Saturday, 30 June 2012

What Lies Beneath

"We are going to need a bigger boat..."
            We silently made our way down the street in the pre-dawn darkness while a light rain brushed our faces.  When we arrived at the Rose Bank Metrorail Station it was deserted save for one lone security guard sitting beneath the fluorescent lights above the platform.  He pointed across the tracks to platform three.   After a few minutes the 5:30am train squealed into the station and we boarded for our hour-long coastal journey to Simon’s Town, where we would be taken out to Seal Island to meet the world renowned South African Great White Sharks.
            After 45 minutes of nodding off between pages of our “Public Health in South Africa” assigned reading we began to hear the sound of waves.  We opened the sliding windows and were greeted by the moist, salty smell of the coastline.  Beyond the passing sand dunes lay the Atlantic, cold and frothing under the still black sky.  We kept our heads hung out like dogs on the open road until we came to a stop at our final station.  The rain had intensified as the clouds travelled down the nearby mountainside and we frantically jumped into a cab heading towards the pier.
            Rob, our Skipper and guide, met us at the end of the pier and beckoned us out of the rain and into the warmth of the Blue Pointer’s wheelhouse.  Here on the boat we met Naomi, a marine biology intern from Nova-Scotia, and RJ, a weekend warrior and amateur wildlife photographer from Johannesburg.  Two other crewmembers quickly unhitched us from the dock and Rob set course for Seal Island as we pulled out of the rainy marina.  We all sat in silence as Rob manned the helm.  During the thirty-minute ride out to the island we all wondered what lay ahead and what lay lurking under our boat…

Looking back at Simon's Town

            After awhile, the Skipper cut the engine and walked out onto the top deck.  It had stopped raining and we could now see a rocky outcropping in the middle of the sea in the dawn light.  We made our way out to the deck and were greeted by the barking of some 2,000 Cape Fur Seals, heckling us from their rocky perches.  
The Cape Fur Seals and Friends
Seal Island
A couple of African Penguins in the mix

Without a moment to lose Rob got back to the wheel and began circling the island for signs of “predation”– Great Whites hunting seals in their natural state (i.e. no chumming or human involvement).  Almost immediately we saw the first slash of a black dorsal fin and the ensuing white foam about a hundred meters of the starboard side.  As we raced to the scene of the attack the 4 meter long shark lunged again at the helpless seal and a brilliant red cloud of blood bloomed in the water as the shark dipped back below the surface, out of sight.  It all happened so fast that we could hardly believe we just saw our first great white shark­– it was unreal.  The pelagic sea birds were on scene to scavenge the few seal remains seconds after the first bite– the birds were natural signals of an attack.  After two more predation sightings and a failed attempt at dragging the foam decoy seal behind the boat, the crew prepped the cage.

Is that an over-sized lobster-trap?  No, that's the cage.


  After witnessing the sharks rip apart their breakfasts the cage seemed a little bit smaller and flimsier than before.  All of the sudden I found myself convinced that the cage’s steel bars were spaced too far apart.  Surely a one-ton apex predator could find his way in if he wanted to, right?   I shrugged the thought off as I squeezed into my dive gear and donned my weight belt.  While Matt and I suited up for the first round in the cage the others broke into screams of awe and delight from the back of the boat.  We dashed across the deck to find everyone gawking at a 4.5-meter shark circling the submerged cage.  Rob and the crew were going nuts! They were commenting on the size of the black monster that cruised just below the railing.  The white shark took one last passing glance at us and meandered off into the distance, its dorsal fin slowly sinking beneath the waves.  I could have sworn the thing winked at me… almost as if to say, “Don’t forget to close the cage door.”

            Matt and I strapped our masks on and walked to the port side where the cage thrashed against its rope restraints in the rolling swells.  

Naomi leaned over the rail and opened the top hatch.  She ushered us in with a big grin and Matt loped over and into the steel contraption with a dull splash.  As I stepped up to the rail I had the brief and unfortunate realization that it was possible to completely overshoot the cage opening.  I quickly readjusted myself over the middle of the cage and rolled into the cage in the feeble position.  The weight belt brought me straight to the floor of the cage and I sat there for a second in the cold and green.  I nervously sprang back up to the surface to receive my respirator that would provide air from a cylinder on the boat.  I took a few small, quick breaths to make sure the apparatus was working and let the weight belt take me back down into the unknown.

