“You know those YouTube videos you see where the shark gets into the cage?”
I looked around and saw everyone nodding and chuckling nervously as one of the staff members at the White Shark Diving Company gave us a safety briefing in preparation for our upcoming cage dive.
“Well that is not going to happen, not with this kind of cage. In fact, if a shark does swim into the cage go ahead and give him a little cuddle, because he’d have to be tiny enough to fit through these bars.” He gestured toward the narrow slats of the cage as we all chuckled at the notion of cuddling a shark. He also told us that if anyone was caught trying to stick any limbs or cameras outside of the cage, the trip would be ended immediately. Then he went on to warn us that orca whales had been spotted in the bay within the past few days so we likely wouldn’t see any white sharks, but that there was a good chance to see other species.
After a few more instructions, we were boarding our boat as I shivered in the early morning chill. Almost immediately, we were joined by a large Shearwater that had no trouble at all keeping up with the boat as one of the crew members fed it some fish.
Soon we were dropping anchor near an island that our guide explained to be a wildlife reserve for several species of threatened and endangered birds, including the shearwaters. Then he said that they were going to drop some chum in the water in the hopes that a shark would get curious and swim in our direction. He acknowledged that chumming is a controversial practice, but assured us that the sharks were only going to show up if they felt so inclined, and that the bait would not do anything to supplement their regular diets. This was a bit of a moral gray area for me because I don’t feel right about animal interactions that alter what the animals would naturally be doing in the wild, but I had to concede that the tiny bit of chum would not make a meal for any sizable shark. I was also aware that White Shark Diving Company is compliant with South Africa’s code of ethics for shark tour operators, and that they donate to shark research funds and use a low emission motor on their boat, so I felt that the activity seemed mostly harmless. If anything the tourism revenue is a good reason for locals to work to preserve shark populations.
As the crew got to work, we sat on deck and waited, watching the water for any signs of activity. A multitude of seagulls flew overhead, and I pulled up the hood of my raincoat just in case any of them decided to relieve themselves.
After the warning talk about how we might not see any sharks, I was surprised to see a large shadow glide just under the surface of the water after only about fifteen minutes of waiting. It was a brown whaler shark, and it circled around the small buoy of bait a few times before the crew announced that we should don our wetsuits and get ready to enter the cage.
This was my first time ever attempting to put on a wetsuit, and it was not the easiest undertaking, but eventually we were all wearing the skin-tight suits as we waited for our turn in the cage. Our group still had our customary seven people, although Jordi, Bonnie, and David were traded out for Rachel, Richard, and Jasmine on this particular excursion. We opted to take the second turn in the cage, and we watched a couple of sharks circle the boat while the other passengers viewed them from the water.
The first group stayed in the cage for about twenty minutes, and then it was our turn. I was nervous about the water temperature, but was able to push through it because of my excitement about seeing the sharks. I lowered myself into the cage, not quite sure how I was going to feel once I was inside. The water was chilly, but with the wetsuit on I hardly noticed. This was an experience I had dreamed about for years, and never really thought I would get to do. Now that it was happening, it felt a bit surreal. I noticed my heart beating faster as I exchanged glances with the rest of the group. We were waiting for a crew member to signal that a shark was within viewing distance. From inside the cage, it is impossible to tell when a shark is approaching, so you have to rely on instructions from the crew. It was slightly unnerving to know that there were sharks bigger than me nearby, and that I could not see them approaching, but mostly I was eagerly anticipating my chance to duck underwater and come face-to-face with one.
Within a couple of minutes we heard the signal to duck down. I gulped a deep breath of air and plunged underwater, hanging onto a bar inside the cage to hold myself under. I was just in time to see a shark bump the bait with its nose before turning tail and disappearing into the watery green haze. I popped back up for air, exchanging an excited smile with Vince as we waited for the next signal. Over the course of our twenty minutes in the cage, we had several amazing views of the sharks. At one point, one of them came close enough that it actually brushed the cage right in front of me. This close of a vantage gave me a new perspective on how truly massive and powerful these animals were. I was awestruck by the experience, and I was not ready to leave the cage when our turn was up.
Back on deck, we moved to the bow to absorb some sunlight while the first group got back in the cage. While we relaxed on the boat deck, a massive stingray circled around below the vessel, and we walked back and forth to get a good look at it. It is hard to judge something’s size when it’s underwater, but this ray appeared to be wider around than I am tall. Eventually we got our second turn in the cage, but the shark activity was dying down. With less excitement the chill of the water was more noticeable, and we didn’t stay down for nearly as long. We clamored back out of the cage, and shed our wetsuits as the crew prepared to return us to Van Dyks Bay for lunch.
Lunch was a choice between beef or vegetarian lasagna, and I was once again impressed with the availability and quality of the vegetarian option (something that I often find lacking when I try to eat out at home). While we ate, we watched a video that our guide had put together from the day’s trip. Then we meandered around the bay for a little bit before embarking on the 2.5 hour drive back to Cape Town.
On our way back, we stopped at a beautiful overlook that is known as a good spot for whale watching. We didn’t see any whales, but we did see some stellar rock formations, and a brilliantly colored southern rock agama lizard.
We arrived back in Cape Town with plenty of time to change and get down to the city center to meet up with a Free Walking Tour. We were even able to catch up with Jared and some of the other Percussive travelers as they ended one of their tours and we waited for ours to start. Rachel and Jasmine had gone their separate ways, but Richard stayed with Vince, Caleb, Jess, and me as we joined the Bo-Kaap walking tour.
Bo-Kaap is an area known for its colorful homes which once denoted the profession of their occupants. Some owners still use colors to symbolize their professions, particularly houses where you can go for a home cooked Cape Malay meal. The tour took us through the vibrant streets of Bo-Kaap and lasted until sunset.
Afterwards, we stopped for dinner at Biesmiellah Restaurant, a locally owned Cape Malay restaurant where we got to try a variety of new foods including Bobotie and Falooda. We happened to be there on the first day of Ramadan, and our waitress told us that Falooda (a cold and sweet milkshake-like beverage) would be very popular in the evenings during that month because it is good for restoring the body’s sugar after a day of fasting. Full and tired from another extremely early wake-up call, we retreated to the Signal Hill Lodge and crashed for the night.