Just because Brad Pitt and Nicolas Cage have done it is not a good reason. But it helps. I’d had an invitation to go shark-diving, and it occurred to me that if the sharks didn’t show up, it might be nice if there was a celebrity on board to gape at instead.
The thing is, as a diver I have seen quite a few sharks already. I remember being terrified at the thought of my first encounter until, after about 30 dives, I came within a few metres of a pair of white-tip reef sharks. Floundering around in my ungainly scuba gear I gawped at these exquisite creatures, so effortlessly perfect, dominating their own realm. They sliced through the water and disappeared into the gloom beyond visibility. But they were still out there, and that knowledge was a major part of the thrill. I was bitten, so to speak.
Great Whites, however, are not the type of shark seen on the average dive. In order to get a decent viewing of this most renowned of predators there is one good place to head for – Gansbaai. Located about two and a half hours east of Cape Town and just down the coast from the famous whale-spotting town of Hermanus, Gansbaai is an ordinary coastal village, or would be if it wasn’t for the fact that Great Whites are attracted to the area in their hundreds. The odd thing is, nobody seems to quite know why. Gary Larson would no doubt depict the sharks as tourists jostling to see humans in cages. (A chicken and egg situation? Guess who is the more chicken…)
It was a short ride out from the harbour to a nook of the bay where other dive boat operators were already in place. In the past, sharks were lured by the delightfully named ‘chumsicles’ – a frozen barrel of fish bits on a rope. This is no longer allowed in South Africa, where the deliberate feeding of sharks is illegal. In fact, I read somewhere that “other illegal activities include towing human or surfboard decoys to get sharks to breach; allowing clients to climb on a whale carcass while sharks feed on it; and throwing gumballs into sharks’ mouths.” What???
Given their low-carb, gumball-free diet, dive boat operators instead dribble a rather potent fishy soup into the current, relying on the scent to draw in the sharks like children in a Bisto advert. A knee-sized clump of meat on the end of a rope is then used to entice them the last few metres to the cage. Research seems to show that sharks, while attracted by the smell, soon learn that it is unlikely to lead to a good feasting, and that therefore they are not conditioned to associate boats and humans with food. As Gerald, our skipper, explained, even if they did bite the meat on the rope it would be like a cheese biscuit to them. I kept my mouth shut, having knowingly gorged myself to capacity on cheese biscuits more than once.
Instead I studied the cage. I had imagined that we would enter it one or possibly two at a time, and that the cage would then be fully closed and totally immersed in the water. There, in my mind’s eye, we would sit, breathing nervously through our scuba equipment, alone in a silent half-lit world waiting, waiting, waiting, eyes roving, trying to look everywhere yet unable to focus on anything in the gloom… until suddenly a pair of vast jaws powered by sheer muscle would scream past and in just a couple of searing, pounding heartbeats be gone.
The reality was rather different. We were all given good thick wetsuits and boots and the only other kit appeared to be weightbelts and masks. Not even a snifter of a snorkel was to be seen, let alone scuba gear. This had been explained to me over the phone, but I was still unclear about how exactly it all worked. Once we’d anchored, the cage was lowered from the stern and attached to the side of the boat with its top glaringly, blindingly open. There were 15 of us in the boat. Four at a time, those of us who chose to would climb into the cage and brace ourselves against the bars in a sitting position with our backs to the boat and our heads above water. When a shark was near Gerald would shout, and we’d take a deep breath and plunge ourselves under the surface to snatch a look as the shark cruised by.
It was, in the event, an incredibly efficient method for allowing as many people as possible a good ‘shark experience’. The water was icy cold and the visibility was only about 2 metres, but the system worked and time and time again a shark would slide by the cage, coolly eyeing the inhabitants. I’m not entirely convinced that those in the water always had a better view than those watching from the boat, but it was certainly intense. In a couple of instances, the shark would ram the cage and the divers would rattle around like gherkins in a jar. Rather appropriate, really.
Some of my fellow punters were blown away by it all and couldn’t get enough. Others clambered out after one or two encounters, not wanting to spoil the experience with overexposure. I was somewhere in between, staying my allotted 20 minutes in the cage but refusing the option of a second or third turn. There was plenty of action to be seen from above the waterline but as time wore on I found myself, to my shame, thinking less about the sharks and more about the cooler boxes of sandwiches and drinks in the cabin.
We saw at least 10 sharks in the space of about three hours, all remarkably different in terms of colouration and markings as well as size. Ranging from just under 2m to nearly 4m they weren’t the monsters I’d imagined (Great Whites commonly grow up to 6m) but were pretty hefty nonetheless. It was undoubtedly an education and a thrill, but I have to confess there wasn’t the adrenaline rush that I’d expected. It was fun to ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ and shriek along with everyone else, but it disallowed the possibility of the awe that comes with comprehending the magnificence of a creature in its own environment to the exclusion of everything else. It was all too safe somehow… but how could I possibly wish it otherwise?
Overall, it is a trip I would recommend particularly to those who haven’t had the opportunity to see sharks before. What I didn’t expect is that I’d be able to recommend it as a trip for all the family. Unless you are the type who likes to sit on floating whale carcasses, that is. As Nicolas Cage wrote in the visitor’s book, “Thanks for a Wonderful Life experience.” Cheers, Nic. Have a gumball.