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April 04, 2005

Bite Me

Gansbaai, South Africa

Monday, April 4, 2005:

Carcharodon carcaharias...

The Great White Shark...

An apex predator capable of giving me the mauling that other sharks have declined to give me thus far(

Gansbaai, South Africa, is the great white shark diving capital of South Africa, which can in turn claim to be the great white shark diving capital of the world. With an abundant cute and tasty fur seal population on numerous islands just offshore, the western coast of Africa sees numerous great whites come in close to feed on the unskilled, newly born pups as well as the occassional cormorant or jack-ass penguin. Postcards and tourist brochures in Cape Town display incredible gravity-defying images of massive great white sharks exploding furiously out of the water and many feet into the air to surprise and shock their prey before finally overtaking them (see this site: Great whites can be found all over the world in a wide range of waters, and can accordingly be spotted just about anywhere in the waters off of the South African coast. In fact, more great whites are thought to be off the coast of South Africa than anywhere else in the world. Just several miles off the shores of the town of Gansbaai are Dyer and Geyser islands, home to between a stunning 40,000 to 60,000 fur seals as well as a significant penguin population. The narrow channel running between the two islands is referred to as "shark alley," because it is, of course, a prime hunting ground for the predators. It might just be the best place to see the creatures up close in the world.

From what I understand, about 12 - 15 years ago somebody had the bright idea that people would pay money --- lots of money --- for a chance to see great white sharks up close and personal without being eaten by one. A blooming and profitable cage diving industry sprang up, starting with one or two operators and expanding rapidly. Today there are at least eight companies at work, maybe more, and that's just the number running their businesses out of Gansbaai. There are other places to go in South Africa as well. Although Dyer island is known as "Seal Island" there are dozens of other islands with large seal populations and I have heard numerous people talk of this or that other island as "Seal Island." There is one in False Bay, closer to Cape Town, for instance.

Gansbaai is about a two hour drive to the East of Cape Town. The travel company I have been using, "Adventure World," had arranged for me to dive on Saturday with their preferred operator, "White Shark Adventures." In an honest but nevertheless annoying mistake, however, WSA's phones had been answered by a kitchen-staff employee who never put the confirmation through, leaving me waiting around for several hours early on Saturday morning to deal with the dodgy cast of characters that frequent Long Street at that time (and, actually, at most other times as well --- see previous blog entry for details). Adventure World was appalled by the screw-up and when I dropped by later that morning, they seemed far more upset than I was. I didn't even think they would know that there had been a problem but they did and told me that they had already talked with WSA, who apologized profusely. I was refunded $75 of my $150 "economy class" fee and was upgraded to a "first class" trip, which they normally charge $200 for, meaning that I would be given a good breakfast before and lunch after the trip, plus a hot shower and some sort of cage diving DVD the company puts out. This was a lot more than I hoped to get as compensation, my experiences with customer service in the last six months leading me to believe that most companies in South America, Africa (and, yes, the U.S.) react to the term "customer service" with a startled "customer? service?" Do I sound jaded? Hmmm... (See the previous and --- in particular --- next blog entry for multiple clues as to why.)

I rescheduled for Tuesday. Then, on Sunday night, I received an urgent call asking if they could instead take me the next day or on Wednesday. They didn't have anybody else booked for Tuesday, the weather looked bad, and the crew was "exhausted" from nearly seven continuous days of work. So I agreed to go on Monday instead.

This time around, I was told to expect the company's mini-bus shuttle to pick me up from my hotel at 5:20 AM and, sure enough, it arrived at exactly 5:20 AM. The driver was polite but drove like a maniac. The passengers --- a total of eight others --- were all in their 20s and 30s and everybody slept or sat quietly for the duration of the trip. The sun doesn't rise until about 6:45 AM where I am, so there wasn't much to see out the window other than the lights of towns and shanties. I sat quietly and napped as the bus careened down the highway, in and out of lanes and across tight corners, even though there weren't any other cars on the road to warrant such dramatic steering maneuvers. The driver received two, maybe three phone calls as he drove, however, asking where he was at that time. He was clearly under time pressure but this didn't really justify the way he was driving. The way I see it, braving the roads of South Africa is far more dangerous an activity than jumping into the water with sharks while protected inside a steel cage.

