Sunday, May 13, 2018

duuuun dunn...duuuunn dunn...(That's the Jaws theme song)

Evan and I are fascinated by sharks. The fascination began as an intense fear that we both experienced when we were young (I blame "Jaws"), and has grown into this obsession with all things shark. Personally, I think sharks are inspirational. Sharks are fearless, majestic, powerful, and smart. They command respect. Sharks don't wallow around in self-pity after injury, they just power on, doing bad-ass shark things. I think that over the years, sharks have gotten a lot of a bad press as man-killers, and I've always felt that they are grossly misunderstood (can we blame them if they misidentify a surfer as a seal? Lighting is shit under the water, people!)

We love sharks so much, in fact, that we celebrate them every August at the lake during our very own "shark week." We typically try to time our celebration with the famous Discovery Channel's week long event. We watch hours of shark videos, dress up like sharks, and drink on the boat. Why? Why not! We've had the opportunity to dive with Caribbean reef tip sharks, hammerhead sharks, and nurse sharks, but have always dreamt of getting into the water with the King of Sharks - the Great White Shark. So it was a no-brainer that our South African adventure would include a Great White Shark Dive.

We hopped on a 2 hour flight from Johannesburg to Cape Town, grabbed a (very) quick night's sleep and started out early for our 2 1/2 hour drive to Gansbaai, located on the Western Cape of South Africa. The waters off the coast of Gansbaai are like the Sizzler Buffet for Great Whites. Migrating Great Whites are attracted to the wide range of fish species, seals, and an ideal temperature of 12-24 degrees Celsius.

We arrived at the Great White Shark Diving training center just as a heavy mist of rain enveloped the harbour. I actually said to Ev, "Well this looks ominous." To be honest, I wasn't particularly nervous. I had watched countless youtube vids in prep for our adventure, and other than the unfortunate incident where the shark jumped into the cage, it all looked rather safe to me. I did become nervous; however, when we began watching the training video. The video clearly showed how you hop in the cage, submerge yourself underwater, hooking your legs to the bottom of the cage, and listen for direction to look left, right, or down, in order to see the shark clearly. This all sounded cool to me. What did freak me out was the manner in which we were to exit from the cage. With 10lb weightbelts around our waists, we were to climb out of the cage and hoist ourselves back into the boat. Gulp. Climb? Dammit. I began frantically whispering to Ev, "Shit! My knees can't climb! I'm never going to be able to get out of the cage!" Always cool an calm, Ev reassured me, "We'll figure it out, buddy."

Before the dive: I was sooo excited. This is Ev's excited face. 
It took about an hour via boat to reach the special shark spot - sharks do not show up on a fish finder, by the way,  so the tour boats rely on each other to communicate where the sharks are at at any particular moment. They began by chumming the water with fish guts in order to convince the sharks that we were worth checking out. Within about 20 minutes, we had an interested shark and were instructed to gear up and get in line. Suddenly all my fears about exiting the cage had disappeared and my adrenaline kicked into high drive. Instead of waiting for Ev to get his wetsuit on, I abandoned him so that I could be first in the cage (What's my favorite kind of seafood? SelFISH. haha). The staff on the boat moved a giant fish head on a long stick around the boat so that the shark would stay and play a while - kinda like playing with a kitten. Eventually, the shark will realize that it's not legit food and carry on its way, but in the meantime, we all get a close-up glimpse of these incredible creatures, and the sharks are not harmed in the process.

The sea was angry, my friends

The shock of entering the 15 degree Celsius water momentarily took my breath away, but before I could protest, our shark sighter frantically yelled, "DOWN!DOWN!DOWN!" That was the cue to take a giant breath and submerge yourself down to the bottom of the cage. I gasped and hooked my feet to the bottom rung of the cage, ensuring that none of my body parts were exposed outside the cage. I pushed my face as close to the cage opening as possible, looking frantically to the right, trying to get a glimpse of my first Great White. The visibility was not good. All I could see was dark nutrient-rich water all around me. I pushed my face closer to the opening, searching the waters for an approaching dark shadow - nothing...nothing...nothing...BAM! Suddenly the Great White was right in my face! He seemingly appeared from nowhere. I watched in awe as he swam from right to left, directly in front of me in the cage. He had a huge bad-ass scar across his body, and appeared to be completely focused on his "prey." He had zero interest in me. After that first sighting, I became addicted to viewing the sharks, holding my breath until nearly passing out just so I could gain an extra few seconds with these magical animals. I closely examined their gills, the intensity in their eyes, and their massive scarred bodies. When it came time to exit the cage the first time, I simply shouted, "I have bad knees!" and one of the boat staff picked me up and plopped me on the boat. Easy peasy! Shaking from cold and the shock of spending about 5 minutes with the most badass creature ever, I grabbed a towel and got back in line for a second go with the sharks.


I can't feel my face or my fingers. This is awesome!

Pure joy. 

Most of the customers on the boat got 2 encounters with the sharks. Me? I got 4. I bullied and pushed my through College students, large men, and even a kid. Where was Evan? Did he get a turn? Apparently he got 2 turns and then videoed from the top deck of the boat.  Pulling my wetsuit hood over my head, I shamelessly lied my way back into the line. I NEEDED more time with the sharks! On the last go, the staff warned me, "The sharks seem to be dwindling. You might just be sitting in cold water for this turn." Fine, ya, get me in there! As warned, after watching one massive 15 foot shark rip apart the fish head and swim away, I stood in cage, submerged in freezing water for 15 minutes, chatting up a young American exchange student in 15 degree water with no sharks in sight. Teeth chattering, my cage neighbour expressed her concern that hypothermia was imminent. I agreed that this could be exactly how Jack felt right before he froze to death on that floating door in Titanic, but I also (very wisely) said, "Just think about where we are right at this moment? We are in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of South Africa with Great White Sharks! This is unreal! Screw the cold!" (ya, I was totally hopped up on adrenaline. Sharks, NOT cocaine, people!)

Say "cheese" - such a lovely toothy grin

I loved when the shark came from below - natural hunting style

Watch shark video here

Overall, I had an incredible experience. Evan wished that the experience could be more authentic. His wish is to observe a Great White hunting without the enticement of chum and fish heads. But, um...I'm thinking this might be a difficult thing to witness - unless you are, in fact, the hunted. Just sayin'. Although there is some controversy over shark "tourism," I think that as long as the practice is not harming the sharks or changing their behaviours, it is, at the very least, educating people about these beautiful animals and raising awareness about the threats on sharks. Worldwide there are an estimated 100,000,000 sharks slaughtered annually. Man is killing these beautiful animals for shark fin soup, trophy fishing, and as bycatch (when a shark becomes entangled in a fisherman's net).  I can guarantee you that every single person on that boat that day experienced the same awe-inspiring appreciation for the Great White Shark as I did.

We left Gansbaai on a serious high...after living through  lions, cheetahs, and Great White Sharks, we had no idea that the greatest threat, the African Baboon, was soon to unexpectedly enter our lives.

Stay tuned for killer baboon gangs, Penguins and Wine...lots and lots of wine.


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