Here, Sharky, Sharky
In the seas off South Africa's Dyer Island, shark mania and risk adventure have combined with a vengeance. For a few bucks, one of a gang of ill-qualified, ill-equipped dive operators will drop you into the most dangerous water on earth. Problem is, no one's promising to get you safely back.
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The great white shark slowly cruising outside the flimsy submerged cage in which I’d imprisoned myself was probably only 12 or 13 feet long and weighed, at a guess, 2,000 pounds. It seemed quite docile, menacing only in its profound grace. The great white rose to the surface, where there was a floating and iridescent smatter of chum: fish oil and sardines ladled into the water specifically to attract sharks. A severed seal’s head floated nearby. The head was tied to a thick yellow rope. The shark hit the seal bait with no sense of urgency whatsoever. It twisted its head slightly, in the way a human might tear at a strip of beef jerky. Someone above, aboard the dive boat I’d hired, began pulling on the rope attached to the seal’s head so that the shark was drawn toward the cage where I stood, breathing hard through a scuba regulator. Soon, all I could see of the animal was its belly, white as a bedsheet. The sheer size of the fish filled my vision to its periphery, and when its leathery flesh actually touched the wire of the cage, there was an instant thrashing jerk—all those muscles whipping and bunching inches from my face—and some part of the shark bashed into the cage, twice. It felt rather like being in a minor pile-up on the freeway: thrown helplessly forward, thrown helplessly backward, banged against this side of the cage, banged against that one.
The shark then turned and cut a wide circle through the sea, disappearing into the blue-green distance.
Great whites—known to be man-eaters and sometimes called “white death”—can be found in all temperate and tropical oceans. But they are most readily observed, in the wild, off South Africa, where there are an estimated 2,000 of the creatures cruising between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth. The premier viewing area—probably the best spot on the planet to encounter great white sharks—is near Dyer Island, which is about seven miles off Gans Bay, a sleepy fishing village a few hours’ drive south and east of Cape Town.
Dyer Island itself is pretty much covered over in gulls and other seabirds, so that occasionally, as if on signal, half the island seems to rise up into the air and circle about overhead, shrieking in a shrill and self-righteous manner.
Set just off Dyer Island is another smaller body of land, a long, graceless pile of stones, 10 to 40 feet high at most, called Geyser Rock. It is the home of an estimated 50,000 Cape fur seals, a favorite prey of the great white shark. The seals bask in the sun on Geyser Rock but must periodically enter the water to hunt and eat. They can also become overheated, which is potentially fatal. The seals thus have two choices: stay out of the water and surely burn to death or, what the hell, take a nice, refreshing dip in the ocean and maybe get eaten by a huge, hungry shark.
Great white sharks like to cruise around Geyser Rock, which they seem to regard as a kind of fur seal McDonald’s.
In places, less than 1,000 yards separate the two islands. The channel between them is known as Shark Alley. Interested parties—tourists, photographers, scientists—can hire a “shark operator,” that is, someone with a ski boat and a welding torch, and get right in the water with several great white sharks. It costs about $150 to look white death in the eye.
Gans Bay is a village of green lawns and frame houses, mostly painted white. It has the feel of small-town, rural America, a place, one imagines, that values neatness and hard work, personal honesty and public decency. It sits on a coastline that could hardly be more appealing: 600 or more varieties of heather flowering in idiotic profusion in a climate that rivals that of southern California. Sun. Sea. Surf. A view toward Cape Town featuring purple mountains, range upon range of them, disappearing into the setting sun.
An American, standing in the midst of such soul-stirring beauty, feels instinctively that something is missing. Where are the waterfront trophy homes, the seaside shopping malls and arcades and amusement parks and saltwater taffy vendors? Who left this place alone to stew in the economic stagnation of hard work and decency?
The answer is, pretty much everyone. In the days of apartheid and sanctions, for instance, South Africa’s share of the world’s tourism dollars was one-quarter of 1 percent. These days, tourists to the Gans Bay area known as Cape Overberg, can visit wineries, experience some of the best whale-watching on earth, walk the nearly deserted white sand beaches, and surf the perfect wave. It’s heaven, as envisioned by the Beach Boys.
The emerging tourism industry, however, is not much regulated, and because South Africa is not a highly litigious country, it has become an extreme sports free-for-all with a profusion of both professional and inexperienced outfitters. “Sharking” is one of the new risk enterprises.
There are currently six shark operators working out of Gans Bay. Training is not required, and the money is good. The average income in South Africa is about 5,000 rand (about $1,000) a month. Sharking pays better: A boat carrying eight guests at 500 to 800 rand a day ($100 to $160) is a month’s wages in pocket. That’s a year’s wages in two weeks.
