What it feels like to come face-to-face with a Great White shark…

I’ve diagnosed myself with bronchitis.

This is because I’m far too time-starved lazy to locate a doctor out here in Cape Town. These days though, I find that Googling your symptoms is almost as effective as telling them to a GP, whose brain is basically just Google.

So I have got this hacking, spazzy cough which is so annoyingly constant, J flew off to London to avoid it (not strictly true).

I’m all alone now with my definitely-bronchitis – the result of a severe prolonged cold – and I blame the Great White sharks. Or rather, submerging myself into their freezing cold Atlantic habitat, in a cage, to gawp at them for half an hour.

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Here is a shark inspecting me, taken with a GoPro

On the grounds of animal welfare, I don’t like zoos and I most certainly don’t like aquariums, so the prospect of ME being the one behind bars to peer at them, felt very fair. And scary. And exciting.

As it happens (I know lots about sharks now) you can’t keep Great Whites in captivity even if you wanted to. They die very quickly in aquariums, probably out of sheer misery and distress.

So marine biologists know very little about them. A Great White has never been observed or filmed mating or giving birth, for example. We still don’t know how they get their rocks off.

What we do know is that if you whoosh off into the middle of the sea off the coast of Gansbaai, the most shark-infested waters in the world, release ‘chum’ – a mixture of enticing fish oils – into the water, and chuck around a fake seal made of wood, Great Whites will appear as if from nowhere.

I went with a really great company called Marine Dynamics which, in addition to two shark cage diving trips a day – 30-40 people on the ship, 6-8 people to a cage, taking it in turns – also runs a sanctuary for injured penguins, and studies sharks to help conserve them.

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I didn’t take this photo, but this is one of the actual sharks I saw jumping out of the water to catch the wooden seal, only I was underwater when it happened

So there I am, my heart thumping in my chest like a fucked clock (thank you Withnail), about to enter a small cage roped onto the side of a boat and plunge underwater to meet these, the scariest creatures on the face of the earth. Scariest apart from spiders, if you are me.

Disconcertingly, as I wobbled down the ladder into the cage, its lid flung open, a particularly frisky shark leapt out of the water behind me and sank its teeth into the wooden seal, fast as a firework, only feet away from my head.

“Can’t the shark leap into the top of the cage?!” I hissed. “I think you should close the lid!”

They laughed and assured me that, no, the shark would not leap in through the top of cage.

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Here I am in the cage (far right), which is tethered to the side of the boat

Thing is, they really don’t want to eat you. Shark attacks are very rare anomalies, despite what we are led to believe. When they do happen, it’s generally on swimmers or surfers who look a bit like they might be seals.

In these very, very, very rare cases (you’re 300 million times more likely to die in a car on the way the beach), the shark takes a chomp – maybe an arm or a chunk of leg – and then immediately spits it out when it tastes that you are not in fact a seal.

Great Whites are very picky eaters, you see. There was a cloud of juicy looking fish flittering nonchalantly around us for the duration of the four-hour boat trip, as well as a sizeable stingray, and to my surprise, no murder.

In fact, the boat’s videographer fell into the water just a few months ago after a shark tried to eat the GoPro off its pole, and all the Great Whites shot off, startled by his human splash, and didn’t re-appear for three days.

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Hyperventilating from fear and freezing cold

So back to the cage…. as the six other wetsuit-clad, mask-wearing cage divers slither in next to me and the lid clamps shut.

One minute in and I start hyperventilating; partly because the water was so shockingly freezing, partly because I have definitely-bronchitis, but mainly because the primitive wedge of my brain flooded the rational part with alarm signals.

The cage is set so that your head is just above the surface, but there are handrails a few feet under that, which you use to pull yourself underwater.

This way, you can observe the sharks swimming towards you underwater, and pop your head up when their noses shoot out of the water to attack the wooden seal – right in front of your amazed face.

The skippers on the boat, who can spot the sharks’ shadows slicing through the water from an impressive distance, periodically yell “down left!” or “down right!” and then we all plunge ourselves underwater and swivel our heads in unison to spot the beast, like a flock of gormless pigeons.

And here’s the surprising bit: Great Whites are really very beautiful, very elegant, very peaceful, very likeable, and not that scary.

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They have lots of rows of teeth, and they lose them all the time, burning through tens of thousands during one lifetime

Once I stopped hyperventilating, I was entranced. We saw adults the length of cars and young sharks the length of very small cars. They all appear alone, then dart off before the next arrives, because Great Whites are very solitary beings.

These mighty predators don’t seem interested in us or our cage at all. I thought they might try and bash into the bars in an attempt to eat us all alive, but they didn’t. They just glide past as we charge up and down to watch them.

