Friday, May 27, 2011

The First White Sharks (cue cold chills!)

As we dropped anchor, Julia, our volunteer leader starting telling everyone about the day and the area.  To our left was Dyer island, a small island home to a bird sanctuary with numerous species of rare birds.  To our right was Geyser rock, home to 50-60 thousand Cape Fur Seals and one of the few seal islands in the area.  Between the islands was a narrow passage of water about 5 boat lengths across called Shark Alley. As the name implies, its where the sharks cruise for a meal.  One thing to note is that this area isn't home to any resident white sharks who are by nature nomadic.  All of the sharks we'd be seeing are technically just passing through.

Ironically, just as Julia was finishing her introduction with,  "We can't guarantee we will see white sharks today but…", our first white shark swam by to investigate at the back of the boat.  Awesome!  That might have been the single coolest animal sighting we've ever experienced (so far!). 

Luckily the sun was shining because although the water was calm, it was a chilly 40 degrees.  Having just finished her speech, and sighting the first shark, Julia asked who would like to be the first 5 to get in the cage.  Four clients quickly raised their hands and then there was a wave of hesitation.  Steph jumped on it and quickly raised her hand to be the 5th!  With the cage secured to the side of the boat, wet suit on, mask spit in and secured, she climbed in the cage to get up close and personal with the Great White Sharks!

Of course, I eagerly jumped at being in the next group of five - Steph was just too quick on the draw for me!  

Our cage was a 5 person cage, about 2 arm lengths wide, and 8 feet tall.  It sits about foot out of the water with a lid that opens and closes to allow divers in and out.  While in the cage you are free diving - no snorkel or scuba equipment - and it goes something like this:  Sitting on the edge of the boat you swing your legs out over the cage where the lid is raised and put your feet in the water (inside the cage!).  Then you put your feet on the front bars of the cage and walk down the bars, like a ladder, until you are in shoulders deep.  Your feet remain on the outer bars, holding you above water with your back against the back of the cage.  Once a shark is spotted, the crew yells "down, down, down!" which is the cue to take a deep breath and pull yourself under.  There is a red bar which you grab to hold yourself under allowing you watch the shark until it disappears into the deep blue abyss.  You must grab the red bar, which is not surprisingly inset about 6 inches from the outer bars, or else you may lose your fingers!  If you don't remember to only grab the red bar the crew will quickly remind you with loud yelling until you comply!

The sharks make numerous passes, sometimes circling the boat for hours, which is why this method is so successful.  You don't need to be down for hours, just 15 seconds or so at a time.  Up and down you go, taking breaths when you can.  Its somewhat frantic due to the raw energy and excitement, but the viewing is excellent!

Oh and remember that 40 degree water, well its the last thing on your mind after climbing in and seeing the sharks.  The only really nerve racking few seconds is getting in or out with a shark swimming past. We both could have stayed in for hours!

Some of the sharks are just curious, swimming casually past the cage barely taking notice.  Others are more interested, swimming right past the bars just inches from you.  Whilst others are more aggressive and go after the bait fish, sometimes taking it and crashing into the cage.   Then there are the rare ones that attack the bait fish with intent, breaching the surface.  Intense!

Back on the boat the experience hits you.  These animals are amazing and seeing them up close is absolutely unbelievable.  They have such raw power but yet such grace.  And the teeth, right in your face, is crazy!

After drying off, we grabbed a sandwich and headed up top to the viewing deck to let our adrenaline ease and watch the show.  From up there you really get a feel for the size of the sharks.

And the best part of it all, we get to do this for a week!  What a morning!

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