Monday, August 31, 2009

Great White Cage Diving, Kleinbaai, South Africa

Like most stories on the backpacking trail, I heard it in a bar. I was in Sydney, Australia, and a drunk Brit whose name I forget, told me that he recently went into a cage while great white sharks swam all around him in Adelaide. He was so drunk and excited that he spat in my face as he spoke. I did not have enough money to make the trip immediately, but from that day, I always knew I would dive with great whites somewhere, sometime. Ten years later, on the other side of the world, I finally got the chance to do it, and without a doubt the day I had made the wait worth the while.

Kleinbaai is a small fishing village on the Indian Ocean, 260 kilometers east of Cape Town, and the epicenter of great white shark expeditions. As Meg and I walk into a small hotel aptly named the ‘Great White House’ I am both nervous and excited about the possibilities before us. We have reservations to cage dive with great white sharks with a company called Marine Dynamics, and hope that they knowledge to find, and the equipment to keep us safe the apex predator of the ocean.

At the introductory briefing in the loft of the hotel we meet our guide, Hennie. He is a salty South African fisherman-turned-environmentalist who has been working out of the Kleinbaai area for over fifteen years. He is encouraged by the mild weather conditions this morning, and allays me fear for an unsuccessful trip by virtually guaranteeing that we will see the huge animals.

Three kilometers out to sea from the small mouth of Kleinbaai harbor is a small island called Dyer Island, and a rocky outcrop known as Geyser Rock. Between the two masses is a narrow, shallow channel known as shark alley. The alley, and the promise of feeding on seals attract great whites throughout the year. Hennie explains that we will anchor the boat off of Dyer Island and throw out a chum line to attract the sharks away from shark alley to the boat and the cage.

After the briefing the ten passengers and four crewmembers walk together down a sloping road towards the harbor. The street is lined with old, battered cages, and the storefronts display huge sets of bleached white jaws with rows of protruding teeth. The sky is overcast but calm, and there is almost no wind. The narrow road ahead ends at the waterfront, and I see the Indian Ocean before me, surprisingly calm and flat.

Kleinbaai means ‘New Bay’, but there is really no bay at all; just a small channel between rocks, strewn with kelp, leading away from a concrete boat ramp. All the boats of Kleinbaai are stored on land at night, and our custom-built thirty-foot vessel with twin Suzuki 300 horsepower outboard engines, named Shark Fever, is no different. We board the boat via a movable stairway, slide past the cage strapped to the stern, and stow our gear in the cabin before a tractor backs the boat down the ramp to the water to begin the expedition.

Since its inception cage diving with great whites has stirred controversy around the world. Surfers and water sports enthusiasts view it as a threat to their safety, claiming that the practice teaches sharks in the area to associate humans with food. I ask Hennie about this as he throttles the boat out of the bay. He seems annoyed by the question and dismisses the claim. He says that his research shows that the sharks are migratory, and do not spend more than a week in the area before moving on, and therefore does not see the correlation with any of the shark attacks in the area. He is completely confident in his certainty, and I wonder if he has explained his theory to any of the victims of attacks around Kleinbaai.

Chum is a mixture of fish blood, fish oil, and fish chunks that is thrown off the boat to attract sharks. Today the current is coming from the east, so after fifteen minutes of powering through the ocean, the boat is off the eastern shore of Dyer Island, and the crew begins to shovel the foul smelling brew into the water. Hennie then slowly pulls the boat east leaving an oily slick of chum in his wake to attract the great fish away from the island and towards the boat. We anchor sideways to the oncoming current, and the cage is dropped into the water off the stern.

Meg is in the first group of divers. We decided to dive in alternating groups, not to lessen the risk that we would both die a tragic death, but to ensure maximum photo coverage. As she pulls on her wetsuit on in the cabin below, I go up to the observation deck with Hennie to look for sharks; we do not have to wait long. “Got one guys,” he yells after only minutes.

The shark is huge, about fifteen feet long. It’s wide, gray body glides effortlessly below the surface of the water on the port side of the boat. The dorsal fin rises to break the surface of the water with a flick of its tail as the crew ties the cage to the side of the port side of the boat. “We’ve got another shark guys,” Hennie calls. This shark is smaller and circles the boat in the opposite directions to the first shark, its wide pectoral fins raising and lowering it in the water. As the massive, gray sharks calmly investigate the boat and the cage, my heart rate soars and I cannot believe I am finally going to dive with great whites.