One made eye contact with me. Or rather, its face came within inches of mine as it slid towards the surface to chomp on the wooden seal.

It was so utterly majestic and graceful, the urge to reach out my hand and stroke it as it went past was overwhelmingly strong. Obviously I didn’t.

I asked the marine biologist (chatty, American, tanned) why the sharks don’t get pissed off about the seal being wooden and swim off after a while.

She likened it to a kitten playing with a ball of thread. They know it’s not food, but the chase is rewarding and, especially for the young sharks, it’s good practise.

Here’s what they looked like in real life (and it’s much the same of they do on TV of course)…

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Great Whites swim around with their mouths open, like this

Their eyes are black and beady, but not soulless. Their steel grey skin is slashed with scars. Their fins glisten handsomely. And they swim with their mouths agape; not in a the manner of a dog bearing its teeth, more in the manner of you when you’ve just been to the dentist and you can’t shut your jaws because they’re numb from the anaesthetic.

Sharks have rows upon rows of jagged pointy teeth, with new ones constantly developing behind the front row, since they lose a few loosely-attached teeth every time they catch a seal.

We don’t know exactly how many gnashers they get through over an average lifespan but it’s estimated to be in the tens of thousands.

I saw these teeth very close-up. They were the size of (very pointy) dominos.

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The reason you can see a reflection is because all these photos are stills from the GoPro footage which I snapped with my phone. If that makes sense.

The cage session only became uncomfortable half an hour later, when I could no longer stand the cold. My wetsuit was flooded, my clenched fists were numb and my very humble-sized human teeth were chattering.

So they opened the lid (I was still not into this) and we clambered out and back onto the boat to be served hot chocolate. It took me a good hour to defrost. That was the only bad part.

The other bad part, for most people, is the sea sickness. MERCIFULLY, I don’t suffer from it all, but the waters are extremely choppy, the anchored boat sways like a tree in a hurricane, and plenty of the 40 souls onboard turned green.

And now onto the debate: is shark cage diving a good thing or a bad thing, for us and for them? And that depends on who you ask.

*If you don’t care about this sort of thing, I’ll bid you farewell at this point. Go off and make yourself a cup of tea*

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Under the surface, there are handrails in the cage which you use to pull yourself underwater

One friend of mine – Jack Sparrow, as I call him – informs me that the practice has greatly increased the number of shark attacks on humans in the Cape region.

I don’t feel in the least bit sorry for people who get attacked by animals of any sort. I mean, if Jack Sparrow was bitten in half by a shark I would feel very sorry for him I suppose, but that’s only because I like him as a human.

We already plunder the ocean, dunk toxic waste into it and haul all the fish out of it. The shark population, for one, has shrunk by 90% since 1950, largely because they are hunted for their fins. Just to make bloody shark fin soup (pun intended).

So when we – swimmers, divers, surfers – brazenly plop ourselves into their back gardens for a nice little dip periodically, and end up on their dinner plates, well… one small victory for sharks, the way I see it.

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Jaw-droppingly majestic, as it turns out

There are also internet murmurings about cage diving altering the sharks’ natural behaviour. No proof that this is, even if true, detrimental.

The Marine Dynamics team track these sharks with tiny GPS devices and use the twice-daily cage diving trips as an opportunity to monitor and study them.

They are currently on a mission to prove that their governmental status should be upgraded from ‘vulnerable’ to ‘endangered’, in a bid to bring in more hunting bans.

From what they’ve found so far, Great White numbers are far lower than previously estimated. This has nothing to do with cage diving and everything to do with fishing. 

The same sharks flock around the boat every time. They all have names. One regularly swims all the way to Australia, and back to hang around the cages in Gansbaai, in a matter of months, every year.

I’m no expert, and this is entirely my own limited perspective, but with all the horrific things we do to animals and their homes, every day, all around the world, I can’t see a single reason why shark cage diving shouldn’t be applauded.

It gives experience-greedy humans – who would otherwise be pressing their noses up against the glass of aquariums and paying to see killer whales perform circus tricks (I’m looking at you, Sea World!) – the chance to see these fascinating creatures in their own homes, on their own terms.

Here is a one-minute taster video of the dive. A proper edited version to follow. This is taken by a GoPro lowered into the sea beside my cage by a pole…

And on that note, I shall leave you.

I’m hunkering down and nursing my definitely-bronchitis at Ellerman House, a Cape Town hotel which in all its Englishness, feels very close to home.

Next post: J turns into some sort of spartan marine boss and hauls me up Lion’s Head mountain (with no sympathy for my definitely-bronchitis), I learn some things about wine (beyond just drinking and liking it), and I head down to Plett Bay to make friends with some monkeys…


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