We reached Gansbaai sometime around 7:30. It wasn't large but it seemed like a pleasant, wealthy and well-developed kind of town, with lots of two-story residential houses sitting side by side on green well-manicured lawns. The harbor lay just down a hill below. Me and my silent crew of fellow would-be shark divers trudged wearily out of the van and into a pristine Victorian-style farm house that sported the "White Shark Adventure" sign out front on the grass. We were welcomed by a well-dressed, well-spoken woman of about 65 who I took to be one of the owners. She asked us who would be receiving the "full breakfast" and who wouldn't. In other words, who was "first class" and who wasn't. Most of us went into a large dining room with an enormous oak table set for 12 people and covered with sausage, meat, eggs, toast, muffins, a variety of jams and numerous other items as well. Then, the two or three other people who were originally placed in another room shuffled in. It seemed they were being given the full breakfast as well (which was generous of the company).

People sat there quietly, stiffly and uncomfortably until, thankfully, one woman, a Canadian of about 35 who was visiting South Africa on business, broke the silence by asking people where they were from. The atmosphere in the room was instantly transformed. We went around the table introducing ourselves quickly and from there the conversation picked up and never stopped. In addition to the Canadian, there were two guys from Scotland, a girl from South Africa, a guy from Moscow, a couple from Ireland (him) and Colombia (her), and another guy from Ireland as well. One of the Scotts and the Irish member of the couple (Jim) had worked for a short time in Manhattan. I fielded questions about it. I was then asked about what I was doing and found myself answering questions about my trip from almost everybody at the table. Sini, from Colombia, was quick to chastise me for not visiting her country when I was in South America. "I should have gone," I told her, honestly. "Every single person I ran into who had been there said it was the best place they had visited on the continent." This was the truth, too, and seemed to appease her. Otherwise, the conversation focused on all things Celt and Celtic and the group was a lot of fun, but for the guy from Moscow who seemed gloomy and sullen. Very few people ate much at all, allowing me to polish off half of the sausages and deli meats. I wasn't sure if people were nervous or concerned about possible sea-sickness. I wasn't either of those two things. I was just hungry. "This could be my very last meal," I said, grabbing the last slice of ham as I chewed on a muffin. Everybody else just stared wearily at the food laid out in front of them.

After a leisurely 45 minutes or more, we were ushered back to the van for the short ride down to the boat at the docks. I began to practice my Spanish on Sini, who asked me why I would consider heading to Egypt without crossing into Israel. "You'll be fine," she said. "Just don't take the buses." It turned out that while she was from Colombia, she had spent the last 7 years living in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. "You have to go there," she said. "You have to." Stories of pristine beaches and a large Spanish-speaking (particularly Argentinian) immigrant population followed. I can't say it didn't have an effect, but the decision is premature right now. At the time I was just happy to be speaking Spanish again, even if I nearly garbled a couple of words into the pidgeon-Portugese I'd subconsciously picked up while in Rio.

The boat was nothing like what I'd imagined, although what I imagined was along the lines of an insane, dilapidated fishing rig resembling something out of Jaws and steered by a mad, white-bearded old Captain whose every-other utteration as he braved the driving winds and seas was "Aaaaaargh!" Instead, we would be trolling for sharks aboard something that paid more of a semblance to the Love Boat Lite --- a posh, state-of-the-art 55 footer with 455HP inboard engines, two bathrooms, showers, a television and a luxurious cabin fitting at least 30 with ease and probably up to 40. There were also plenty of seats outside and on the top of the ship. All that was missing were a pool and a bar tended by the friendliest bartender on the high seas, Mr. Isaac Washington. I would have to settle for the addition of a small steel cage suspended from a winch at the back as compensation. From what I recall, the original Love Boat didn't have that.

