Diving "White Death"

Great White Shark Diving

Sharks have always fascinated me and none more so than the infamous great white. Since first watching David Attenborough’s Wildlife on One, I’d envisioned one day experiencing a close up encounter with the most notorious of beasts that lurk the deep blue. Feared by most who step foot into the water, great white sharks have unjustifiably earned themselves a bad reputation through exaggerated media stories and, most notably, the blockbuster film Jaws

The great white shark is listed as a vulnerable species on the IUCN red list, however, estimations made by leading shark biologists state there are fewer than 3,500 individuals, making them more vulnerable to extinction than the tiger. Some sources claim that their population is growing while others argue it is declining. In light of this, I felt it was high time I realised my dream of coming face-to-face with the sharks before it might be too late.

It was during my spell in South Africa that the time had come to bring my long awaited meeting with Carcharodon carcharias to fruitionI had been travelling along the picturesque Garden Route and chose to spend a few days in Hermanus, a quaint little town situated on a mountainous bay and one of the world’s hotspots for whale watching. Between May and September, southern right whales annually migrate from the Antarctic to give birth to their young in the warmer waters of South Africa’s coastline. The town is also situated about a 40-minute drive away from one of the most famous great white shark hotspots in the world, Gansbaai.

I entrusted White Shark Ecoventures to ensure that there would be no chance of disappointment. After a quick breakfast and an induction informing us on all of the safety regulations, we set off out to sea. My initial excitement quickly turned to apprehension as the realisation set in that I would soon be plunging into the water with a one-and-a-half-tonne fish that some call “White Death”. I began to play out disastrous scenarios in my head, asking myself questions such as “What if the cage detaches itself from the boat and we sink toward the seabed?”, and “What if the shark breaks through the cage and gobbles me up?”

Before I knew it, we had arrived at Shark Alley and the boat engines came to a halt. A pair of tuna heads coupled with a bucket full of chum were tossed into the surrounding water and then the wait began. Around half an hour of gazing into the grey/blue void had passed before a large silhouette emerged from the depths of the murky sea. I suspiciously squinted my eyes to block out the glare reflecting off the shimmering surface, and then I was certain. “Shark! shark!”, I excitedly called to the boat captain as the ten-foot-long adolescent male menacingly glided closer toward the starboard side of the boat. Without a moment’s hesitation, we were instructed to put on our snorkels and climb down into the steel cage. Still nervous about all of the potentially catastrophic situations that had been running through my mind, I cautiously lowered myself into the only thing that would separate me from the three sharks that were already circling the boat. Strangely, all of my worries filtered away and were replaced with serenity the moment I entered the water. There was something so tranquil about being alone with my thoughts beneath the ocean swell.

As the first shark gradually appeared from out of the shadows, I remember feeling completely at peace, entirely without fear as the apex predator gracefully edged closer. As he quietly swam by, I couldn’t help but stare intensely into his almost extraterrestrial jet black eyes. Though virtually impossible to distinguish exactly where a great white is directing its gaze, somehow I knew that he was looking at me, sussing me out.

Soon after, two more sharks began to encircle the boat and I found myself surrounded from all angles. I never felt threatened, not once. Sharing a few moments in the cold South African winter waters with the great whites helped me to understand that they had absolutely no interest in causing me any harm, despite a few heavy bumps against the cage. Each shark was only interested in the bait that had lured them into our vicinity in the first place.

It was only when the sharks surged for the glum looking tuna heads that I was reminded of the immense power and killer instinct that great whites possess. With the ability to accelerate from a leisurely swim to incredible speeds in the blink of an eye, each shark would dart toward the bait with eyes rolled back and jaws wide open. On a few occasions, some of the sharks would actually breach, thrashing their streamlined bodies around as they cleared the water surface entirely.

After spending around an hour in complete euphoria in the water, it was finally time to call it a day and we reluctantly headed back to the harbour. I spent the next few days totally in awe of the brief encounter I’d had with one of the greatest forces of nature to inhabit our planet.

Shark populations have been decimated over the past 100 years due to overfishing, trophy hunting, culling and finning. There are some that firmly believe that these atrocities are beneficial to mankind and that due to unprovoked attacks on humans, we would be better off in a world without them. I’d argue that stepping out of our natural environment and into theirs is to provoke a naturally curious animal and that as apex predators, sharks are undoubtedly essential for maintaining healthy ecosystems that we and many other species depend on. Furthermore, attacks on humans are extremely rare and are often a consequence of mistaken identity.