Meg is the first diver over the side of the boat and into the cage. She is wearing a full body 7mm wetsuit with hood and booties to keep her warm and has a weight belt slung over her shoulder to counteract the flotation of the neoprene suit. She is wearing a mask to give her good visibility underwater, but has neither snorkel nor artificial breathing apparatus.

Marine Dynamics has a system to attract the sharks to the divers in the cage. The ‘chummer’ attracts the sharks to the boat by constantly throwing chim over the stern of the boat into the oncoming current. The ‘baitman’ tempts the sharks closer by throwing a bunch of fish heads tied to a rope onto the surface of the water only feet from the cage. Hennie, perched on the observation deck, is the ‘spotter’, and calls out the direction and depth of the approaching sharks to the crew and divers below. When a shark approaches the baitman pulls the rope, drawing the bait and the shark towards the cage. He wants the shark to go for the bait, but keep it from his mouth so that he can toss the bait out again to draw another strike. All the person in the cage has to do it drop down to see the strike underwater, and come up for air whenever there is no action.

Initially the sharks are timid, and approach the bait cautiously. They glide close to it, and make subtle movements towards it before returning to their original circumnavigation of the boat. Hennie calls out the sharks calmly, and takes notes on the length and sex of the animals for research purposes. After Meg is in the cage for mere minutes I hear Hennie shout excitedly from above. His voice is changed, and more high-pitched. “Down guys. Down-left. Down. Down. Down, guys.”

I can tell by his voice that a strike is coming, and focus the camera on the bait on the surface of the water in front of the cage. I start taking video; unable to see what is coming from below, but hoping for one of the famous breaches of the South African great whites I have seen on ‘Shark Week’. Suddenly a twelve-foot great white explodes from beneath the bait in an arching succession of head, dorsal, and tail. In a split second the shark is gone and the water is calm, but the air is full of cheers from the cage and the boat. Meg’s head pops up from the water below; her eyes are wide and excited, her smile bright under the tight lip on the black mask. I am jealous and want my turn in the water.

The cold doesn’t hit until I have been in the cage for a few seconds and the water has had time to seep through the neoprene and run down my lower back. I try to ignore the cold and find a comfortable shark-viewing position. The cage is a simple structure with an outer wall of steel fencing and one cross bar inside the cage I can safely hold to move my body above and below the surface. I hook the back of my heels into the steel grid at the back of the cage and lean my head forward against the cage’s flotation foam at the front, while my hands grip the cross bar below the surface. The position is comfortable, and similar to that of a motorcycle racer leaning over the bike to reduce drag. My heels are exposed and poking out of the back of the cage, but all the sharks I have seen come for the bait in front of the cage, so I feel confident that I will not lose a heel.

I do not wait for Hennie to call out for sharks, but keep my head buried in the water for as long as possible, only lifting it out to take short breathes. Visibility is good, and I can see clear blue water at least twenty feet below the metal grate of the cage floor. The first shark that investigates the bait is a male about ten feet long. I can tell he is a male because a pair of white tubular prongs hang from his underbelly as he passes only feet from my face. Despite his size, the shark is well camouflaged underwater, and is quick to disappear from view as he flicks his tail and swims away.

Beneath the ten-foot shark, in deeper water, bigger sharks swim past. They do not come to investigate the bait on the surface, but remain well below the boat, two of them reaching almost twenty feet. They are not fooled by the wrangling of the baitman, and do not rise to strike. Perhaps they are older and wiser, and after a few shark passes I see that most of the curious sharks are injured in some way. One has a missing dorsal fin, another has only one pectoral fin, and another has a large chunk of flesh missing from the tip of its nose. The most memorable shark was the one that really wanted the bait. It is a female with an open wound in the left corner of its mouth and five long scratches across her back. She is memorable because she is the one who gets her head stuck between the bars of the cage, inches from my face.

She is about twelve feet long, and she is the most frequent visitor to the boat. She is more than curious when approaching the bait, and is intent on getting the fish heads into her huge mouth. On one pass, as the bait is pulled above the surface of the water in front of the cage the shark lunges then disengages, turning sideways to us. When the bait hits the water again in front of the cage the shark flicks its tail, pushing a wave of water in my face, and charges the bait again. The rope is pulled and the shark misses the bait and heads away from us to my left. When the bait hits the water again the shark wheels towards us to try again.