We sped away from the dock on calm waters and sat on the open deck on the roof to catch views of the ocean and the green land and mountains rising up around us along the rim of the bay. Thirty minutes later our guide, a detoxed version of David Crosby circa 1980 (if a 1980 detoxed David Crosby would even be recognizable as David Crosby), began to give us a rundown on what we were about to do and see. "Those National Geographic videos where the sharks charge into the cage?" he began, "They don't show you how the divers are holding chunks of bait out of the bars and tugging them back in again at the last second. That's why the sharks charge them. You won't be doing that and the sharks won't be charging you." Instead, a ball of frozen tuna tied to a flotation device (a rubber buoy that had been sawed in two) and tied to a rope attached to the ship would be thrown in the water to attract the sharks. The bait ball would hang off the back left corner of the boat. Hanging off of the back right corner would be "Sammy," a decoy baby fur seal. All Sammy turned out to be was a small styrofoam block covered in black tire rubber with a slit extra length of loose rubber on one end that vaguely resembled a pair of seal flippers. "Actually," said Mr. Crosby, "we are working with Sammy VI. Don't ask about the other five Sammies."

The boat came to a halt. Several hundred feet away we could see a small rocky island just barely elevated above the surface of the ocean. It was teeming with seals --- they pretty much covered every available surface and spilled off into the surrounding waters, jumping and splashing and no doubt also barking and grunting the way they always do, though we weren't close enough to hear all that (and, having heard plenty on my trip already, that was fine by me).

The captain of the boat, a slim and well-dressed man in his 50s with a shock of curly white hair (and who looked like he seldom, if ever, said "Aaaaaargh!"), came down to the lower level to get the bait ball and Sammy ready to throw into the water. His first mate, a young guy named Michael, helped out. Along with David Crosby, the woman who might have been an owner (she never really introduced herself) and a videographer stood and looked on.

"We don't want the shark to get the bait or Sammy," the captain explained. Whenever a shark was spotted, the crew of the boat worked hard to pull the chum and fake seal around on their strings to keep them away from the shark. The captain then went on to tell us that we would be snorkeling and not using dive gear because "the bubbles scare the sharks away." This didn't surprise me at all and I agreed with it. Besides, I don't think more than one or two of the other people on the boat had their scuba certifications. What I did not like or expect to hear was that there was only a "30% chance" of seeing a shark because the sharks could hear the heartbeats of the people inside the cage and were frightened away by them. Apparently sharks are very skittish when they come to the surface to feed because it is here where they are most vulnerable to attacks by other great whites who can rush up at them from the bottom (they will eat each other). I had heard that shark sightings were "virtually guaranteed" and that most companies had a 98% success rate or more. So I had no idea where the 30% number had suddenly come from.

The crew threw Sammy and the bait ball into the water where they floated several feet off of the back corners of the boat. "This could take some time," said Mr. Crosby. He leaned over the side of the top deck to watch. We all did likewise. Within a minute or two swarms of little silver fish had flocked to the waters around the bait ball. Soon, some of them were jumping and flipping out of the water.

"This is one of the signs a shark might be coming," said the might-be-owner, the shark lady.

Five minutes later, just as people were beginning to meander away from the rails on the back deck of the boat, we heard a shout.

"Shark on the left [boat's right]!" hollered the shark lady. I turned and saw a large sleek shape break the surface of the water and, with a few graceful strokes of its tail, glide up to Sammy VI. It was about 10 feet long and was hard to identify as a great white from a top-down view and nothing else. Thus far it had moved powerfully but fluidly and seemingly effortlessly. However, it didn't take long for this peaceful demeanor to change as the creature suddenly propelled itself ferociously at Sammy, gnashing its teeth at him as he was just barely pulled to safety by the captain, who stood at the back with the rope. After thrashing unsuccessfully for its would-be-prey, the shark vanished beneath the surface of the water.

A minute passed. Then "Shark on the right! Going for the bait!" yelled the shark lady. The captain tried to pull the bait ball away but the shark was too fast and sank its teeth into it, thrashing around in the water as it bit and bit again. The captain pulled on the rope to try to get it away, but this did not nothing other than infuriate the shark. It fell onto its side, then back as it locked on to its "kill." The view of the shark's underbelly, its bloody mouth in particular, left no doubt as to what it was. After removing the tuna from the buoy, the shark swam off a few feet and disappeared again. The crew members cursed.

