Diving with great whites

Swellendam, South Africa

The drive to Gansbaai would take no more than 90 minutes, Katherine, the owner of Akademie, told me this morning. My trip with Shark Cage Diving was leaving at 10 a.m., so promptly at 8:30 a.m., it was time for me to hit the road. Katherine’s directions there were spot on — her time estimate, not so much.

By 10 a.m., I’d still not arrived in Hermanus, the whale watching capital of the world, and the site of a Saturday morning marathon that detoured me on rural back roads. The last half hour south to Gansbaai and Danger Point was a haul; for a good portion of it, a Jeep Grand Cherokee kept on my tail. It followed me into the parking lot at nearly 11 a.m. “Brian. Brian McFarlane,” the guy said. “Captain. Don’t worry, this boat isn’t going anywhere without me.”

Apparently, the 10 a.m. departure was South African time — meaning it wouldn’t get going until 11 or so. After signing a waiver and listing my next of kin (“Have you gone diving before?” I asked the woman handling the paperwork. “Not a chance,” she replied), we watched a brief safety demonstration, were handed bright orange slickers and were next speeding away from shore into the choppy Indian Ocean.

We settled on a spot and dropped anchor. Chum, consisting of mashed tuna (“Bloody and oily attracts ‘em,” yelled one of the first mates), was tossed into the water while the cage was attached to the side of the boat. Meanwhile, a floating seal decoy and a chunk of fish were set out as bait.

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And then the wait began.

It was like fishing, Captain Brian explained, only we were fishing for great white sharks, the fiercest predator of the ocean, and instead of hooking them, we only wanted to view them in a near-death experience.

And then the wait continued.

And continued.

We attracted several sharks but none stuck around long enough for us to enter the cage. Several folks on the boat succumbed to seasickness and had to take a zodiac back to shore. Meanwhile, we moved to a different spot in pursuit of the sharks.

As the hours ticked by, we started to grow restless. Then, suddenly, after 4 hours at sea, came a shout, “SHARK!” A great white, nearly 10 feet in length, was swimming furiously around the boat. We quickly jumped into the cage as the bait brought the monster even closer.

Watching from underneath the water, the bait was pulled close to the cage and the shark forcefully lunged to grab it. In doing so, it somehow managed to wedge its snout in the bars of the cage directly in front of me. For a few seconds, it thrashed furiously to free itself, rocking the cage as we all hung on for dear life. Freed, he took off and we all surfaced with a scream.

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Terrifying.

After returning to shore, it was about a 90 minute drive through the rolling countryside to Swellendam, a small town that is the gateway to the Garden Route. Much of the way, it was just me and the road.

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My accommodation here was at Rothman Manor, which hooked me up with Suite Africa, overlooking the pool and with radiant heat in the bathroom.

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It was a quiet night. The pizza place next door served up a solid Mediterranean thin crust with olives, peppers, onions, sun dried tomatoes and chicken. After, there was time to ponder my brush with death.

Fun times.

(Some of these photos are courtesy of Flickr user coessensbart who went on the same trip. Unfortunately, it wasn’t possible for me to take any while in the cage.)

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