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Cape Town Part 4: Surviving My Shark Encounter…

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          I’m pleased to say that I have bravely battled no fewer than 12 great white sharks and I have lived to tell the tale. And I survived with all limbs and digits intact! What a hero.

          So I may potentially be embellishing the truth a little… But I did go diving with 4.5 metre-long great white sharks last Thursday (there may have also been a cage involved, but that doesn’t sound quite as daring!). The coast to the east of Cape Town is notoriously one of the best places in the world to encounter sharks in the world, and I was obviously going to take a dip with them myself. I did once see a non-human eating shark while scuba diving in the Caribbean, but I felt like I couldn’t pass up the chance to meet a real killer shark face-to-face and up-close.

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          The day started early when I was picked up at 5:45am to be driven at least 2 hours to Gansbaai. En route we did even spot a group of three southern right whales! After breakfast at Marine Dymanics and after reassuringly hearing that only 5-10 people die per year from shark attacks (compared to 400 toaster-related deaths per year), we boarded the boat named Slashfin, after one of the bay’s more unusual sharks. We headed to Joubertsdam, a spot where three or four research boats were tracking sharks and we began to “chum”. “Chumming” involves creating a delightful concoction of fish guts, fish oil and sea water and releasing it into the water to give the sharks “the scent”. They also throw out bait of four or five tuna heads (see the photo below, literally my idea of a worst nightmare – I dislike all fish) and a decoy seal-shaped piece of wood. Both the bait and the decoy are attached to rope that two men continuously pull in and throw back out, teasing the sharks and drawing them close to the cage. Soon enough some smaller sharks arrived one after another and there was a huge flurry of excitement. From talking to the captain Hennie I learnt that it’s best to wait to be in the second or third group in the cage, and that the best spot is in the far right-hand corner as you have two sides to look through, and you’re nearest the bait.

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          This also means that you’re closer to the chum (above), and I don’t want to think about how much of the fish guts I ended up ingesting! The man throwing out the bait also took to slamming the tuna heads against the cage, provoking a lot of squeals on my part which only encouraged him further!

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          So the cage is pretty deep, long and narrow, and it fits eight people in a row. As I said, I managed to obtain the coveted place in the right-hand corner and I got really up close and personal with the sharks, one of which was aptly named “Little Fishy”. We were in the Atlantic Ocean and even through a top-to-toe wetsuit it’s pretty chilly water, about 10°C, but the adrenaline keeps you warm. Due to the time of year the visibility underwater was limited to 2 metres, meaning that the sharks suddenly loomed out of nowhere and took us by surprise! I cannot transmit on paper how exciting it is when you see your first shark up close! It was absolutely exhilarating and by far the coolest thing I have down in a while. I’ve been trying to find an analogy to give you a good idea of what it’s like, but it’s so unlike anything else! I felt excited but oddly not scared – the cage seemed very safe. But nothing can prepare you for how big the great white sharks are. And their teeth are immense! They even look like they’re smiling!

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          From underwater we saw them jump and crash down, thrash around in the water, ram and headbutt the cage, hit the cage with their tails and chomp down on the bait or the decoy if they were fast enough. I was lucky and managed to have a second go in the cage, this time on the left-hand side, so I spent around 40 minutes in the water with these big fellas. At one point I and the Norwegian guy next to me both broke the cardinal rule and stuck our hands out of the cage to try to touch the shark’s tail – we literally missed him by only 10cm! God, the adrenaline was pumping and it was so so so exciting. I cannot tell you enough – you must must do it! You feel truly alive in the water with these beasts, whose dark black eyes stare you down.

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         And last but not least, on our return to shore we passed an island that is home to approximately 60,000 seals! It certainly does look cosy, and as someone remarked, something similar to a fast food restaurant for sharks!

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          I went cage diving with Marine Dynamics and would really recommend them, as their crew are absolutely lovely and have a great sense of humour, as well as several years’ experience of taking people cage diving with sharks. They publish a daily blog about their trips, and a picture of me actually features on their blog post for Thursday here. They are also looking for volunteers for between 1-4 weeks to help out with their volunteer research programme – an opportunity that looks fascinating. A big thank you especially to two of the lovely crew onboard the boat, Hennie Otto and Nicola Stelluto, for providing some of these photos, as their cameras were far superior to mine for action shots of the sharks!

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         Are you tempted to go cage diving with sharks or would you never dream of it? Most people I spoke to thought I was mad, but there are a few daredevils out there too!

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