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Trip Report South Africa, Eye To Eye With “Jaws”

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I hardly need an external alarm clock to wake up at Hermanus Backpackers Hostel as I have been excited all night about today's event. For R$995, not only have I received one night's accommodation in one of the coolest hostels but I have also paid for what should be an exhilarating adventure.

By 6:15am I am on the road again headed southwest. It is a beautiful drive through sleepy coastal communities then an open road along the ocean front with towering mountains to my left. I am headed to the fishing village of Gansbaai about an hour's drive from Hermanus.

Just of the coast of Gansbaai is Dyer Island along with an area known as “Shark Alley”. This area has the largest population of Great White sharks in the world and it is where a lot of the famous Discovery Channel's “Shark Week” footage is shot.

I arrive at White Shark Ecoventures around 7:30am where a light breakfast is being served as others are being signed up for today's outing, shark cage diving with “The Great White”. It is comforting to see that I might not be the only possible victim. While having breakfast a safety briefing is given and about US$140 is paid for the adventure.

I watch as our boat is being prepared then we climb on board before it is launched into the water with the help of a tractor. Our dive site is about a 15 minute boat ride away towards the notable Dyer Island. Interestingly, this time of the year the best sightings for the Great White are away from Dyer Island. Not surprising, the sharks are more popular there during the birthing season for resident penguins and seals.

Although the forecast is for strong southerly winds, the sea is relatively calm with light swells as we drop anchor in about thirty feet of water. Somewhere out there we hope an interest has been taken in our arrival.

On the upper deck of the boat we are given more information of what to expect from our experience. The upper deck is the best place to see the sharks approaching because unlike in the movies, there is no soundtrack and no dorsal fins sticking high up out of the water to give you heads up.

Today, the water visibility is good but our guide prefers it to be a little less. This way, once we are in the water we cannot see the shark approaching until it is almost too late. As we wait, the crew members setup the shark cage we will be using and they also bait the water to attract the sharks to our location. About five large tuna fish heads along with a drizzling of a bloody fish mixture into the water is a part of this process.

It is less than ten minutes before our first visitor shows up. We are collectively awed and excited by it's arrival. The time has come to make it feel welcomed. A few of us head downstairs in our wet suits to be a part of the first welcoming committee.

The water is at first startling frigid as I enter the cage where I bounce up and down with the sea swell. A diving weighted belt is placed across my shoulder to help deal with the problem. However, I still have more buoyancy than I thought I ever had. I always knew I was light on my feet just not this light.

There are five of us in the cage and we wait for instructions from the boat to go below the surface of the water. “Down, down, down”. I take a quick deep breath and for a few amazing seconds, I watch as one of the most feared animals crashes into our cage and swims just mere feet away from me. I now have even more goose bumps inside my wetsuit. I can see why we were earlier given warnings not to reach out of the cage and scratch it's belly. The temptation is there but all of us wisely resist it.

Back on the surface we are all sharing our excitement as we wait for a repeat of the previous instructions, “Down, down, down”.

Another submersion and I have one of the quickest and most awesome experience I have ever had. I can clearly see as much as the underwater visibility allows, as a huge Great White goes after the hooked tuna fish heads. A full set of razor sharp teeth are exposed as it charges the bait and creates a bubbling surge in the cold ocean water. More goose bumps and exhilarating excitement.

With about twenty other passenger on board, we are rotated out of the cage and I get to witness this amazing animal in action from a different perspective.

Soon we have more than one visitor which we are told is uncommon. We can tell they are different because of their visible scars and markings. At one point, we determine that there has been at least four different ones. Most of these sharks the smallest of which has been about ten feet are all considered juveniles. The larger adults won't waste their time or energy going after the bait that we are offering.

Waiting my turn for a second visit to the cage, I watch as a shark appears out of nowhere and charges directly into the cage as other passengers are trying to get in. I think I hear some thrilling expletives as the shark momentarily continues to rattle the cage. Fortunately, the water around the cage does not change color but I cannot be sure about what happened to the water around the wetsuits below.

My second time in the cage is for sure as breathtaking as the first. The anticipation to have another encounter has become more relaxed and I feel like a seasoned shark diver. It is amazing to think I am floating in an area that has the highest Great White shark population in the world. Only a few bars of steel separates me from this fearsome creature but at the same time it allows me the chance to have an unforgettable experience.

“Down, down, down”. This time I take a more relaxed deep breath and remain submerged as a shark swims so close that I can look into it's black hole eye socket. I see no fear in it. I wonder what it sees in my eyes. I hope it sees, fascination, respect and amazement.

I have just had a close encounter with “Jaws” and I loved it.


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