The baitman throws the bait again, this time a mere three feet from the cage, and draws it in. The shark follows. Two feet from the cage the shark makes her move and lunges for the bait, jaws and gills wide open to swallow anything in its path. I see her first row of teeth pointing towards me, and the deep hollow of her throat behind. As she lifts her nose, and her top jaw slides down from its lip to seize the fish head. The bait disappears into thin air and she bites in vain. The shark’s momentum carries her forward towards the cage, and before either of us know what is happening, she hits the cage with her nose, pushing the cage and everyone in it violently against the boat.

For some reason I am not scared with the shark’s nose gets wedged between the bars of the cage inches from my face. I trust she cannot get to me, and doesn’t want to get me. I know she wants to free herself from the cage and swim away. As her body pushes into the cage my fist instinct is to punch her nose out of the cage to help her. I raise my hand off the bar to release her nose from between the bars before reconsidering, and returning my hand to the safety rail beneath her mouth. She wriggles her body in a rush of white water and turns her body sideways to the cage, extracting her nose from the bars. In a second she is away from the cage and out of sight.

(youtube shark in the cage)

When the shark is away the five of us in the cage come up to the surface and look at each other in disbelief. We all laugh because uncontrollably like village idiots. I try to process the event, and replay it my head to bury the sequence of events as vividly as possible into my memory bank. This is exactly what we had been hoping for, and it actually happened while I was in the cage. In seconds another shark was on the bait, and we all put our heads in the water hoping to see another strike up close.

Besides the freezing water there is one problem with cage diving: the chum. At times the chum slick flows from the stern directly into the cage. I am powerless to stop it, and I can only stay in the water as the putrid, yellow slick washes over me. I can taste it on my tongue, like licking week old sushi. After a half an hour in the water, other divers are tired of the cold and the taste of chum and get out. When the cage is almost empty Meg climbs in again for a second viewing, and we watch the sharks attack the bait together.

After two hours anchored off Dyer Island Hennie tells us that we are moving on. We have seen at least fourteen sharks, and Hennie has seen multiple sharks breach the water to attack seals in the area. He decides that conditions are good enough to try coaxing a shark to attack his seal decoy behind the boat. When Meg and I are safely back in the boat, and the cage is secured on the stern we trawl for great whites. It is an unusual event for Marine Dynamics, and only happens when conditions are just right, so we all thrilled with the possibility of seeing a breach up close.

The decoy is a piece of wood in the shape of a small seal. It is tied to a rope and dragged only twenty feet behind the boat. The decoy has no hooks, and will not hurt the shark if it attacks. Meg and I are on the observation deck with cameras ready to catch footage of a shark breach the water and attack the decoy. We drive slowly, about five miles-an-hour, and within minutes a dorsal fin appears the decoy. The shark moves in close, but does not attack. After ten minutes Hennie calls off the attempt, and the small decoy is brought aboard.

Before heading home the boat takes us into shark alley, between Dyer Island and the seal colony on Geyser Rock. The seals have recently pupped, and young and old play together on the rocks, beach, and in the water. They sound like sheep as they call to each other as they play. We do not see a predation in the alley, but heading home see come across a southern right whale lazing in the water, and then see a predation a hundred yards beyond it in the distance. The water is a awash with white water as the shark misses his first attempt to catch the seal and struggles to get it a second, third, and fourth time.

We are all completely satisfied with the shark trip, and we are sad to see the port of Kleinbaai in the distance, and the tractor waiting to pull us ashore. Sometimes when you anticipate something for so long, realizing it can be disappointing. Waiting ten years to cage dive with great white sharks built up so many expectations in my mind that I was prepared to be disappointed. This day did not disappoint, and even Hennie, who has lead thousands of shark expeditions, gives the day’s shark viewing a 10 out of 10. I do not disagree.

Whale Watching, Hermanus, South Africa

Up – Relentlessly Up! Platteklip Gorge, RSA

Table Mountain looms like a huge, stone castle over the city of Cape Town, South Africa, dominating the skyline of the city, and protecting the route south of the city towards the Cape of Good Hope. The summit is the most visited location in the city, most tourists and African school groups reaching its summit via a cable car system. The summit is often obscured by cloud, so on a clear afternoon Meg and I take the weather as a good omen, and decide to climb the mountain under our own power. It is not until after we are done, and Meg has forgiven me, that I read the warning in the tourist brochure, “Up – relentlessly up! Do not underestimate Platteklip Gorge. The path is not a route to be trifled with; the going can be tough.”

