It’s 6:43 AM and I’ve been awake for an hour. Annie’s still asleep. Likely still dreaming of sharks. Yes, really. In a few minutes, I’ll wake her up and she’ll recount her dream to me, which more often than not, involves her saving me from a shark, or her being attacked by a shark, or some such combination. She’ll recount it in vivid detail and it will further explain her very real fear of sharks.
I don’t remember my dreams. Not often anyway. And when I do, they’re usually stressful (some call these nightmares)… but last night I dreamt of sharks.
Big, Great White Sharks, circling near a reef, at which I was surfing. Alone.
I kept popping my head underwater to see them, and as one approached, I’d shove my board towards it. Somehow, I was able to then swim backwards. This repeated several times, me, trying to fight AND take flight until I woke up.
Today, soon, that dream – being face to face with a White Shark – becomes a reality. All the time I’ve spent in the ocean, the hours bobbing around waiting for waves thinking there might be knowing there is probably some kind of shark, somewhere in the water below me, and today I’ll finally see the ocean’s apex predator, up close and personal.
Of course, I’ll be in a cage, provided by professionals here in South Africa — THE place for shark cage diving — but it still carries a lot of intense feelings.
I’m not scared. In fact, I love sharks. I have since I was a child. My best friend Lisa and I used to watch Jaws everyday after school, and could recite the Latin names for the most common species. I wore a tiger shark tooth necklace for most of elementary school, and as recently as last year took the time to draw this.
So I am excited. After all, I’ve been dreaming of doing this someday since my first glimpse of Shark Week, but my excitement is muted by feelings of apprehension. See, there’s a strong debate as to whether or not shark cage diving is “bad.” The argument is that it trains sharks to associate boats with food, because the tour companies put chum in the water to attract the sharks. And they do this just about daily. And that likely attracts more sharks closer to shore (and thus closer to people). Fair argument.
So the debate was, fulfill lifelong dream, or abstain on principle. Annie and I debated it with ourselves for months leading up to it. I read articles for and against. Talked to friends, weighed the pros/cons and ultimately pulled the trigger, with the logic that not participating isn’t going to change anything about the industry, but participating may help us learn more about these misunderstood creatures, and the ways in which we (humans) interact with them.
// After the dive //
… Our tour started at the Great White House in Gansbaai, with Marine Dynamics, the arguable leader in shark cage diving for the region, known for their conservation efforts. There we had breakfast, a safety briefing, and most importantly, some education on the importance of research and conservation efforts in the area. Our group was accompanied by a marine biologist, who was great at explaining their methods and the shark behaviors, identities etc.
Our purpose-built boat, Slashfin, was lowered off its trailer into the water that morning. Upon inquiring with the Captain as to why a boat so big used outboard motors, I was happy to learn that no boats are allowed to anchor in the bay, nor are there any permanent slips, so as not to destroy the ecosystem below. A pain for the tour companies, but a great move for the sustainability of the shallow habitat.
Given the season and the conditions (strong winds), we couldn’t visit “Shark Alley” at Dyer Island, but instead headed to a spot just offshore from a white-sand beach, where we picked up a mooring and prepared to get in the water.
“There is a shark around.” Said one of the crew. How he definitively knew that is beyond me, but I believed him.
Guess it was the smell. As soon as we stopped, the chum, um, manager? Chum technician? The guy next to the chum, started chumming the water. Chum is essentially just fish oils and seawater, meant to attract sharks with scent, but not actually provide any food.
Additionally, the crew threw out a line, with a buoy/float with a couple large fish-heads attached. Again, the sharks are attracted to the scent, but the picked over fish heads aren’t really a meal for them. They prefer fatty seals.
So we also had a seal decoy, a small wooden silhouette of a seal that we floated on a line at the surface.
And the surface was about all we could see in the water. Visibility was just a few feet below… but that didn’t matter when our first shark broke the surface for a look at the seal decoy.
In a splash, we saw its long, grey body take an investigative nibble towards the decoy.
And then it was gone.
The sea was back to its tranquil turquoise.
Soon some of the group was in the cage, in the very cold water, awaiting the shark’s return.
More sharks emerged from (seemingly) nowhere. You don’t see their dorsal fin approaching (à la Jaws), and particularly in this murky water, the sharks were briefly a shadow before becoming reality.
Our turn to go in the cage. We didn’t have regulators (scuba) or snorkels. Just masks and a wetsuit. You simply hold your breath and drop down to see what you can see.
We jumped in, and waited…
“Down front! Down front!” The spotter yelled from the boat.
The first shark appeared and disappeared in an instant. A shadowy phantom just reminding us of its presence, and its ability to appear from any direction, at any time. How a three meter shark does this, while forty tourists and crew are looking for it, is baffling, and as a surfer, pretty unsettling. The, “don’t surf in murky water” warning just got a lot more practical.
The shark makes another pass, this time much closer to the cage. I frantically try to see it below and above the water simultaneously. At this, I essentially fail, but I see enough of its size, and power, to get the rush one feels when close to an apex predator with this kind of reputation.
The sharks are so fast, appearing out of nowhere, taking a sniff or a bite at the decoy, and then disappearing again, that we only catch glimpses of them at a time. Additionally, Marine Dynamics does not proactively lure them right next to the cage itself. They want the sharks nearby, but not actually biting the cage as you see on Shark Week. That’s asking for an injured diver, and possibly, an injured shark.
