Few past experiences could have prepared me for what I was on the verge of facing. Looking out across the calm harbour, with the gentle white horses hugging the rocky Gansbaai shoreline, I could observe ocean for as far as my eyes could see. The auburn sun was gradually rising across the horizon and the sky was soon filled with a mesmerising array of autumnal tones. All around me people were hectically running around, preparing both the cage-diving boats and the tourists for the trip ahead, yet an overwhelming feeling of tranquillity consumed me.
Breathing in the crisp ocean air in the early hours of a chilly Wednesday morning, I couldn’t wait to get out there and be surrounded by endless blue. As I climbed the stairs to aboard the banana-yellow hull of the ‘Shark Team’ I felt the blood coursing through my veins with anticipation more quickly than ever before. Excited chatter engulfed the air as animated visitors discussed their expectations and their journey to this very moment. For many, our voyage had been a dream since being a young child and felt like a pilgrimage of sorts. As an aspiring marine scientist, I was on the brink of undoubtedly making one of the most momentous first encounters of my career.
Travelling across Van Dykes Bay towards Dyer Island, we charged through the building swell, which became more powerful the further we ventured away from the shoreline. There is something so exhilarating about being on the ocean and all-around me were people with childlike grins emblazoned across their mottled cheeks. Despite the bone-chillingly cold conditions, and the odd bout of sea sickness, there was an overwhelming sense of fulfilment in the air.
When we finally moored a few hundred metres offshore, at a site known as Jouberts Dam to the locals, there was a flurry of anticipation as the crew worked tirelessly to get the large metallic cage suspended in the water and fixed to the starboard side of the boat.
Whilst expending substantial energy myself in a bid to frantically hoist my wetsuit on, I couldn’t help but notice how close we were to the shoreline. Pearly Beach was right in front of us. A beautiful expanse of glorious white sands, a renowned local swimmers beach, and undoubtedly a popular tourist destination during the summer months. Naturally, I wondered why there were not more reported attacks. But there was no time for wonderment, it was the moment I had been waiting for since late childhood. Enthusiastically, I threw my legs over the side of the hull, slipping down into the metal cage and the ice-cold waters that were there to greet me. Grasping the frozen bars above me, I clenched my firsts to secure myself in place.
“DOWN DOWN DOWN” one of the crew members yelled.
Frantically taking one large breath and thrusting my body deep down into the waters, mustering every bit of strength I had to battle the strong current. Once consumed by the bitterly cold sea, I began desperately searching to catch a glimpse of the ginormous fish I had travelled all this way to see. After a few moments, there she was. A majestic, four-metre long female emerged from the murky abyss and inquisitively looked us all in the eye, one by one.
Clampy, named so because of the hole in her dorsal fin from a previous satellite tracking tag, effortlessly glided past us all. She was not aggressive. She was not fear-inducing. Instead, she was the exact opposite of many preconceptions the average person you may meet on the street would have about sharks. Calm, inquisitive and ever so slightly shy.
There is something so magical about meeting Carcharodon carcharias, colloquially known as the great white shark, for the first time. Whether it was the icy cold waters of Van Dykes Bay or the shear majesty you gain from looking one of the oceans most magnificent animals right in the eyes, I had never felt more wonderment in my whole life. If seeing an African lion roam the savannah is the pinnacle of terrestrial wildlife watching, then witnessing a great white shark glide across the pelagic was the marine equivalent.
Thinking about it, both Clampy and I were both gazing directly at one of the most formidable predators on Earth. In that moment that I locked eyes with Clampy, I didn’t feel a sense of panic or endangerment, simply an appreciation of the shear grandeur with which this animal graces our oceans and the integral role it plays in marine ecosystem health. In that same moment, my heart was heavy at the thought of my children not being able to bear witness to the ruler of the high seas.