Swimming With Sharks In South Africa

I made it!! I went shark cage diving on Wednesday and I have returned to Stellenbosch with all 10 fingers, 10 toes, 2 arms, 2 legs and 1 head. In fact, I came back without even a scratch! I wasn't exactly sure how I was going to feel seeing sharks so up close and personal, but I can honestly say that it was one of the coolest things that I have ever done in my life. So here's how the day went.

Ready to get in the waterWe got picked up in front of our apartments by a man from a company called White Shark Projects. There was around 12 or so kids from my program that went. We drove two hours to Gansbaai, South Africa. Wednesday has been the only day, thus far, that was cloudy and kind of cold (maybe 60º – I know – I'm very spoiled). It even rained a little along the way. But, the drive was still beautiful and we saw lots of mountains and got a little bit of a closer look at more rural life in South Africa. When we arrived, they fed us breakfast and then we got on a boat and headed into the Straits of Dyer Island. By this time the sky cleared, there was a nice breeze and the day turned out to be very nice. We got boated out about 15 minutes and anchored at the cage which was already there from their morning trip. We had barely been anchored 30 seconds, when a shark swam by!! It was right there, about 6 feet away. It just swam by like it was no big deal. But was a huge deal!!! That was when the excitement really started to build. We got a brief lecture about using our heads and not doing anything stupid like sticking our hands out of the cage – and then we got started. The cage was maybe 3 feet by 8 feet and went down in the water 7 or so feet. The cage was attached to the boat and the top 18 inches were above the water. That was where it stayed. I had thought that we were going to be put in a cage and dropped down into the water, but this arrangement seemed much safer! I also had thought we were going to get a bunch of scuba gear to help us breathe underwater, but they used a simple breath-holding method. There was a red bar inside of the cage that was used to pull the body down. There was another bar at the bottom that you could hook your feet around to help you stay down. You simply took a great big breath, pulled yourself down, looked around and came up for air when necessary. Because the water is actually kind of cold, they gave us wet suits, hoods and booties to help us stay a little warmer. We got masks to help us see

We got into the cage 5 at a time. The first group that went got to see a lot because the shark kept swimming by. The second group saw it a few times, but were in the water waiting for a long time. I was in the third group and we had one of the best turns. In the beginning, the shark was about 10 or 12 feet in front of the cage. I was definitely struggling to see it, but I saw it maybe 3 or 4 times. It usually just swam by the bait (whole tuna heads on a line attached to a float) or just swam by down a little deeper. The water was pretty clear, but I just couldn't see it. There was also a huge school of fish that hung out in front of our cage that were blocking the view and were also very distracting. We waited for a while and nothing happened. It was getting really cold and 2 of the girls got out. I almost did, but I wanted to see the shark one more time. I am so glad that I decided to stay. The girls had barely gotten out of the cage, when the crew member with the bait yelled for us to go down. I'm not exactly sure what happened then, but all I know is that the shark was literally in front of our faces. I think it had grabbed onto the bait and to kind of flailing around, but it's belly was right there. It even hit our cage at one point!! We got a few more good looks, but nothing as exciting as that. Although it was really exhilarating to see the shark so close, it was still really neat to see them above water. At one point, when the last group was going, the shark lifted its head out of the water and we got to see one of its eyes. That was really creepy, but awesome! Throughout the day, we saw 5 different Great White Sharks. I know at least one of them was female. They ranged from 2.3 to 3.7ish meters. We went during the low season for shark visibility. The winter time here (so June to September) is the peak season.

After about 4 hours, we headed back to shore, got back into our bus and drove the two hours back home. None of us could really believe what we had just done, but we all decided that it was totally awesome!! For the rest of the evening, we raved about the experience and made jokes about only having 9 fingers left or nearly getting attacked. At the spontaneous braai that happens nearly every night, we convinced a bunch of other people that the experience was definitely worth it.

Some Fun Facts!!

  • South Africa is known as a shark "hot spot" and the densest population was in Dyer Island, South Africa (which is where we were)
  • Great White's have the longest recorded migratory range of any marine creature
  • One shark was recorded going 22,000 km from Dyer Island to Australia in 9 months
  • Sharks are at the very top of the food chain – they are known as apex predators
  • Their average length is 6m (18feet)
  • They lead relatively lonely and solitary lives
  • Sharks detect electrical fields made by marine creatures which helps them locate prey
  • Sharks are ovoviviparous – this means that eggs grow inside of the female, hatch there and grow for a while until they are ready to be born
  • Great White Sharks as well as the sharks in general are super endangered
  • The company that we went through does research about shark population size and sex while giving tourists a great experiences
  • They also work with other groups to work to protect this amazing species
  • Sharks are caught as by-catch and are killed for their dorsal fin

On a more serious note – on our drive to and from, we saw some more of the Township life, with precarious houses that look super unfit to live in, high population density, trash and just an overall sense of poor sanitation and underdevelopment.  I saw men and children picking through a trash pile on the side of the road.  Also, I have witnessed a young man picking out of a trash can and saving what looked to be someone else's leftovers in a plastic container.  This was totally new to me, and a little discomforting.  I'm not sure what the women in this picture are waiting for, or if they just needed a rest in the shade that is ever so rare, but it has been very interesting to see a little bit of how the rest of the population (not just university students) lives.  It has made me even more interested in learning more and given me the desire to do a Township homestay for a few nights.

Throughout the whole day, Finding Nemo references were made.  Although I kept my eyes peeled, I didn't see Bruce – the shark.  I know it's kind of the wrong area to be looking, but as sharks are very migratory, I thought I would try.

 So, in conclusion – some wise words: I am a nice shark, not a mindless eating machine. If I am to change this image, I must first change myself. Fish are friends, not food.
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