            I found the hand and foothold extensions at the bottom of the cage and made sure none of my appendages or digits were hanging outside.  After I nestled down I turned to find Matt casually sitting on the floor of the cage, looking around him like a toddler in the park.  His relaxed and curious demeanor made me feel unjustifiably tense in comparison.  I rolled my shoulders back and took a slow, deep breath from my respirator sending a cascade of bubbles towards the surface as I exhaled.  It was cold and quiet.  I could see the boat’s twin propellers slowly feathering in the current, but beyond that it was nothing but the green iridescence of the sea all around us.  All of the sudden a rhythmic thumping began to emit from the bottom of the boat.  It was RJ hitting the deck with a two by four in hopes that the acoustics would attract a curious beast.  I couldn’t help but think he was summoning the kraken.
            RJ continued to send sound waves out into the greenness until he stopped all at once and the distorted sound of shrieks from the group made me turn my head.  There it was, the thing that had haunted my dreams ever since I started watching shark week as a kid, the bleached white belly of a Great White Shark.  The shark was about 4 meters long and swimming perpendicular to the surface as it struggled with a tuna head attached to a rope.

I hurriedly tapped Matt on the chest and motioned for him to turn around.  The shark, seemingly sensing he was being watched, quickly leveled off and swam out of our view.  Matt and I looked out after it with our breath held, but it never came back.

After about ten minutes of no movement we jumped back to the surface and climbed out.  My initial nervousness had faded and we both took off our masks hooting and hollering about what we had just seen.  The group was ready for their turns;Allen and Ling suited up and jumped in soon after us.

Not five minutes after they entered the water then a 4.5-meter shark began feeding on the bait directly in front of their cage.  The shark made multiple passes within feet of the cage and from the deck we could make out every detail of the beautiful animal.  It was like nothing I had ever seen before– this shark was huge.

This behemoth continued to put on shows for everyone in the cage.  Matt and I jealously and patiently waited for another chance to get up close and personal.

            Meanwhile on the upper deck we began to learn about Rob and his knowledge on these predators.  Seal Island is one of six Great White hot spots worldwide and though they are abundant in the right seasons certain aspects of their migratory patterns and reproductive behavior are still virtually unknown.  The majesty and mystery of these animals has kept him in this business for 16 years and counting, and has also attracted a number of notable celebrities including Tiger Woods, Jeff Corwin, the Myth Busters crew, BBC’s Blue planet crew, Discovery Channel’s Planet Earth Crew, and a failed visit by the Wild Boys.  Unfortunately when Steve-O and Chris Pontius revealed to Rob their plan to jump off the boat, over the great whites, and into a cage he had to refer them to another charter company, one that would have as little common sense as those two.
            After a good laugh or two it was time for Matt and I to get redemption.  We donned our gear once more and plunged into cage.  The seas had become choppier during our wait and we bounced around like helpless lobsters in a trap.  We hunkered down at the bottom of the cage and waited patiently for the 4.5-meter beast to give us one last adrenaline rush.  After ten minutes it seemed the shark had left us waiting in vain and Matt and I searched hopelessly all around.  Just when I had begun to climb to the surface I saw a flash of grey below my feet.  It was the behemoth… and it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.  Matt and I watched for five minutes as he gracefully circled the boat about 2 meters below us.  As Matt and I sat there in trance by the tranquility of this ferocious predator I couldn’t help but feel like this animal knew what we were.  It was as if he knew that he could break our cage in two and eat its contents, but he simply did not have a craving for public health majors.  Suddenly, he made one last loop and gently careened off into the great green sea…
Though it may seem small in this picture
this shark is about 13 feet long and weighs
somewhere around a ton...

            Once again we sat in silence as we rode back to the shelter of the marina.  I do not think it was quite believable what we had just experienced.  The whole excursion was surreal.  What I do believe is that we all have a new and profound respect for these animals, and all of the majesty they possess.  There is an immutable feeling that is engendered through an encounter with something that has the capability of taking your life.  I can’t say it is humbleness, but rather reverence.  Whatever the feeling was, it rose into us much like the sun rose over the clouds on our train back home.

Written by Tyler Woods

(Photography courtesy of Audrey Leasure and Tyler Woods)

1 comment:

  1. Well, that's impressive. Not sure I want to attempt that experience myself but it seems saner than bungee jumping.Some nice photos mixed in and the short video was fun. Glad everyone got to see/experience the shark and made it back alive.