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We`re gonna need a bigger boat!

by PaulaBlake 

Posted: 24 March 2005
Word Count: 1406

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We’re gonna need a bigger boat!

The freezing Atlantic Ocean just off the coast of South Africa in September is not the most inviting place, it’s even less appealing if you are sliding around and trying to keep your balance on the deck of a 10 man boat, crammed with 20 people, wearing a cold and clammy full body wetsuit, disposable underwater camera in hand with a strong wind threatening to ‘about turn’ the whole trip. The sight and smell of the barracuda heads and tuna entrails being thrown into the sea and bobbing about in temptation is enough to make you want to spend the rest of the trip staring at the porcelain. But trust me, it was all worth it.

When I told my partner, Matthew- a keen diver, that we were going to Cape Town, courtesy of the Guardian newspaper and a competition win, the first thing he alerted me too, was the fact that South Africa is one of the most popular places in the world for shark diving. Having spent a lifetime of being fascinated by these creatures, he had seen many documentaries on sharks and seen people in cages dangling off the side of a boat like live bait, and wanted to give it a go, to look a Great White directly into its cold, black empty eyes sounded thrilling! We chose our holiday dates around the shark-spotting high season and booked for September, the beginning of their summer. It was a compromise, if we had gone later it would have been a lot warmer, but there would have been less chance of seeing the sharks, so we chose high possibility, and a sea temperature of 14 degrees. (ouch!)

We exchanged several emails with a company called Unreal Dive who specialised in these kinds of trips. It cost 1100 Rand (approximately £92 each) and would be a whole day trip. We didn’t need to be PADI divers as there wouldn’t be any actual scuba diving.

We were to be collected at 5.30am the morning following our arrival in Cape Town, luckily being only one hour time difference meant we had no jet lag, however 5.30am, is not a time I recognise, I didn’t even know there were two in one 24 hour period! Unfortunately, while we were getting ready (it seemed surreal to be packing swimsuits along with jumpers, socks and gloves, but the wind at sea is both strong and cold!) at 5.15am our driver arrived early and we left half awake. The two and a half hour drive to Gansbaai was serene, we passed through Hermanus on the way, and watched the hazy sunrise over Table Mountain. I was pleased to see us pick up along the way, two Americans, Two Irish, and 2 Canadian fellow divers, and we all exchanged recent stories of shark attacks on humans. One of the Americans was a lady who was well into her 60’s, and accompanying her husband on a business trip she was fed up of the inside of the hotel room!’

We arrived in Kleinbaai harbour at about 8am; In the bright warm sunshine and clear blue sky it was still crisply cold, which made us think that we should have packed more clothes. We were given breakfast and briefed on the safety procedures and itinerary. There were twenty people all on the same boat, squashed onto wet seats together, but we needn’t have worried, because there was plenty of space on to dive as people slowly started to chicken out. As we crashed over the waves, towards Shark Alley just off Dyer Island, the skipper pointed out a Southern Right Whale, which was something we had never seen before, protected by a law stating no boat is allowed within 50m of one of these legendary mammals, it happily breached in the distance.

After a bumpy 20 minutes riding the waves, we anchored not far from Seal Island, which is the shark world’s very own McDonalds. The cage was un-roped and retied around the side of the boat. Happily the cage doesn’t just float about in the water with us in it and tease the sharks, dangling in the water like a tea bag, it is in fact tethered to the side of the boat just below the surface, I guess so that you have an easy escape route!

After the skipper deciphers which way the current is running and how quickly, he starts ‘chumming’ the water, throwing out all manner of disgustingness including mushed sardines and fish oil to tempt the sharks over to the boat. Then bait of Barracuda heads is thrown in, when the shark comes near to the boat the bait is drawn away at the last minute leaving the frustrated shark to glide past the boat defiantly. A Great White can smell one particle of blood in 1,000,000 particles of water we were told that as the current wasn’t very strong, it might take up to a couple of hours before we saw anything. However, just minutes later and with no warning (no matter how much you think you are ready for it, however many times someone says that immortal line ‘we’re gonna need a bigger boat’ and how ever many times you have seen ‘Jaws’ nothing prepares you for the feeling you get when you see the silent and elegant dark grey 4 metre shadow disappear under the boat beneath you) It came.

