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South Africa Adventure

Eye to eye with the Great White

Sunday, June 7, 2009

When people refer to the 'big five' in Africa, we've learned that they're making a gigantic mistake. Because if the Great White Shark doesn't deserve to be on that list, then somebody hasn't done their due diligence.

In Chicago, we have a fantastic aquarium, and one of the tanks has quite a few sharks swimming the reef. The powerful yet graceful swimmers never fail to generate a visible, emotional stir amongst viewers. And while everybody always spends a few extra minutes in front of that tank in hopes of seeing the deadly beast in action, it seems most of us have always 'just missed' a feeding.

Our cage dive with the sharks couldn't have been a more different experience.

While the marine biologist who shared her unique perspective on the great white called them 'elegant' and 'largely misunderstood', I'd say that outside the Hollywood sensationalism, they've earned every ounce of reputation that they have. And after yesterday's adventure, I've seen their viciousness firsthand.

After taking the boat out to Shark Alley, they dropped the cage into the water and 7 brave souls suited up and took the dive into the frigid waters of the Indian ocean. The crew chummed the water, and then threw out a decoy that cast a sea lion shaped shadow as well as a line with a fish head the length of my arm. They would toss them both into the water, leave them be for a while, and then when a shark was sighted, they would reel them back in towards the cage, entice the shark to swim closer.

How close? Close enough for us to stare it in the eye. And believe me, I blinked first.

While the first few groups dove, those of us on the deck got a bird's eye view of the graceful behemoth. Sharks that were 6 or 7 feet were surprisingly being called 'babies' by the crew. It wasn't until we saw what they termed a 'grandmother' that I understood why. One of the sharks we saw had to have been at least 13 feet long, and at least as wide around as a horse. It was massive, and yet glided along without an ounce of energy being wasted. Truly, the marine biologist's use of the word 'graceful' was appropriate. As exciting as the view from above was, it was just a taste of the adreline inducing rush that awaited below the waves.

After donning my own suit (I'll leave the imagery to your imagination), I slipped my googles on and slid into the cage. Everything seemed peaceful until the crew barked "DOWN. TO THE LEFT." Believe me, when the captain yell's "DOWN", you get underwater and fast! At first, I saw nothing but blue and the shadow of our decoy above. And then the first shark swam past. With a small headfake towards the decoy, he swam directly in front of the cage. I swear, I could have reached out and touched his fin... if I weren't quite so attached to the idea of having five fingers. The first few minutes, we saw several different sharks swim by the cage, which was quite exciting enough. But that was just the prelude.

It seems that sharks don't quite like having their food teased in front of them and then yanked away. Because after those first few minutes, they started to show their teeth. Literally.

At this point, we were used to them swimming across the cage, front right to left or vice versa. So it was a little surprising when the captain yellow "DOWN. CENTER." And once again, when I ducked my head under, there was little to see except a tattered fish head floating directly in front of the cage. And then seemingly out of nowhere, a gigantic great white burst out of the darkness straight at us, jaws lined with jagged white teeth wide open. I can't speak for anybody else, but involuntarily I pressed myself to the back of cage as he swam straight toward us, veering away at the very last second. That was my first up close viewing of a great white shark in attack mode, but it wouldn't be my last.

Over the course of the next ten minutes or so, they seemingly teased those sharks into a frenzy because we saw them go after the bait with a vengeance. One got a hold of that decoy and thrashed about, likely trying to figure out why it didn't taste quite as good as it looked. Another had a chunk of gore caught in the side of it's mouth, trailing behind it like a streamer as it swam by.

What was astonishing was how incredibly docile and fluid they could seem as they swam by, and yet with just a burst of their powerful tails, the water frothed in the wake of their powerful, vicious attack. Despite the crews best efforts, the sharks still managed to get ahold of the decoy and bait on several occasions, and it was none too pretty when they did. As I mentioned earlier, in my opinion, they've earned every ounce of noteriety that has ever been told of them.

And all without a single blink of the eye.

6 comments:

Mr. Harvey said...

Steve, high score to you for shark diving. Very cool. I've seen some 6 foot reef sharks in the wild but the Great White experience tops anything. Bonus for keeping your fingers.

teachingtruths said...

Very cool - once-in-a-lifetime sort of thing.

Anonymous said...

Wow, sounds just awesome. It beats the ornamental aquaculture specimens I am working with this week. They are minuscule compared to the Great White, love the blog. W. Norton

Ken said...

Your dive sounds exciting. Kind of puts into perspective our snorkeling adventure at the Great Barrier Reef. Keep the posts coming.

Bev said...

Thanks for sharing. Your description is as close
to the experience as most of us will come...vivid and visceral.

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Essential Programs Details

Duration 12 days
When June 2nd - 13th, 2009
Focus Wildlife Research/Conservation
Political History
Culture