So focused was I on regaining my breath after the shock of the freezing water that for the first two minutes I was in the ocean I couldn’t even register what was swimming just outside the metal bars that separated me from one of the greatest predators alive. Here I was in Gansbaai, South Africa, subjecting myself to seasickness and hypothermia-inducing waters to catch a glimpse of the legendary Great White Shark on its turf.
How did I get here?
I recently had my first guest to South Africa, my wonderful cousin, so I got to plan my first itinerary for someone else. Part of that included the sort of mandatory shark dive, which I have mixed emotions about on a conservation level, but LOVE on a purely adrenalin-based level. I am utterly fascinated by sharks, in particular Great Whites, and have been since seeing Jaws at the ripe old age of 5. That probably explains a lot about me. Also, since Jaws is based on a series of attacks that happened at the beaches where I grew up, it holds an oddly special place in my heart. Anything that can eat me spellbinds me, and sharks, because their environment is so foreign to humans, have their own unique place in the echelon of sharp-toothed predators I love. I dreamed of seeing them in their natural element, but from a position where I wasn’t in danger of being dinner. Enter the shark dive.
People come from all over the world to dive in the waters off Gansbaai, the reputed shark capital of the world. Dyer Island, just (and I mean just) off the coast, is home to a breeding colony of anywhere from 40,000 to 60,000 Cape fur seals, a feeding bonanza for great whites. If you’re in the market to see a great white, there isn’t a better place in the world where you’re practically guaranteed to see at least one puttering merrily along.
I’m a conservationist at heart, and the concept of shark diving – luring the animal in and teasing it with decoys and a piece of bait forever out of reach – doesn’t sit well with my ethics. Yet this was one case where I was willing to bend my ethical compass. How else could I possibly see these animals in their element if not shoved like a sardine with five complete strangers in a small cage tied to the side of a boat and dunking myself under the surface every time a shark spotter yelled ‘DIVE’? I chose a tour company that practiced environmentally friendly dives and contributed to the conservation, not the desecration, of these incredible animals. I would have to simply get over the fact that they bribed the sharks to get them to us.
Joined by my cousin, her friend, and my fiancé, I was glad to have people around me I knew would appreciate the experience, especially since my cousin and I both suffer for horrible motion sickness. Kind of a cruel joke for people like us who grew up on the water in some form of floating vessel or another. At least I knew if I decided to do my own brand of chumming (half-digested eggs and toast, li’l sharkies?), I would likely have some company.
As days go, it was a spectacular one. Calm seas, brilliant blue skies, light wind and warm sun. Visibility from the boat was stellar, so I was shocked and initially spooked by how murky the water was below the surface. Each time the crew spotted a shark and told me and my five fellow shark enthusiasts to go below, I frantically pushed myself beneath the surface and searched the milky green water to spot anywhere from three to four meters of fish. What I saw, and only periodically at that, was a massive dark shadow gliding past, an impressionistic ghost of a fish. Each eerie passing made every hair on my body tremble, though that might have also been the water temperature. But I’m sure the adrenalin of it all pushed those fuzzy puppies to attention just as much as the cold did.
I fumbled with my underwater camera, desperate to get at least one photo of the sharks, but each time one supposedly passed, I couldn’t see it through the lens. Later, after I uploaded the files to my computer, I found I had in fact captured a few shots, then realized somewhat uncomfortably that I was looking right at the animals at the time and hadn’t even seen them. It made me wonder how many times I’d swum past one in my life without knowing it.
Back onboard, while I waited a good hour for my heart to slow to a normal beat, I watched the sharks circle the boat, mesmerized by the gentle rhythm of their bodies, the effortlessness of their movements, the sheer size of their torpedo-like shapes. If I ever had any doubt as to where humans rank on the food chain in terms of natural ability to defend ourselves against other predators, it was erased in minutes. I’m starting to think even a guppy could best us in the right environment. We are useless against the rest of the natural world without our man-made tools. And sometimes I think we all need to remind ourselves of that when we as a species try to play God and lord over all the other animals on our little blue and green ball of fun.
For the next hour or so, while I waited to find out if I would be able to go back in the water for a second dive, I sat shivering, willing my body to stave off the seasickness that was creeping under my skin. My cousin, poor thing, didn’t fair as well on that front. When I caught up with her on the upper deck of the boat, she was wrapped in towels and wiping any residual breakfast that had resurfaced from her mouth. Luckily for me, I was so distracted by the several dozen emotions vying for top spot in my consciousness, I was completely distracted from potentially losing my breakfast.
Humbled, elated at being one of the privileged few to see a great white in its natural habitat, excited to finally meet this creature ‘in the flesh’, overwhelmed. I’m sure there were more but I just couldn’t quite wrap my head around them all, and I eventually gave up trying. What I did comprehend quite clearly was that there is nothing in this world that compares to living it. No amount of books, photos or articles; no countless documentaries can take the place of a single moment actually swimming with these creatures.
I’ve heard that the mind, once expanded, never goes back to its original size. Each time I see these creatures in real life, my mind is further blown to all new dimensions.
All rights reserved. ©2011 Jennifer Vitanzo