Survival Instinct

Off the South African coast, adventurers can share the water with nature's most frightening predators
nature, travel, outdoors
Written By Adam Van Brimmer

Jellied into a full-body wetsuit—booties, hood and all—I step toward the gunwale. Mandla Ngazini, the dive master, smiles and offers a mock curtsey.

“Climb in. There’s a shark right there to port. And remember, keep your hands and feet inside the cage,” Ngazini says. “Unless you don’t care if you keep them.”

A scene from the 1975 film classic, “Jaws,” has been playing in my mind’s eye since I joined White Shark Projects for this haunting cruise earlier this morning. As I look at the cage, I can see Captain Quint, played by Robert Shaw, questioning the wisdom of oceanographer Matt Hooper, acted by Richard Dreyfuss, as he prepares to sink into the ocean’s depth in a similar steel contraption.

“Anti-shark cage? You go inside the cage?” Quint asks with a look of incredulity. “Cage goes in the water? You go in the water? Shark’s in the water? Our shark?”

Here I am, with a shadowy behemoth “right there to port,” as Ngazini says, ready to challenge Quint’s advice.

My cage, a rectangular box made from steel mesh, sits on the boat’s transom. One side—the surface that will face the open water once lowered into the depths—shows evidence of abuse. An indentation here. A bent bar there.

The sun sits low in the sky and the Shark Team, a 36-foot-long power catamaran, rides the rolling 8-foot sea swells in the shallow channel between Kleinbaai harbor and Dyer Island. The latter is visible to the south, even on a foggy morning. Near it lies Geyser Rock, home to an estimated 50,000 to 60,000 Cape fur seals. These mammals, and a smaller colony of African penguins, turn these waters into a smorgasbord for nature’s most fearsome predators.

Ngazini passes me a dive mask and slings a weight belt over my shoulder. He’s spent part of the commute downplaying the likelihood of multiple shark sightings, but as he coaxes me toward the cage, it is obvious he will over-deliver on his promises. I will see sharks. And not the mechanical movie prop kind that hounded Hooper in his anti-shark cage.

The presence becomes a shadow, and the shadow becomes a mouth. A wide gaping mouth lined with multiple rows of teeth.

Close Encounter

From two feet beneath the surface of the chilly Atlantic, I see the bait line unspool overhead and splash home some 15 feet in front of the cage. The water is too murky to see the tuna head attached to the end of the rope, but as a crewman retrieves the line, I sense a presence.

Image By Steve Heap/Getty Images

The presence becomes a shadow, and the shadow becomes a mouth. A wide gaping mouth lined with multiple rows of teeth. Instructed to rest my chin on a bar some three inches inside the cage, I can’t help but push myself against the cage’s back as that mouth, those teeth keep coming.

In an instant, the bait line is yanked from the water back onto the boat. The shark pirouettes in response, anxious to avoid colliding with the boat. Still, the fish’s stark white abdomen brushes the cage before its scythe-like tail propels it toward the bow.

The water, so raw just a minute ago, feels balmy as the adrenaline seeps from my pores. I surface and expel the last of the air from my lungs. I start to breathe rapidly but deeply, almost hyperventilating, preparing for another dive and another close encounter with the demons of the deep.

“How was that for your first sighting?” Ngazini says, getting a thumbs-up in reply.

White Shark Projects and a handful of other operators have been introducing adventurers to the local marine life since the 1990s. Many of today’s marine conservationists were spawned from shark hunters who adapted after South Africa became the first nation to classify great whites a protected species in 1991, and their expertise in attracting and handling these creatures is evident. In a 90-minute span, Shark Team is visited by six great whites, from a juvenile to a 10-footer.

“Don’t ever make the mistake of thinking you know the sharks, though,” Ngazini says. “We’re working with nature. A shark tagged here, at the tip of Africa, was tracked all the way to South Australia and back within nine months. They are unpredictable and highly intelligent.”

Creatures of Habit

Instinct remains the great white’s driving force, and like every animal, food is the most basic need. Sharks prefer shallow water, no more than 30 feet deep, yet they only come to the surface to investigate, Ngazini says.

White Shark Projects and its peers draw sharks from the bottom with chum: bits and pieces of chopped-up sardines and skipjack tuna. The operators dump chum around the boat, then use bait lines to further intrigue the predators. Sharks tend to attack the bait, thinking the tuna head is live prey.

Back in the cage and hyperventilating again—bubbles from snorkel tubes or scuba regulators tend to spook sharks, hence the hold-your-breath method—I hear one of the spotters say there’s a shadow under the boat. The bait line is tossed lightly into the water, just a few feet in front of the cage, and I submerge.

Not 10 seconds later, a great white races from the depths and consumes the bait from below, before the boat crew can yank it clear. The great white breaches the surface then dives deep again with its prize.

Others take a less stealthy approach. A 10-footer the Shark Team crew dubs a “regular” and is suspected of leaving a few marks on the cage charges the boat near the end of the trip. He rams the steel box with his belly as he clamps his jaws around the bait. He slides back into the water, his sandpaper-like skin grating on the mesh bar. To the man in the cage, the shark offers a glare with one black, dead eye before swimming away.

“That’s a good one to go in on,” the captain says. “Get back in the boat.”

Shark Team will make at least one, maybe two, more runs to the channel this day, and the crew rigs the cage on floats, ropes the box to the anchor lines and leaves it in place. Many trips involve more than a dozen divers—courage in numbers evidently—but more intimate excursions are available.

Twenty minutes later, Shark Team slides onto a trailer at the Kleinbaai boat ramp and a tractor pulls it from the water.

Much like Matt Hooper in “Jaws,” I survived my shark encounter. But I also better understand Captain Quint’s wisdom.



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