A reporter's close encounter spurs amazement and terror

October 19, 2006|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,Sun foreign reporter

GANSBAAI, South Africa — Get ready, one's coming," shouted skipper Anthony Melley.

In seconds the shark would be feet, or even inches, from the cage in which we were waiting in the cold water. When Melley gave the call, we would hold our breaths, duck under and come face to face with a great white.

I was on Shark Fever, a 32-foot catamaran that is part of a growing and controversial industry in South Africa called cage diving. Twelve companies take tourists out for memorable, morning-long encounters with these feared, yet poorly understood, denizens of the deep.

Surfers hate cage diving because they think it alters shark habits and might be contributing to a recent spate of attacks. Researchers say there's no evidence of harm as long as it's done properly.

I wanted to see for myself what cage diving looks like up close. How close, I wasn't sure, even after Shark Fever anchored a half-mile or so offshore in an area dubbed Shark Bay. Marine biologist Michael Scholl, a guide on the boat, had told us that it is sometimes easier to see the sharks from the deck rather than the cage because they swim so close to the surface.

Perhaps that's what I would do. Then I heard the exclamations from those in the cage: "Wow," "fantastic," along with less printable words. Minutes later I was pulling on a wetsuit and boots and grabbing a mask. Minutes after that, I was in the cage with five others, our heads poking just above the surface.

The cage felt safe enough, lashed to the boat with several ropes and equipped with floats. Odds seemed slim that it would break away and create a Jaws scenario. Still, when the lid closed over us, I glanced up to see if a human could slide out in a pinch.

The bay, we were told, is teeming with great whites, thanks in part to nearby Geyser Rock, home to 60,000 seals. The goal was to attract sharks cruising the neighborhood. That was done by pumping out a mix of sea water and shredded tuna called chum, and by dropping bait in the form of a fish head (usually tuna or Patagonian toothfish).

The bait was attached to a float and a rope. When a shark went for the bait, someone on the boat would yank it back to avoid rewarding the shark, which could create unwanted conditioning. If the timing was right, the shark might emerge from the water, giving those aboard a show.

That day, 10 great whites paid us a visit, according to Scholl's research assistants. In the cage, we never had to wait long.

"Go down!" Melley shouted each time he spotted a shark.

Sometimes I saw nothing, an eerie sensation knowing that a 12-foot predator was within tango distance. Usually we got an eyeful despite visibility of only a few feet.

One time, I saw a shark swim by leisurely, its mouth slightly agape, revealing a saw's worth of jagged teeth. I was too busy being amazed to feel frightened.

Another time, a shark shot up at the bait, vanishing in spray as it broke the surface. From underwater it resembled a rocket launching toward space.

Most memorable was when a shark smacked its tail against the cage while going for the bait. It's not something Scholl likes to see because it can hurt the shark. But it was an amazing sight - a jarring, wonderful, terrifying reminder of how much brute strength great whites possess.

scottmcalvert@gmail.com

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