Nice to meet you, Mister Great White Shark

I’ll always remember the first time I stood eye to eye with a great white shark. Technically, I was floating, not standing. But the eye contact was very real.

Sharks are glorious creatures. In Mossel Bay, there is a company dedicated to raising awareness for these misunderstood ocean predators. With White Shark Africa, tourists get the chance to go within bubble-breathing distance from the great whites of Mossel Bay, from the convenience of a submerged cage. The humans become the caged, like animals in a zoo, while the wild sharks become the viewers – I like thinking of it that way.

So many people who stigmatise them as monsters, due to children’s stories, movies and sensational media. It’s so sad. Because when someone says that sharks are cruel and ruthless, I want to put them in one of those cages. Not to scare them, but to make them see the truth. If a shark wanted to eat a human, they would have no real challenge getting into that cage with you. Believe me.

Taking our Africa Media students to go cage diving has become a regular thing. As for me, I’ve gotten into White Shark Africa’s cage twice now, and each time has been unforgettable.

Before launching the boat, the crew gives a short presentation on the truth about shark behaviour and how they’re actually the ones in danger. They explain how they’re about to introduce you to a great white shark, in person, so you can see how gentle and beautiful they are and spread the word. Together, we can fight the stigma and realise they need us to protect them from over-fishing and poaching (mostly for their jaws or for shark fin soup).

After this, the brave group of tourists for the day walk down to the Mossel Bay harbour, and boards the boat. Out at Seal Island in the middle of the bay, they cast the anchor and start chumming. Chumming is when the crew throws a pungent mixture of fish guts into the water. It forms a slick on the surface that can be picked up by sharks from several kilometres away.

There are between 2000 and 4000 Cape fur seals on Seal Island, a perfect hunting ground for sharks. Seals also secrete an oily slick from their furs, which mixes with the chum slick. The hope is that they follow the spicy-smelling trail closer to the boat. Being curious creatures, sharks are bound to investigate a new or unusual scent to see where its source is.

As soon as one of the crew members spot a fin or a long dark shape in the water, the first six people rush to pull on some wetsuits and get into the cage. With no time to waste, they have to be ready as soon as a crew member yells “Down!” – the sign that a great white is about to pass in front of the cage.

The wetsuit I tried to get into on my first cage dive was wet from the previous group’s round in the water, which slowed down my process of putting it on. The first group had all came out of the cage wide-eyed and “wow”-ing about what they just saw. The entire boat was in a hype of adrenaline and excitement, and we were rushed into the cage so that we could catch sight of the next shark to pass.

The first thing that hits you inside the cage is the cold. Though at the tip of the Indian Ocean, Mossel Bay is still a little too close to the Cape’s freezing Atlantic.

They closed the top of the cage, like a final seal of approval for our bravery (not necessarily for facing the sharks, but definitely the temperature). Then the waiting started. Nervously, I wondered if they would even swim past again. With wildlife, you’re lucky to get any kind of action. If they show up, it’s already a bonus, and they can swim away just as easily as they can swim closer.

Sure enough, a minute or two later with my head above the water, I hear: “Down, down!”

I took a breath and went down. The other five people next to me did the same, and we started swinging our heads from side to side, searching. From the left, a juvenile great white shark started cruising into view, not more than four meters away.

Up until that moment, I haven’t actually realised that it would be my first time seeing a shark in real life. Growing up by the ocean, I’ve always known what a shark looks like and I knew they were in our Bay. But looking at a picture or a screen is not the same as reality – far removed from it.

He was slow, majestic, almost elegant, until he suddenly sprinted through the water and off to the right, like an arrow from a bow. He was close enough that the force of his tail in the water nudged me backwards a bit. I came up to the surface completely awed, without immediately realising it.

Not much time for breathing, as the crew shouted again when the great white beauty made his way past the cage again. I went under, holding my breath for as long as physically possible in the cold water to take in the scene before me. The shark’s eyes were dark, almost like a navy blue, and it had scars – big and small – all along its enormous, smooth body. From fights with other sea creatures? Maybe fishing hooks, or nets?

The shark disappeared again. The visibility was fairly good, but I still didn’t see where the next shark came from. I was about to come up for air again when he came gliding into view. I stayed down for as long as my lungs allowed. Then came back up again. This is how it went on for about 15 to 20 minutes.

There are only juvenile sharks in Mossel Bay, which are usually between 2 and 4 m long. Once they get bigger than that, they tend to move on and head west towards Gans Bay, False Bay and other parts of the Cape. Adult great whites can grow up to a tremendous 6.5m in lentgh. The ones we saw were all around 2 or 3 m long. They seemed so massive, that I cannot imagine the feeling of seeing a 6.5m shark for the first time.

I was out of breath and out of words when I climbed out of that cage. There was already a bustle on the boat for the next six people waiting in wetsuits waiting to jump in. As I dried off, I kept thinking about how it never occurred to me that I’ve never seen a shark before now. It was such a bizarre and obvious realisation, yet it was something that had a big impact on me. (I’m not one of those fancy bloggers with a waterproof camera, by the way. So I hope you’re enjoying the topside photos I took on the boat).

There, on the boat in the middle of the bay, I couldn’t be more happy to be a writer. It’s a privilege to be able to tell the stories of not only people, but animals who need that extended voice to speak for them. And I plan to do much more environmental storytelling in the near future. Because sharks, these massive, powerful and beautiful creatures, need to have their story told.

Spreading awareness in the name of wildlife conservation is always the first step to global change. That’s what I believe. I wrote a blog post recently containing tips on writing an environmental article. Take a look at it – and some other blogs I wrote – on Africa Media’s website here.

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