Getting reliable information in Africa is never easy, even when you ask the people who should know. So I am not surprised when the woman at the information office at the base of Table Mountain ignores me, and keeps her gaze fixed on the empty desk in front of her. When she finally acknowledges my presence, and I ask her about trails up the mountain above us, she dismisses me by pointing to a rack of brochures on the wall behind me, and returns her focus to the bare table before her; satisfied that she has fulfilled her obligation to the National Park Service of South Africa.

According to the tourist brochure, the most direct way to the top is along thin, wavy line on the map, called the Platteklip Gorge Trail. It is the only trail that will get us to the summit before sunset, and our only option. The trail is short, only three kilometers, (1.9 miles), but climbs over eight hundred vertical meters, (2600 feet) in that distance. Standing at the trailhead, just beyond the throngs of people waiting at the lower cable station, I warn Meg that the trial will be difficult for her. Big mistake. “Don’t tell me that. I can do it.”

If you want to see a woman ready to spit fire, and leave a trail of destruction in her wake, just tell Meg that she cannot do something. It makes her insane with rage, and ready to go to any length to prove you wrong. She would battle a lion barehanded if I told her she couldn’t do it. I have made the mistake before, and I did not do it this time. All I did was warn her that the trail would be a be easy. That was enough, however, to make her spit venom at me, and start marching to the summit, carrying our only backpack, eager to prove me wrong. I followed, but kept my distance.

The lower trail traverses the mountain on a rocky path leading away from the summit to the east. It climbs steady along the mountain on a well-worn path over small gulley that have only small trickles of water. When the path comes back towards the summit we finally see the entire length of the path ahead. The Platteklip Gorge is a deep fissure that cuts the eastern wall of Table Mountain all the way to the summit. The gorge is wide at first, and filled with green shrubs, before narrowing to a small dark crack that leads to the open sky far above us.

After a few wide switchbacks at the mouth of the gorge we both begin to tire. It is hot, and we sweat profusely as the sun beats on us. A few hikers come from above us, bounding down the trail, and we think that perhaps we should have taken the cable car up and walked down. But it is too late, and I know Meg will not give up now.

After an hour we penetrate the gorge itself and its sheer, stone, walls block out the sun and the temperature drops. We are wet with sweat and chilled by the cold as we rest at each switchback to catch our breath and survey the ascent ahead of us. We are moving slowly, but consistently, and I know that we will reach the summit with plenty of daylight, so there is no need to rush.

Resting on a huge boulder I survey the trail ahead and see the first sign of wildlife. There are always animals in Africa, and Table Mountain is not different. This one, however, is not threatening; it’s only a goat. The goat has long, ginger hair, and he is innocently chewing the grass at the edge of the trail. He has horns and does not look friendly, so we stop to admire him, the view of Cape Town below, and the how far we have come from the road below.

(youtube of goat)

We are halfway up the gorge, and our thigh muscles are getting tight. Our progress slows to a crawl as the trail gets steeper still and narrows. Meg makes little goals for herself to plan her next rest stop. “I’m going to make it to the next corner before stopping.” Sometimes we make it, and sometimes we don’t, but we never stop for long before leaning forward into the mountain, and pressing on. Eventually she gives up the backpack, hoping that the easier climb will make the rest of the climb feel easier.

After two hours of walking Meg and I are relieved to reach the narrowest part of the gorge, and see the sky above us open up. We break walk single file out onto the flat table of rock on the top of Table Mountain and survey see the Cape of Good Hope stretching out before us to the south and the blue waters of the Indian and Atlantic oceans. It is nice to be back in the sun, and nice to be finished with the climb. We are already sore, but satisfied in our achievement.

The summit of the mountain is full of people exploring the rocky plain of the summit, and we feel superior to them as we walk towards the cable car, knowing that they took the easy way up, believing we earned the spectacular views before us. At the western extend of the mountain we rest on a rock wall and look out over the blue rocky buttress to the south known as Twelve Apostles, and the waves breaking on the western shore of the Cape Town beaches. I know that Meg has forgiven me when we pose together for a photo on the southern rim of Table Mountain.

When the cable car is full, the rounded doors slide closed, and we drop out of the tunnel over the lip of the mountain. We are facing the station below us, but the car slowly rotates to give us 360-degree views of the area. At the bottom we walk along the Tafelburg Road that descends to our car. We are happy to be walk down, giving our legs a rest, happy that our day’s exercise finished and we can enjoy the comforts of the cosmopolitan city below.