It seems to completely go against human nature to willingly plunge into shark-infested waters, yet here I am, submerged in a metal cage in the Indian Ocean as the predators of the deep circle me.
Amazingly, this isn’t some bizarre torture experiment but a thrilling morning spent shark cage diving off the coast of Durban, South Africa.
The sharks aren’t the only challenge of the day, however. Following several days of rain and storms, the sea is rough. The waves crash threateningly onto the shore like angry horses charging towards the sand as we ready the boat.
We need to get the vessel into the water before we can clamber aboard, but this requires an athletic jump from the ocean floor into the floating dinghy – something my diminutive height, clunky lifejacket and lack of sporting prowess prevents me from achieving. I claw desperately at the boat’s edge as I scrabble to heave myself over the side, only succeeding when fellow crew members resort to hauling me over like a panicked and spluttering beached whale. Not the most dignified start.
We cling to the ropes on the boat as we speed across the blue, riding the swell of the waves, the morning sun already hot in an almost cloudless sky. Shortly we join another boat to which the immersed cage is attached and my fear of sunburn is suddenly eclipsed – the fins of numerous sharks cut through the water beneath. I’ve seen Jaws, is this a good idea?
There’s hardly time to speculate before a man in the other boat grabs me under the armpits while another seizes my feet and I am flung into the second craft like a sack of potatoes. If this is an attempt to stop me from falling into the mouths of the toothy fish below it seems somewhat purposeless given I’m about to jump in two feet from their jaws.
And so, we are ready. Wetsuit and goggles donned, I splash into the cage – which seems to me to resemble a giant deep fat fryer buoyed up by giant floats. I place my hands and feet on the metal bars in front, take a large gulp of air and plunge myself under the ocean’s surface and into the sharks’ watery kingdom.
The experience does not disappoint. Attracted by the tiny fish the crew are throwing into the water in front of the cage, the sharks veritably swarm around us. They appear to be mostly blacktip sharks and they’re closely flanked, bodyguard-style, by much smaller remora who rid the predators of ectoparasites and loose flakes of skin.
Mercifully, the sharks seem not to notice us, and if they do, they’re more focused on chowing down on the chum than us. From time to time a decapitated fish floats past in a sinister fashion, shortly followed by its lifeless, severed head. Rather them than me.
We are sternly told to keep all our limbs inside the cage at all times. Blacktip sharks mainly feed off small fish such as mullet and surgeonfish and have no interest in munching on humans, but that doesn’t mean they won’t bite. If you remain calm around them, I am told, they sense no threat but if you panic, that’s when things go wrong.
It is amazing to see the huge sharks swimming so close to me. I’d say they didn’t bat an eyelid but in fact their small, beady, unmoving eyes are so strange to look at they seemed almost fake.
I can see their serrated, pointed teeth with terrifying clarity, however, as they glide past in pursuit of their bait. I am thankful to be behind bars, even if it is like being in a bizarre human zoo.
After about half an hour or of repeatedly taking lungfuls of air and diving down to gawp at these impressive creatures, it is time to quit while I am ahead (and my arms and legs are still intact). We zoom back to the safety of dry land on the boat, breathless and eyes wide with awe and exhilaration at what we’d seen.
It sure beat a morning in the office.
Harriet went diving with Shark Cage Diving Durban: www.sharkcagedivingdurban.com thanks to South African Tourism –www.uk.southafrica.net. She flew to South Africa with South African Airways – www.flysaa.com