Since that significant day I spent in Shark Alley, thoughts have stirred in my mind about what it would be like to live in a world without great white sharks and how many more species would soon follow them into extinction. As custodians of our beautiful planet, I believe that it is our moral obligation to ensure that this very real possibility does not become a tragic reality.

A Colossal Pursuit

Photo: Shutterstock

Photo: Shutterstock

There is a small selection of our planet’s weird and wonderful creatures that almost seem to be mythical. Ask anyone if they have ever seen a blue whale and most will reply with something along the lines of “Does the model in the natural history museum count?” It seems that for most people, the idea of witnessing the glorious spectacle of the mighty blue whale breaching the ocean surface is about as likely as spotting a woolly mammoth or Big Foot. Indeed, despite claiming the title of largest creature ever to have inhabited our planet, the blue whale remains a rather elusive and mysterious beast.

Following huge efforts to prevent the extinction of the blue whale, their populations have been on the rise over the past 50 years or so. It was recently discovered that many of them currently reside in the warm waters based off Dondra Point in Sri Lanka. This finding, together with the recent ending of the 25- year civil war has led to somewhat of a tourism boom in the tear-drop shaped island nation. The high probability of spotting undoubtedly one of nature’s greatest creations coupled with the fact Sri Lanka’s Yala National Park boasts the highest concentration of wild leopards in the world was enough tempt me in.

After a journey filled with arduous hikes and lengthy train rides, I wanted to unwind for a few days in the tranquil beach town of Mirissa. Bountifully scattered along the white sand shores were a host of tour operators offering whale watching excursions. I put my faith in a small yet highly recommended company named Danushka and the Whales and went to bed that evening thoroughly excited for what awaited me the next day.

I woke at six-o-clock the following morning and after a quick breakfast, climbed into a tuk-tuk toward the harbour. After crisscrossing our way through a hoard of local fisherman, all frantically trying to make a quick Rupee off their morning catch, I arrived at the jetty and boarded the half-full boat in high spirits. Soon thereafter, we soon pulled out of the picturesque port and headed purposefully into the open ocean.

The swell was slight and the water crystal clear as we gradually distanced ourselves further from the palm covered coast. A few hours passed where nothing but seabirds and a lone flying fish were spotted. Just as all passengers on board were about to give up, we happened upon twenty or so whale watching boats, all congregated in the same small patch of deep blue sea. It quickly became apparent that something had aroused their interest, and as a result, excited passengers swiftly positioned themselves toward the bow.

As we entered the area of interest, the unmistakable sound of water forcefully spouting through the blowhole of a whale came from the starboard side. I turned toward the direction of the misty spray, and there, 20-feet away in all of its magnificence, was that most fabled of all living things – a blue whale. After standing motionless for a few seconds in complete awe and admiration, I quickly grabbed for my camera. Hurriedly, I captured snap after snap of the gigantic cetacean including the trademark tail fin shot as she began her descent into the deeper water.

It wasn’t until she appeared at the surface again, around a kilometer into the distance that I realized I had wasted the moment. I soon understood that to have initially been in such close proximity to the whale was a rare occurrence, and began to feel annoyed with myself for spending those precious few seconds behind the camera lens instead of fully embracing the encounter. As the gentle giant resurfaced every ten minutes or so, the growing number of boats would recklessly speed toward her and I increasingly began to feel disheartened. It saddened me to learn the tour operators’ desire to ensure a high-rate of customer satisfaction consequently led to the harassment of an animal that just wanted to be left in peace. It was less a case of “whale watching” more “whale chasing”.

As a wildlife enthusiast, I cannot deny my feelings of elation whilst encountering three blue whales that day. Nonetheless, I feel rather conflicted about the whole experience due to the obvious lack of ethicality. I appreciate the difficulty that tour operators have in finding the right balance between ethical practices and increasing their ratings on review sites such as Trip Advisor, but this predicament should not be to the detriment of any animal. More stringent measures need to be enforced, limiting the number of vessels and time spent with the whales. An excellent example to follow would be that of gorilla trekking regulations in East Africa. In Rwanda, limited permits are issued to tourists each day and trekkers are not permitted to spend any longer than one hour with the great apes. Furthermore, the sheer cost of each permit is enough to separate the serious wildlife enthusiasts from the general public.

Approximately 200 people were crammed together onto our boat the day I went to see the blue whales. Filtering out those who grew bored after five minutes of taking selfies, there were probably no more than twenty people interested in observing and learning about the whales. It would seem that by following Rwanda’s example, there is already a tried and tested solution for ensuring that genuine wildlife enthusiasts have the opportunity to experience once-in-a-lifetime opportunities with nature, without causing any major distress to the subject.