Diving with great white sharks: conquering some toothy fears

Posted on 27 June 2013

Never ever did I imagine that I would be clutching the bars of a cage, enveloped in a wetsuit while submerged in murky water, gulping in air and about to plunge beneath the surface to come eye to eye with a four and a half metre long Great White. It simply never entered my sphere of thinking, firstly because I am terrified of the sea due to almost drowning when I was three, and the fact that I watched Jaws when I was little and have had a mild shark phobia ever since. That is rather a significant understatement – my fear of sharks was so bad (back in the day when I needed polkadot armbands) that I refused to swim in the pool on my own, in case some toothy monstrosity pounced on me from out of the creepy crawly. So shark cage diving was a big deal for me. A very big deal.

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The only reason I plucked up the courage to put my big girl wetsuit on and plunge into that cage, was because I trust Mike Rutzen implicitly. The man is an absolute wonder – either he’s stark raving mad or he’s a genius; either way he’s a shark whisperer. Have a look at his videos on Youtube – it will blow your mind and certainly make you question everything that you thought you knew about sharks.

There is footage of Mike freely swimming amongst Great Whites, playfully interacting with them, touching them on their noses and hitching a ride on an obliging fin – it’s no wonder that he’s affectionately known all over the world as the ‘Sharkman.’ He is passionate about sharks and committed to their conservation, dedicating a great deal of time and resources to actively saving them, predominantly by educating the public. He has lectured all over the world and has a number of innovative shark conservation and research initiatives undergo, including the development of an eco-friendly, sustainable shark barrier structured around the concept that sharks are repelled by kelp and magnetic fields. He’s also starred in a number of prominent television series, including Sharkman featured by Discovery Channel and A Living Legend of Gansbaai showcased by the BBC. Not to mention that he appeared in the Shark Master episode of Stan lee’s Superhumans. I’m beginning to sound like a bit of a groupie, but I’m just trying to bring the point home that this man knows his stuff.

I did my dive with Mike’s company, Shark Diving Unlimited, which is the only PADI dive centre in Gansbaai, specialising in Great White Shark diving. Despite stalking Mike extensively for reassurance, I have to admit that on the day of the dive, I still had reservations and some rather toothy fears to conquer. The Jaws music kept playing repetitively through my head (Da dum da dum da dum) and I started narrating my fears in the epic, gruff voice of the narrator from Hunter Hunted; ‘Samantha was a young girl who went on an innocent shark cage dive. Little did she know what nightmares were about to unfold. What prompted this unprecedented attack? Will we ever know what went through that rogue shark’s mind before his jaws clenched shut?’ Yes. I think you get the picture. I deal with my anxiety in a rather weird way.

Anyway, I popped a few seasickness tablets and jumped on the boat, trying to ignore that gathering clouds in the sky. Luckily the sea was relatively calm and I climbed to the roof for an uninterrupted, 360 degree view of my surrounds. There I stayed while we whipped through the water, to the famed Shark Alley which lies between two islands, one of which houses a Cape fur seal colony boasting some 60,000 beasts. Perfect for sharks seeking seal-sized snacks. This is where one can witness the renowned breaching behaviour which involves the apex predators torpedoing their massive frames completely out of the sea in pursuit of unsuspecting prey. There was a great deal of kelp and no sharks in the area, so we headed back towards the shore, where shark activity had been reported.

The crew started setting up the cage, while I changed into my wetsuit. This was the hardest part of the entire trip. There is not much privacy on a boat, and I had chosen to wear a rather dodgy bikini which was not all that structurally stable. My advice is not to do this – it becomes rather awkward when you have foreign tourists gawking at you. Once said wetsuit was on, I found that I was suddenly feeling rather brave. Having conquered my neoprene cocoon and drugged up on motion sickness tablets, I felt like I was ready for anything, so I volunteered to be one of the first people in the cage. We were given strict instructions on how to behave – don’t rest your hands anywhere near the orange bar, dive down when the order is given and never stick your limbs out beyond the bars (I feel the last point was rather redundant).

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Great White Shark. Image by david salvatori

My heart was pounding and my teeth were chattering (not just because the water was freezing), but when the fish head, attached to a piece of string, was thrown just beyond the cage and the first Great White emerged, I suddenly felt very calm. This was it. The order came to dive down; I gulped in some air, plunged into the murky depths and a massive grey-white form powered past my head, overwhelming me with its size and sheer awesomeness. I wasn’t afraid at all – I just couldn’t believe that I was witnessing such a fantastic creature less than a metre away. I was only down for a few seconds, but the sight of that glimmering, white-blue eye will stay with me forever. I stayed in the cage for fifteen minutes, ducking down every time a Great White launched itself at the bait and in that time, my perception of sharks completely changed. It took fifteen minutes for a fifteen-year phobia to disappear. It’s a funny thing – the cage probably doesn’t really need to be there – the sharks aren’t interested in humans as food, so it acts more as a structure protecting us from our own insecurities than sheltering us from potential predators.

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Back on the boat, I watched other people conquering their fears in the cage, while I tried to take photos of the sharks circling the bait. It’s wonderful to watch the incredible creatures from the boat, particularly when they launch themselves after the fish with their mouths wide open displaying rows of razor-sharp teeth. I didn’t get any decent pictures, sadly, but I’m not complaining. I’ll always have the memories to come back to.

I think that humans are dangerous because we tend to live by our assumptions. This is why the shark stereotype has been allowed to reign for so long. It is crucial that we start getting the facts straight and championing the creatures which deserve our love and respect. Thank you to the Shark Diving Unlimited team for helping to conquer my fears and getting me over my own phobia. Sharks have had a bad name for too long – more people are killed by toasters each year, so let’s replace the shark phobia with a cult of fear about burnt bread instead.

Main image: Great White Shark by Dave Caravias

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