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November 25th 2007 by Aaron & Tina

Posted under Africa & South Africa

Next time you’re bored at work and surfing the internet, do a Google search on “Seal Island” and see why we couldn’t pass up the chance to cage dive with Great White sharks off the coast of South Africa. A friend of ours from Fort Worth had emailed us a link to Seal Island before we began our trip and our jaws literally dropped! Maybe we’ve seen the Jaws movies too many times…or maybe not enough. But the idea of getting into a floating metal cage in close proximity to one of the world’s most fascinating and feared animals is definitely at the top of the ultimate thrill charts. We had to go for it!

We departed by minibus just before five a.m. for the two hour drive southeast to the coastal city of Gansbaai. “Shark Alley” is located approximately 10 km off-shore where there is a shallow channel that runs between Dyer Island and Geyser Rock; it is known worldwide as a premier location for viewing Great Whites. The islands are home to African penguins, numerous bird species, and a huge colony of Cape Fur Seals, which are coincidentally a white shark dietary staple.

On the way to the harbor, we faithfully downed our Dramamine in preparation for the rough open water waves and the corresponding seasickness that awaited us. But as we began our voyage to Shark Alley, we met a picture-perfect sunny day with calm seas and exceptional visibility. Our captain said that this would be one of the finest days of the year. We continued to our destination – a spot of shallow, open water near Shark Alley, where we anchored and began our safety briefing. The deck hands began “chumming”, dumping a mixture of fish parts, sea water, and scented oil concentrate overboard to create an oily “chum slick”, an aromatic highway which would lead the white sharks to the fish head bait dangling from our boat.

Shark cage diving is not for the faint of heart. For those (Tina) who detest the cold in every way, shape and form (except for Christmas and skiing, of course), the magnitude of physical discomfort can almost equal the thrill of the experience. It’s certainly intimidating to get into a five-person steel cage with 5-meter man eaters swimming around but that’s just the beginning. The water is absolutely frigid, about 57 degrees F, and the cage, tethered to the boat with a couple of ropes, thrashes up and down in the rolling ocean waves. We each wore 7 mm wetsuits with hoods and boots, but that kept the chill away for all of about 30 seconds. As soon as we hit the water, the shivering would begin and it only subsided when a white shark would swim by, inciting a massive release of adrenaline.

Contrary to popular belief, white sharks have very little interest in humans and they are often difficult to lure close enough for viewing, even with fresh meat bobbing on the surface. Most of the encounters we have with sharks are accidental and the shark bites that occur are simply a result of an interested shark trying to figure out whether we would make a good meal or not. Ninety-nine percent of the time, white sharks move on once they’ve determined that we are not a part of their diet, leaving the stunned (and probably maimed – look at the jaws on that thing!) surfer or swimmer to return to shore for medical attention. White sharks regularly devour Cape Fur Seals in under a minute so it seems reasonable that if they really wanted to eat us, they would. However these facts do little to quell the fears of my wife, who grew up obsessively and repeatedly watching all of the Jaws movies ensuring that her fear of sharks, and the ocean in general, was deeply ingrained in the depths of her psyche. Somehow, as an adult, she has become a fearless scuba diver and less tentative ocean swimmer, and it was her initial prodding that led us to participate in this crazy excursion.

Tina was one of the first people in the cage. Someone else might interpret her eagerness as courage or excitement, but I knew that she was dreading the cold water and that if she didn’t get in immediately, she might lose her nerve and decide to remain in the relative comfort of the windy, rocking boat. About three-quarters of the cage is submerged and each diver is fitted with a mask and a weight belt, to counteract the buoyancy of the wetsuit and salt water. Almost immediately we sighted a shark, and as I watched from the boat, Tina and the other four people in the cage were instructed to submerge themselves for as long as they could, hold their breath, and watch as the shark swam within arms-length of the cage, investigating the bait dangling down from the surface. Just before the shark reached the dangling fish heads, the deck hand would yank the bait away, thereby luring the shark into a mouth-open lunge right outside the cage! Not knowing how many more white sharks, if any, that we would see, I quickly slipped into my own wet suit and got into the cage next to Tina. The water visibility was exceptional and each time a Great White would swim by it was amazing to watch the power and agility with which the giant creature maneuvered through the water.

