28: Diving with Sharks
For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a fear of water. Well, not actually “water” as pools don’t bother me… more like deep water… well, not actually deep water as I’m not panicked by lakes or rivers… more like ocean water. Actually what I’m really afraid of is the stuff in the ocean water specifically sharks, thanks to the movie Jaws… a movie where that R rating should have been enforced!
I was already a pretty timid swimmer before seeing Spielberg’s classic at an impressionable age. During a family vacation in Florida I had snuck away with my friends to go see the thriller. I came away so terrified I wouldn’t set foot in the ocean for days. Of course I couldn’t tell my folks about my new fear because I’d seen a forbidden movie. My father, not understanding this new phobia, must have thought I was just being a stubborn kid and took to tossing me in the ocean to get me swimming again, further traumatizing me as I attempted to walk on water while thoughts of hungry creatures waiting in the depths sent my fertile young mind into overdrive.
After years of staying in shallow water and thinking I was safe, I got caught in a riptide in Mexico while wading in waist-deep water. I went through the whole life review episode and one of my last thoughts before someone rescued me was, “oh great, now a shark will eat my body and my mom will never know what happened to me.” Needless to say, it was years before I’d go in water over my ankles again.
This irrational fear that a great white was circling the globe in search of a Greek treat was, to put it mildly, driving me f*&^ing insane. I love the beach and the sound of the ocean, but if my raft floated into deeper than waist-high water and I couldn’t see the bottom, my heart would try to beat an escape out of my chest; my mouth would seem to fill with sand and I’d begin hyperventilating like a 14-year-old boy making a Britney Spears sighting. And THEN I would panic. It had to stop, so I learned to scuba dive to convince myself that the ocean wasn’t filled with creatures just waiting to devour me. Completing the course just before the start of my RTW journey, I next vowed to face my greatest fear head on. I was going to dive with sharks when I traveled South Africa.
I did the research, read about the impeccable safety record, heard a dozen adrenaline-laced stories about the thrill. I was terrified, but this was the way I could finally overcome the fear. I could do it! I was pumped!
That is, until I heard THE story. The one right out of THE movie that ruined the ocean for me.
The night before I was going to finally do the deed I met a couple of backpackers with a tale…
“So we’re on the boat and they’re hanging this bloody chunk of meat off this pole (see notes on this below), trying to entice this shark to come closer and take a bite when wham!! Another shark they didn’t see came around the back of the boat and grabbed the bait! But they didn’t see it in time to release the meat and the freaking shark dragged the freakin’ boat around in a semi-circle and bent the pole before they could cut it free! The captain said he’d never seen anything like it before!”
Uh huh. Call me cynical, but I find it highly unlikely that this is a first-time situation. And there’s nothing about sneak attacks in the brochures touting that impeccable safety record.
Just hearing this story got that familiar drum beat going. It was all I needed to resoundly squash my bravado no shark diving for me. My back still hurt anyway I rationalized, so it wouldn’t be good for my health in any circumstance. I’d just have to make do with a visit to the aquarium’s 30-foot-deep tank, that’s home to a variety of indigenous South African sharks. But my “luck” was to change again when I arrived at the aquarium and learned that visitors not only can look at the sharks, they can get in the tank with them!
Well there you go. This was diving with sharks! And surely it had to be safe; wouldn’t be good for the aquarium’s image to have the visitors chomped on (“Mommy, why does that shark have an arm in its mouth?”) Okay, it wasn’t as glamorous as encountering Jaws in the Atlantic, and I was assured the sharks were well-fed, and I would be accompanied by the shark biologist but hey! it was TECHNICALLY diving with sharks!
I immediately signed on.
For the first time excited and not terrified about the prospect of being this close to these predators I forgot about my aching joints, donned my wetsuit, BCD and mask, and moseyed over to the tank’s edge. The biologist jumped in first with a long pole to poke away any “inquisitive” sharks and then began rapidly sweeping his head right and left underwater while motioning me to jump in.
And then it struck.
As I looked into the tank and noticed all the fins I started thinking “if this is so safe, then why is he looking around so frantically?” My breath started to come in short, rapid, shallow gasps. I could still back out… only the biologist would know… but I couldn’t bear the humiliation of chickening… so still hyperventilating I jumped in…
I’d been given strict instructions to follow my partner’s directions precisely. No worries there: my eyes were glued to him, my concentration on not sucking down all my oxygen in 10 minutes. Eventually I was able to tear my eyes off my knight in shining polyurethane and look around at the sea turtles and eels and fish… so many fish… exotic, pretty, strange… fish with big chunks missing out of some of them… and the dozen or so sharks that seemed to be eyeing me like some sort of delicacy…
We swam around the tank looking for shark teeth souvenirs and waved at a child on the other side of the glass who jumped up and down with excitement at the sight of us divers in the tank. Just as I was getting comfortable my time was up. I was first out of the pool, followed quickly by the biologist who repeated his curious head sweep routine the entire time we climbed out of the tank. Just as his fins cleared the water, a fish jumped high above the tank’s water line, followed by the flash of a fin. When I inquired about it, the biologist said the fish was trying to avoid a shark.
“But I thought you said they were well-fed,” I responded suspiciously.
Then with a small smile playing on the corners of his lips he replied, “Well they are, but sometimes they just want a little snack.”
On Shark Diving Tours
While researching my shark diving options, I learned that it is illegal for shark diving operations to “chum” the water to attract sharks. But with every operation guaranteeing an encounter it seemed highly unlikely that every operator was lucky enough to come upon great whites on a daily basis.
My suspicion was confirmed first by the story the backpackers told me, and then by the aquarium’s biologist who said it was the practice of many operators to send a boat ahead to chum the water with bait and then radio the dive boat once contact was made. The biologist said this practice was causing quite a bit of concern for the tourist bureaus and surfers alike, as the sharks were now equating humans with food and that there was an alarming increase in shark attacks on humans in years since shark diving became popular.