The captain grumbled as he put together another bait ball and lobbed it back in. Several minutes later, the same shark came back. For several minutes the captain and first mate yanked the bait and Sammy back and forth on the ropes, out of the shark's grasp. It surged and lunged as schools of little silver fish scattered in a panick in every direction. Then, suddenly, another great white surfaced. This one was larger --- perhaps 12 feet in length, said the shark lady. (I regret that by writing the lengths of the creatures down here shortly after the event I will not be able to get away with 20 foot shark stories in a few months time. Nevertheless, a 10 or 12 foot great white is a big shark.)

As soon as the second shark came up the crew rushed to lower the steel cage into the water. Suspended by four ropes, one at the top of each corner, it was fastened tight to the back and also to narrow platforms that shot out from the right and left rear of the boat. Approximately 3/4 submerged with water, one could still keep one's head and shoulders above the surface. The cage was not very big --- they said it could fit six but I thought three would be cutting it close --- and the bars on it looked pitifully thin. Nevertheless, it was hard to imagine a shark being able to bite through it. Though it was easy to imagine the shark being able to bite you through it, if you didn't move back away from it in time.

As the cage was lowered, we were told to quickly change into wetsuits. We would be going into the cage in groups of three and I was the first person called. "Hurry, hurry," the crew yelled, "the faster the better." A few minutes later I was suited up in a 7 milimeter suit with boots and a hood and climbing a thin, wobbly ladder down into the cage, which was looking less and less secure by the second, as a 12 foot great white thrashed about and latched onto Sammy Seal VI on my left. Somehow, someway, the captain was able to pull Sammy away again (perhaps simply because the shark thought it tasted like crap and let go --- although they have a pretty good clue as to what is food for them and what isn't, sharks can't tell for sure without first biting something to "taste" it) and Sammy emerged unscathed to the relief of all onboard. "That's a good Sammy!" David Crosby shouted triumphantly.

In the cage the water was cool but hardly seemed cold after my diving excursion the day before. It was probably in the low 60s Farenheit. I didn't take a snorkel with me, only a mask, because the crew had told us that we were better off holding our breath for short periods and then surfacing to receive new directions from them as to where the shark had moved to (forward, left or right). The shark was sure to be changing position around the cage constantly and the visibility underwater, a mere and murky 5 to 6 feet, was too dismal to permit us to keep track on our own for very long. Instead we would have to pop under, look for the shark, and bob up again to have the crew tell us where to direct our attention next.

As the first peron in the cage, I was told to walk to the front. I felt very alone, all of a sudden, probably much like Sammy VI feels each time he is tossed into the water as sharkbait. Granted that Sammy VI has no cage, but, on the other hand, he doesn't bleed profusely when mauled either. When I reached the front of the cage I noticed two things I hadn't really counted on. The first was that there was a strong current that kept pushing my legs out from under me and knocking me horizontally onto my back. The second was that there wasn't any place to put my hands to stabilize myself, other than on the side of the cage, with my fingers dangling outside. Though its a ridiculous concern now that I think about it in retrospect (the shark lunging at my hands), there was no way at the time that I was going to put my hands there. In the end I found a way to hang onto the bars on the top of the cage to stabilize myself.

"Shark in front!" somebody yelled. I took a gulp of air and put my head down. It was green and very hard to see. There were dozens of little fish jumping around but nothing else. Meanwhile, two other people were descending into the cage behind me.

I came up for air. "Diver!" yelled the captain. "If you don't see the shark, come up immediately! He was on your left but you couldn't hear us!" He sounded annoyed, almost angry. I wondered what his problem was.

"Shark on the right!" yelled the shark lady. This time I ducked down to find the massive and menacing profile of a 12 foot monster swimming lengthwise alongside the cage no more than a foot away from me. My heart nearly lept through my chest. Like the hammerheads and other sharks I had seen in the Galapagos, the great white swam with a grace and efficiency of movement astonishing for a creature so big. Then, very suddenly, the shark swung its body sharply away and propelled itself at something I couldn't see --- no doubt the bait ball. Its tail smashed against the cage, jarring me and the other divers loose from our positions. I got a healthy taste of saltwater as I flew backwards into the current again.

