Before getting married in 2012, my wife Jennifer and I were fortunate to have done a fair bit of travelling around the world. So when it came to planning our honeymoon, we both wanted it to be to a destination we had never been and really wanted to go. We decided South Africa would be it. We endured a little fear-mongering from people who told us about how dangerous it is in South Africa. But we figured that these were people who had never been to South Africa and were basing their opinions solely on what they had heard or read somewhere. We were going to South Africa.
After a run-in with actor Gerard Butler at JFK International Airport (I have photographic proof), the best Domino’s Pizza we ever had (is that saying much?) during our overnight stay at a JFK motel, witnessing a fellow passenger sneaking into the lavatory for a cigarette during our flight (really?), and a short stopover in Johannesburg, we arrived in Cape Town. We were tired but wide-eyed with wonder. The next week was filled with incredible experiences: we went to the top of Cape Town’s famed Table Mountain, got up close with elephants and lions while on safari on the Gondwana Game Reserve, and visited the lovely shanty town of our favourite driver, Mwande. But I would say the most incredible experience took place on the Indian Ocean.
Being in South Africa, we were in the great white shark capital of the world. I had been fascinated by great whites since seeing Spielberg’s Jaws as a kid. And I’ve always had this unhealthy (or healthy, depending on the context) habit of doing things that terrify me while knowing the possible repercussions (I insisted on watching Unsolved Mysteries as a youth even though I knew the theme song and the sound of Robert Stack’s voice would haunt me all night long). So we asked the staff at the Tsala Treetop Lodge, where we were staying at the time, to book us for a shark dive (I got the sense that they thought we were a little nuts). But we thought, when are we ever going to be back here? The next day we were picked up at around 5:30 a.m.by Mwande, who also thought we were a little nuts. (Apparently this wasn’t an attraction among locals.) We arrived at the White Shark Africa office in Mossel Bay for a light breakfast and a briefing from staff before signing our waivers and heading to the boat.
We took a half-hour boat ride out into the Indian Ocean and anchored just off the coast of Seal Island, a small, aptly named island that is a magnet for great whites because of its prime feeding options. (The water that surrounds the island is called the Ring of Death for obvious reasons.) Now, we weren’t guaranteed to see any sharks and were told that we would receive a voucher to return within the year if we didn’t. That just didn’t seem like a feasible option for us, so when the first shark showed up after about 25 minutes of waiting I was stoked. Then four more began circling our boat. Jennifer was having second thoughts about getting in the cage but a biologist who was with our group was able to use the magic of science to convince her to get in the wetsuit and into the cage. For the next hour we were face to face with five great whites, each of which was no smaller than eight feet in length.
Being up close with Earth’s largest predatory fish was something I can’t explain. We learned a lot about the problems they are facing as a species. One of the unintended side effects of the Jaws movie was that it created a perception of the shark as nothing more than a mindless, man-eating killer. It’s a perception that Jaws author Peter Benchley spent years after the movie’s release attempting to change while working to conserve the shark population until his death in 2006. Shark attacks on humans are rare, yet when they happen they are glorified by the media. To refer to all shark and human encounters as attacks is misleading. Research has shown that sharks have a great sense of curiosity and, when encountering something unusual in the water, use their mouths to explore that sense. Unfortunately their bite packs a lot more power than that of, say, a mosquito. The fact of the matter is that when we, as humans, are in the water, we’re in their territory. And research has also shown that they simply don’t like the taste of humans. At one point during our time in the water, a shark was able to briefly fit the tip of its snout into the cage and about a foot away from my and Jennifer’s faces. I was thrilled; she wanted out. But she stayed, and we were both glad she did.