Duh nun duh nun DUH NUN DUH NUN!
Dorsel fin breaches the water and everyone screams… with joy!
I am surprised it has been just over two years now since I jumped into the chilly South Atlantic Ocean in South Africa to face some shimmering pearly whites belonging to the infamous Carcharodon carcharias or Great White Shark to us non-fancy folk. This was my ULTIMATE life-long bucket list activity so finally getting to do it was just unbelievable.
I had booked up long in advance with Shark Bookings for a two day two night shark diving and accommodation package in De Kelders, Gansbaai, about 2 hours South of fabulous Cape Town. The package included early morning pick up from my hotel in Cape Town and transfer down to The Roundhouse Guesthouse in De Kelders. The accommodation itself was stunning, they had a lovely hot tub on a terrace which overlooked the bay and a selection of extremely yummy breakfasts.
My first day in De Kelders was supposed to be a free day to chill and have a look around the area. But upon arrival they asked if I wanted to do one of my shark dives then and there if it was possible – to which I replied: hell yeah!
So I was dropped down to Supreme Sharks (the actual dive company) office and offered a small buffet style breakfast to whet my appetite before facing the sharks. After which we were fitted for our wetsuits, given a bright yellow dry sack for our belongings and hearded down towards the harbour to the boats. Once on board we took a choppy ride about 30 minutes out to sea to go find us some great whites!
The weather on this day was, shall we say, crappy. It was cloudy, cold, windy and spitting with rain. Upon reaching the area of ocean we were to begin, we were told to get into our wetsuits. This, I soon came to realise, was easier said than done. Being sat on the top deck of a rocking boat with one foot in a wetsuit and one foot trying to balance was… interesting. My fingers were wet and cold and trying to pull the extremely tight wetsuit up over damp skin was almost impossible. In my mind I was a mixture between Mr Bean and one of those clumsy guys from old black and white slapstick films. But I struggled on and eventually managed to wriggle my way into my suit.
An hour or so of chumming later when we still hadn’t spotted any sharks, the mood was a bit dismal. At this point quite a few people decided to give up and get changed out of their wetsuits and back into their normal clothes, as many of us had lost the momentum to want to get into the freezing cold ocean after hours of sitting huddled in the wind and rain. I waited a while myself and then I too decided to give in and get changed back into my warm clothes; the cold had cracked me damn it. But I figured there was always the next dive to get into the cage! Typically, after about another 30 minutes or so, a couple of us eventually caught sight of an ominous shadow beneath the glossy surface. The sharks had finally arrived!
The guides jumped into action and got all of those troopers who were still in their wetsuits to get ready for the cage. I was a little gutted I didn’t stay in my suit (hindsight’s a bitch), but glimpsing a great white shark in person for the first time was amazing enough. They were a hell of a lot more graceful and calm than I thought they would be – after witnessing all of the years of demonising media coverage. They effortlessly glided through the water and watching them was surprisingly peaceful. That is… until they got hold of the bait. Then they would thrash violently sending splashes and their tails flying everywhere. Sometimes their powerful momentum would thrust them forward, so they would thrash against the cage, which made for pretty thrilling viewing all round.
After a while it was sadly time to head back to shore. A lot of people had gotten sea sick at some point during the journey, and on the way back I started to feel that gut wrenching wave of nausea take over me. I ended up clamouring down the swaying steps of the top deck, to mildly projectile vomit (apologies) over the side of the boat. I have never had sea sickness before then in my lifetime, so this was a shock to the system, and to be frank, I was mildly offended. I love the sea, how could my body do this to me. I vowed that next time I would be taking sea sickness tablets. Once on the shore I headed back to my guesthouse with mixed feelings – in awe of seeing the sharks, but upset that I didn’t manage to get in the cage this time round. But I was psyched up and ready for the next dive where I would be jumping head first into that cage!
The second dive day arrived and I was very happy to see that the skies were clear, the sun was shining and it seemed much warmer. With my stomach happily digesting some sea sickness tablets, I was raring to go.
This dive was a hell of a lot more succesful from the get go. For one, I got my wetsuit on a lot easier this time – much more like Mr Bond than Mr Bean this time baby. I sat on the bottom deck this time to both prevent sea sickness and get a nice, close-up view of the sharks. From the minute the boat set off, the curse of the sea sickness claimed it’s first victims. We had many people puking over the edge this time – and a couple of them didn’t stop being sick for the entire duration of the trip and ended up not getting in the cage at all. I’m telling you guys, always take sea sickness tablets as a precaution, even if you think you’ll be a’okay like I did the first time! The crew handed round lollipops for everyone to suck on, as apparently this can help prevent sea sickness. But judging by the amount of puking that was going on I’m a little dubious as to the effectiveness of this method.
The first marine creature we stumbled upon this time was not the one we were actually after, but was a welcome sight none the less: a Southern Right Whale mum and her calf! Our boat was sailing alongside her for a while and it was magical just to watch them frolicking along, peacefully blowing water out of their air holes.
This time when we arrived at the right spot, the sharks were in abundance – and it was wonderful. I was geared up with my mask on and my GoPro in hand and ready for the cage. Upon jumping into the ocean I was expecting to get instant frost bite, but it actually wasn’t nearly as cold as I was prepared for – obviously the wetsuit helped, coupled with some fiery shark-fuelled adrenaline. Once settled into the cage, the crew would shout “down down down!” whenever a shark was swimming towards/near the cage so that we would know when to go underwater and look out for them. Sometimes you would see a shark on top of the water biting at the bait, then immediately the crew would shout “down!” and you would go under and see the shark after it had dived down. It was simply amazing.
To be face to face quite literally with the oceans’ apex predator was honestly surreal in the most epic way. The water visibility wasn’t amazing, but when a great white shark is within touching distance in front of you, you don’t need crystal clear water – those teeth are pretty damn visible.
One thing I noticed whilst diving with them was how unique each shark is. Some of them are completely covered in various sized scars, most likely sustained whilst hunting prey with sharp teeth that fought back. Some great whites have huge menacing heads the size of a dinner table, whilst others are smaller and thinner and much more timid looking (referring to a shark as timid, that must be a first!). As with the majority of fish species, the female great white is usually bigger than the male, and they can grow up to a gigantic 20 feet long and weigh up to 5000 pounds. *Does my dorsel fin look big in this?*
I love the way their eyes change whilst attacking the bait (prey) too. This is actually the shark rolling its eyes into the back of its head to protect the eye itself from potential damage during feeding frenzies. A great white’s irises are not actually black as a lot of people think they are. They are a pretty, dark-blue colour, although they do look very black from a distance or in photographs; hence the confusion. When the shark rolls it’s eyes back, their eyes turn an eery white colour.
For me, sharks are not something to be feared. Obviously if I were to be swimming in the ocean and came across a great white, tiger shark or a bull shark then yeah, I would be more than a little nervous. But when you know you are completely safe within the cage there is nothing but pure awe and excitement that overcomes you. To be there in the moment on the ultimate bucket list activity is just epic. For all animal junkies and shark fanatics I would thoroughly recommend it. I know I would relish the chance to do it again and again and again!