For the next ten minutes I caught several views of the sharks as they cruised back and forth, gearing up for the next attacks on the bait and Sammy. Each time I submerged I had to search through the dark green water teeming with frenzied fish. Because the visibility was so poor, I couldn't see a shark until it emerged out of nowhere, practically an arm's length away. This never failed to trigger a sudden, jolting impulse to fall backwards away from the side of the cage the shark was on. At one or two points, I could no doubt have reached out and touched a tail or flank, but never the mouth --- the sharks clearly had no interest in us whatsoever and the cage was nothing more than a funny obstacle with funny things in it that had to be navigated around to obtain what they wanted. A third shark had emerged during this time (about 9 or 10 feet) so the crew were kept very busy as they jerked the ropes around while barking out commands of "right!" and "forward!" and frustrated utterances of disgust whenever somebody didn't see a shark or misinterpreted an instruction in all of the commotion. I didn't take it personally, but thought they seemed awfully worked-up about it all.

After ten minutes, we were told to exit the cage to allow the next group of three divers to get in. I was grinning as I climbed up the ladder, the adreneline surging through me. I couldn't wait to get back in again. Probably sharing exactly the same sentiment, one of the Scotts behind me asked the captain if and when we would get to go back in again. "It depends on whether everybody sees a shark," he said. I took that to mean that once everybody had had success, we would go around another time again.

As the second group of divers were getting ready to enter the water (taking an extra bit of time because of two of the three were experiencing some degree of sea-sickness), the captain and David Crosby remarked that they weren't trying to be rude with all of the yelling, they were just anxious to make sure that we actually got to see the sharks. I agreed with this --- besides, you couldn't really say "shark on your left," in a calm, polite tone of voice and expect anybody to react instantaneously before the shark swam off again. Nevertheless, when the second wave of divers got in and one of them looked left when the shark lady called out "right!" I noticed that she made a sarcastic remark in Afrikaans to the rest of the crew. The girl from South Africa heard it and shook her head, though I never did get the exact translation. My impression of the crew was lowered when that happened --- they seemed to be largely of the view that we were just another herd of idiot tourists to be shepherdered around. Some of the signs on the boat seemed to project an attitude as well: "Ask Us If You Don't Know" said one (so far so good) before continuing with "--- Before You Complain." Another sign informed us that the priority was on each diver getting to see a shark (again, so far so good) and that "If You Want More Time, Book a Private Charter!" The tone was that of a company fed up with its clientele.

The second group of divers took its turn, then the third and final group went in. At this point there weren't as many sharks around (maybe just one) and the group stayed in the water for 20 or 25 minutes instead of the 10 or 15 that the previous groups had. About half of the passengers were sea sick, as well. I am fortunate in that I have never been sea sick in my life and always have a great time whenever I am on a boat. While other people were clutching their heads and leaning over the sides, I was tucking into my second bag of biltong barbeque-flavored Fritos which I had pulled out of the boat's free snack basket.

No sooner did the third group of divers come out of the water than did the captain proclaim that the "winds were really picking up" (I wondered if he was talking about the winds up the coast in Mozambique, because I didn't notice much wind where we were at the moment). The crew began hauling the cage up. It was clear that there wouldn't be another round of diving. I was quite surprised. I didn't think we had been anchored there for much more than 90 minutes at best. "We have to get you back in time for lunch," said David Crosby. Screw lunch, I thought, muching on a Frito, I'm here to see sharks, not eat [much, munch].

We stopped by Dyer Island on the way back. I have seen seals in the Galapagos and in Patagonia. Lots of them, both above land in the water while diving and snorkeling. They're a lot of fun, especially when swimming, although the bull males can get quite grouchy and the whole lot of them stink like hell, the more the stinkier. Nevertheless, the sight of some 50,000 or so seals teeming about the island and waters like ants at a picnic was incredible. David Crosby noted that they were staying particularly close to the island today, meaning that they sensed sharks were nearby. "An adult seal can outmanoeuvre a great white," he told us, "which is why the sharks go after the pups who haven't yet learned how to swim." That might be so, but something told me that speed and dexterity wouldn't be enough to save the nimblest grown seal if a great white surprised it with one of the violent breaching attacks I had seen so many pictures of in Cape Town. However, the captain had explained earlier in the day that the sharks couldn't gain the speed to perform those explosive attacks in these waters because they weren't deep enough --- being only some 15 to 18 feet.

