Getting real with Great White Sharks in South Africa
Close shark encounters by Edward Johnston
Getting prepared on the boat by Edward Johnston
South Africa is weird. It’s a place that dupes you, especially if it’s your first time in the country. You see, growing up, I watched all the wildlife documentaries: the wildebeest migration across the great plains, lion kills under acacia trees, the great rains, the sweeping deserts – you get the idea. Together, they all swirled into a mess of exotic excitement that always ended in me wondering who on earth ever got to visit Africa.
So when I finally realized this dream and landed in Cape Town, imagine my surprise when I discovered that it’s pretty much just a normal city. Except herein lies the great dupe. Land in a city like Cape Town (or Johannesburg or Durban, for that matter) and one is immediately bombarded with skyscrapers, festivals, arts districts, fashion events, gourmet restaurants and traffic jams galore. You think to yourself, “So this is Africa”, which more of a question than a statement because while you’re shocked by Cape Town’s San Francisco-like qualities, there’s also a creeping disappointed that scenes from Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” aren’t playing out. This is Africa, so where are the dangerous animals, crazy jungles and native villages? Where is the wild and crazy Africa shown on all those documentaries?
Well, if you’re ever in this position and having this thought, I urge you to exercise a little patience. Arriving at my hostel, I just happened to come across a flyer for Great White shark cage-diving and excitedly, I made a last minute booking to partake in a day of promised adventure.
Early the next morning, long before the sun had risen, a driver from the White Shark Co. picked-up both myself and fellow travelers from around the city. We headed two-hours east of Cape Town, arriving at a small inlet referred to as Gansbaai, jumped onto a boat and cruised out into the bay, searching for the greatest predator in the sea.
What I realize now, is that it took just 24 hours for the Great Continent to make its move. Its urban-cover was blown and the ‘real’ Africa was about to make itself known.
Before I knew it, I was parked in the middle of the bay, bobbing about in a fishing boat designed for only a handful of people. The crew greased the water with two tiny sacks of fish liver and instructed us to, well, wait. Rolling over the waves, my stare was transfixed deep into the water, waiting, wondering and hoping to catch just a glimpse of the legendary Great White shark. I was excited but didn’t want to get too carried away as part of the tour-briefing included a blurb about how, “Sharks are wild, unpredictable animals, offering no guarantee of seeing even a single one.” True to my nature, I wanted to avoid getting all hyped-up for my cage-diving adventure and then wind up going home with a big, fat nothing. So there I stood, on edge, with a knot in my stomach both from anticipation and from the fear of disappointment.
The grinding knot in my stomach didn’t last long. In fact, it not only went away but was blown to shreds by the show Mother Nature put on that day. Within an hour on the boat, the first ‘visitor’ arrived and it all unfolded just like in the movies. A dark shape, a slicing dorsal and the slow, deliberate movement of a tail as a 13-foot Great White cruised slowly by, inspecting the boat. “Quick, into the cage”, shouted our tour guide. And with that, we scrambled into our wetsuits and dropped ourselves into the steel cage and murky depths of the water. It wasn’t until a little more time had passed that we discovered the water was actually infested with sharks – all of them Great Whites.
In fact, in the span of just four hours, a total of 36 Great Whites flocked to the area around the shark-cage. All of this, hot-on-the-heals of “… no guarantee of seeing even a single one.” Not that I’m complaining, as seeing that many Great Whites, never mind in such a short span of time, is a life-changing event. For four hours, I was gripped with fear, exhilaration and sweaty from it all. Minutes would go by where I swear not a single breath was taken. Honestly, there was one massive shark that rose out of the depths and with the confidence that only an apex predator can have, rolled itself onto its side – bringing a large, black, unblinking eye out of the water – and just proceeded to slowly circle the boat, looking up at us the whole time. It was unbelievable – a moment that I will never forget and that was only on the boat, waiting for my turn in the cage.
The actual cage-diving was phenomenal as well, with shark after shark being lured in by fish livers and a giant tuna head, dangling just out of reach. In the cage, I would just stare into the abyss and then suddenly, in complete silence, a flash of white teeth would break through the aquamarine and come straight for me, veering away at the last second to avoid a collision. While I would never venture to swim with Great Whites outside a steel cage, there is still something very primeval about seeing the gnash of a beast’s jaws just inches from your face. It’s adventure tourism to-the-max and an experience that I would have paid many times more for.
Driving back to Cape Town at the end of the day, dead with exhaustion from relentless surges of adrenaline, was when the realization hit me: South Africa dupes you. The cities make you think that Africa has wimped out and become like everywhere else. But this is not the case. All you need to do is go for a drive and a crazy adventure is bound to come up – like what I came across just a few hours away in a little town called Gansbaai – home of the Great White shark.
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