In my mind, all things ‘Shark’ are cool. I loved the Jaws movies growing up, even though I had to watch most of the scary bits through my fingers. I even jumped in my seat when on the Universal Studios Jaws ride….at the age of 23. How my sub-consciousness could be fooled into thinking that a mechanical rubber shark would try and eat me is best left unexplained.
Sharks are fascinating creatures, my favourites being the big ones – Great Whites, Tigers….the man-eating variety. These two cronies could easily be viewed as ugly but on the flip-side something classifies them as almost beautiful creatures – a mouth full of huge teeth, heavily scarred bodies from numerous run-ins with other sharks, and the fact that they are super efficient killing/eating machines with hunting skills honed from years of evolutionary ‘practice’. Shark Week on the Discovery Channel always makes great viewing, even though I may have already seen the episode several times. I’ve also seen Damien Hurst’s formaldehyde-preserved Tiger shark exhibit, ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’ whilst on display at the Saatchi gallery in London. Stood at the front of the murky tank exhibit in which the shark is suspended, it is easy to imagine being underwater with this thing heading straight towards you. There are two things which I believe would happen in this instance. 1) You would probably lose all manner of bowel control whilst literally staring death in the face, and 2) your hands would unknowingly float into a raised “ok you got me” surrender pose. If you’ve ever watched the movie Deep Blue Sea, you’ll understand where I’m coming from. Unlike a lily-livered works supervisor, they mean business when experiencing hunger pains.
It’s pretty cool how the Whites can launch themselves out of the water (breaching) whilst pursuing a lunch time snack of fresh seal pelt – Air Jaws, death from below! South Africa is a great place to see the Great Whites whilst cage diving or swimming off the Cape beaches, something which was on my personal bucket list (not the latter!) I got bought an experience as my 30thBirthday present from my wife and it was amazing! Some people view cage diving as a bit unnatural and cruel, i.e. the water is chummed with fish guts and baited heads to attract the sharks but in truth, the skippers also use seal-shaped floatation devices and willing volunteers to mix it up and keep the sharks interested. If you pay attention, you might notice faces on the boat slowly disappearing throughout the course of the day – the chum buckets need to be replenished don’t you know?!
Our boat was pretty big, so there was no risk of Jaws doing a belly flop on deck and sinking the thing. From the top deck you could see the fishies approaching up the calm water ‘shadow’ afforded by the boat’s mass. Divers were loaded into the cage, eight at a time. Once everyone had had a good glimpse of jaws or if they were very lucky, received a tail smack from an agitated shark, it was time to haul your body mass out of the water and give the next group a chance. There is always one idiot on a daytrip event such as this and I’m sorry to say this time he was an American. This particular guy would not let go of the top of the cage as he struggled with the basic concept that you actually had to duck your head underwater to view the sharks. He also naively kept putting his entire arm outside of the cage to hold on to the bars, probably thinking that the sharks would more than likely pass up on some nutritional MacDonald’s fed human flesh….need I say any more?!
By the time myself and my wife decided to clamber into the cage, there were about twelve sushi specimens circling the boat, taking it in turn to sample the variety of fish offal on offer (dare you to say that fast). The most sizeable shark was around 3 metres in length, which doesn’t sound like much, but trust me, in-person it is plenty big enough. Apparently the largest recorded Great White is something like 13 metres long (cue automatic bowel evacuation, if you ever came face-to-face with this monster in the big salty swimming pool!) We both had to don wetsuits to give the sharks the impression that we were ‘lean meat’ and also because the water was chattery-teeth freezing. The underwater visibility wasn’t great and the sharks were Houdini masters and would literally appear from nowhere. This gave me a greater respect for their hunting abilities and made me grateful that I was a land walker. The second time in the water, we ended up in one of the cage-end corners and the ‘big one’ came up to bite the bars right in front of my wife – totally awesome! It was difficult to smile with a snorkel wedged in mouth, but I was sure giving it a good go. All in all, a great day out.
A lot of the popular public beaches in the Cape and Natal are netted, however after my cage diving experience I wouldn’t choose to venture very far into the sea alone (unless I was with someone else I knew I could beat in a life-or-death swimming race). Our cage-dive shark boat was moored surprisingly close to the shore. Apparently sharks are very good at swimming in standing-depth water, scoping out the best cheesy feet and limbs to sample. I’ve been snorkelling off a Mossell-Bay beach on the edge of where the seafloor falls away and the water is cool. It wasn’t until afterwards that I discovered that the big sharks can ‘sometimes’ be found along this coastline where the beaches are not netted. I’m not being a sissy, but sunbathing and sandcastle building are definitely more attractive options to being shark stalked. They ARE watching you!
False sense of security? I think so! The design is a cruel one, where sharks are free to swim over and around the nets, only getting caught on the way back out to the deep blue with a bit of your flesh. For this reason, some authorities are removing shark nets completely, thus giving the sharks a chance to properly digest their food before dying of natural causes.
Some triathletes and scuba divers choose to wear a single shark deterrent ankle/wrist unit when carving up shark-infested waters (please note the use of the word ‘single’). If I was to ever compete in a triathlon swim in South African waters, I would definitely be the slowest swimmer in the pack due to the gargantuan amount of drag emanating from the shark-deterrents which would be packed onto every inch of available body. If one unit’s battery died, I’d know at least I have a multitude of others to stand in and ‘do the business’.
In the end, this whole human shark attack hoo-ha doesn’t come down to humans disguising themselves as prey and a confused shark, i.e. either a tasty surfer on a board who looks like a seal on a Ocean Basket seafood platter, OR a game of splash, which conjures up images of an injured, flailing fish in the shark mind’s-eye. Simply put, it relates to respecting personal boundaries. When your opponent sports a battalion of teeth the length of an average-sized human finger, they have a right to all the seawater they like – End of story.