It’s my first morning in South Africa and I am nearly exploding with giddiness. After all it’s the day I tick off my ultimate bucket list adventure of getting up close with the sharks. Me and a bunch of travel writers have been booked for a shark cage diving activity at Aliwal Shoal in Durban. On the three hour drive from our hotel in Zimbali to the dive site I try to keep calm and not to think of the movie Jaws, where a shark savages a cage tearing it apart. But that’s easier said than done.
The adventure starts with squeezing into a wetsuit. I may have built some arm muscles gasping between tugs to yank my wetsuit over my posterior. It’s exhausting but also devastating when I check myself in the mirror. I look like a seal. Imagine dressing like the shark’s favourite food on a shark cage diving trip!
We then march towards the sea for a brief introductory talk by scuba diving expert John Miller before being fitted with life jackets. Soon we are piled on to the boat and off we go 8 km into the sea. My heart is racing as we tackle gigantic wave after wave sitting on the edge of the pontoon while gripping a rope for balance. The weather was not super cooperative. Though it was deceptively sunny, the high winds made the sea so choppy that our boat ride feels like a roller coaster without seat belts! My co-divers had already started to get sick and soon it was a puke fest! After about 10 minutes (but what felt like a lifetime) of all the drama of pounding waves, remorselessly beating the boat from side to side the terrifying ride comes to an end and I can breathe easy. This is also when the boat starts to smell fishy. Literally! That’s because John and his teammates are busy hurling sardines into the water to attract the sharks.
A steel cage is then released into the water and we were invited to jump right in. Soon it was my turn. The feeling right before you get into the cage will never fade. The water, by the way, was cold. But I was so excited about the prospect of seeing a shark face-to-face that I barely felt it.
Once inside the cage we were instructed to hold on to the lid of the cage, take a deep breath and put our head under the water. “The sharks are not in the sky, you need to put your head under the water to see them,” screams John. My pranayama practise comes handy as I take a big gulp of air and dive in the water while holding on to the bar. And then I let my guard down, relax and enjoy the sensation of the weight of the ocean above and around me, and the slow flow of the current deep beneath the surface.
Just then without a warning I catch a movement, the faintest shimmer, the softest glint of white teeth and an agile, powerful body. Could it really be? Yes it’s a shark with its jaws agape. The one I have waited and braved a death defying boat ride swims into my view. My heartbeat, so calm only a moment ago, is raging in my ears as the shark slowly weaves itself around our cage. And she is not alone but accompanied by a tiny baby shark that is clinging to her belly. What a sight! Knowing the power she possessed and watching her swim by so calmly was both nerve wracking and exhilarating. Soon there were many more. While some swam lazily around the cage, a few curious ones paid a closer visit. Their approach was always measured, cautious, totally befitting an apex predator of such incredible majesty, and wholly contrary to the sensationalist clips on TV.
The good thing is, even though the sharks can smell and see us they can’t get through the narrow bars. For me, the most incredible part of the experience was a shark that glided peacefully around the cage almost like it knew me. It was poetic and nature at its finest. After about half an hour of being in the water we were pulled back into the boat.
The adrenaline was still running high when we made our way back to shore. This time the sea was calmer, the boisterous waves had diminished, the wind ceased its howling and the balance of the boat was restored. A hot cup of tea was waiting as also a pen drive with proof of our adventure under the sea. John also gave a brief on what we saw that morning — oceanic blacktip sharks (which look very similar to the great white except for a black mark on the dorsal fin), tiger and bull sharks and the very distinctive hammerhead shark.
As I clambered into our car exhausted and happy, I felt a greater appreciation for sharks. They are not the menacing man-eating machines they are made out to be. They are beautiful, powerful beings that demand our admiration and respect. And I was happy to share the home of a few of these majestic creatures. If only for 30 minutes!...