The frightfully small metal cage I was about to step into was dangling precariously off a rickety boat, floating on the waters of the Indian Ocean. The swaying of the boat made it difficult to get a good look at the cables from which the cage was suspended. I could only hope they were made of steel, and not from some rotten piece of rope they found lying around the harbour. It might have been useful to study these details prior to boarding. At times, my own stupidity amazes me. Our guide was chumming the waters with bait, National Geographic style, in an attempt to lure a great white shark into the vicinity for the photo opportunity of a lifetime. The smell of blood, guts and dead fish hung heavy in the air. Seagulls circled in frenzied anticipation, as if sensing something was about to get torn apart. I pictured the sharks huddled in a circle down below, exchanging wide, sharp toothy grins, rubbing their fins together and chuckling at how easy it would be to lunge up and snap the boat in half. They were just taking their time, sorting out the details of who would get first dibs at the buffet table. I felt sick. My mouth was dry, hanging open like I was attempting to catch a few insects for my last meal. I was desperate to talk to my mom and tell her that, in the end, clean underwear doesn’t matter that much. Not when you’re about to crap your entire wetsuit. And to think, all of this excitement for only $80 — what a bargain! How did I get roped into this? Deciding to dabble within the realm of reckless behaviour was not panning out to be as much fun as I thought it would be. I was scared… I didn’t want to die. Not ever actually, but especially not like this. My time on earth was about to end, and there were still so many things I wanted to do with my life. (Marinating in this wondrous epiphany, mere minutes from impending death, is really quite useless. Why is it that we only possess this level of clarity when we think it’s all over? What a waste. The only thing that was going to save me was divine intervention. And, by God, I was counting on it.)
My friend was already down there in the cage. Normally one has to wait until a shark has been spotted before they let you jump in; they don’t want you running out of oxygen while you’re down there waiting. But it had been awhile since he had been scuba diving and he wanted to get comfortable with the equipment before seeing a shark, so they let him get in the cage ahead of time. He jumped in, disappearing into the dark water. As for me, I didn’t have any scuba diving experience. I mentioned this out loud but no one appeared overly concerned. As I waited, I wrestled with the wretched wetsuit and made my way to the roof of the boat to get my underwater camera from my duffel bag. And that’s when I saw it. Looking down from the roof, I saw a grey shadow in the water and it was visible on both sides of the boat. It took a few seconds for the image to sink in, and for my mind to register the sheer size of the monster lurking right beneath us. How wide was the boat? Was it possible this thing could be that big? I already knew the answer, but I was still hoping that it was two separate sharks. Regrettably, it was not. The instructor whistled softly and said, “We’ve got ourselves a mother of a shark here, folks. She’s at least 16 feet long. Some people wait their whole lifetime to see this. What a beauty.” The boat suddenly felt very, very small. As I stealthily climbed back down the ladder to the bottom of the boat, the silence was deafening. Everyone held their breath and waited for the shark to reappear. Without warning, it breached the water and went straight for the tuna head that was now suspended above water near the back of the boat. The sheer size of this thing jumping out of the water like a glistening torpedo was enough to stop my heart. The instructor, who had been standing on the back of the boat to bait the hook with a new piece of tuna, jumped out of the way just in time and landed on his back in the middle of the boat. Somewhere, in between the initial silence and the appearance of the massive beast, all hell broke loose. It was sheer pandemonium.
The shark surfaced again, this time sinking its teeth into the side of the boat. We all shrieked like little schoolgirls. I could not believe that this thing was hanging off the side of the boat by its teeth. I have never felt so alive, and yet so close to death, all in the same moment. I was now standing at the bottom of the boat, furiously snapping away with my camera. I didn’t realize I was being pushed closer to the edge of the boat as everyone was shoving and trying to wedge their way in for a better shot. When I took the camera down from my face and realized that the lens was not zoomed in, I nearly stopped breathing. I was so close to this thing, I could have leaned over and patted this monstrous creature on the snout. When the shark dove down again, the guy beside me leaned over and said, “Man, I wish I’d taken a picture of your face when you realized how close you were. Now that was a Kodak moment!”
I was still trying to pull myself together when I heard a horrific screeching sound. The shark had rammed into the cage, which was now swinging dangerously from side to side. The instructors quickly pulled the cage closer to the boat. They looked relieved to see that the cables were still attached and that the cage hadn’t plummeted to the bottom of the ocean. One of them leaned into the cage, hooked his hands into my friend’s armpits and dragged him out. He collapsed in a heap on the bottom of the boat, white as a ghost.
He gazed in my direction with a puzzled what-the-hell-just-happened-to-me look, leaned over to the right and projectile vomited onto the side of the boat. After staring for a few moments at the splattered remains of his breakfast, he told us that the shark had almost got him. When it slammed into the cage, he lost his balance and instinctively grabbed the bars with his hands to balance himself. The shark turned and came straight towards him, just as he let go of the cage to pull his arms back inside. Then the shark made a sharp turn and dove under him, and he swore that it was after his scuba diving flippers, which were dangling from the bottom of the cage. He did his best to keep all of his appendages inside of the cage until the shark left.
Everyone was a little shaken after hearing this. The instructor looked at me and said, “I think we’re done here for today. Sorry, but you won’t be able to go into the cage. It’s just not safe. It may need some repairs after that hit.” Well, bite me Batman. If he thought there was any chance in hell I was going in after hearing that story, he was crazier than I thought. (See Exhibit A for actual photo taken by friend just as the shark spotted the cage… imagine this coming at you, just as you’re learning how to breathe under water for the first time? Friends, I would have perished.)
For those of you wondering if there’s a correlation between this activity and the fact that South Africa holds the title for the most shark attacks per year, well, let’s just say the sharks would be there regardless. We were out near a tiny land mass called Geyser Rock, the breeding ground for over 20,000 seals. Dyer Island, breeding ground to the Jackass Penguins (I’m not making this up), is right across from Geyser Rock. The area in between the two land formations is known as Shark Alley. It’s a flesh-eater’s wet dream. If I were a shark, I would hang out here too. It would not however, be a good place to go waterskiing or float on a patched-up tire tube. These activities are better suited for the beautiful lakes of the Prairies. †