We motored back to the docks. As we went the videographer put on a film he had put together of us the day's events. It showed us all arriving at the boat, sailing out, putting our equipment on and heading into the water. Then it showed images of the sharks above and below the water (he had never gotten in, but his camera had a sort of a reverse-periscope feature allowing him to film underwater from the surface). A cheesy, bass-heavy dance track played throughout the whole thing. He wanted about $65 per DVD (for which he would mail it internationally to anybody who wanted it). I felt bad for him, assuming nobody would want to buy the thing, but more than half of the boat bought it. For $65, I wanted footage of breakfast, lunch and the insane bus ride to get there thrown in as well. Along with what was sure to be another insane bus ride back, that would be 90% of the trip that day, anyway. (Besides, part of my "first class" package included a DVD promotional put out by the company; it doesn't feature my smiling mug or the particulars of my trip in it, but it does have far better shark footage.)

Back at the farmhouse, the Moscovite and one of the Scotts did not get to sit and eat with us --- they were weeded out as "economy class scum" this time around. As we dined, we got to meet and speak with Jackie, who was, as it turned out, the original captain of the ship and owner of the company (I think the shark lady was his wife). Due to some sort of medical problem, however, he had been under doctor's orders not to pilot the boat for several months and so he had hired another captain to do that job for him.

The promotional pamphlet for White Shark Adventures informs the reader that Jackie's affectionate nickname is "The Old Man of the Sea." Stout and weathered with a salty mane of receding white hair and a tough South African swagger to his step, he spoke with a captain's tone of authority and seemed capable of growling out the heartiest, throatiest "Aaaaaargh!" ever to be aaaaaarghed. Alas, scurvy dogs that we were, we didn't get a chance to hear it that day. Instead, Jackie kindly answered questions for us about the boat, his business and his plans to publish a book on his experiences with great whites over the years. During the very interesting Q&A session we were treated to, I took notice when he told us the chances of seeing a great white in Gansbaai were "98... 99% --- virtually a certainty" (he was waxing poetic about why Gansbaai is the best place in the world to see great white sharks). I wondered why we had been told by the crew that the success rate was only 30%. I suspected that they had simply been lowering our expectations to make us more impressed when we did see a shark. But I resented the misinformation and wondered if we hadn't been short-changed on time because, as I had been told on the phone the night before, the crew was wiped out from a hard week's work. I can let some of this frustration go when I consider how spectacular the experience of seeing the sharks was, even if I only spent 10 minutes in the cage. But I can't let all of my frustration go when I consider that our lunch lasted for more than an hour, which was plenty of extra good time we could have spent out on the boat, watching the sharks we had come out there to see in the first place. I also think that when the meal ended, we wound up leaving the farmhouse on our lunatic drive back to Cape Town a full 20 to 30 minutes ahead of schedule. I don't want to be misunderstood --- I was happy with what I had seen (very happy... thrilled, in fact), but quite unhappy that I hadn't been able to see more of it because the time in the dining room of the farmhouse exceeded our time on the boat. When I got back to my hotel at 4:30, some 11 hours after departing, I wondered if the company would be better off changing its name to White Shark Catering Company.

Grumbling aside, the trip was definitely worth it. There aren't many places in the world where you can safely (or comfortably) get that close to a great white in the water. I spoke with a dive instructor at a dive shop in Cape Town who told me that he had done thousands of dives in the shark-rich waters off the coast of South Africa. While he had seen bulls, tigers, hammerheads, silvertips, silkies and numerous other big and potentially nasty species, he had yet to see a single great white and he was just fine with that. Even accepting the very real statistics posted in Cape Town's Two Oceans Acquarium indicating that sharks killed 4 people last year while electrical toaster accidents killed nearly 700, I wouldn't want to see a great white from any place other than behind a cage either. Somebody has got to be one of those 4 people, after all, and if a shark can smell the biltong barbeque Fritos I've just eaten, I would lower my odds of survival significantly. In any event, the cage-diving experience has heightened my respect for the great white shark while I have also recently developed a deep and disturbing fear of electrical toasters.

Posted by Joshua on April 4, 2005 08:15 AM
Category: South Africa
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