I’m not afraid of sharks, but I used to be. When I was 16, I was diving in the Caribbean and I saw a shark underwater. It swam right by me, like I didn’t exist. It was then I realized sharks might not be the killing machines they are made out to be in the media. Since then I have developed a fascination for sharks, which in my mind are one of the most misunderstood animals out there.
When I found out I would be going to Cape Town, one of the few places in the world you can see great white sharks, I knew I had to see them. In fact the great white shark capital of the world Gansbaai, where I would go cage diving with these animals, was only a two-hour drive from Cape Town. Before I knew it, I was out on a 20-foot boat with nine other tourists, prepared to come face-to-face with a great white shark.
The water was a bright blue color, which made the dark shadow of the first great white of the day easy to spot. In fact, it took only five minutes until our dive master, Lalu, spotted the shark. Despite what the movies might make us think, Lalu informed us that these sharks stay below the surface, hiding their gray, fear-invoking fins, unless they are attacking a predator. Floating from a thick rope off the side of the boat was chum, a tuna fish head and a succulent mixture of fish blood and guts used to lure the sharks right to the side of the boat. The shark circled a couple times, before getting near to the chum. The deck hand pulled in the tuna head and threw it back out to entice the shark.
I hadn’t even put a toe in the water before it was time to jump into the three- foot wide steel cage suspended on the starboard side of the boat. Lalu stressed to us many times that great whites do not commonly attack humans, and the few attacks that do occur are a case of mistaken identity – people for fish. However he stressed even more the number one rule of the boat: do not stick hand or feet outside of the cage.
I waited, with my snorkel and facemask on top of my head, to get in so I could be the last one in, and therefore the first one out. I wasn’t afraid of the sharks, but rather the frigid water I was about to jump into, despite the 7 millimeter thick full-body wet suit I was wearing. Once four others were in the cage, I slid off the side of the boat into the cage submerged in the water, except for a one foot space at the top to catch our breath. My body went into shock from the 11 degrees Celsius water and the fact that a shark was swimming right for the cage. The dive master shouted, “Shark on the right, divers go down!” and I quickly submerged myself.
Underwater it was silent, even peaceful. There was no dramatic music, just silence, as a nine-foot great white shark swam slowly towards our cage. The five of us, squirming about in the cage watched in awe as 12 feet of gray muscle and white, razor sharp teeth swam so close that had rule number one not existed, we could have touched it.
Five seconds later, the shark had swum out of sight, and we came up for air. It was loud as everyone talked about the great sight we had all just witnessed for the first time. Even the other people on the boat were eagerly chattering about how close it had come to us. Twenty minutes passed, as did three more sharks, before I had had enough of the frigid water. Lalu opened up the cage, and another man helped me hoist myself out of the cage.
Watching these sharks in their natural habitat supported my notion that sharks are not ferocious, and they certainly aren’t out to kill mankind. I looked a great white shark in the eyes, but I still never felt scared. Perhaps it was the thick bars on the metal cage that blocked me from fear, but I couldn’t help but think that great whites really aren’t any different from other wild animals. Riding back to shore on the boat that day, I felt like this experience had given me more insight to the world of sharks, and a bit more understanding of how these great animals live. I can cross cage diving with great whites off my list, and move on to the next adventure.