Consequently, competition among sharkers is fierce, and behind the orderly and idyllic facade of Gans Bay, passions and tempers run high. Lawsuits have been filed; threats have been made. Rumor has it that one sharker has even been shot at. Each of the operators is critical of the others, such criticisms rumored to occasionally degenerate into fistfights at the boat launch. One sharker has been faulted for using pigs’ heads as bait, which tourists find aesthetically unpleasing. Some operators have offended clients by tossing cigarettes and garbage into the sea. Other sharkers are guilty of pulling great whites up to the transoms of their boats so that they will thrash about in a dramatic, photogenic manner, which the more aware operators feel is degrading to the animal and an affront to South Africa, the first country on earth to specifically protect great whites.
But the most cogent critiques have to do with safety: Do you really want a 4,000-pound great white shark thrashing against a boat that has no guardrails, that may be overcrowded, that is carrying tourists who range from families in matching Bermuda shorts to hot young divers from Europe and America? Shouldn’t the cages have tops on them? Or at least extensions that rise above the sea? Shouldn’t someone be regulating the number of people an operator can cram onto his boat, a boat that, after all, has to be able to handle 10- to 16-foot swells on the seven-mile trip to Shark Alley?
For a while now, the operators and various government organizations had talked about regulations, about a “code of conduct” that finally went into effect just after my visit. These rules place a dive master and skipper on each craft, mandate a galvanized shark cage and a radio that works, require that operators and crew be trained in trauma treatment. But no one in Gans Bay expects the new regulations to be effectively enforced. What every sharker in town knows is this: Someone is going to have to die first. No one wants this to happen. Gans Bay operators are decent folks, first and foremost. And a death, or several, would be very bad for business. Still, few doubt that the tragedy is coming, and coming soon.
The company I chose to go with, The White Shark Research Institute, had the largest and safest-looking boat, a 30-foot Dive Cat complete with enclosed wheelhouse, toilet, and two well-maintained 200-horsepower outboards.
The skipper, a Swede named Fredrik Öström, brought the boat down to the dock, trailered behind a battered Ford truck. The shark cage sat on the stern of the boat, and it was not the expected and reassuring rectangle of sturdy iron bars. It was, in fact, a cylinder about 10 feet high and five feet in diameter, made of galvanized iron woven together in a diamond pattern. The wire was not nearly as thick as that in a backyard chain-link fence, but it was somewhat stronger than chicken wire, which it closely resembled. This cage, like those of other operators, was designed to float free, on a rope, so that it would swing away from an attacking shark. The same principle makes bobbing for apples difficult, but not impossible.
The White Shark Research Institute is sometimes criticized for being a tourist operation in the guise of a scientific organization. Whatever the fact of the matter is, on the first day I chose to dive with the WSRI, there was an American scientist aboard, doing actual scientific work. Richard Londraville, an assistant professor of biology at the University of Akron, had a grant to take blood samples from great whites. His mission was to find out if the ancient fish carried the hormone leptin in their blood. Leptin is created by fat cells and is thought to control appetite in creatures as diverse as mice and men. Sharks, however, have little or no fat. Does that mean they don’t have leptin in their blood? Inquiring minds wanted to know.
Richard was handsome in a boyishly tousled way, and he showed me the implement he used to collect the blood. It was a simple oversize syringe that looked like a big horse needle, with a barb halfway down its length. A piece of monofilament fishing line was connected to the plunger of the syringe, the length of it wrapped around a plate-size reel of blue plastic. The trick, he said, was to insert the needle just behind the shark’s gills, where the blood was fresh from the nearby heart. As the shark pulled away, you played out the line, gently pulling back on the plunger so that the syringe filled with blood. It wasn’t like DNA work: You needed a lot of blood to test for the presence of a hormone. Once the syringe was full of blood, Richard would yank the line, which freed the barb from the shark.
In 10 days, he’d collected three good samples.
“So,” I said, “the syringe is fastened to some kind of long pole…”
“No. That doesn’t work.”
“How do you get the needle into the shark, then?”
“You have to do it by hand.”
Louw Hugo, a former commercial fisherman, piloted the WSRI Dive Cat. After slaloming through 16-foot swells for a long 45 minutes or so, we arrived at Shark Alley and anchored about 50 yards from the fur seal colony. It was 7:30 in the morning, and no other operators had arrived yet.
The place smelled like a feedlot, which in fact was what it was if you were a great white shark. Fifty thousand blubbery mammals—male Cape fur seals can weigh as much as 600 pounds—produce an enormous amount of solid and liquid waste, so that the various gusts of wind that buffeted the Dive Cat seemed to have actual mass to them, and they hit like a slap to the face.
