Fright never revealed itself to us. Amazement, respect, giddy underwater screams- yes. But we never felt scared. Weird, considering great white sharks surrounded us, gnashing at tuna heads attached to the ends of bait lines and protruding their noses though the gaps in our metal cage.
White Shark Projects, winner of the International Ecotourism Award, focuses on the conservation of Great White Sharks through responsible tourism and research. In 1991 this company was instrumental in getting the species protected under South African law, as the population was on the verge of extinction. Even so, it is believed that only 3,500 great white sharks are left, partially because an adult shark jaw can make its owner $100,000 richer. This number of existing sharks puts the species at a higher risk of extinction than tigers, which are often thought of as one of the most endangered animals on the planet. Considering that a great white female needs to grow to 5 meters before she can breed for the first time, and she won’t reach sexual maturity until 15-20 years, sharks must outlive their biggest predator: humans. The maximum lifespan of these creatures is believed to be more than 30 years, keeping the ecosystems of the ocean in check the entire time. Seeing the efforts this organization makes to restore the population and keep the sea’s ecosystem balanced, we felt comfortable touring with them.
The waters where the Indian Ocean meets the Atlantic seemed decently calm at 6 am, but I dug into my stash of meds from around the world and found some expired motion sickness relief pills from Indonesia -hey, 2008 was a good year and it was better than nothing! We had heard horror stories about people who fed the sharks, with their sick bellies perched on the starboard side and I didn’t want to risk missing my turn in the cage due to nausea.
After a homemade breakfast and briefing, we boarded a double decker boat and drove for a short 20 minutes to the site. Since we were a bit sleepy due to waking at 3 am for the mini bus ride and taking the mystery pills, we chose to check out the scene from the top deck first instead of suiting up into 7 mm wetsuits as the first cage divers did.
From the boat’s second level we could spot a seal colony, the inhabitants lazily sunbathing on a rocky island. Because they had just given birth to their pups, our tour guides suspected this location would be infested with passing sharks, preying on easy, baby seal appetizers. Just to be sure, one of the deck hands threw a bucket of fish guts and anchovy oil overboard to tempt the sharks. And did that work well! In ten minute’s time, a three-meter-long shadow appeared, circled our boat and eventually lurked closer to the tuna head bait. Because this organization doesn’t want to feed the sharks artificially, the ship mate yanked in the bait rope, luring the shark closer to the five tourists in the cage. But the female great white was hungrier than anticipated and propelled out of the water to grab the bait. Although White Shark Projects tries not to feed the sharks, these creatures can swim in bursts of 50-60 km/ hour and sometimes are too quick for the deckhand to yank away the bait. See our video, taken from the top deck!
Soon we were wriggling into wet suits ourselves and sliding into icy waters, barred in next to the boat.
The cage lid closed about 3 feet above the water level, giving us plenty of space to breathe until instructed to dunk under water to witness passing sharks. Fitted with goggles, we practiced the dunk, keeping hands off the outside bars and peering out at hundreds of fish. The school swarmed our cage, swirling in formation and loving the cocktail of fish guts and oyster sauce that was meant to draw in the big guys! After we had no air left in our lungs, we popped back up to wait for the real deal. About 4 minutes later, the captain shouted, “Dunk down. Down. DOWN!” with a quick breath, we submerged ourselves and saw a beast right before our eyes. Her mouth was slightly curved in a smirk, giving the impression that she could have us if she wanted us badly enough. But she swam by peacefully, drifting close to the bait but never actually attacking it. She was saving her energy. We stayed in the cage for approximately 30 minutes, by the end feeling hands numb and chilled from the water dripping through our wet suits. In this time, we dipped down 14 or 15 times to see spectacular Discovery channel shows, the largest star being a four-meter Great White female.
Because every activity we do seems to need a bit of drama, the last dip was the most exciting. Under water, we glanced toward the bait where a sassy shark grabbed the fish head in her tremendous jaw and swam with the line around the back of the metal cage. Suddenly, we felt a bit out of sorts, as our cage rattled and rocked . The shark was now behind us, under the boat, and had wrapped us like a present with the bait line ribbon. We rocked and shook. She finally detached the fish head and swam to the depths of the ocean, with one last flick of her enormous tail, jolting our cage for the finale. We came up breathless, and the captain said that was enough! With big shivers and bigger smiles, we crawled safely back on board, where we were served sodas, sandwiches and chips and taken back to shore for hot soup and a viewing of our group’s professionally shot video.
Many thanks to those who donated to our sea turtle conservation. Because we had extra funds after working with turtles in Bali, we were able to use the remainder for this ocean adventure and contribute to White Shark Projects’ endeavors.