That being said, a couple of the sharks do get very close to one end of the cage. The screams and giggles from the others in the cage with us are pretty fun, but I’m still waiting for something more… unfortunately, our time in the cage is up, and the third group hops in.
That’s when we see “Steamtrain.”
“Steamtrain” is a female Great White over five meters long. For the Americans among us, that’s almost seventeen feet. Her length is impressive, but her girth is staggering. She is MASSIVE.
And yet she still maintains the stealth of all of her smaller peers.
I am perched on the upper deck, with a perfect view, DSLR in hand, snapping photos like a madman. From above, I can see her dark figure approach more clearly, and do my best to help call it out to the divers, but she still surprises us often enough as she sniffs around.
She makes a pass by the cage which helps display her length, and everyone inside screams with fright and excitement.
Keen to get closer, I drop down to the lower deck, and position myself just above the cage, at the door opening, and train my lens on the decoy, which she seemed to favorite.
Minutes later, with a rush of water, she busts through the surface and snags the decoy, snapping the line to which it is tied, and then disappearing below. I got off a series of shots just after her bite, and am proud when the on-board biologist is impressed with my work (maybe there’s still hope for me as a National Geographic photographer…).
The biologist points out that the shark’s eyes are open, which means she is calm. This is later reaffirmed by the PhD shark researcher we spoke with afterward. Apparently, this demonstrates that she’s more curious than aggressive here. When sharks are actually attacking prey, they roll their eyes back in their head to protect them, like so.
Steamtrain continued to entertain this group and the next, before submerging for good. We headed back to shore for a debrief with the PhD, watched the video shot by the crew, and discussed what we saw.
So what to make of all of this? On the one hand, Marine Dynamics seems to be extremely professional, to care about the sharks and their habitat, and is disciplined in their practice. On the other, chumming/baiting clearly attracts the sharks, Steamtrain snagged the decoy off the line, and she (or another shark, I forget) ate the fish-heads, too.*
Discussing this after everyone left with Laurie Towner, resident PhD, helped.
She explained that Steamtrain was clearly in “curious” mode because of her eyes being open. She also explained that it was very rare to see a shark of Steamtrain’s size/age around their boats. Contrary to popular assumption, the sharks actually learn to dissociate food with the boats. Swimming up there and checking out the scene is too much work, and too little reward (after all, she ate a wooden decoy and a couple fish heads… not exactly a filling meal). So usually the tours attract some curious younger sharks, and then the sharks get wise and focus on hunting seals.
Finally, we discussed their efforts to research the sharks, how hard, how expensive, and how little they really know, still.
Walking away from the whole experience, we felt we had a much better understanding. Remember, I’ve been fascinated with sharks since I was a kid, but until you see an animal in its natural habitat, until you understand its behaviors for yourself, you’re depending on mediated portrayals.
I am not saying that I have no fear of sharks.
What I am saying, is that this experience confirmed my theory that getting “attacked” by a shark is much more a stroke of incredibly bad luck, than anything the media portrays, or any hype you hear from surfers. They’re not vicious killing machines. They are curious animals with a lot more power (and teeth), and we, surfers, happen to be floating around in their environment. The likeliness of getting “attacked,” to me, is a function of probability – being in the wrong place at the wrong time – and there are some basic best practices you can follow to avoid an encounter.**
Sure, there are counter-examples. Mick Fanning wasn’t surfing alone at J Bay, and there are plenty of photos of sharks swimming near shore at beaches in Florida etc, but the numbers are still in your favor. In fact, your daily driving commute is extremely more dangerous than your daily surf.
Or for an African comparison, a lot more people are killed by hippos annually than sharks. But there was never a movie called “Hippo,” to plant that seed of fear in our minds.
So, I still love sharks. Even more so now, and I would love to dive with sharks again in the future. After our dive, I was a bit calmer approaching new surf breaks in “sharky” Cape Town, and we even helped support a marine conservation trust in the area that protects shark habitat and funds their research. The more data we collect, the more we can understand the importance of sharks in our oceans, and dispel the myths surrounding this awesome creature.
* Our experience was only with Marine Dynamics. To be fair, there are several shark tour companies in the area and from what I’ve heard, some lean a bit more cowboy than conservationist.
** Here are a few common sense guidelines on how to avoid sharks while surfing. Take all with a grain of salt and use your best judgment:
- Don’t surf alone. The more the merrier. This kinda sucked for me here because Annie opted out of a few sessions, so I had to try to make friends at secluded breaks (even boogie boarders), but it was an excuse to meet locals, so it’s not all bad.
- Don’t surf in murky water. Hard to gauge if you’re surfing a beachie with a lot of froth and sand in the water, but use your best judgment.
- Don’t surf near a river mouth. River mouths are like fish highways and sharks chill at the intersection like state troopers ready to pick off a meal.
- Don’t surf dawn patrol or sunset sessions. I know, that’s when there are less crowds (but see #1), and that’s when the light is beautiful, but that’s also when sharks are less visible to their prey (and you look like prey). That being said, an attack can happen anytime of day. Sharks eat when they’re hungry. Duh.
- Don’t surf near fishermen/boats. That’s like jumping into fish broth.
- Catch more waves, dummy. No one was ever attacked Sharknado-style while ripping through a barrel.