We had no idea that we were visiting Cape Town during low season for sharks. Good news if you want to swim at the beach, bad news if you want to get close to them and be within arm’s reach of those wicked teeth. We fall into the latter category. Since we’ll have to travel a few hours to get to Gansbaai, one of the top 5 shark diving spots in the world, our pick up at the hotel is 4 A.M. That hurts as much as a chomp from Jaws will…and since there are a few stomach butterflies accompanying this trip (and uncertainty about bathroom availability on the boat), we brave the pre-dawn without coffee.
We are diving with White Shark Projects (www.whitesharkprojects.co.za), not only one of the more respected shark diving companies, but one that is superbly committed to conservation and protection of the species. It’s not just the photos of Ricky Martin diving with them that make us feel welcome, it is also the genuine warmth of the staff and team of international volunteers who all seem to really love this work (even if the work is making chum in a garbage can from tuna parts, fish blood, sea water, and anchovy oil). The sea is rough and more than one of our tiny band is hanging his head over the side as the team readies the cage and, once we’ve anchored, tosses chum. We are warned that shark sightings can be rare or not happen at all, and if they do, it can take hours for one to find the scent trail and approach the boat. Even then, they may pass quickly and move on.
The animal gods continue to smile on us, because within ten minutes a shark is surging at the fish head tied to a rope they use as enticement. We hurry, as best you can hurry with a seven-millimeter, skintight wetsuit, and enter the closet-sized cage lashed to the boat’s side. The cage will stay here, with our heads bobbing above the freezing Atlantic waters, and when those on deck spot a shark approaching, they shout “Down, down, down” and we take a gulp of air and pull ourselves down to the bottom of the cage, keeping fingers inside (a lucky thing as one time the approaching apex predator grabs the bars at chest level with his teeth). Five or more young adult sharks (12-18 feet long) spend the next two hours emerging from the murky green water, and while a full boat can afford only a 15-20-minute spell in the cage per guest, our group is small enough that everyone can stay in as long as they want—it is nearly two hours later before I reluctantly climb out. We decide, in spite of some earlier trepidation, if ever shark diving is available anywhere we travel, we will absolutely signup.