured houses, is the shark-watching capital of the country. The fear of being eaten alive by a shark is primordial. Capetonians experienced a collective “shiver up the spine” five years ago when Tyna Webb, a 77-year-old, was taken by a great white on a morning swim at Fish Hoek.
As we headed for the reef the water was aqua green. Whitecaps patterned the waves like children at play, racing the swells to be the first out to shore. Seated on the upper deck we were spared most of the spray as the boat cleaved a path through the sea. The smell of the water and the choppy progress of the boat made us feel like children on an adventure. Everyone had open smiles, joking among themselves as they prepared mentally for the excursion into that great unknown element.
The skipper, the well-known Brian Mcfarlane, manoeuvred the boat expertly so that the cage would be protected from the worst of the swells and we would have an optimal chance of viewing our antediluvian brethren. Within a minute or two of the chum being released, we saw, just like in the Jaws movies, the first dorsal fin rise and break the surface in the early morning light like the periscope of a submarine. We held our breath in hushed expectation and pumping adrenaline. And the fin just cruised on by, apparently oblivious to our breakfast offering.
We weren’t prepared for the raw beauty of these creatures when they did appear. Svelte, streamlined and graceful. One elegantly shimmered away from the cage on its side staring upwards like a ballerina doing a little pirouette. The frenzied threshing is, most of the time, for attacks and Hollywood. Like us, each one is unique-looking too. One of the large females was battle-scarred and bloodied with serrated hunks of flesh ripped out. Another was a prize specimen. A male, perfectly formed, unblemished and the gleaming black of a new sports car.
Around the cage, they executed a perfect 180-degree turn using their tails as rudders. I read recently that great whites have been seen, when determined to secure the bait and suitably angry, to emerge entirely from the ocean and use the ballast of their tail to effectively walk — you’ve seen it in the cartoons — on the ocean surface towards the bait — and baiter.
Nathan went into the cage with the first batch and came eyeball to eyeball with a huge female. He mused that we had been told not to touch the sharks but we were not told what to do when the shark used its body as a ram against the cage and its lateral fin scored across his hands and chest. I have a photograph of the beast whacking the cage with its tail as she swam past.
We had been told that sharks can recognise the smallest electric signature, like a heartbeat in the water far away. A perturbing thought as you are lowered into the top hatch of the cage that heaves in time to the treacherous water. Nathan describes the experience:
- “While I was in the water I first had to come to grips with the limits of my new environment. A four-metre cage doesn’t seem like a lot of space when crowded in with six other people, but you soon forget all about that when you catch your first glimpse of a dark shadow making its way toward you. Gert, the man on board pulling the bait on a rope to lure in the shark was shouting excitedly for us to dive so with a short gasp for breath I hauled myself underneath.
“An enormous mouth gapes open and all you see are teeth. The shock of it is enough to make you reactively hurl yourself backwards, but there is no escape in this small cage. You watch in a fascinated calm terror as that orifice bears down on you. With an agile movement it is gone. You see the grey side slide away in the periphery of your vision to somewhere behind you, back into the unconscious mind of an uncharted sea. Spluttering I rose from the sea and unfortunately taking a large swig of chum-flavoured salt water, but in my excitement I hardly noticed. Gert told us to dive again, almost immediately. This time I went under prepared.
“The same large female was back making for the cage, but this time she slowed down just before ramming into us. She knew we were there, she was looking at us. There was a moment sundered from time, when the soft pink membrane protecting her eye peeled back and revealed the black depths there. She slowed down, listening for my heartbeat, but in that moment it was silent, the beating stopped. I wish I could claim some communication, some understanding between us, but there was none. We recognised one another, I in the cage wrought of logic and man-made ‘otherness’ and her out there still a part of the great natural order. I can never say what she thought of me or if I even impinged on her consciousness as something more than a potential meal. But there was a moment when our eyes met and I forgot everything around us. Then she swam off into depths where I could not follow her.”
We call them murderous, stealthy, man-killer, but these are words that mean nothing in the sea. The salty water has a way of dissolving those distinctions, they are only names we have been calling each other for centuries. These artificial constructs mean nothing to that mistress of the ever present “now”.
By the time I went for the dive myself, my fear had evaporated. My main problem was pulling on the wetsuit as I felt queasy and weak from motion sickness. Five of our fellow passengers went back to shore early. They were literally unable to stomach the brave breakfasts they had had on shore. The cold blue green water of the Indian Ocean actually felt like a cool tonic when I descended into the cage. I had four or five sightings. A large ominous shadow looms first. Then a roll and the distinct white belly. They silently passed the cage within touching distance with their jaws slightly ajar. Although the dive is exhilarating, the shark-viewing is definitely better from the top of the boat where one can clearly see the entire torpedo silhouette.
An old man in his late eighties or early nineties gamely climbed into the cage, his anxious children shouting “pull your leg in dad”. We all clapped loudly when we saw him emerge from the cage on the post-dive DVD watching. He — as well as our new great white friends — was the undisputed star of the day.
Written with Nathan Savage