My Very First Shark Breach

Okay, first off thanks again to Peter Eisenhauer for shooting, editing and sharing these great videos of a truly magical time in South Africa.

Please excuse my orgiastic screams. This was the first shark breach I ever saw so I got a little carried away. After a few more breaches, I was able to tame my insanity into manageable sighs of awe.  

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South Africa: Part Deux

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 peopleSimons-town, 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.

Day 357 6/27/14: Handy Tips for Shark Cage Divers

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 bookimages-4 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.

Day 190 1/1/14: A Matter of Life and Death

For the second year in a row, I spent New Year’s Eve at a Buddhist mediation center with friends. This is a tradition that I never really consciously initiated, but one that I highly recommend. It is nice to enter a new year in the silence of meditation or following the rhythmic drone of prayer in a softly lit room while people are lighting fireworks or firing guns or generally acting like madmen in the dark outside.

The monk was funny. After talking about resolutions (regular flossing, fitness) and the power of the mind, he recommended a meditation that appealed to me: “I may die today.” “Or,” he said, looking out at the hundred or so people filling the tiny hall, “it’s likely that some of you might die this year. Not everyone will make it back here next New Year’s Eve.” This focus on death is designed to help us remember what’s important, which in Buddhism is resolving to become a better person and through this discovering some sort of peace which we can share with others.

Later Connie, Gail and talked about the countdown to my descent in the shark cage in South Africa in June. I made jokes about dying in the shark cage, because to joke about death is to at once acknowledge it and ward it off. It would be too perfect, too absurd for me to be eaten by a white shark when the whole point is to live to tell about it, to describe what it’s like to meet this old friend, this old fear, this dream human face to conical snout.What do their eyes look like, really? What’s the exact nature of their blackness, or up close are they really pure black at all?

Today I took down my brand new calendar and filled in all the numbered days until my shark trip, my uneven purple digits scrawled over the white space of unlived time, dwarfing the sensible preprinted numbers of the calendar. What are the odds, I wondered, that I won’t live until June? What is the numerical value of certainty or uncertainty?  I thought of the opening lines of Bob Dylan’s “Mississippi”: “Every step of the way/We walk the line/Your days are numbered/So are mine.” And I thought of my favorite piece of Buddhist scripture, “The Five Remembrances:”

I am of the nature to grow old.

There is no way to escape growing old.

I am of the nature to have ill-health.
There is no way to escape having ill-health.

I am of the nature to die.
There is no way to escape death.

All that is dear to me and everyone I love
are of the nature to change.
There is no way to escape being separated from them.

My actions are my only true belongings.
I cannot escape the consequences of my actions.
My actions are the ground on which I stand.

Sometimes I think that more difficult even than death itself (which promises, at least in my view, a degree of contentment, which brings with it the fulfillment of work that here remained unfinished, which is a state of perspective and unity), is the fourth remembrance.

Inescapable change, the separation from people and places, things that I am sometimes fooled into believing are permanent simply because they endure for twenty or forty years. Maybe later I will decide that the infirmity and indignity of old age is tougher, or that facing death whether it comes in the form of a shark, or dark, rapidly dividing cells, defies my attempts to tame it with philosophy. I don’t know.

But I do know that in a world in which everything dissolves and departs, we have to have some ballast, be it a prayer or tradition or the habit of matching every day with a number to make life feel at last, real to us.

English: Portrait of Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dy...

English: Portrait of Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan by Elsa Dorfman (1975) (Photo credit: Wikipen

Day 88 9/21/13: Wetsuits, White Sharks, & Whiskey

The smell of wet neoprene has already joined the ranks of dusty hay, lilacs, and library bindings in my sense memory hall of fame. Evocative of pools–and soon the ocean. It’s been a week since I last used the wetsuit and it still isn’t dry. I suppose it doesn’t really matter since I am about to walk off the side of the boat into the ocean, but I find myself worrying about all sorts of things as I prepare to leave. My mouth feels slightly dry.  A byproduct of caffeine or Mild Terror?  I’ve packed ginger pills for nausea and a flannel sheet for the sheet-less bunk on board the boat which will sail from the quaint port of Oxnard, but I wish I had a little flask for whiskey.  Last week we read “Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor” in class and I’m not thinking of  sharks so much as the endlessness of the ocean, how border-less it is, how impossible it seems to me that people can actually create boundaries between national and international waters.

But I’d better can the poetry for now, and get on to more practical concerns like packing….and signing this petition to place covers on boat engines to protect great whites who follow cage diving boats in South Africa.