Since Tina immediately established that her hands were too cold to function in the water, I dutifully assumed the task of trying to photograph these elusive animals as they randomly appeared and then disappeared in a span of about five seconds. The deck hands would spot a shark approaching and yell for us to get down in the cage; I would hold my breath and submerge myself by pulling on one of the handles below within the cage. I would hurriedly begin locating the shark on the LCD camera screen, trying to avoid the external bars of the cage, and wait for the right time to snap a picture knowing that the 2-second delay for my camera to reset would likely mean that I would only get one shot.

We use a Canon Digital Elph camera with an underwater case, which has enabled us to capture most of our amazing underwater adventures. But like most point-and-shoot cameras, it has a processing lag that is infuriating when trying to capture multiple images of a moving object. For the first round of cage diving, each participant stayed in the cage for about fifteen minutes to ensure that everyone got to see a shark. After that first round, we were allowed to stay in the cage for as long as we could stand it over the next two hours. Determined to get a good shot (and because one shark continually appeared every five minutes), I stayed in the water for more than 45 consecutive minutes while almost everyone else remained on the boat. When I finally emerged from the water, I was completely numb! During our four hours at sea we had at least twenty white shark sightings! It was incredible!

With all passengers bundled up in warm clothes, we sped over to Seal Island and watched as hundreds of Cape Fur Seals frolicked and played in the shallow water and sunned themselves on the island. The seals were safe in this area, according to our guide, because the water was too shallow for the sharks to get under them and attack from below. With a seemingly carefree attitude the sleek-bodied seals flipped and dove in the water, curiously swam up to our boat, and let out their official Chewbacca growls – yes, that famous Wookie rattle is the sound of a seal growl! Who knew? One thing we didn’t realize about seals until we were right on top of them is how intensely awful they smell…like a thousand toilets! The guide suggested that we intentionally take in one strong whiff at the beginning, which would supposedly help us stand the stench. I don’t know about anyone else but it didn’t work for me. We lurked around Seal Island for about thirty minutes and that was twenty minutes too long!

We didn’t catch any sharks springing into the air with seals in their jaws but the overall experience was phenomenal nonetheless. The chilly discomfort would preclude us from ever doing it again but, after swimming with Jaws, we feel an even greater sense of fearlessness. Cage diving with Great White Sharks…check! What’s next?


5 Responses to “Jaws”

  1. Johh S on 26 Nov 2007 at 12:31 pm #

    Damn! You guys are fearless. What’s next, skydiving without parachutes? Anywho, glad you’re finally having some fun on this adventure. Glad to hear Thanksgiving was good too. Traditional mexican fair–good Texans. ;b

    Just an update, Greek Festival in Fort Worth did quite well this month. We broke a record with $120,000 gross income, and the place was packed. They spent a lot more on advertising, so the net may be the same–but still, great attendance.

    I just baptised my third Godson this past weekend (Jerry and Stacy’s little boy, Andrew). Which reminds me, you still attending Church Aaron?? Hmmm? Don’t make me come over there.

  2. Jack Bush on 28 Nov 2007 at 8:12 am #

    Great Stories!! Sounds like you have a great time!

    Happy Birthday Aaron!!


  3. Mark on 28 Nov 2007 at 12:22 pm #

    Scary. Terrifying. Reminds me of a girl i once knew…

  4. Little Sister Natalie on 02 Dec 2007 at 10:22 am #

    Bum bum…bum bum…bum bum…bum bum bum bum bum bum bum bum bum bum bum…aaaahhhh! “I think we’re going to need a bigger boat…” Papou would be so proud – but he would be covering his eyes during these pictures!

    Counting down the days until Christmas! Love you!

  5. Julie Speed on 07 Dec 2007 at 12:32 pm #

    Oh my goodness! I just saw the ‘Jaws’ chapter of your adventure…jealousy is off the charts! How amazing is that! I know you guys keep hearing this over and over, but WOW! I’m so glad to see that your itinerary has changed to come home for Christmas. Be SAFE!