If sharks liked human flesh, they would get you all right, says Julia. Anchored on the Atlantic Ocean near Dyer Island, a shark hotspot, and aboard a catamaran called Shark Team, it’s not the most comforting thought, but having got yourself into this, there’s little you can do apart from shrugging.
Her cheeks, beetroot red from years of shark-spotting in the sun, Julia wears big shades, a cap pulled tight over a mass of golden hair, gumboots and jeans. She carries a squat cylinder of a camera through which tourists are filmed trying to get a glimpse of the great white shark.
With the practised ease of handling tourists, some less adventurous than others, Julia chides me when, having gulped more seawater to last a lifetime, I decide against diving. “Then, why are you in the cage, sir?”
It works. In a body-hugging wetsuit that’s seven millimetres thick, goggles and mask that cover your nose, forcing you to breathe through your mouth, wearing waterproof booties and inside an aluminium cage with four others, I manage to locate the red nylon line that must be held to go underwater. And as I do, taking a deep breath, a school of small fish stares at me. Above, a Common Cape Seagull flutters. At 13 degree Centigrade, the water’s said to be unusually cold for sharks. Don’t know about that, but it’s certainly unusually cold for me. “My mom would be scared to do this, but you know what, it’s not the shark that bothers me. It’s the cold water,” says a fellow shark-spotter.
Water trickling through the gap between the suit’s neckline and the mask, feeling cold and miserable, I feel like a chicken in a coop. A cold one at that. And I wait. All those who have paid 1,200 rands (Rs 7,389 approx) for this have been clearly told that like sightings on a jungle safari, there is no guarantee a shark will come visiting.
The Shark Team crew though tries its best. Sardines mixed with fish oil and seawater — they call it the chum in these parts — is thrown at regular intervals as is a fish-bait tied to a rope. The bait often gets entangled in the cage mesh, leaving divers staring at a tuna head, water dripping from it into wet suits. After a while, a wooden decoy on a line too is hurled overboard.
“The smell of the oil and the tuna heads are supposed to stir the shark’s curiosity and get it to explore. Ditto the decoy,” says a crewmember. Sharks are extremely nomadic, says Julia. Some seen here have been tracked in western Australia, she says. And no one’s seen these predators, the world’s only untamed ones, breed. They are lonely and migratory.
And still we wait, the 20 of us. “Down, down on your right,” shouts a fellow tourist from the upper deck where only eight are allowed at any point in time. Having preened on the blue-green waters while waiting for my turn in the cage, guess what I am doing when I hear that? I am on the phone checking whether something major’s happened at the World Cup, which is my reason for being in South Africa.
A shark, some two metres long, had come visiting. “It’ll be around 600kg,” Julia tells us.
The next one arrives an hour later and this time I see it from the lower deck. Dorsal fin erect, its skin is greyish-yellow on top and you see the serrated tooth glistening in the mid-day sun. Another one follows. Neither breaches the water but they are the first sharks I saw since being scared by Jaws, the movie.
Hoping to see the underbelly of a great white, I get into the cage. I wait. For 30 minutes inside the cage, my back to the boat, hands on the lid and feet perched on the cage wires, I wait as the cold water of the Atlantic laps softly around me. No luck. “Time,” says Julia.
After 20 minutes of speeding through the Atlantic, I am back in Kleinbai, a sleepy suburb of Gansbai, some 200 km from Cape Town. A shower later, the DVD of our trip is shown on a huge flat screen, which we all watch over fruitcakes and juice. Newspaper reports of Nicolas Cage and four really old Hitchkock sisters, who have been similarly intrepid, adorn a wall. And you get a certificate for “braving African seas and stormy winds to see the Cape’s great white sharks.” The drive back to Cape Town takes two hours and is through beautiful country of rolling downs, apple orchards and craggy mountain faces that jut into the sky.
Do stop at Sir Lowry’s Pass to see Cape Town spread out in the distance and admire the Helderberg Mountain range from close.