Somewhere in the warm Indian Ocean, the skipper of a shark-boat slows down almost to a stop. Everyone looking out over the starboard side says, “Oh, shit.” There, moving slowly just beneath the surface of the water, is a frankly enormous shark-shaped shape. Every paying passenger on that boat is now thinking the same two thoughts: “If I fall overboard now, I’m going to break the world record for the 15m freestyle”; and, “God help me - I have to go in the same water as that thing.”
There are two main areas of the world where great white sharks hang out, make love, raise kids and all the other beautiful things killing machines get up to: South Australia and here, off the south coast of South Africa.
Place names like Shark Alley and Seal Island (that shark candy-store also known as “The Circle of Death”) give the game away. There are thousands of the bastards here. The biggest shark ever caught anywhere is a pant-filling 6.4m long; the biggest one at large in these waters is apparently 6m. For comparison, the Holden Commodore is 4.9m. And less likely to eat you.
Coming face to face with a shark is surprisingly easy here. For just $250 and a two-hour drive southeast of Cape Town, you can experience something only fishermen and surfers normally get to crap on about.
Before you set foot on the boat, they make you sign the biggest indemnity form ever. Boiled down, it relieves the company of any responsibility should you have a heart attack, become mentally unhinged by fear, or return from the day minus an arm. On the walls of the dive shop are images of sharks lunging completely out of the water. In their jaws are seals, presumably at that moment trying to remember if they’ve signed the indemnity form.
It is the perfect day to see sharks: calm, warm and clear. The biggest surprise is that the advertised shark dive is not a “dive” at all. Air tanks are available if we want them, but apparently bubbles put sharks off, the poor dears. Instead, a four-man cage, about 2m tall, 1.8m long and 3/4m broad, is hung at the side of the boat on ropes, with the top a few centimetres above the surface of the water. When a shark comes past, you take a deep breath and cling to the cage-bottom for as long as you can.
Twenty minutes out of the fishing town of Gansbaai, in the shallow waters of Shark Alley, we drop anchor. The skipper takes a rancid-looking tuna-half from a bin, ties the end of a rope to its tail and throws it astern. Within minutes there is an oily slick visible. He also throws over a rubber decoy seal. Apparently sharks chew through several of these a week. Then we wait.
Forty minutes later a shark announces itself by eating a seagull. It surges out of the depths, lifts its snout, snaps the bird out of the air and moves on with the gull hanging out of its mouth like cress. The other gulls flap wildly, making panicky noises.
“Right, who wants to go in?” asks the skipper. I put up my hand, mainly so I don’t have too long to think about it. I’m given a wetsuit, a set of weights and a mask. Clutching my disposable underwater camera I make my way to the side of the boat. The shark, about 3.5m long, is worrying the tuna bait, its big dorsal and tail fins above the surface. I put one leg over the side, then the other, and drop into the cage.
Seconds later, two others splash in beside me. The top of the cage bobs level with the waves. I can’t see the shark any more. “It’s coming at you from the front,” we hear. “Ready? Ready? Get down.”
I take a deep breath and thrust beneath the sea. The shark is right in front of my face, half a metre away. I recoil, whipping my hands off the bars. It glides in and gnaws at the cage where they’d just been. I see its eyes roll back as it bites down, snout wedged between the bars. It drops back and turns away. Too late I remember my camera, raise it and click mindlessly. My breath runs out.
We rush to the surface and shout with fear and adrenalin. A voice from above tells us two more have arrived, one much bigger than the others: about 4.5m. I push myself under again. Nothing but swarms of small fish. In the distance I think I see a larger shadow. The other two in the cage swim down and suddenly a massive shark cruises in from the left; a bulky grey-and-white torpedo, vicious mouth, big button eyes. Close enough to touch. When I break the surface again, I see more dorsal fins a few metres away.
On the boat, as I later find out, the crew are using the decoy seal and tuna to lure the beasts right onto the cage. What bothers me about this is that the cage has no lid. I think of those photos on the dive-shop wall. Sharks leaping up, sharks biting down… One of those things could swim right in on top of us with a dinner napkin round its neck. The skipper tells me it has never happened yet. I don’t feel much better.
In five hours we see about eight sharks, none of them longer than 4.5m, which is plenty big enough. Everyone gets 20 minutes in the cage, but a few decide they’d much rather just stay in the boat, thanks. A couple of attacks have put them off. In one, I think the thing is hissing at us, then realise it’s bitten through the cage-float and flattened it, completely freaking out those in the water.
Towards the end, a couple of us get to go in again. At this level all we can see is empty water, but within minutes there’s the shout, “Coming in from the left. Get down now.”
The damn thing attacks my side of the cage at waist level, ramming it twice and savaging the bars. It’s the worst moment yet. Instead of leaving it goes barmy and mauls the top bar next to the destroyed float. For five long, long seconds I stare at the thrashing white belly above me as it tries to shake us apart. The messy lines of teeth jut forward from jagged gumlines, clamped hard on the thin steel.
As it finally turns away I reach through the bars to touch it. The angled grey tail flicks out of reach. It disappears into the gloom. I bring my hand back in, already impressed with how stupid I am. The man who lost his hand poking a shark.
The more I think about it, the scarier it gets. This sea is full of the world’s most efficient killer and I’m in an open cage. What am I doing? My bottle has gone. I need to get out of here.