I have to confess: Previous to last month I’m afraid my general feeling about sharks – the great white, in particular – was that they are not an easy to like species of fish. Like everyone, I’ve seen Jaws. Not like everyone I have a partner who is genuinely terrified by the notion of the shark. Take them or leave them? The latter, I have to say.
Not good – considering my work. I’m supposed to be a myth breaker, an educator, one of wild Africa’s friends. I know this. Which is why, when on a South African educational last month, much of which was spent in my particular comfort zone, in and among the wonders of the likes of the Grootbos Nature Reserve, I was determined to front up and make what for the few is considered something of a pilgrimage: do a shark-cage dive off Seal Island.
Now, if you’ve seen Jaws, and you are my partner, then this really is not a good idea. You’ll remember a cage and the untimely death of one of the key characters. Also, despite everyone I met while in South Africa ranking cage-diving a bucket list definite, I couldn’t for the life of me find anyone who had actually done it! Nonetheless, the die was cast. The trip was booked. I was going. And I was in the company of a great friend. We would support each other.
All of which is the long way round of saying that cage diving among great whites is one of the most exhilarating experiences I have ever had. Briefly, after a short trip out, during which we were fortunate enough to spot the diving fin of a bryde whale, the cage was lowered, the water baited (chunks of meat and a dummy seal) and we waited. Within half an hour 5 sharks were swimming in circles about the boat and the cage – juveniles, but certainly the biggest fish I’ve ever been within spitting distance of.
It’s exciting enough to see them from the boat’s deck, but once in the cage, wet-suited up, just goggles, weights around our middles and using inside-cage horizontal bars to hold on to, the experience of being among a clutch of great whites takes on a truly visceral quality. Sometimes close enough to touch, the visibility reasonable, I remember especially their eyes, as black as buttons, of looking into them and seeing, well, nothing – nothing, at least, I can put into words. If you’re after touching the primal, then this is it: looking into a great white’s eyes is like looking into deep past, prehistory, a time before humans. They’re very old and very alien.
Amazing. So amazing, in fact, that when some of our group opted out of the cage experience, my friend and I took the opportunity to dive again. I have now done what very few would ever choose to do – twice. And I’d do it again – at the drop of a hat. The great white is an extraordinary animal, and being around one – safe but also close enough to get an acute sense of it in its natural environment – is mind-blowingly different. If you get the chance, go: you won’t regret it.