We left Simonstown’s small harbour at 6am, just as dawn was breaking. The previous day had been drizzly and miserable, but now the rain had stopped, and the sky was streaked with clouds. As we sped out across the water, we were afforded magnificent views across False Bay, towards Muizenberg Beach, the back of Table Mountain, and right round to the Cape of Good Hope.
As the sun inched its way up from the horizon the clouds in the sky turned a blazing orange, as if on fire. The water was calm. Rolling mists cascaded down the sides of the mountains surrounding the bay, settling in bands around the middle, so that the peaks looked like they were floating between the sky and the sea. I stood on the deck of the boat, breathing in fresh sea air and enjoying the gentle sunshine.
It was our second morning in South Africa. And as mornings go, this one was glorious.
Context: My aunt and uncle recently celebrated their combined 120th birthday (they’re both 60), at a game park in South Africa. This provided a convenient excuse to return to the country in which I had spent my childhood – the first time back there in almost thirty years. My youngest brother travelled with me. We visited Cape Town; made a trip down memory-lane in Johannesburg, where I lived until I was thirteen; and then met family and friends on safari. The trip was jam-packed with memorable experiences, which I have tried to capture in this series of stories. I hope you enjoy.
Fifteen minutes later we came to Seal Island, a small rocky outcrop in the middle of the bay and home to a colony of around 70,000 Cape fur seals. They were jammed onto every available stone and patch of open ground. Many were also playing in the waves that were crashing heavily onto the shore. They swam, dived, floated on their backs, and occasionally even waved their flippers at us.
There were so many seals that the island itself looked like it was a living creature, covered in a thick, black outer skin that was wriggling and writhing and breathing, all of its own. The sound of breaking waves mixed with the honking and braying of thousands of seals was deafening. Then, as we rounded the island and headed downwind, we learned for ourselves that the collective shit of thousands of seals really, really stinks. It was a complete assault on the senses, so that after only a few minutes I already felt overwhelmed. And we hadn’t even got to the main event.
You see, the reason we were visiting Seal Island was for the sole, and admittedly psychotic purpose of swimming with Great White sharks.
It turns out that these infamous predators of the deep are very common off South Africa’s coast. Plump furry seals just happen to be their preferred snack food. And sharks especially like to feed at dawn. Put these together, and evidently Seal Island in the early morning is the ideal place to view sharks in their natural habitat.
But if you happen to be especially keen or suicidal or both, you can also arrange not only to be taken out to the island for a spot of shark-watching, but to be kitted up in a wet suit and dropped into a cage in the water, as well. From the relative safety of the boat expert shark-guys will then try to attract the sharks’ attention, by dragging a fake seal through the water, tossing out lines with huge chunks of bloody fish dangling from the end, or banging on the side of the boat and thumping the water with a bucket (sharks are apparently curious creatures, and if they hear something unusual in their territory, especially a loud booming noise, they will come to check it out).
Sounds like a fun thing to do, I guess. Except, that is, if like me one of your worst fears is the idea of bobbing in an inky black sea, in the knowledge that there are fearsome sharks about, but not being sure if you will or won’t catch a glimpse of them before they eat you.
So perhaps you can understand why my heart was racing and my adrenaline was surging as I sat on the side of the boat, in a wet-suit and about to jump into the cage that was submerged in the water on the side. I looked up at my brother on the deck, who was merrily snapping photos of my misery, and half-asked, half-implored of him: “please, can’t we just go home already – what am I doing here?”
But he had absolutely no sympathy for my plight, perhaps because he’d already had a session in the cage earlier, and had thus already experienced what it was like to come face-to-face with a Great White shark.
So what was it like?
Well, after a few minutes of baiting activity, one of the guys on the boat called out “shark approaching – look down and left”. I did as told, dipping my head into the water, and there it was, clear as day through the lens of my goggles: a four metre female Great White shark. She was bearing down directly on us. Or more precisely, on the hunk of food dangling on a line right in front of where I and a middle-aged American couple were floating in the cage.
At this point in the narrative, I suspect the appropriate thing would be to say how spectacular it was, how majestic a beast this shark was, the undisputed Queen of the Ocean, regally gliding through the water in a swirl of raw energy and awesome power, blah, blah, blah.
But truth be told, I almost shat myself. She was just so God-damn big, and was getting bigger and bigger as she closed in on us. Sure, we were supposedly safe inside of a steel cage but, compared to the massive shark, the steel bars seemed ridiculously flimsy. Plus I could already see her fearsome teeth – rows of them, white and sharp and pointy. Reflexively I pulled my fingers and feet back inside of the cage.
The Great White now opened her gigantic jaws, and half turning sideways surged towards us. In one ferocious motion she bit down hard on the piece of fish. It was so powerful a bite that shock waves went rippling through the water, which caused the cage to shake and shudder (although given how much I was already shaking and shuddering, this probably made little difference in the overall scheme of things).
Then the shark proceeded to tussle with the bait, while the sadistic shark-guy up on deck tussled back. This meant that for a few seconds a gigantic shark was wriggling around in the water, less than two feet away from me. In that brief flicker of time, this shark and I quite literally saw eye-to-eye. All I could think about was a text message that a friend in Australia had sent me the night before: “The irony … of you, the man who sought to eat any and all beasts, being eaten in the end by a shark …. is quite great – kinda like Steve Irwin being stung to death by a stingray. On that note – enjoy!”
Then, as the shark finally tired of the game and turned away, her tail bumped the cage. The metal bars shuddered again, my heart skipped a beat, and the power of that one little nudge reminded me, in case there was any doubt, that I was but a temporary visitor in her world. At best an insignificant speck of human flotsam; at worst a curiosity-cum-lunch.
