Oh, When the Shark Bites…

Sharks have never been my favorite sea life, even though I am a scuba diver from way back.  I won’t say how far back, but my original certification documents were lost in a fire at the PADI office sometime in the 1980’s. They were kept on microfilm, you see. All of this is to illustrate that I am generally very comfortable in and under the water. My selective fear of sharks is a result of my very first open-water dive in Cozumel, Mexico, so may moons ago. There I was, a newbie diver, trying to juggle fifty-plus pounds of bulky equipment and perform a perfect “giant-stride” entry off of the boat. Yeah, right. Grace was not my strong suit then, and it still isn’t. Instead, I splashed into the water with all of the finesse of a watermelon falling from a two story building. Mask askew and completely disoriented, I took a moment to get myself organized. When the bubbles cleared and I took my first breath of cold, compressed air, the first thing I saw were two shadowy figures about 50 feet away. Yes, they were sharks, and I was certain I was going to die.

Obviously, that did not happen. Duh.

Instead, the two sharks simply turned and swam away, and I was left with a permanent fear of those sleek, gray killing machines.  Well, maybe that is a little overdramatic, but I really, really don’t like sharks.  Apparently, I need to speak up more forcefully about my deepest fears, because what did my husband sign us up for on a romantic trip to Cape Town, South Africa?  Yes, Shark Cage Diving.  Just take me out back and shoot me.

But I’m a big girl and no hissy fits ensued.  However, I did start praying for bad weather, a broken down boat, a sudden onset of fever – anything to avoid getting into the freezing cold South African water where you are guaranteed there will be sharks. Keep in mind, these are not little sissy sharks, we would be in the water with Great Whites.  They make movies about such beasts.  Oh, and by the way, I really, really don’t like cold water either.

The day came for our trip and we arrived in Cape Town to beautiful weather.  Darn it.  We were scheduled to go diving early the next morning. My husband in his wisdom had planned it early in the trip, bless him, so we could get it over with and then enjoy our vacation. Upon arrival to our hotel, the concierge told us our dive had been cancelled due to a very windy forecast for the next day. Oh, joy! I tried hard not to break out in a happy dance. Then she said they had rescheduled it for the following day, which was forecasted to be perfect weather. Crap.  Now I had another twenty-four hours to fret.

We spent our now free day enjoying the beauty of Cape Town, including a tram ride up to the top of Table Mountain.  It really is a lovely city, very clean and modern – and cheap. Cape Town has very reasonable prices for hotels, restaurants and shopping, especially when compared to Luanda or most major European cities. Here are a few photos of the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront area and Table Mountain:

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Beautiful Table Mountain with a view of our hotel, the Cape Grace.
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Lovely view from our room at the Cape Grace. My yacht is the big, white one – in my next life…
The tram to the top of Table Mountain.  The floor rotates so everyone has a great view on the way up!
The tram to the top of Table Mountain. The floor rotates so everyone has a great view on the way up!
The view from the top!
The view from the top!
There is a trail to the top for those people with excessive amounts of time and energy.
There is a trail to the top for those people with excessive amounts of time and energy.
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One of a very interesting group of characters.
My hubby, the King of the Hill.
My hubby, the King of the Hill.

The next morning, my prayers went unanswered as we awoke to a clear, calm day. Hubby made it clear that Shark Cage Diving had always been very high on his bucket list, so I finally decided to fake a smile and go along.  This act was not entirely altruistic, I must admit. I’m still hoping for diamonds as a reward.

We were picked up at our hotel along with a group of four quite rotund British tourists, two women and two men.  I don’t say this to be in any way derogatory, but I was certain that the tour company would not have wet suits large enough to fit either of the men.  Already waiting in the van, was a very quiet Indian couple, who had planned this excursion for the wife’s birthday.  She seemed particularly excited and he, well, looked about as excited as I was. It was a two hour drive to where the boat would be picking us up in Gansbaai.  Along the way, we learned that only one of the British men was planning to dive.  The rest of the group was only along to take pictures. I breathed a sigh of relief to know that we would not be crammed into a cage with them, lovely and friendly as they were.