On the far side of the narrow island that is Geyser Rock, over on the other side of the great hillock of densely congregated furry blubber, the full force of the Atlantic Ocean exploded against the shore in a constant booming meter. The huge swells produced geysers of spray perhaps 40 feet high. This spray rose above the seal colony and caught the sun in such a way that it fell back to sea and earth like the shards of tattered rainbows.
It was a noisy place, and the air itself was shattered by the continual barking and roaring of the seal colony. Females sounded like aggravated terrestrial cows, mooing in a kind of constant bawl, while juveniles baaed like goats or sheep, and large adult males occasionally roared in the manner of some unfortunate soul suffering the agonies of projectile vomiting. The sound was constant and unrelenting: moo-bah-ralph, moo-bah-ralph.
The fur seals, scruffy golden-looking creatures, were draped, side by side, over the sandy-colored rocks, like an allegory about population dynamics, or Hong Kong. Seals at the edge of the beach lay there for a while, heads in the air, bawling at the sea. These animals were joined by others, all of them vocalizing, as if daring one another and hurling curses to the sky. Finally one, perhaps braver than the rest, would plunge into the ocean, and then, as if the floodgates had opened, a hundred more would hit the surf. Meanwhile their colleagues above lay across the rocks, in attitudes of adipose unconcern, all of them melting in the sun like Salvador Dali clocks.
The seals swam in “rafts,” dozens of them, clustered together for the safety that can be found in numbers. The seals hugged the shoreline, a single flipper raised to the sky, catching the cooling effect of wind against wet flesh and fur. They were dithering about in the surf, only ten yards from the safety of land, only 50 yards from the boat, and it was tempting to wave back to them. Hi, seals.
Washed up on Geyser Rock were several ship’s timbers, boards 40 feet long, the remnants of some old shipwreck. The waters around the Cape are treacherous, currents from the Atlantic and Indian Oceans running at odds to one another and to the prevailing winds. Huge waves, called Cape Town rollers, have been known to literally break cargo ships in half. The area, known to the rest of the world as the Cape of Good Hope, is locally called the Cape of Storms or, sometimes, the Cape of Souls.
Directly off the shipwreck, a dozen seals, basking in the ebbing water of a broken wave, lifted their flippers as if to say, “We who are about to die salute you.”
On the dive cat, Fredrik began mashing up a mess of sardines and fish oil in a 55-gallon drum using a big wooden pestle. Every minute or so, Richard would ladle a great glop of broken fish into the sea, and the iridescent mess would float away from the boat.
Louw muscled the shark cage into the water. The cage was tied to a cleat on the boat with a yellow rope perhaps an inch in diameter and floated at the transom, so that a prospective shark diver could just step from the boat into the cage.
Set close to the transom and tightly secured to various cleats was a standard scuba tank fitted with what is called a double-hookah rig: a pair of breathing regulators affixed to the tank with two hoses perhaps 20 feet long. Divers in the cage would breathe through the long hose from the tank on the boat.
The other paying passenger on board was Louise Murray, an English photographer with white spiky hair and milk-white skin. She smoked hand-rolled cigarettes and had once been a negotiator for British Petroleum, working deals that ran to millions of dollars. She fell into the job sometime after she joined the company and took a test that showed she was a “risk taker.” British Petroleum apparently felt it needed fearless negotiators.
Now Louise was traveling the world, publishing her photos in various scuba magazines, doing some writing now and again, and galloping through the last of her “oil money.”
The chicken-wire cage was suspended by floats-cylindrical blue-and-white plastic objects like giant two-foot-long sausages. The floats were placed deep in the cage, so that about three feet of wire projected above the surface of the sea.
Louise and I repaired to the wheelhouse to don our wetsuits while Richard chummed for sharks and Louw worked a pocketknife through the half-frozen head of a dead fur seal. Louw and Fredrik said they generally picked up dead seals from the far shores of Geyser Rock. At that moment I noticed a seal-shaped thing with a big hunk missing from the middle directly beside our boat, which was anchored in about 15 feet of clear water. It might have been an oddly shaped rock.
“Is that a seal?” I asked Fredrik.
“Yes,” he said, and added, unnecessarily, I thought, “it’s dead.”
Richard ladled chum while Louw whirled the roped seal’s head about in a great underhanded circle and tossed the bait about 15 yards from the boat. To the west, a small squall, like a bruise against the sky, stood on dark and slanting pillars of rain. A freshening breeze slapped the boat with the heavy, deep-brown odor of fur seal.
“The smell,” Fredrik said, “isn’t too bad today.”
