Diving with Sharks in South Africa

23 May

Galeophobia, from the ancient Greek word, “galeos”, means a fear of sharks. With more than 350 species and an average of 60 shark attacks around the world each year, it’s easy to understand why a little more than 90% of the global population, consciously or subconsciously, suffer from this fear. But is it justified? As my plane touched down in one of the most shark-centric countries in the world, I decided to find out.

The sun was just starting to rise in South Africa as we approached False Bay. Stretching our legs after a two hour drive from Cape Town, we took in the scenery where world famous shark dives are made possible. Quaint little shops draped with nautical paraphernalia and canoes leaning against store windows, lined the marina and provided a fisher-town feel. Seagulls squabbled on the dock and the Atlantic Ocean glistened as my favourite travel companion and I, along with our tour group, waited with anticipation.

“Before you all get on board”, our Guide instructed, “you’ll need to fill out a form. Don’t forget to include your Next of Kin”. Next of Kin, I thought. I’ve been on many high-risk adventures in my life but never once have I been asked to advise of a Next of Kin. This was serious. And from then, the leisurely little shark excursion that I ignorantly assumed would be a breeze became an unexplainable knot in my stomach. Was there actually a risk of getting eaten out there?

Waves slapped hard against the two-story, 10-person, diving boat as the captain sped fast towards the middle of nowhere. Icy morning winds blew strong in our face and ripped through our hair while sprinkles of ocean water tickled our arms. Being lifted from our seats and thrown back down again many times over, the hour long tumultuous ride was like a roller coaster without the seat strap.

Thousands of Cape Fur Seals hang around Seal Island in the Atlantic, Cape Town, South Africa

“What is that horrific stench?” a fellow tour grouper called out as our boat slowed to a soft sail. “This, my bru, is the world famous Seal Island”, our Guide began as he integrated English and Afrikaans to his speech. “It’s what inspired the leaping shark scenes in the movie, Jaws”. Smelling worse than farmland manure, the 80 foot long, rock-faced island housed hundreds of moaning Cape Fur Seals. Some basked in the sun, some belly-flopped in the water, but all of them were oblivious to their most significant predator. “The haai are not ignorant to this site”, our Guide continued, “and they often come around to feed. When they are really hungry, they jump out of the water to capture their prey”. Sitting in silence and exchanging glances, we continued on with the journey.

“Fish blood and salt”, one of the burly boat crew flatly stated to my now-regretting, curious question of chum ingredients. “They’re attracted to the smell; that’s how we bait them”. Waiting patiently for the sharks to find us, I learned about the ongoing debate between local dive operators and environmentalists. Although there aren’t as many fatalities as in the United States, South Africa’s shark attacks have increased over the past thirteen years with much speculation that the cause is from shark dives and exhibits. Through repeated exposure to bait, the sharks have begun to associate food with boats and scuba divers. To counteract the argument, local businesses have ensured that chumming is not done by the scuba divers within the cages, thus unlikely to develop such associations. With an average of one fatal shark attack each year in South Africa, there have been no cage dive attacks to date.

The ocean’s sparkling green undertones coupled with a string of birds soaring just above the surface created a picturesque surrounding. In the distance, a seal frolicked. Popping his head in and out of the water, playfully, like he was putting on a show at the circus, he entertained as we waited. And then suddenly, he was gone. They were here.

Frantically zipping up our clammy wetsuits and adjusting the weight belts around our waists, it was time. Foggy over-sized goggles and murky waters obstructed my view to catch a glimpse of the seven sharks that were now circling our only safety haven.

Caged in and surrounded by Great Whites, Cape Town, South Africa

Grabbing my camera, I slid into the ten degree Atlantic, hanging on to the cage bars just above my head. I felt incredibly small and rudely invasive in the home of the world’s most notorious predator, who cruised just under my feet. Careful not to accidentally pass any body parts through the cage bars that engulfed us, I attached the regulator to my mouth and fully submerged.

Heading straight towards the cage like we were about to undergo a head on collision, my face parallel to his, the shark’s eye contact froze me in time. My heart pounded through my chest and drummed in my ears as he flashed his wide, 3000 teeth smile. The cage swung gently as another shark brushed past us from behind. Two more came out of nowhere from the right while a fifth one came in from the left. They were each as long as a stretch-limo and confidently encircled us with grace.

Drying off on the upper deck after the most heart-thundering twenty minutes of my life, I gazed down into the water as the second and third group took their turns in the cage. Topographically watching eleven sharks pace around our boat, my vulnerability pushed aside and was replaced with awe. Their signature fin symbolized such power while their blend of grey and white hues shone like a pearl. Witnessing them glide just beneath the surface while occasionally breaking through the waves with their nose and jaw, was surreal; almost endearing.

I realised that sharks are like any wild carnivore in the animal kingdom and are a significant part of the ecosystem. There’s no need for fear so long as you’re cautious. Perhaps they are hungry for human meat or perhaps they’re just curious like we are with them. Regardless, however, they are definitely beautiful.


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