Like so many things, it all started with a T-shirt.
We were lunching at one of our outdoor neighborhood cafes a few blocks from our apartment in Sao Paulo, when I noticed that at the next table an young woman had a T-shirt on that said “Great White Shark Cage Diver, South Africa”. For some reason, the perfectly manicured nails, immaculately coordinated outfit, stiletto heeled sandals, and what must have been a reasonably costly complete blowout hairdo did not say:” salty, dripping, clumsy, gear burdened SCUBA diver” to me; much less in a cage, and even more so near sharks. But it just goes to show you that even a trust fund fashonista can have the spirit of adventure, since I asked her if she had really done a cage dive with great whites, and she had.
So now I had a new mission in life: to cage dive with Great Whites. Because the T-shirt told me to. And I got really lucky and had the chance to go to South Africa by glomming onto one of Gary’s business trips. But we did have to traverse most of the country to get from Port Elizabeth to Capetown, just to do the shark dive, and it was very much worth it!
Luckily, cage diving is not at all like cage fighting, no matter how much more interesting it may seem, you are not locked inside a cage containing a shark. Cage diving relies rather on the simple principle of you being inside the cage, and the shark staying out. The only gray area arises from the fact that in order for you to see the shark up close, someone on the boat is continuously using a juicy slab of tuna to lure the shark towards the cage, and sometimes they don’t bother to stop. To avoid a reverse souvenir situation (where instead of bringing something back from S. Africa you leave something there, fingers come to mind) a bar is attached well inside the cage to hang onto, since even a grazing contact with the shark’s sandpaper-like skin would mean shredded digits.
We had a super sharky day! Even though the boat was bobbing around in the vicinity of the infamous “Ring of Death” surrounding the island where the seals were breeding, it’s a very big ocean to encounter sharks of even this large size, and it is more like a lottery whether one will happen to cross the trail of anchovy oil dripping from a bottle on the stern of the boat, and even then one has to decide to investigate the source. We were fortunate and saw 8 different individual sharks throughout the day, from both above and below the water. It was mesmerizing to watch them circle majestically around and beneath the boat. Having known how to swim from a young age, falling out of a boat has never really been of concern to me. But as I watched two 17 foot Great Whites circle us for 45 minutes, it suddenly occurred to me that if I fell out of THIS boat, it probably didn’t matter whether I knew how to swim or not.
Sadly, due to the unconscionable practice of finning sharks, overfishing and the myriad of other problems our oceans face, in the coming decades it may become very rare to see even one Great White, since as apex predators they are especially vulnerable. Incidentally, shark fins aren’t even added to soup for their flavor, only to improve the texture, which makes me wonder if the wholesale slaughter of a species could have been avoided if someone had only known how to make a roux.