Nice views here of two white sharks, one with a lovely speckled sort of pattern on the tail. I love how they simply disappear into the green. I also love how the divers in the cage keep their feet off the bottom of the cage. There is a weird sensation of suddenly not having legs when one is deposited in the cage, followed by a desire to keep track of one’s legs as much as possible.
(Thanks again to Peter E.)
Many thanks to my “cage mates” Andria and Peter Eisenhauer for this footage of a white shark snacking on fish heads. Seeing that jaw drop down was one of the peak experiences of my life. I love the contrast of the underwater sounds and the shouts of the crew on deck.
I am trying to write and remember more about South Africa, before the memories take on the feelings of dreams, before mundane realities of day-to-day life in L.A. eclipse my beautiful visions.
Here are a few things I can’t stop thinking about:
1. The time I felt most sacred: when a stray piece of bait floated in through the viewing window of the cage. No shark in sight, but I instantly flung the fish head back out into the water just the same.
2. My first full day in South Africa it rained. Apex kindly arranged a wine-tasting tour for us. It felt funny getting slightly drunk on very fragrant wines so early in the day, but I managed to get through it. At one winery near Stellenbosch(?) I stood next to a roaring fire, petting a fat, contented calico cat. A group of school kids on a field trip tramped into the room and collapsed on chairs around the fireplace. They were probably only about 15, but holding their glasses (each one with a swallow of gold in the bottom), scarves wrapped about their necks, they looked impossibly sophisticated. As one lovely dark-haired girl approached me, I had that incredibly rare and warm feeling that I was acting in a scene from a movie. I told her that “my fellow Americans” and I had come to South Africa to see the sharks. She looked wistful. “Once I went diving with ragged tooths. One shark was pregnant and as the sun slanted on the water, I could see her babies inside.” She looked so happy remembering this, her cheeks flush with the fire. A dashing schoolboy approached us, gently breaking her reverie. Maybe it was the wine, but everything felt effortless and scripted at the same time. “Do you mind if we take a photo with you and your friends?” he asked. “It’s not every day that we meet Americans.”
3. On my last day at sea, the swells were high and dark. We weren’t sure if the sharks would come. But they did. Standing on the deck of the boat, as the dark water rose around us, and a near 15-foot shark surfaced near the side, I felt empty in the most beautiful sense of the word: empty of everything except the moment of witnessing: the fin, and tall, sharp tail, then the shark itself, turning on its side, white belly flashing in the sun, jaws opening, closing, then sinking beneath the waves again.
4. Looking at the eye of the shark as it swam close to the cage and feeling recognition, but not knowing if this meant that the shark saw me, or I saw myself in it.
5. All the terrific people I met: Chris and Monique Fallows the most gracious hosts and enthusiastic naturalists in the world, Renee and all the great people at Apex Predators, Carrie from New Hampshire with her bright enthusiasm for South Africa and her saint-like patience with annoying people, Sam who worked at a farm animal sanctuary in Wisconsin and had an uncanny eye for spotting seal predations and her husband Brad who told great stories, Janet with her quick wit and impressive collection of shark swag who gave us all shark neckties, lovely Christine from the U.K, a fourth time visitor to South Africa who knew all the sharks on a first name basis, our kind, funny and amazing guide Alistair, our patient and helpful B&B host Jonathan, generous Peter from Buffalo and his wife Andrea who didn’t even swim yet plucked up the courage to climb in the shark cage anyway. Thanks to everyone who laughed at my jokes and everyone else I’ve forgotten and thanks especially to the sharks for showing up and changing my life.
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.
I’m leaving for my South Africa shark trip tomorrow night. In addition to packing seasickness pills and stacks of books for my million hour flight, I’m trying to “prepare” to meet the sharks. For example, I got a mani-pedi in a gorgeous slate gray color in tribute to the white shark’s camouflage. On a more practical level, I’ve been reading a particularly helpful volume given to me by shark legend Ralph Collier, is the wonderful book Field Guide to the Great White Shark by R. Aidan Martin. Here are a few excerpts:
1. Do not extend your arms or any part of your body out of the cage. While observing or filming one shark, you could easily be nipped by another.
2. Even very large great whites can be very cautious or even timid on approaching shark cages and are easily “spooked.” Sharks are very aware of divers’ eyes and seem to dislike being stared at as much as you or I do. To foster the closest possible approaches by Great Whites, avoid flash photography or direct eye contact during the earliest phases of your dive. Wait for the sharks to build up their courage and approach the cage in their own good time. Once they have decided the cage and its bubbling inhabitants are not a threat, Great Whites will more-or-less ignore both to fuss their attentions on the bait or each other. That’s when you can observe the most interesting behavior and capture the best images.
3. Be aware that Great Whites have attacked boats. In some instances the boat sank; in others the attacking shark actually leapt into the boat in pursuit of pinnipeds or hooked fish.
4. This tip will come in handy if the shark destroys the cage and I have to somehow make it to the surface:
While in the presence of a great white, maintain a vertical orientation in the water column. Perhaps because most swimming animals are longest horizontally in the direction of travel, many sharks seemed more unnerved by height than length. A vertical orientation—combined with persistent eye contact—may make you seem larger and more intimidating to a Great White.
Writers aren’t allowed to say things like “words fail,” but I am still struggling to find the language to describe this face. I cannot form a coherent sentence about this image by Andrew Fox of a white shark breaking the surface in pursuit of an albatross. My brain sputters out weird fragments: “bloody clown laugh,” or “sad dream lipstick jaw.” The otherworldly quality of this animal makes me rethink my place in the universe. Maybe that explains my enduring feeling, beyond the wonder and horror, of deep gratitude towards them.
About a month ago I was sitting in a little windowless office at school chatting with my friend and fellow adjunct, Emily.
I was blabbing to her about the end of this blog. How this year I’ve written about all kinds of things outside of sharks, I’ve written about my mother’s life fading and grieving the loss of my father. And even the activism—the petitions signed, the protests and teaching, the Jaws Benefit, all of it seems a bulwark against vanishing. Soon, and finally, I’ll be going on this trip to see the sharks in South Africa.
“I have to see how it all fits together,” I told Emily, “to make a book out of it.”
“Well, going down in the cage is your confrontation with death,” she said.
I know she didn’t just mean I was off on some “extreme” adventure, some chance to stick my head in the maw of oblivion, but my confrontation with all of it.
I knew this. It seemed both revelatory and obvious. I must have said or written or voiced it before. But why when I heard Emily say it did I feel a weird hush inside me—the kind of sea silence I imagine myself descending into?
P.S. I stole this title from a fantastic poem about the Vietnam Veterans Wall by Yusef Komunyakaa.
In this episode of “An Idiot Abroad,” the inimitable Karl Pilkington goes cage diving in Australia. Profundity, slight hilarity and terror ensue.
As my date with a shark cage gets closer and closer, I find myself feeling extremely, ummm..sensitive about any stories or videos related to shark cage diving, such as the Leonardo DiCaprio cage diving story I posted last week. Then, this morning I found this story about an Australian man who decided to swim with a tiger shark wearing only a bird cage which made me feel a little less foolish and afraid.
Anyway, it’s probably good for me to read these stories. Isn’t life all about seizing the day and bucket lists and profiles in courage and doing something everyday that scares us everyday and dancing like nobody’s watching? For me, it’s also about working through a primal fear of being eaten alive by a predatory fish although that wouldn’t sound so pithy on a coffee mug.
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