The first thing I saw as I passed through customs in Dulles airport was a story on the news of a 7-foot white shark attacking a guy in Manhattan Beach. As everybody on earth probably knows by now, the young shark hooked by an angler had reacted in a frenzy of fear and understandable confusion chomped some swimmer on the side. Over and over the clip played of the victim talking about how close he’d been to the shark, how he’d “looked him right in the eye.” I felt bad for the man’s wounds, but I sensed yet another summer of Fox-style news stories of shark attacks and jellyfish hysteria, and all I wanted to do was go back to South Africa.
Let me begin by saying no photographs do that country justice which is another way of saying my camera battery died and the photos I did manage to get are pretty much shit—gill slits, a broad back retreating under a wave, although my lovely travel companions have promised to share their stills and footage. While I lament my lack of images, in all fairness, I don’t think anyone got satisfactory footage of the resurrection either, and seeing the sharks was seeing God in action.
As we rode out to sea from Simonstown on the Fallows’ boat, I sat with my fellow shark traveler Janet Sullivan, from Quincy, Mass. and we watched the water, I asked, “Do you ever have shark dreams?” Janet like many of the other amazing women I befriended on this trip, is no casual shark enthusiast. She sports a tattoo of a great white (In fact, it’s the well-fed one on the FREE HUGS sticker I sold at February’s Jaws benefit).
Janet said she did dream of sharks sometimes.
“What do they do in the dreams?”
She considered this for a moment.
“They’re just there.” I understood. That’s how the sharks often appeared in my dreams and that’s how they appeared underwater. Gliding. Silent. Complete. And pretty much indifferent to the people in the cage.
Feeling profound, I asked, “Do you believe in reincarnation?” Janet said she did.
Haven’t we all been fish at some stage? Was it far-fetched to imagine that some of us had been large, predatory fish?
How else to explain this strange affinity?
As we sped toward Seal Island, the calls of all the Cape fur pinnipeds sounded like sheep from some windy seaside pasture. Janet kept noticing that all the clouds in the early morning sky looked like sharks: dorsal fins dissolving into the morning light, arched wisps like failed breaches.
When we anchored, no extreme adrenaline junkie chum-fest ensued. The Apex crew “called” the sharks by throwing out simple baited lines, seal decoys and with the thrumming vibrations of hands drummed on the side of the boat. Three people in the cage at a time. Snorkels. Wetsuits. No scuba bubbles, as they tend to drive away the sharks. When someone on board called “To your left!” or “To your right!” or somewhat eerily, “Behind you!” we descended beneath the water and breathed and looked.
I remember a strange, but very real sensation in the cage that my legs were gone.
I remember thinking how lonely the long line with the fish head on the end looked as it spun in the silent green water.
But I didn’t really feel afraid.
The first day, the sharks materialized in a green mist, only appearing gray when they came closer to the cage–the great papery slits of the gills puffing slightly, the dark intelligent eye, looking without much interest to the frantic figures in the cage. After so many dreams, movies, documentaries, pictures, after the weight of expectation, of epiphany, here was the animal I’d known only in dreams for forty some odd years. And they had silently appeared as they had in Janet’s dreams and so many times in mine–beautiful, silent, slow. They were simply there.
Of course long before I descended in the cage , I’d already screamed like a teenage girl at her first rock show, when the sharks breaching. It’s not easy to tell a swimming seal from a dark wave, but Chris and Monique Fallows are such expert naturalists that they can easily separate a young seal from a bobbing swell, or an explosion of water from an errant wave breaking over distant rocks. “Two o’clock! 150 meters!” The call goes out, the boat turns. If the birds have descended to the ring of white turbulent water, it means a kill, if not, the seal has usually gotten away and the shark has likely disappeared too. We often arrived just in time to see a sharp flash of tail and fin in a wake, or if we were lucky a blinding white belly as the shark breached, often with the snap of red jaws–all over in an instant.
There’s nothing like a morning spent watching seal predations to make one appreciate the particularly weird human position in the animal kingdom.
Watching the breaches, it’s hard not to call out as if it’s a sporting match, although we all feel bad for the young seals, it’s also terribly primal and exciting and it’s hard to not want the chase to continue, to see the lightning quick desperate acrobatics of the sharks. In one particularly gory breach, the shark surfaced sideways, blood pouring from its jaws, then promptly disappeared the turbulent surface. Two seabirds descended, each taking the end of some sort of long thin entrails in their beaks and flying away, as if engaged in some sort of morbid taffy pull.
When we cruised next to the rushing water of Seal island and saw the pups playing in the water that cascaded off the rocks, diving and surfacing, safe from “the ring of death” where the sharks cruise, it was impossible not to feel as if we were passing by some harsh, but enchanted isle of frolicking whimsical sea-children. We were stunned into a magical silence punctuated by “Awwws.”
I can’t yet properly describe what happened to me in South Africa, but I felt different when I stood on the Cape of Good Hope. Even more than the wild zebra browsing through the verdant scrub along the beach, was the new feeling I had looking at the water.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve looked at the ocean in this sort of trance. I remember standing once at San Simeon near Hearst Castle, looking past the hauled out bodies of the seals to the craggy rocks and thinking, “They’re out there.” In dreams I’d pull over to the side of the road and stare at the dark water through binoculars. Somehow in the dark I could still see and I could tell the fins from the swells.
I took many a real-life drive up the California coast, stopping at infamous beaches with NO SWIMMING signs, or hoping that if I looked long enough at the horizon, something would rise up. Always with longing and gnawing and a bit of metaphysical tension.
Yet as Janet and I stood at Cape Point, after the first day of breaching and the diving, as our lovely guide Alistair took our photograph at that intersection of oceans, I felt different. There had been no obvious communion between the sharks and me, no shattering tribal epiphany. I had come half way around the world to see them, and the sharks barely noticed I was there.
But something inside me had shifted just the same.