Ever since I was 10 years old and received a CD-ROM for my computer teaching me all about Sharks, I have been completely hooked! I find sharks to be some of the most fascinating and misunderstood creatures on Earth. In Junior High, Jessi and I did an entire science project on the ancient (now extinct) shark Megalodon (Carcharocles megalodon). For those of you who haven’t heard of Megalodon before, it is the largest shark to ever roam the seas, and it is a piece of work!
Interestingly, ever since Megalodon teeth have been discovered, there has always been a lot of debate over just how large this ancient terror was. You see, sharks are largely composed of cartilage (like what makes up our noses and parts of our ears) and when it comes to fossilization, there is an inherent bias against soft materials becoming preserved, hence, cartilage preservation is hard to come by (but not impossible! As seen in this fossil outline of a freshwater ray on display at the Royal Tyrrell Museum):
The point is, the only fossils we tend to find of Megalodon are the teeth (enamel is the hardest substance in the body after all). Trying to estimate the size of an animal based solely on teeth is tricky, especially in an animal that continuously grows new teeth all of it’s life! So over time the size of the reconstructed jaw has varied greatly, and hence why in that size comparison, they have a conservative and maximum limit. I heard from a Paleontologist however that there was some fragmentary jaw fossils discovered fairly recently which will change our perspective, I am not sure if that paper has been released yet or not…
So we love sharks, and Jessi and I vowed, at the tender age of 14, that we would some day go cage diving with Great White Sharks. Eleven years later this dream has been realized.
We originally booked our dive on February 10th with a company called Great White Shark Tours (http://www.sharkcagediving.net) but we received a call the day before informing us that the tour had been cancelled due to weather. Thankfully we were able to reschedule for the 11th (which was important because today was our last day in South Africa!). We were really excited to head out to Gansbaai and the famous ‘Shark Alley’. Unfortunately, Gansbaai was 2.5 hours back east, mostly the same way we had come when we left Bredasdorp. Our tour was set for 11:00am and with such a long drive ahead, we made sure to leave at 7:30am just in case. Well it turned out that the traffic was horrendous leaving Cape Town and we didn’t arrive at the diving shop until precisely 11:00. We were all freaking out thinking that the boat was going to leave without us!
Our boat – The Apex Predator
When we went in however, we were some of the first people there! Apparently the boat didn’t actually board until noon, leaving us an entire hour to pay, change, sign waivers and snack on the continental breakfast. The walls were plastered with photos of famous people going diving (including Jude Law!). I made sure to take a Gravol about 40 minutes before getting on the boat as a preventative against seasickness. I offered to Dan and Jessi but they declined. I had never really been on a boat apart from one my uncle owned in Victoria, BC and even then the ride was brief, so I wanted to be sure I didn’t have a terrible experience.
We finally congregated on the deck and went through safety procedures including where NOT to put our arms and legs when in the cage as well as how to know when to dunk down. We would be in a cage attached to the boat and we could hover above the surface until the crew were able to coax the sharks close enough, then we would all dunk down to view them under water. I was a bit disappointed because I had always envisioned my shark diving experience to look something like this:
We got some more bad news as well. Apparently February in Africa is Summer and a very bad time to do cage diving since the water was colder and the sharks scarce and relatively inactive. The best time to come is April-September when the water warms up and the sharks get feisty. So not only were there fewer sharks to be seen, but also, it just happened to be that we came on a poor visibility day (I guess the storm from the day before really stirred up some sediment) and thus the visibility was sitting at around 50cm. Half a metre. You wouldn’t be able to see your hand if you stuck it straight out in front of you. Ugh. But we boarded anyway, hoping for the best and thankful that we even had the chance to go at all. I had read online that Shark Alley was the waterway that separated Dyer Island (home to an enormous penguin colony) and Geyser Rock (home to a large congregation of Cape Fur Seals) making it the ideal place for sharks to hang around. I was excited by the idea of at least seeing these colonies if we didn’t get to spot a shark, but we were very far out from the islands and thus did not get a chance to spot anything.
Within a few minutes of arriving at the dive site, Dan mentioned that he ‘may’ be starting to feel a bit off (i knew this would happen). I gave him a couple gravol which he gratefully accepted. On the back of the boat, one of the crew members started to make the famous ‘chum’ mix in order to attract the sharks while the cage was lowered down.
The chum mix ended up being a barrel filled with seawater and a bunch of tuna carcasses (among other ungodly things) that was stirred around and mushed up. Some of this soup would then be splashed off the back of the boat, luring in our fishy friends. You may not have noticed, but our chum connoisseur is in fact eating a sandwich (and later an apple, and chips) whilst throwing tuna in and mashing it up. That was really nasty to watch and how he could just casually be eating, escapes me. Well it worked. Within around 10 minutes, our first shark appeared.
