Tuesday, December 09, 2008

A spot of Great White fishing!

You often hear it said that the line between fear and fun is thin. Taking this a step further, there is often no line at all.

After falling out of bed at dawn and a drowsy journey across the cape, we arrived at Gansbaai. Nestled near the most-southerly point in Africa, this little town is the Mecca of Great White watching. Most mornings a number of white little boats brave the channel towards Dyer Island to search for the most fearsome predator alive today. We had booked a ticket to be on one such boat...

Grey cold drizzle. Far flung from the baking conditions we had encountered thus far – this was like a late November day in Bognor. Our expectations were further dampened by news of low water vizability. As we headed out on the choppy waters our fingers were firmly crossed.
As with many things about this creature, the exact reasons why it is where it is when it is are not fully known. For some reason they do not spot the same sharks repeatedly. They seem to glide in for a day or two and then head back out to the oceanic expanse. What is clear, is that a colony of approx 50,000 Cape Fur Seals make quite an incentive for their presence.

Very tasty (and not my picture)!!

We had chosen White Shark Ecoventures (http://www.white-shark-diving.com/ - highly recommended), for their reputation as not only a very safe outfit, but vitally educational. This proved to be more than sales hype. Our Guide Hansie, a giant of a South African man, imbued us with knowledge. He was clearly passionate about the sharks and wished to dispel many of the misunderstandings men hold in relation to them. We were relying on his expertise as, even in such a perfect place to find Great Whites, sometimes you have to wait days for even a glimpse - and we only had one.
Unlike a particularly crazy South African who works nearby, this expedition involved a cage (said crazy man free-dives with Great White’s and has been known to attempt to hypnotise them – apparently if you touch a shark on the right place on its nose it suffers sensory overload and rolls on its back). I had expected a big sturdy thing with plenty of spare rails on which to rest your limbs away from sharp teeth. What was dangled over the side was a not so sturdy looking cage which squeezed in about 5 people and required placing of feet on the outer bars – feet dangling out as appetizers. Still, there have been no reported injuries with this company. Tragically there had been some recent fatalities on another boat, but these involved the dislodging of the cage in a storm and consequent drowning – a travesty, but not of great concern here in increasingly flat waters.

A minor aside. There are two main reasons why I find viewing animals in the wild so exhilarating. Firstly, the beauty of seeing things in their natural context - that unique feeling of privilege where you are the guest. Secondly, the uncertainty - the "hunt". Not knowing, or having much control over the variables of what, where, when and how. That was just the feeling I had as we waited, gently rocking on the subsiding waves. Scouring the grey-green depths for shadow, a fin, a fish.

And still we waited….. Just as I set my mind for a day of grasping at shadows as I stared at the sea-birds floating on the wind…..a sighting. In a rush of excitement and confusion, half of us dived down to the hold to put on whatever wet suit we could find and grab a mask and snorkel. With shining keenness and the significant effort necessitated by an overly-tight cold water wet-suit, I found myself "ready" first and jumped into the cage. Barely noticing the freezing cold water, I stuck my head down and stared all around. Where was she. Jerking my head from left to right, eyes peeled for a glimpse…. Then there she was, a 3.5m beast, with a particularly sharp end up front. A shrill shiver down the spine. Following in behind were Dave and Dave. Taking down huge gulps of breath, sinking down the cage and clinging to the bars as we carefully watched her path. Within a meter one minute, gone the next. No real aggression, she was in inquisitive mode.

When my turn was over I hauled myself out the water and up to the top deck for an aerial view. The crew had a tuna head on a line and were literally fishing for the giant. A controversial means of attraction (for fear of the sharks associating humans with food), by regulation the crew can only use so much in a day. The line is thrown out, little fish surround it until, whoosh, they split, the Great White attacks and the line is moved just in time. This was a reccie. When testing out new prey, Great White’s attack with increasing ferocity. The shark circles beneath and then rises vertically to meet its prey. At first, as here, just fast enough to break the surface of the water. With each attempt it speeds up, until in full attack mode a Great White can launch its full weight from the water, momentarily free of its watery confine. At up to and just over 2 tonnes in weight I find this a truly petrifying contemplation.

The Great White caught the bait on the second occasion and I remember thinking how oddly peaceful this first encounter had been, almost serene. This was soon to change….
Mask on, back in the water and buzzing. A new shark, and this time I was going to see him coming. Thanks to years of underwater-hockey my lung capacity is not bad (though not what it once was), so I could hold myself at the bottom of the cage for up to a minute at a time scouring the depth. I caught him out of the corner of my eye. To our back and below, he circled around and then surged vertically towards the bait. An awe inspiring sight. As the bait was dragged away he came crashing into the cage -serenity my arse. He dived back down and then resumed his attack. My foot was gaining purchase on the lower outer bar (as this was the only way of keeping yourself under the water). I saw him come with a flick of his powerful tail and the next thing I knew his terrifying jaws bit the cage where my foot had been but an instant before. Sometimes one has to thank those innate gut reactions….though a small scar could have been quite cool…maybe the loss of a toenail…

Our guide explained that even if the cage had not been there, it is unlikely that the shark would have eaten us. They have precise sensors in their jaws which tell them the content of what they are eating. Barring a few Americans, us humans have far less fat than an average seal, the shark’s favourite food. All those bones and straggly bits that make up our bodies would use up as many calories to digest (they swallow hole!) then they would provide in sustenance. This is an explanation why a not insignificant amount of people survive Great White attacks. Don’t believe all this tripe about fighting them off – they are up to 6 metres long with more teeth than a chainsaw – they take a bite, don’t fancy the taste and spit you out.

The next dive was almost comical. Bassett and I were in the corner of the cage as a particularly large one was doing the whole attack the tuna-head thing. The long and the short of it was that he ended up full-out head-butting the cage right where Dave was. Mouth open, teeth glinting, this was something out of a horror movie. Just in time he propelled himself back into me and I daresay we shared a moment…of terrorful fun ("terrorful" being a new word according to spell-check)! Feelings of desperation as you huddle up as far as possible from the outer bars. On the one hand, if you don’t hold on you can be bashed into the side, on the other, you hold on and lose some flesh – even a brush against the shark’s course side would rip off the skin.

What an experience!! Everything said we saw 4-5 sharks ranging from 2.5 to 4m long. We came back to shore with the biggest smiles imaginable. The sun had even come out in salutation.
I know this sounds like blaady…bladddy…blah…..but when you see the colossal creatures this close you do gain more respect for them and understand better the importance in protecting them. They are simply immense and it would be an unforgivable loss to lose them. I though still find it hard to "like" them. It is that emotionless look in their eye akin to snakes and crocs which, combined with their remarkable efficiency at killing things, makes them a thing of nightmares. A psychological phenomenon that should be our problem and not theirs.

A "Right" Bonus

I can not go without mentioning the Southern Right Whales (named so because they were the "Right" whales to catch) we saw on they way back to Cape Town. In and around Hermanus, hundreds of these many-tonne mammals come to raise there calves in the protective shallow waters. To stand by the wavecrashed rugged shore and watch mother and calf going about their way was….well just one of those moments.
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