I was excited and petrified all at the same time. As it came round again, I got to look directly into his eyes, black and emotionless a complete contrast to the grace that it glided through the water with. I was shocked at my reaction to just having seen one; let alone about being in the water with it! You are told Great Whites are long, and we’ve all seen them on TV, what they don’t tell you is how wide they are, this one was like a tube train in ‘roundness’ and was as fast as one too, it looked like it could tip the boat with a flick of its tail, in fact on its next pass they didn’t manage to drag the bait away in time and the shark caught it squarely in his jaws and swam away, it actually pulled the boat round and there was lots of shouting that if it didn’t let go it would start to tip the boat, they cut it away in the end. I felt the strength as the ropes went taught and the boat juddered under the pressure.

In groups of five people were told to change. In the cabin there were a pile of damp wetsuits, another pile of snorkel and masks, and a crate of booties. The cold wetsuit gave me goose bumps on goose bumps, but I thought that was nothing compared to how I was going to feel when I got in the water! With the hood zipped up to my chin, odd sized boots, and a mask indentation on my face I waited as part of a line of 5 to be told to get into the 14 degree Atlantic. The skipper waited until it looked like a shark was interested in the bait, then told us to get in. The he would drop the bait, yell randomly at us “now, now, now” when we had to duck under the water and look out for ‘Jaws’. The sight of a great white shark swimming two feet away from you is truly breathtaking, and watching it disappear into the depths of the Atlantic is unreal. More intriguing is not seeing it coming and watching as it propels itself from underneath up towards the bait and everyone gasping as the force catapults it out of the water as it flips onto its side and back into the blue depths. Being proud to be one of the few people who have seen a Great White ‘in person’ 20 minutes in the Atlantic Ocean was enough, the water didn’t have that great visibility and we got much better pictures from the boat. I have never been so cold, and I got sick on the way back (a mixture of swallowing too much sea water, the motion of the boat, and with the rancid smell of Seal Island which smelt worse than something rotting) but it really was a trip of a lifetime, and one I would do again.

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Comments by other Members

old friend at 19:39 on 25 March 2005  Report this post

A smooth piece of writing that carries the reader along and shares the thrill of this experience. The sentences I thought might be edited were at the end of the seventh paragraph (awkward last two words after brackets) and, following this the ending of the sentence with 'with'.


Richard Brown at 11:38 on 02 April 2005  Report this post

As I have confessed elsewhere in this group, diving does not greatly appeal to me but this piece conveys a huge sense of excitment and wonder. Not quite enough to convert me but maybe sufficient to instil some regret that I don't fancy plunging into 14 degree water with a monster in it waiting to eat me.

I think the piece has great potential - there's a real travel story here - but I think it could do with some sharpening. For one thing, you seem, in the third paragraph, to be introducing your partner as part of the tale but then he more or less disappears. It could be either an 'I' story or a 'we' one but at the moment it seems to hover between the two.

Then I wonder about the technicalities. In paragraph 4 you make allusions to some aspects of diving that the general reader would not understand. My guess is that the piece is intended for a non-specialist audience so perhaps a bit of explanation of 'PADI' and even 'scuba' might be useful.

There's also some editing to do. For example, paragraph 3, line 2 'to' instead of 'too' and then in line 3 I think 'a lifetime of' would be better without the 'of'. There are others which should ideally be fixed before the piece goes out to potential publishers but maybe you haven't got to the stage of final editing yet.

As I said at the outset, there's a palpable energy to the article - definitely worth developing.


sue n at 16:09 on 02 April 2005  Report this post
Hi Paula
I agree that you convey the excitement well (not that I would want to do it).
There is a bit of tidying up to do -- mixture of two's and 2s etc, and I personally found the intro, before you got to the actual dive, a little long and was tempted to gloss over it--maybe a little editing would sharpen it up.
But an enjoyaable piece.
Sue n

Cornelia at 09:35 on 03 April 2005  Report this post
I like the way that the shark's strength is shown earlier when the rope need to be cut, and its being likened to a fast tube train. I was well prepared to feel really scared by the skipper's instructions in the last paragraph. I thought the details of the damp wet-suits and other equipment also conveyed a sense of unease and discomfort.


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