“No.” The temperature stood at 60 degrees. On really hot summer days, 100-degree scorchers, Fredrik said, seal excrement literally baked on the stones of Geyser Island, and tourists who’d come to risk their lives diving with white sharks spent much of their time vomiting into the sea, chumming the waters with last night’s dinner and unconsciously imitating the sounds of the seal bulls only 50 yards away.
“There’s a shark out there,” Louw said, the way another man might say, “Oh, look, a robin.”
I stared at the floating seal’s head and saw what looked to be a shadow on the surface of the sea.
Fredrik and Louw said they had seen the shark come up below the frozen seal’s head and then glide slowly past it. “We call that a dummy run,” Fredrik said.
“Shouldn’t I be getting in the cage?” asked Louise, the certified risk-taker. She was standing on the transom of the boat, about three feet off the surface of the sea, and out beyond her I could now see the dorsal fin of the shark cutting through the water, leaving twin ripples drifting off to each side. Definitely a great white.
Fredrik tugged on the rope that pulled the shark cage toward the boat. Louise sat with her feet dangling over the water and then lifted herself into the cage. She held the regulator in her hand, adjusted her mask, cradled her camera under her arm, and turned to me.
“Bring my second camera,” she said. “Be careful with it.”
I sat on the transom with my feet in the cage, bit down on the regulator, adjusted my mask, and as I did so, the shark rose out of the water and hit the seal’s head with a kind of indolent indifference. It was not at all like a trout hitting a fly on the surface of a stream. Instead, everything happened very slowly, very deliberately. The sun caught my mask at an angle, so what I saw was a blurred and brilliant glare, with a great triangular head shimmering in the center as it rose languidly from the sea, mouth agape. Rows of glittering, triangular teeth ridged the palate, and the eyes were a pure and ghostly white.
Great whites often roll their eyes back into their skulls when taking prey. It is thought that this is done to protect the eyes from the thrashing death-throes of the victim. But no one really knows. Human gourmands roll their eyes when sampling a tasty morsel. So, it seems, do great white sharks, and this one rose like a particularly vivid nightmare, with glistening rows of teeth and ghostly white demon’s eyes completely devoid of pupils.
Because of the eye roll, the shark was effectively blind at the moment of the munch. Louw tugged the rope and gently pulled the bait toward the boat as the great white moved blindly forward, mouth open in a behavior Fredrik called “gaping.”
“I’ll bring him right up to the cage,” Louw said. “Get in.”
“If you get knocked out of the cage,” Fredrik said. “Swim down.”
“They hit things struggling on the surface.”
And so, cradling Louise’s second camera and biting down hard on my regulator, I dropped into the cage, where everything turned gray-green and I was looking at the world through a mesh of chicken wire, while Louise stood at the slitted window, her camera at the ready. Say I lost the regulator: How long could I stay below the surface of the sea, with a great white shark circling above? Two minutes? How long is a great white shark’s attention span?
And then I saw the shark, perhaps 40 feet in the distance, a dimly seen abstraction, like a notion of grace half-formed in the mind, something brilliant but hazily apprehended. There was a curious feeling of dread without vulnerability, as in a dream.
Louise and I stayed underwater for perhaps half an hour, and the shark circled back a few times, always gliding off at meditative distances. Occasionally, chilled and shivering uncontrollably, the two of us rose to the surface and sat, somewhat awkwardly, on the floats set about the interior of the cage, so that we were still surrounded by the wire that rose above the surface of the sea.
“How big was that guy?” I asked Fredrik. I figured 20 feet.
“About 11 feet,” he said. “Weighed maybe 1,500 pounds.”
“I thought it was bigger.”
“Adrenaline magnification,” Fredrik explained.
Louw lured and then pulled another great white shark to the transom of the boat, and Richard, the leptin collector, tried to plunge his syringe into the powerfully thrashing beast, which boomed against the boat and sent up a great waterspout of spray. This was more than a little tricky, not to mention dangerous, and Richard missed twice but didn’t actually fall into the water, which I thought made for a successful day, leptin or no.
We saw six sharks in eight hours. There were two other shark operators, with boats full of paying customers, anchored no more than a stone’s throw from us. While that felt a little crowded, the next day was a circus, risk as comedy.
There we were, four out of six operators, all of us anchored side by side in Shark Alley, in the one area just off the shipwreck where the water was relatively flat. There was, however, enough surge and surf that the boats were swinging widely on their anchor lines and banging, one against the other, so we were pushing boats off the Dive Cat with long poles, which was not something one really wanted to worry about a whole hell of a lot because there were three—count ’em, three—great white sharks in the water, circling the boats, and there were three cages, containing five divers, in the water, not to mention three scuba divers, who were swimming around just under our boat. These divers were not in a cage. One of them, an American scientist named Mark Marks, habitually swims with great whites in this exposed fashion. The shark operators think this is dangerous and feel that when he’s eventually killed, business will suffer.