Just when I thought the danger had passed, without warning the shark turned around at speed and with a powerful flick of her tail came charging back at the cage, head on. Unrestrained fear barely begins to describe how I felt. All I can say is that if it were possible to jump clean out of both my wet-suit and my skin while underwater, I would have done so at that very moment.
But it seems this fun-loving shark was just “playing” with us. Two metres away from the impact point she dived and swam right below us, underneath the cage. Then she was gone, fading away into the murky water in the blink of an eye. Who knew that sharks have a sense of humour?
Even though this whole sighting had felt like an eternity to me, in reality the whole thing had lasted about ten seconds. As soon as I was sure that Madam Shark had left the building I lifted my head out of the water, took a deep panicked breath, and exclaimed very loudly: “FUCK!”
Of course the captain of the boat had to be holding a Go-Pro right in my face at that very moment, capturing forever on film my raw terror, mixed with the accompanying laughter of everyone else onboard that morning. “I think we might be using that one in our next promotional video”, was all that the bastard could say. Which didn’t do much to calm me down, given that I was near hyperventilating from having just experienced first-hand what it is like to be fish food.
After that I stayed in the cage for another thirty minutes. We had a few more sightings and close encounters with two more Great Whites, but none nearly as near or as terrifying as the first. My cage session was the last of the morning, and so once done we made a final lap of Seal Island, before setting off across False Bay, heading back to Simonstown. Our shark adventure was over.
Although not quite – it seems that Mother Nature had something extra in store for us that day.
As we crossed False Bay we saw a flickering line on the horizon. It was moving across the surface of the water, all the while shimmering and twinkling like hundreds of bursting stars. The captain told us this was probably a pod of dolphins, and as they appeared to be heading directly for us he slowed the boat down to let them catch us.
Ten minutes later the path of our boat intersected with that of the dolphins, and even the captain was gob-smacked. Because what was “probably a pod of dolphins” turned out to be over a thousand dolphins, all moving together in a single synchronised motion.
Somehow, the captain manoeuvred the boat right into the middle of the pod, and set a speed that meant for the next fifteen minutes we cruised along as if we were part of it. Wherever I looked, left, right, back or front, as far as I could see, there were dolphins. Hundreds and hundreds of them, breaking out of the water then diving back under, again and again and again. It was the most extraordinary sight, and utterly beguiling. They say dolphins have a special energy – healing and uplifting – and here, in and amongst them, I began to understand why.
I lay down on the front of the boat. I was about a metre or so above the water, staring out directly at the sea ahead. The dolphins began playing with us. Two or three dozen of them swam right alongside me and in front of the boat, ducking and diving, weaving back and forth across the prow. A few of the more adventurous dolphins even began jumping up into the air, right in front of us, before dropping back into the water with a loud splash. I put a hand out the side, and a few of the dolphins brushed it as they passed.
“Whale!” someone shouted, and out to the far left of the pod we saw two huge whales break the surface of the water, spouting high plumes of mist from their blow-holes. Then another whale appeared to the right. And right on cue a dozen or so seals now appeared in the midst of the dolphins. How on earth they got there I don’t know, although why wouldn’t they want to join this particular porpoise party, too?
So there I was, lying on my tummy, gliding across the sea, in the midst of a thousand or so extremely playful dolphins, a group of bobbing seals, and flanked by three massive whales who from time to time were blowing jets of water up into the air.
I mean, seriously – could it possibly, possibly ever get any better than this?
It seems the answer is “yes”.
The dolphins had been making their way towards lunch, a.k.a. a large school of small fish. Having now arrived they were enjoying a feed as they continued to plough on through the water. But their activity had alerted the local seabirds to the food as well. Hundreds of gulls and Cape cormorants were now circling overhead. So many it was like a cloud had begun to form above us, all the while their ear-splitting caws and screeches piercing the air.
Two, four, six, eight, bog in don’t wait. The sea-gulls began swooping down with their talons outstretched, so they could pluck the little fish clean out of the water. They came in low, gliding right over us on the boat. They came so close we could hear the “swoosh” sound as their outstretched wings sliced through the air.
The cormorants, not to be outdone, now began dive-bombing themselves into the sea, all at once. Apparently, from the air these birds can spot a target fish in the water, and in a nanosecond will calculate their own trajectory, that of the fish, and the point of intersection. The bird will then plunge towards the water, and about fifteen metres up tuck in its wings and drop straight down, in a high-speed vertical dive. The speed is apparently so great that it propels the cormorant up to twenty metres below the surface of the sea. Where it will nab its prey, turn around, and then explode out of the waves. Following which it will flap its wings and continue on its way, as if there is nothing at all unusual about a bird with Kamikaze tendencies.
This frenzy went on for a full ten minutes. It was like a battle scene from one of those movies set in ancient times, where the advancing army fires thousands of flaming arrows into the air, to rain down in a shower of destruction on those below. Only here the arrows were birds, raining down in massive numbers into a frothing sea of leaping dolphins and swarming fish. Not to forget the seals. Or the whales, patrolling like silent sentinels out on the flanks.
So I just lay there on the front of the boat, taking it all in, utterly mesmerised by the dolphins and the whales and the seals, and now the dive-bomber birds as well. I was totally immersed in the action, moving along at the epicentre of the maelstrom, at one with all of these magnificent creatures.
It was without question one of the most extraordinary, incredible, almost spiritual experiences of my life. A chance “one-in-a-lifetime” encounter where Mother Nature, in all of her splendour and glory, put on a spectacular show. Just for us.
And in that totally magical moment, it felt very much like Africa herself had woken up that morning, got out of bed, and come over to False Bay to extend me a personal and unforgettable: “welcome back”.