Three am. That’s what time our alarms went off, and we were heading to the coast to swim with Great White Sharks. Was I really prepared for what was to come?
I was numb with exhaustion and finally enjoying the comfort of a real bed after weeks of camping. It was pitch black in our room, and I couldn’t even begin to think about what we’d be spending our morning doing, Or at least what we hoped we would be doing.
Jeff and I got dressed in the warmest clothes we had and met his cousins down in the hotel lobby. Then we got in the van for the two hour drive, still at the moment unsure if the boats could go out that morning.
After a nice long nap, we woke up as we reached Gansbaai and entered the office for White Shark Projects, an environmental organization that not only takes people on cage dives, but also is committed to causing no harm to the animals and contributing to their conservation. There we learned about their efforts, while eating breakfast, and waiting to learn if we’d be able to make it out that morning. I still couldn’t believe we were there, but surprisingly, I wasn’t nervous; this event was a long time in the making.
Diving with Great White sharks is something I have wanted to do since I first heard about the experience a few years back. I am completely fascinated by the animals, and while traveling, I like to attempt adventures that put a little fear into the experience. This trip was no different. But, what made it even more special was that I was there with Jeff.
On the night we first met, we talked all night about our summer plans – both of which included visiting South Africa and diving with Great Whites. Our friend, Erin, joked that we should go together, and we laughed awkwardly, not realizing that is what would wind up happening. To top it off, the first message Jeff ever sent me included a video of a shark getting into a cage with divers. Now, eight months into our relationship, we were there to experience it together.
After finishing our toast and hot chocolate, we learned that we would be able to dive and were grateful because the next day Jeff and I were off to Egypt, with no time to try the dive again. Together, we walked down to the boat, boarded, and prepared for a bumpy ride.
Never have I been in a boat as small as this, surrounded by waves as large as these. We bounced all over the boat, which further distracted us from what was coming. It was too loud to talk, not that we were in any state to discuss what we were getting ourselves into, so instead we sat and stared at the horizon; I would not allow myself to get sea sick on this once in a lifetime opportunity.
After about a fifteen minute ride, that felt years longer, we settled on a spot in Shark Alley, anchored, and waited while the men chummed the water. Eventually, we spotted our first shark. The view of its fin coming out of the water evoked a fear you never think you’ll experience. Yes, we were safe on the boat, but we were about to get in the freezing cold water with these large and majestic animals. Was I really prepared for this?
But, there was no time to feel prepared. After the first spotting, everything began to feel rushed. We needed to make sure everyone got in the cages – four at a time – because we could not know how long the sharks would stick around. Jeff’s cousins and uncle went in first, and we sat above waiting and wondering what it would be like.
We watched their reactions, which were all positive, while we watched the sharks swim beautifully underneath us. The excitement began to build up and we were ready, but also building up was the nauseousness that was brought on by the waves pummeling the boat. I took a lollipop and focused on the horizon. I refused to get sick before I got in the cage.
Eventually, it was our turn. The whole experience was a complete blur; I have no recollection of getting in the water, but as soon as I hit the cold and the top of the cage was closed, I couldn’t help but panic. Not because of the shark, but of the enclosure I was in.
Luckily, I had Jeff there to calm me down and ease my fears. He took my hand, told me to breathe, and together we went under the water. My breathing was heavy on the surface, but as soon as I went under the water and saw what was in front of us, my mind was strangely put at ease.
Under the water, all was calm. There was no chaos, no fear, only the curious sharks swimming by us and underneath us. The last thing I expected from this experience was to have a better appreciation for sharks, but that’s exactly what I felt.
Above the surface, I still felt panicked; the constant yelling to get under water to see the sharks swim by, the waves crashing up against us and pushing us into one another, the closed cage above, but under the water, was a serene heaven, safe from the fear I felt above.
After about thirty minutes, our time was done, but we could continue to appreciate the sharks from above. They were massive creatures, who I couldn’t help but feel had been given a bad name. They weren’t the vicious predators they are portrayed to be on television and movies, but instead they are some of the most beautiful and mysterious creatures I have ever had the pleasure of coming in close contact with.
Yes, I was brave enough to swim with Great White sharks, but it turned out that the fear I had previously was one that now no longer makes sense. The sharks were not what I expected them to be, and the experience surprised me in more ways than I can explain.
Which is why, I will seek to continue to face fears that I have had because one of the best parts of traveling is discovering how wrong you are about the world you live in, and on this day in the freezing cold Atlantic Ocean, I found out just how wrong I had been for years.