Cape Town Trip: Face To Face With Jaws

Posted on January 12, 2013


Shark Cage Diving, Mossel Bay, South Africa

If we spent yesterday among the manifestation of the Lion King, today we spent the morning on Discovery Channel’s Shark Week. In fact, this entire coastline-from Cape Town to the east-is used to get footage for the week’s shows. Our mini-cation to the town of Wilderness (ironically awesome name, eh?) consisted of a body surfing at a beach where many (many) deaths occured last year (without our knowledge, of course), staying surfside at a beautiful b&b, and was capped off with a reservation for Cass and I to dive with great white sharks. I can’t be this close to an opportunity to cage-dive with the most dangerous animal on the planet, and not do it… right?

Shark Cage Diving, Mossel Bay, South AfricaIt can be said that humans don’t belong in water. It’s not where we flourish as part of the animal kingdom; perhaps because we yield the top of the food chain to those more apt. Further, logic tells you that when not in your appropriate environment, be smart and safe. Again, I can’t pass up an opportunity to seek out one of the most dangerous animal on the planet with minimal protection, and not do it… right?

So all of us, including our personal taxi driver Reagan, woke up at dawn and took us to the shores of Mossel Bay. We registered at White Shark Africa, grabbed a cup of coffee, and attempted to gather the courage needed to willingly go swimming with Great Whites. Within an hour, I’d be underwater with the predators. …and all their teeth.

The metal cage was approximately 15 feet wide, 3 feet thick, and 10 feet tall and held 6 divers at a time floating shoulder-to-Shark Cage Diving, Mossel Bay, South Africashoulder. It was built with vertical metal rods, slightly thinner than rebar, placed about 3-4 inches apart. It had three levels of horizontal metal handles placed inside the cage to prevent any loss of digit, limb, or whatever else that may get within reach of the beast. To be honest, it added up to be quite less than what most of us would consider ‘protection’ against such a formidable creature.

In practice, it was attached off the side of the boat with 1-2 feet of cage extending above the surface. None of us needed to be scuba certified, or even provide proof of our swimming capability for that matter, as we simply floated above the surface of the water until a Great White was approaching. A nonchalant ‘down’ call from a crewman would signal the divers to push themselves under water.

Shark Cage Diving, Mossel Bay, South AfricaWe sipped our poorly constructed instant coffee and watched an informative video on the shark population, study, and behavior of the Mossel Bay sharks. This didn’t serve to scare the whits out of us, but more to illustrate and inform us on the wonder of these amazing animals. After, our guide walked us through some of the dangers, prompted us on the fact that these are wild animals and there is no guarantee to see any, ad gave us the most delightfully half-hearted pep-talk I’ve ever been witness to. Imagine a hung-over assembly line worker explaining the soul-crushing monotony of their job. It was awesome and a little bit hilarious considering the situation.

Morning overcast was hanging low as the 12 of us and four crewmen bounced our way to the other side of the bay in a vulnerably small sized boat. The far beach approached… and approached… and then approached to an uncomfortably close distance, probably 1/4 to 1/2 mile away-out of the reach of swimmers, but probably swimmable at the same time. It was close enough that we could easily make out the people on the beach… makes me nervous about ever swimming in the Indian Ocean ever again.Shark Cage Diving, Mossel Bay, South Africa

We slowed quite a bit as a member of the crew started tossing small buckets of brown-colored liquid into the water. About 5 of these scoops, less than a couple of eager minutes, and we spotted our first Jaws. Someone on the top deck spotted a disturbance of water just below the surface; I turned my head just in time to see the fin rise out of the water–silent and composed. From the nothingness of open water materialized a shadow half the size of the boat, approximately 15-18 feet in length. Our collective pulse heightened.

A few more minutes of chumming the water lead to a second shadow and the crew tossed in some bait. Attached to a rope was a small float and two large fish heads, designed to lure the sharks within 1 meter of the cage to be viewed by the divers. The heads barely reached the water when the crewman yanked the rope backwards. The first shark rose out of the water, mere feet from the side of the boat, teeth exposed in an attack on the bait. The clarity of its jaws, purity of its eyes, and power of its structure were felt by everyone. It was time…

Shark Cage Diving, Mossel Bay, South AfricaThe first six grabbed wetsuits from the cabin and nervously dressed. I opted to see what this whole thing was about before diving in. Sharks encircling the boat, each person climbed overboard and into the minimal protection of the cage.

The action was instant and heavy. Predatory fins rose above the water; shadows of grace lurked in the blue. Each creature that passed attacked the bait with the instantaneous ferocity captured so well by all those professional film crews. Jaws lives.

Roughly 30 minutes in the water and the second set of divers was called, the team that included me. I was given a black wetsuit with a hood and ominous rips in the thigh and shoulder. I tried to dismiss them as age or mishandling, but deep down I know a shark encounter was behind those tears… I just know it. My heart was racing, hands fidgety, as I pulled on my suit and grabbed a mask from a diver in the previous group. The second one in the cage, I grabbed a middle position in the cage. I figured that if anything goes awry, those on the ends are likely the first to go.Shark Cage Diving, Mossel Bay, South Africa

The first bait was tossed in the water about 5 feet from the cage. Hundreds of cute little fish swarmed the bait, scurrying about just beneath the surface.

“Down! In front!” The crewman said.

I quickly caught the triangular nose of the white shark before it lurched at the bait. He was swimming directly at me. The bait was yanked just out his reached, but his momentum sent him careening directly into the cage. I was eye to eye with it–maybe 2 feet away. As I realized he was continuing to come in my direction, I recoiled one of my hands and pulled my knees to my chest in some kind of fetal-ninja-like pose. The other hand pushed against the inside bar trying to get as much ocean between me and the shark. I could do nothing more than scream and curse, and push that bar as hard as I could. It must have been a sight to see.

Locking eyes for only a moment, its nose pointed to my left and it just vanished; a powerfully simple movement. Its vertical tail fin must have been nearly 4 feet in height–the last thing I caught just before the blue regained its control.

Shark Cage Diving, Mossel Bay, South AfricaOne thing that I learned about myself, if a shark happens to be the end of me, know that I went down in a 4-alarm blaze of the fetal position, teenage-girl yelp defense strategy. My very own personal Shock and Awe campaign. Yeah, that shark will have to work for its meal if it’s the unlucky one that chooses me.

One after another, I would dip my head under the surface to see this incredibly graceful beast materialize from nothing, drift passed us, then dissolve into the abyss as silently and quickly as it appeared. I couldn’t, and still can’t truly wrap my mind around being there, immersed in the beauty and commanding power so delicately controlled. It never got old; it never became redundant. I stayed in the water for nearly 45 minutes, staying in for a second round of diver exchanges when a space opened up. The onslaught of aggresive passes as the bait and pinpoint acuracy continued.

Just as the sky darkened and rain began to fall, a white shark shot from the abyss in our direction and snaShark Cage Diving, Mossel Bay, South Africagged the bait. The force of his attack took him right to the cage, teeth bared, and fish blood running down his jowels. The point of his nose rested on top of the cage as he thrashed and wretched trying to pry the bait from the rope. The pink of his gums exposed less than an arm’s length away from me. I came out of the water to see the action better. The cage rattled against the fiberglass boat. Through the whitewater, I saw the deep black of its eye… Two quick chops down freed the morsel. A twist of his body sent a powerful pulse through the cage. One flick of his tail and it was gone.

The top flew open. “That’s it for the day, let’s get you all out of there.”

I was face-to-face with the Great White Shark. Another sentence I never thought I’d write.