Shark Diving, Cape Town

And I SO wish that the “clear blue water” picture above was mine. It’s not.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

It’s Saturday morning and I’m packing my stuff again. I’m getting very good at this. There is now an official place for everything and before I zip the bag – everything is in its place.

It’s been a great week in Cape Town.  I went to dinner at good local restaurants – finished a book – toured several museums and historical buildings – met many interesting people and walked and walked and walked some more.   I’ve emailed friends and skyped with family (when the connection worked) –  I’ve organized photos and tried to wrap up my first month away on the blog.  Oh yes – and I went shark diving.  I’ll spend a few extra minutes on that experience just because I may need to remind myself one day that I did enjoy part of it.

“An old sailor once told me to always drink a beer before going out — regardless of the time.”

I am so glad I had not heard this piece of advice (sent to me by my friend Marnie Mead) before I left on the boat taking me to dive with the sharks. Most days, a beer will improve your day greatly – but not this day.

My shark diving experience began at 7 am when a lady named “Baby” arrived at my hotel to pick me up.  Along the way, we picked up two other gentlemen from Mexico who would be diving that day as well. At this time, swine flu was making its way through Mexico, so I was truly hoping that I wouldn’t hear any coughing from the back of the van. It was a two hour drive down the coast to a place called Gansbaai – the town from which our boat would be leaving.



shark 3

Shark 1

Another couple from Russia joined us making the grand total of divers on the boat – six.  The day started out O.K.  We received instructions on what to do and what not to do.  Sticking your hands out of the cage was a no no.  Like I was going to do that – but there will always be one in the crowd who thinks it’s a good idea – and limbs have been lost.

The sun was shining – the sky was blue (sort of) and off we went.  Twenty minutes into the trip – the sky turned black – huge dark clouds settled in and the waves began to rise.  It went downhill from there.

The waves were large enough to slow us down – which only seemed to make the up and down motion more extreme…up and down…up and down…up and down…  It didn’t take long for a little bit of seasickness to settle into the pit of my stomach and as I looked around at my little group – the same thing was happening to them.  None of them spoke english so I was just guessing they didn’t feel well by the nauseous looks on their faces.

We anchored the boat just off a small island that is home to thousands of fur seals a.k.a. breakfast, lunch and dinner for the sharks.  The guides handed out wet suits, booties and face masks. We all struggled into them while at the same time trying to remain upright against the rolling motion of the boat as the waves just pummeled us.

At this point – and for the first time in five weeks – I put the camera away. If I had to look through that camera lens – I would have lost it over the edge of the boat and I have NEVER thrown up over the side of a boat. But there’s a first time for everything. They dropped the cage into the water and brought it around to the side of the boat where it was lashed tightly and securely.

Note below the color of the water I’m about to get into is a far cry from the brilliant blue of the feature photo at the to of the blog post. And this is the last photo I took on the shark dive.

shark 4

After the cage was secured, we waited…and waited…and waited.  Thirty minutes or so later and none of us feeling any better…the first shark was spotted.  Our guides had been throwing shark bait over the sides of the boat – blood, guts and scales of something nasty – to attract the sharks and it worked.  They told us to get into the cage and prepare to dive.

I should explain the cage. It fits four people. There is an inner rail to hold onto with your hands and another one at the bottom to latch your feet onto while you’re underwater to keep you close to the bottom of the cage and not floating around willy-nilly.  On either side, you are shoulder to shoulder with the person next to you.  There is about 3 feet below you and about 6 inches above you to the top of the cage.  This is not the place for you if you suffer at all from claustrophobia.  The general idea is that you float on the top of the water (your head is out) and when a shark is spotted from above…they yell to the group “Down!”  That’s when you take a deep breath and pull/push yourself down underwater to the bottom of the cage to see the shark swim by.  Now that doesn’t sound too bad does it? You can reference the feature picture at the top of this blog page for what the experience should be…

Here’s how it went down on that day.  Remember those choppy seas at the start of the journey?  Well they’re now 6 ft waves and they are crashing into the boat.  While it was bad on deck…in the water it was worst.  Every time the boat went up, so did the cage.

Up and down…up and down…crash…bang…whoops now we’re sideways. Back down…keep hands and feet in cage…will get crushed between boat and cage.  Where in the hell is the horizon?  I MUST see the horizon…going to be sick…can only see the waves from my vantage point of IN THE WATER.  Going to be sick…focus on something…there’s the bouy with the live bait on it…look away…look away!

Then we hear the words “Down!”. I take a deep breath and pull myself down under water and there’s a shark!  It’s a small shark…but it’s a shark.  We come back up for air.  We float for another five minutes…waiting for another shark.  Water has begun it’s slow insidious creep into the wet suit and it is no longer warm.  I’ve swallowed some salt water which is exacerbating my seasickness and my mask has fogged up.  I’m in a cage, in the ocean, with three people I don’t know.  None of us looks at the other…we stare straight ahead…I believe…straining to see that damn horizon.

At that point, I had to chuckle to myself.  This is one of those really wild moments when you look around and think…I can’t believe I’m here in this place at this moment.

I unfogged my mask…ignore the cold water and my upset stomach…and wait for my next shark sighting.  Several more times we went down and saw small sharks.  But then on the 5th or 6th dive down…the big boys showed up!  The first sighting was the best.  The shark was huge and it swam by us the entire length of the cage – not quite touching the cage – only inches away causing a vibration against the rails. The shark turned its head slightly and eyeballed me – just like the shark at the Aquarium!  Then it swam away – flicking it’s tail at the cage as it went!

I remember saying “holy shit” under water and again when I came back up.  Our guide later told me that every American he’s ever taken out says the same thing each time they come to the surface. It’s an Americanism.

We stayed in the water for a half an hour and then got back on the boat.  I got the mask off just in time before I ran for the rail and lost my breakfast – followed immediately by the other three people in the cage.  I have officially thrown up overboard.

Though exhausted and still a little sick, we were all excited about the cage dive.  It was awesome on a crappy day – I can only imagine how it is on a beautiful day!  I’ll go down again some day. As I said earlier…there are no photos or video of this trip.  Even the videographer had a hell of a time keeping his camera steady. The rocking of the boat kept him from getting any good video…as we saw later back on shore.  So you’ll just have to imagine the cage diving trip.  I know that I’ll never forget it myself!

So, here I am, wrapping up my stay in Cape Town.  I’m off to start my next volunteer project and ready to meet new people and little meercats!  This journey just keeps getting better every day and I wake up every morning feeling so lucky to be here!  Onward and cheers everyone!

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