We had secured some seats on the top deck (thank goodness, otherwise we wouldn’t have seen much with all the crowding and cage entering / exiting below) and whipped out our cameras, frantically snapping photos. The lure that you see in the picture was a little buoy with a couple of giant Tuna heads latched on, which was tossed in the water and dragged back to the boat in order to lead the sharks towards the cage. I wasn’t going to fight the crowds in order to get into the cage first because it didn’t really matter to me that much to get it over with right away, I was content just snapping photos. It took a long time for the crew to get a couple of close encounters for the first group in the water, and then they called up for a second group to suit up. Jessi did not hesitate, she raced off to secure her spot. By this time, Dan was feeling horrendous and looked fairly deathly as well. He realized a little late that the act of looking through a camera zoom lens on the top deck of a swaying boat was perhaps a bad move. He decided to head down to the main deck in case he felt the need to purge himself of breakfast. All alone on the top deck, I started to hear some fellow tourists talking excitedly about a seal and pointed off a ways.
Sure enough, one of the cape fur seals had wandered over, playfully diving and splashing about in the water. Now this may sound terrible, but I was not excited to spot the seal because it was a seal and I wanted to get a photo. I was excited because in the back of my mind, I was really hopeful that the sharks would come flying out of the water, seal in jaws in a horrifying and cataclysmic feat of carnal predation. Yes I thought that, and that is why my camera stayed fixed on this seal for a long time. It turns out that the sharks weren’t interested in the seal and it just floated around happily, living it’s carefree seal life. I then noticed that Jessi was being hoisted down into the cage.
She was thrilled of course, and I knew this was going to be a game changer for her. I hoped beyond hope that she would get a chance to see something spectacular. Not long after she went in the crew called for a third wave of divers to get ready and they also mentioned that if we didn’t go now, there probably wouldn’t be a chance later. Obviously this got me off my butt. I went down to the main deck, searching for Dan. He was up on the bow, looking worse than the last time I saw him. I asked if he had been sick, but he hadn’t which is unfortunate because it probably would’ve made him feel better. The crew suggested that he have some ginger ale, or a green apple since they are known to help settle one’s stomach but he said he couldn’t bear the thought of eating. I started to get suited up and encouraged Dan to join me. As horrible as he was feeling, he knew he would regret it forever if he didn’t get in the water, so he slowly sauntered over and began dressing. We hung around a while and soon Jessi came out of the tank. I asked how it was and she just shook her head. I don’t think I have ever seen her as disappointed! EVER. I knew it wasn’t going to be the most exhilarating experience given the circumstances but I had hoped for better. She didn’t really see anything apparently. Dan and I entered the frigid water and shuffled over to the far left. There weren’t enough people to fill it left so we asked if Jessi could come in again and they said that would be fine. Hooray! The waves were pretty merciless and the boat kept rocking, dragging the cage, banging around with it. We didn’t see anything for a long while, there were a couple of ‘DOWN’ calls, but nothing came of it. Then we heard the yell and down we went. I didn’t really know where to look or what to expect, especially with the visibility being so terrible. Suddenly it happened. Out of the murk came an enormous jaw filled with serrated teeth, smashing into the cage mere centimetres from my face! I think the fact that the visibility was so bad was what made it that much more intense, we had no warning! We didn’t have any underwater cameras, so all I have are my memories unfortunately, but it was epic. We stayed longer hoping for more, and we had another great encounter, this time the shark smashed sideways into the cage and the whole boat went teetering, it was crazy! Based on the fact that Dan and I caught the tail end, I was really hoping that Jessi was able to see the face. We waited a bit longer but the swells intensified and Dan really couldn’t stay any longer (I wasn’t sad, in fact I was really worried he was going to puke in the cage and I would end up covered in it). We all waited another 15 – 20 minutes longer but with no success. We were lifted out and started to undress.
Apparently Dan had immediately crossed over the other side of the boat and upchucked several times and was feeling a bit better. Jessi came out and was just as disappointed, apparently she hadn’t really seen the sharks up close as she had hoped. It was too bad, I was feeling pretty happy about it all! We hoisted the cage and started our journey back to the mainland. There was the option of staying and watching a DVD of the day which you could then purchase for $30 CAD but considering there weren’t many sharks, the vis was bad and both Dan and Jessi had been pretty disappointed we opted to check out the local shops for shark stuff instead.
We didn’t really find much, a lot of the clothing was either tacky or ill fitting so we decided to just get in the car and make the journey back to Noordhoek. Once we returned we ate some sandwiches we had packed into the trunk in the morning and considering it had meat, cheese and mayo on it, I am surprised no one got sick from that! They were tasty. It was our last night together in Africa and we spent some quality time together. Oh, and Jessi dried her wet underwear while sipping on some South African wine.
I was sad to know that Jessi hadn’t fulfilled her dream, but I know that there is still plenty of time for her to get the encounter of a lifetime. Dan and I were happy with our close encounter and although he spent much of his time on the deck, we both really enjoyed ourselves. Tomorrow, Thailand!