Shark Week Dreams Realized

(this post written during Shark Week 2010)

Every summer for the past several years, I set aside an entire week of my life to watch hour after hour of Discovery Channel’s beloved Shark Week. In celebration of this week just so happening to be Shark Week, I am thrilled to report that the past several years’ yearning after an opportunity to meet the sharks in their own habitat finally materialized a few weeks ago in False Bay, just south of Cape Town, South Africa.

As if shark cage diving along one of the world’s most beautiful coastlines wasn’t enough, I would be meeting the big boys and girls of the ocean—the Great Whites. My flat mate and I arrived at the dock by 6:45am just before sunrise, and I couldn’t believe who greeted us and escorted us onto his personal boat… it was none other than South African shark guru Chris Fallows. My flat mate had reserved our tickets ahead of time, and apparently hasn’t been religiously watching Shark Week the past few years like the rest of us, because the names Chris and Monique Fallows as the owners and directors of the Apex Shark Expeditions company hadn’t rung a bell. I was so excited simply to have been invited along that I didn’t ask any questions, and when the big day finally came, I couldn’t believe my luck when I saw who my host was to be.

Just five minutes into the boat ride, I had pretty much talked Chris’s ear off with all my giddy questions. I picked up some tidbits about the Great Whites that I didn’t yet know from the TV programs, such as them having an extra transparent eyelid to protect the eyes from scratching prey while making an attack. My favorite snippet though was this one— Chris taught us about why the Great White females are significantly larger than the males. I sat wide-eyed with chills under my Gore-tex coat and hat with earflaps tied under my chin (it was winter in South Africa) while he explained that the females need to be big in order to accommodate all the action going on inside their wombs; that is, that some of their shark babies eat some of the other shark babies while developing in the womb… “survival of the fittest” takes on a whole new meaning. The rest of the boat tour was no less enthralling and eye opening.

Just after sunrise Chris dropped anchor alongside Seal Island, a mere five nautical miles from where I had begun learning to surf in Muizenberg. This hunting area along the shores of the overflowing seal colony would be the best place to see some Great Whites, yet several hours went by before the first shark even came up alongside our boat to say hello. The shark’s delay actually pleased Chris, as he was happy to show us that the sharks aren’t just always hanging out lurking below the surface, ready to swarm any unsuspecting boat. The rest of the day’s events further supported his lesson in the sharks’ overall lack of interest in a human snack, as we had to use a battle-worn seal-shaped decoy named Spartacus, who is made out of a piece of grey carpet, in order to attract the sharks’ attention to get them to check us out.

After several hours of jealously watching six or so others taking their turns getting in the cage to get a closer look at the sharks, it was finally my turn to put on my stunning full-body wet suit complete with hood and booties. A few minutes after listening to my teeth chatter in the frigid water, a “baby” Great White came to investigate what the five foot mammal clad in attractive neoprene was doing floating around like it’s nobody’s business in a steel box off the side of a boat. The juvenile was probably as long as my arm span, and from up above on the boat I could hear a chorus of “awws” at the sight of the relatively small shark. It never really approached the cage, but rather swam back and forth in the general vicinity. I made a quick movement that produced a small splash and the young shark darted away. A few more minutes went by, and I was thinking about getting ready to make my exit from the cage; I was extremely cold and felt as if I had already gotten far more than my money’s worth.

Well, Big Momma Shark wasn’t all that far behind Little Baby Shark. Just as I gave the signal that I was ready to get out, everyone shouted that there was a huge shark coming. I got a sudden adrenaline rush of primal fear, but managed to push myself back down into the water to get a better look. Big Momma turned out to be an impressive thirteen feet long; she took two passes alongside the cage and seemed to disappear. Again I gave the signal that I was ready to get out of the cage, but everyone on the boat said, no, not yet, the shark is still there. I didn’t see Big Momma from my vantage point just at the surface, but when I dove down again, there she was, in all her resplendent two thousand pounds of shimmery grey glory, this time under the cage. Why does she (literally) have to sneak up on me like that? I wanted to close my eyes but just had to look as her dorsal fin glided along gracefully through the water just beneath the mere bars under my feet. I began to worry the Fallows might charge me extra if I were to lose control of my bladder in the generously loaned wetsuit.

The next several minutes of Big Momma finally getting bored of me and swimming away and me getting out of the cage is a complete blur, thanks to the largest adrenaline rush of my life. While I shivered the entire time on the ride back to shore, everyone on board kept handing me more towels and jackets, but I had to explain I was not suffering from the combination of wet hair and chilly ocean air, but rather from a literal case of the jitters.

My six-hour shark diving adventure with Apex Shark Expeditions was a huge success. I managed to be in the cage for the sightings of both the largest and smallest sharks of the day. On top of this, along with the day’s perfect panoramic views, a pod of about 200 common dolphins fortuitously showed up to escort us back to harbor, playing and leaping alongside our boat.

My flat mate said I looked like a deer in the headlights and wondered if I was ever going to come down from my adrenaline episode. I said that given the chance, I would get back in the Fallows’ shark cage without a doubt. Being in the shark’s natural element, out of my own human element, though still within safety, is the ultimate experience. My elevated breathing and embarrassing heart rate normalized after a few minutes, and when I got home, I was sad the big tour was over. Later that week, I went surfing as usual— Big Momma and Little Baby were nowhere to be seen…
Great White shark diving trips April – Sept

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2 Comments on “Shark Week Dreams Realized”

  1. Casey January 24, 2011 at 21:38 #

    Wow this part of your adventure seems like it was unreal. Being so close to those seals in their natural habitat must have been a real treat. I saw a shark while I was snorkling in Australia but it was probably only 1/4 of the size of that Mama shark. This is an experience you’ll never forget!


  1. Playa El Tunco– leave it to the pros. « 256 Days in a Pickup Truck - June 29, 2011

    […] me out in El Salvador. For whatever reason I thought that after surfing in waters frequented by Great Whites, I should “be fine” anywhere else. I was clearly wrong, so like I said, let’s […]

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