Marks was working with a French film crew, and at the moment he was acting as a safety diver for the cameraman, who, when looking through the lens of his camera, couldn’t see sharks coming at him from odd angles. Marks hovered above the Frenchman, holding a weighted three-foot-long board carved in the shape of a killer whale. The board was painted with the orca’s distinctive black and white markings. The killer whale is one of the few creatures in the sea that prey on sharks. Even great whites. Still, I thought of this object as the board of delusion.
Anchored next to the French party was a small 17-foot boat. Counting the captain, there were 10 people aboard. The swells had diminished (to a mere 12 feet) but the boat, rated for six passengers, was dangerously overloaded. Louw told me he had quit work for a rival sharker because the man tolerated such conditions.
I glanced over at the wreckage on Geyser Rock and thought about trying to swim the 50 yards, boat to shore. The boat closest to Geyser Rock had deployed a cage whose floats were positioned on the top rim so that when the divers, two American men in their thirties, surfaced to the warmth of the sun, they sat on the floats with their butts hanging out in the shark-infested water. Occasionally Fredrik or Louw would yell over helpful advice, like, “For Christ’s sake, get in the cage, there’re sharks coming your way.”
Having seen any number of sharks rise two or three feet out of the water to take seal bait, I found this cage just a little scary. A white shark could easily rise up and put his great conical head into the cage, where it would be trapped, swimming around like some doofus at a party with a lampshade on his head. Except, of course, there would be terrified divers crouching at the bottom of the cage. This scenario is not at all fanciful. It has happened. The photographer cowering at the bottom of the cage got a lot of good pictures and was not injured. But what an advertisement for the topless shark cages: Sharks can get in, but they can’t get out.
Louise was down in our cage, with Fredrik watching the circling great whites, and Louw was ready at the line that held the cage. In a bad scenario, a shark could get wrapped in the rope and toss Louise out of the cage. Louw stood ready to uncleat in an instant. This was the value of having a skipper and dive master on board.
Meanwhile, the other boats were banging up against one another, mostly because their operators had come out alone, without professional assistance, so that they felt an obligation to watch the sharks and their clients and couldn’t spare the attention necessary to re-anchor or even prevent the constant and irritating collisions.
As I pushed the French vessel off the Dive Cat with a long pole, the biggest of the great whites made a dummy run at our bait, rose blind and gaping, and then engulfed the entire seal’s head in its mouth. Louw pulled the shark—it was a 15-footer—to the transom, while the French boat thudded into the Dive Cat. The shark whacked our boat and caromed off the submerged cage, bouncing Louise back and forth against the chicken wire before it turned and dove slowly toward the French cameraman, whose video housing was snowy white and very prominent against the blue-gray sea.
Then something remarkable happened. Marks, the safety diver, pulled the board of delusion from under his chest and flashed it at the shark, rather in the way horror-film actors hold up crosses to vampires. Did the shark apprehend the board as a killer whale in the far distance? Did it calculate its chances against a mammal that can weigh in excess of five tons and hunts in packs? I don’t know, but the great white shark did not just turn away from the three-foot-long board. It veered off in several sharp thrusts, the fastest I’d seen a great white shark move in more than 20 hours of observation.
Louise crawled out of the cage, blue-lipped and shivering, shaking uncontrollably as she tried to get a topside shot of another shark taking our bait, which it shook about for a time. Little bits and pieces of what used to be a seal floated to the surface. I pushed more boats off the Dive Cat while seagulls swooped to the surface of the sea and picked at the floating leftovers. This seemed less than gallant, a way of profiting from death and tragedy. I told Louise that I thought of these particular seagulls as “lawyer birds.”
She was thoughtful for a moment.
“We do that, too,” Louise said.
“Journalists. We write about death and tragedy. For money.”
The perception was jarring, and accurate. Here I was, one of the journalist birds circling over Shark Alley, ready to shriek in my shrill and self-righteous manner about choosing the proper operator, about inexperienced sharkers and overloaded boats, about operators with flimsy cages and no trauma training. Soon enough, flocks of us would be swooping down to pick at the various remains of the inevitable disaster, the one nobody wants and everyone expects.
With that unlovely thought in mind, and with a certain amount of confidence in my own operator, I dropped back down into the chicken wire and played another one-sided game of bumper tag with a couple thousand pounds of white death.