I learned I was claustrophobic in a narrow cage – about two people wide and nine people long – tethered to a small boat anchored somewhere in the Indian Ocean, while men chucked buckets of slimy fish overboard in hopes of attracting a great white shark or two.
Small spaces don’t make me claustrophobic. It was the mask that covered my nose that did it, stopping me from breathing naturally and forcing me to gulp down air through my mouth. I’d also been the first one to enter the cage, with a weight slung across my chest and the goggles tightly fastened to my face by the dive master. Moments before sliding into the icy water, I’d gasped and exclaimed upon seeing the first shark’s fin peeping out of the water as the shark gulped down fish entrails. Then I was in the same water, feeling it seep into my too-large diving shoes and turning to watch as my friends, Dejan and Nicole, moved down the cage to join me.
“Can you breathe? I can’t breathe, can you guys breathe?” I must have asked some variation of that question about 50 times while our bodies were submerged. We held on to the bars of the cage in front of us, waiting for a command from the dive master to take a deep breath and push ourselves down when a shark approached. I think we were in the water for 20-25 minutes; that command came about three times. The first time I looked the wrong way, but the next two times, I saw the sharks body swimming past the cage, an eerie dark mass moving silently past us and swallowing fish and seawater. Seeing the sharks’ massive, glistening bodies moving underwater was incredible, but I think that the glimpses we caught of the sharks from the boat rank higher on my personal list of greatest sights.
Then finally, I’d had enough of not being able to breathe and asked to get out. Most of the eight people in the cage followed immediately. In our dripping shoes and wetsuits, the three of us climbed up the ladder to the top deck on the boat, where we had a perfect view of the people in the shark cage and of any sharks that showed up for a snack.
Twenty or 30 minutes passed without ceremony, and just as I was getting a little bored – and more than a little seasick – a shark showed up, swimming around the cage and battling with the fish head being cast out by one of the workers on the boat as bait. And it was somewhere in that moment that I realised how much I’d hate to come face to face with one of these massive beasts without the safety of bars or a boat or some sort of retreat. Its jaws tightened around that fish head, ripping scales and flesh away (and giving the boat worker’s arms a good workout), it thrashed its own head around in an attempt to break the fish away from the hook, and then finally, it swam away.
And that 30-second spectacle is probably one of the most memorable things I’ve ever seen. Totally worth the claustrophobia discovery and seasickness and even the waking up at 2:30 am part (we were picked up from Cape Town at 3:30 for the drive to Kleinbaai).
It’s an experience that can’t be replicated with sharks in captivity. And it’s an experience that may not exist in a few decades if people keep insisting on shark fin soup or whatever other reasons are given to justify killing the species. Let sharks be, and enjoy them in their own habitat. Diving with sharks beat looking at them in a Dubai shopping mall by a hell of a long shot.
PS: Sharknado is an awful movie and I highly recommend it