When we arrived at the pick up spot, it became clear that the number of people on the boat was going to far exceed the people in our little van.  No less that forty people were gathering to board.  They served us a small breakfast, and showed a short introductory film about the dive.  Then, they sized us up individually for our wet suits, masks and booties.  While we were waiting our turn for sizing, I overheard our Indian friend ask one of the workers if they had any motion sickness medicine, which of course they did not. Uh-oh, with my luck, he will definitely be in the cage with us.

After everyone had been sized, they led us to the boat and we headed out to a pre-chosen spot to begin the dive.  The shark cage was already in the water and chum (that disgusting mix of fish parts, etc.) had already been churned around in the water prior to our arrival. Here are a few shots of the location and cage:

Our boat for our three-hour tour.  Just sit right back and you'll hear a tale, the tale of a fateful trip...
Our boat for our three-hour tour. Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale, the tale of a fateful trip…
Attaching the cage to the boat.
Attaching the cage to the boat.

Who’s first, we all wondered.  The crew began calling out names, handing out our wet suits and putting us into groups.  Luckily, we were not in the first batch.  I needed to see if they survived before I stuck my tootsies into that water.  As the first group entered the cage, the crew tossed a batch of dead fish tied to the end of a rope into the water.  They also had a wooden form that supposedly looked like a small seal, at least to a shark.  Within minutes, the first sharks arrived as the crew taunted them with the fish-on-a-rope.  As the sharks got close to the fish, the crew yanked it away, in an effort to draw the sharks closer to the cage.

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Here fishy-fishy…
A game of "catch the fish" between the crew and the sharks...
A game of “catch the fish” between the crew and the sharks…
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Almost got it!

Each time, as the shark got close to the cage, the crew yelled “Down, left!” or “Down, right!” so the people in the cage could go underwater to see the sharks up close.  This was all very exciting to watch from above, as we could see what was coming and doubted the people in the cage had any idea.

Finally, it was our turn to enter the cage.  We wriggled into our wet-suits and took the plunge.  The water, although quite cold, actually felt refreshing after the effort of cramming my sweaty body into a too-tight suit.  As predicted, immediately to my left was my green-around-the-gills Indian friend and his wife, grinning with glee.

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Taking our turn as lunch in a cage…

The first shark approached and we dove under the water to see the impending jaws of death.  Instead, we saw this:

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The only thing visible in the murky water were the small bait fish attracted by the chum in the water.

Again and again, we held our breath and dove down, trying in vain to capture a photo of a full set of teeth.  This was the best photo we got:

If you squint and look closely, you can make out the shape of the back end of a shark.  Not exactly a National Geographic worthy photo, but proof nonetheless..
If you squint and look closely, you can make out the shape of the back end of a shark. Not exactly a National Geographic worthy photo, but proof nonetheless..

The entire twenty or thirty minutes we were in the cage, our Indian friend shivered so violently that it was actually shaking the cage, all the while saying, “C-c-cold, I’m so c-c-cold.”  Poor guy, I don’t think he got much out of the experience.  His wife was freezing as well.  She asked to be let out of the cage early when it became clear that the best views were above the water anyway.

When our time was up, we all climbed out of the cage and the next group climbed in behind us.  Immediately after they closed the cage, a huge and very fast shark managed to grab the fish-on-a-rope. A vicious tug-of-war ensued, as the shark thrashed and spun about, slamming into the cage.

This group got a little more excitement than we did, which was A-OK with me!
This group got a little more excitement than we did, which was A-OK with me!

There were several more groups to follow.  At one point, I looked down to see our very large British friend taking his turn in the cage. Unfortunately for his fellow cage-members, he was doing his own version of chumming the water. Enough said about that, but I was hugely thankful that I was not in there with him.

All in all, it was a fun and very interesting day and not as scary as I expected.  Despite all of my fretting about sharks and cold water, the scariest thing about the whole experience was knowing that if I ever were fool enough to go swimming in that freezing water again, there would be no way to see a shark coming. That and the prospect of the crew pouring chum directly onto the people in the cage, which does happen occasionally, I’m told.

When we got back to shore, they previewed a short video that one of the crew had made during our trip.  I had not noticed him filming, the sneaky guy.  Of course, we bought a copy so we can relive our day, especially if we ever need a reminder NOT to go swimming while in South Africa.

© 2015 Cheryl – All Rights Reserved

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