My mum told me she remembers the “Jaws” phenomenon when it first came out. When it took everyone so long to go back in the water. When everyone came away thinking of a Great White Shark as nothing more than a murderous demon and cold blooded killer. Let me set the record straight. There are many terrifying and tenacious daemons on this earth and particularly in my life but not a single one of them bears any resemblance to a Shark. Humans are a million times more murderous, demonic and senseless than one of these creatures. And how do I know? Well today I met one.
It was a childhood dream turned into a teenage fantasy turned into an adult “it’ll never happen” until the day it finally did. Peter and I both grew up quietly wanting to dive with Sharks (and expecting to be be reprimanded by our elders for being so ridiculous). As we were driving through New Zealand we saw a leaflet with a Great White Shark on the front, went “ooooooo!” and picked it up.
However on ringing to ask for more information the guy on the phone was quite short with me and said that I would need some kind of basic dive qualification to come on the trip. Nothing felt quite right about it so I put down the phone, shook my head at Pete and we returned the dream to that distant fantasy land in our heads.
But then something happened which we did not expect.
We arrived in Invercargill and Peter saw an Elephant. Not a real one mind you but a statue of one atop a building which read “Zookeepers cafe.” Without a second thought he pulled in and we both just thought “we HAVE to go in!” So we did.
After marvelling at the animal themed decor and requesting a discount on some very munchable pancakes (because, really, how many actual zoo keepers must they get in there?!) we got chatting to the owner. She recommended Shark cage diving and we explained how we’d felt after phoning the guy. She immediately told us of the “other” cage diving experience which was far superior. We got cautiously excited again and used the cafe wifi to see what we could find out. It seemed much more ethical, we did not need diving qualifications, they conducted research and they had availability (weather dependant) in 3 days time. We pondered over it for a few more minutes, confirmed it was something on both our bucket lists and booked it before we had a chance to convince ourselves not to.
We spent two very chilled out days imagining what meeting the Sharks would be like and whether we would be scared or not. I came to the conclusion that I was actually growing nervous now it was really happening. Peter didn’t help by declaring that if we did see one he wanted to name him “Bitey McSharkface.”
We kept a close and nervous eye on the weather in case it might cancel our trip of dreams and then awoke on a dreary Monday at an unearthly hour, went south and boarded the boat in the dark. As morning drew on we set off from the harbour, there was no going back now.
The crossing was rough I’m not going to lie. The weather had only just improved enough for us to go out there but soon enough the anchor was down, we donned our wet suits and the cage was in the water.
The alert came just as we were all preparing to get in the cage and I couldn’t believe we’d come across one so instantly. I saw the huge dorsal fine and tip of the tail rise out of the water and could judge how big this guy was. Not as big as the plankton eating Basking Sharks I used to encounter when I worked on a boat but certainly big enough for the toothier variety. They reckoned about 3 metres in length.
One by one (there were only 5 of us) we plopped into the cage and there he was.
Serenely, elegantly, calmly swimming on by us as we watched in awe. What I had spent the last few days imaging was pure adrenaline and sheer terror upon finally coming face to face with one of these guys but it was the most peaceful thing I’d ever witnessed. It was just you, the big blue and the Great White and honestly he was just glorious!
He would cruise on by, close enough to touch (which obviously we were forbidden to do) and mosey on with his day. The size of him was immense and the sheer power that one tiny flick of that tail could create was incredible but I also loved his smile. When looking at us, face on, his toothy grin would emanate out of the gloom and, honestly (if anthropomorphically) he just looked happy. There was no aggression, no thrashing and blood filled screams, just a top predator swimming around with another top predator in a cage, watching.
After about 10 or 20 minutes under the surface the sheer cold gets to you, even in the suits so we would come up, warm up and wait for the Sharks to return. The individual we kept encountering was a very distinctive male (from his claspers) and I was told that to photo ID them they actually look more at the colouration line of white to grey rather than the dorsal fin like in many species of Cetacea. But he also had a very obvious brown patch next to his gills and he spent most of the day languidly swimming around and checking things out.
We did witness one “lunge” where our toothy friend made a grab for the bait. His mouth opened wide and he torpedoed towards it at the very last second, stealthy until he was at the surface. It was fascinating to watch but it was the only time even a tiny jolt of fear punctured me and it was completed man made. If it hadn’t been for the bait in the water he would have just carried on cruising and perusing.
It became almost like an addiction. I wanted to see more and couldn’t get enough. I would stand in the cage rather uncomfortably, not being able to breathe very well, being buffeted about by the currents, surrounded by flecks of chum, diabolically freezing cold but desperate for just another glimpse of Shark. And it wasn’t for the thrill but for the privilege and the calm. Once that grey and white body started looming out of the dark towards us everything just became so still, so utterly focused on his presence, as if nothing else in the world existed but you and him. I knew animals had that much power over me but I hadn’t experienced anything like that in a very long time. It didn’t so much feel like magic, more just like an ancient appreciation and understanding of something that was so much bigger, stronger, more powerful and better adapted than I was.
After hours of cage time with the sharks and surface time with the many Albatrosses that we were also blessed to see it was finally time to head back. The sun had come out but the wind had picked up, the tide had turned and the swells were massive. I’d worked out in some rough seas on the boat before but nothing like this. The peaks of the waves met and crashed into one another whilst the rolling of the water would create a walled wave practically the size of the boat we were on. We’d drop into the dip and climb the next one, surrounded by walls of water. I’d never sailed in anything quite this bad before and, for the first time in my life, felt genuinely queasy because of it. Unfortunately the feeling never let up and eventually I was actually sea sick. After months of continuously working on a boat in Scotland it was here, in New Zealand that I was finally overcome by the roll of the swell and I was more than a little annoyed at myself.
However we finally made it back on to land with all of us looking a little greener than before and staggered back to our cars. Taking it easy for the rest of the day gave us time to remember what we’d witnessed and look back at the videos to ensure it hadn’t just been a wonderful (if vomit inducing) dream.
But those Sharks were real.
And if it was at all possible I felt like my appreciation for them had grown tremendously. I’ll always remember their smile and their size and their immense power. But most of all when I look back on it I remember the peace and the stillness and the overwhelming calm. Who needs meditation in life when you can dive with Great White Sharks.