Travel South Africa: The great white
The marine biologist stands in front of an empty cage on the veranda for the safety briefing and demonstration that all shark-cage diving trips must start with.
“Okay folks. Please listen to the safety instructions very carefully. The first thing we will do is get into the cage. You must always stand upright, and only support your hands with the bar in front of the cage. If you are tall, there is a bar at the back of the cage where you can put your feet so you don’t float in the cage,” she says, before adding that we shouldn’t move around the cage or remove our hands from the bar in the front of the cage.
We are still on land, in Gansbaai in the Western Cape, and I’m already in trouble. I’m five feet tall and can’t be still for more than a few seconds, especially my hands – it’s as if they were made to fidget.
“Right,” she continues. “Now that we all know how not to act in the cage, we’ll get to the fun part. We are going to go to Dyer Island, where the sharks usually are, and hook a bait so they come to the cage.”
I have walked with lions as if they are puppies, and petted cheetah the way I would my cats in the morning. I’ve thrown myself over a bridge at the world’s largest bungee jump and cooled down rafting Grade 5 rapids. Yet my taste for fun – which often starts with signing an indemnity form – has never been enough to make me face my ultimate adrenalin high. I will be catching waves with a species that has teeth that can bite through steel and intentionally dislocates its jaw to accommodate larger prey. Then again, what’s steel and self-harm to an animal that starts its life by eating its weaker siblings?
We walk across the street to the pier, where our boat has been loaded with water, wetsuits, snacks and lollipops – suitable for a sugar high that gets our heartbeats racing. The 15-minute cruise to the island is pleasant, even with the choppy water and a few rough waves.
When the boat stops, the crew put bait on the hook. “The sharks should be here soon,” one of the crew members says to our group. We are divided into two groups of six. I’m in the second group, which gives me enough time to eat my anxiety. It’s not too late for me to change my mind for the third time this year. However, the money has been paid and, most importantly, the pre-diving tweets were sent out – it’s now or never.
I get into my wetsuit, wear my goggles, and climb into the cage. Minutes later, four sharks circle around the cage before chasing the bait that’s being pulled in our direction, bringing us face to face with the sharks. In an instant, one of the sharks swims directly towards me, and for a few seconds, I come right in front of it. I almost want to reach out my hand to touch it. I don’t, and I can’t, but it’s a beautiful moment that’s worth the mental anguish I put myself through to get over my fear of being underwater. Despite our initial nerves, the close encounter with sharks was quite exhilarating.
This article first appeared in the April 2018 print edition of The Africa Report magazine