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Published: August 17th 2008
Ready to dive
Before I got sick.
"So I started into the water. I'm not going to lie to you people, I was terrified. As I got past the breakers a sudden calm came over me. I dont know if it was divine intervention or the kinship of all living creatures but I tell you Jerry, at that moment...I was a marine biologist! The sea was angry that day my friends, like an old man trying to send back soup in a deli. I got about fifty feet out and suddenly the great beast appeared before me. As if sensing my presence he let out a great bellow, I said "Easy, big fella." From where I was standing I could stare into the eye of the great fish.
-George Costanza, "The Marine Biologist," Seinfeld.
Just as the e-mail said, by 9:30 there was a van shuttle waiting to pick me up outside of my apartment complex. The drive was two hours from Cape Town to Gansbaai on Hout Bay. Along the way the van rattled, thumped and the driver abruptly swerved off to the side of the road. I figured we blew out a tire and assumed that, yes, I was fated not to
The cage we dove in, or the minnow bucket
ever go shark diving. However, the van simply ran over a strand of barbed wire fence that got tangled underneath. The driver was able to quickly wiggle the fence out and toss it into the bush along the road, and we continued on our way. Only in South Africa can running over a barbed wire fence seem relieving.
The sea was indeed angry that day, my friends, and I quickly understood why my previous dives had been cancelled. The wave swells were still huge and the waves tossed the boat up and down as we made the half hour ride out to “Shark Alley” on a boat eerily the size of The Orca. I sat out on the stern of the boat with two backpackers from the U.K, and one of them stated how he’d gone whale watching in similar sea conditions a few days earlier, and 2/3 of the boat ended up getting sick. He asked me if I got seasick and I answered with a resounding no. I’d never gotten seasick before, plus I’d been on plenty of boats in my lifetime, from Lake St. Clair to the channels of Lake Huron to sailing along Sydney Harbor,
I had never once experienced sea sickness. Plus, as extra insurance, I’d taken Dramamine earlier to ensure that I wouldn’t get seasick. I had a Batman utility belt of reason’s why I didn’t and couldn’t get sea sick, and could assuredly focus on diving without worrying about my health.
The boat anchored a few miles away from Seal Island and the captain asked for volunteers to go into the cage first. The two backpackers, I and a gentleman from Mumbai, India, each volunteered. We went to the center of the deck and changed into our wetsuits. It was during this time that an ominous feeling came over me: the tossing of the waves, the smell of the fish heads and guts used to attract the sharks, and the loss of land all caused my face to green like a cartoon character. Hastily, I pulled my wetsuit on and sat down on a bench looking out at the coast, trying the old focus-on-land trick that I’d been told since my childhood fishing days on my grandpa’s boat in Lake St. Clair. I took deep breathes and battled the irony; I’d over come three weeks of bad weather, only to fall
Hopefully you can see the head of the great white swimming in the water
under the weather as I sat five feet away from the shark cage. Breathe. Stare at the land. Breathe. Stare at the land.
“Divers ready!” the captain shouted.
Suddenly I was cured. Maybe it was the adrenaline flushing the sickness out or maybe the old mariner’s land trick worked, but I was pumped. I was a marine biologist, I was Hooper from Jaws; put me in coach, I’m ready to go! The four of us lowered ourselves into the cage, and the crew members on deck shouted locations of the sharks. We dove beneath the water and there, in the murky blueness, we saw the “mindless, eating machines.” They were big, gray beasts with their signature white underbellies, and their eyes were emotionless. Staring into their eyes reminded me of how J.K Rowling described Professor Snape’s eyes in the Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone: “His eyes were black, as if staring into great black tunnels.” The waves jostled us up and down in the cage, and our legs and arms shot between the bars periodically. We were not allowed to reach out and touch the sharks as they swam by, but many of them were within arms
reach. One of the sharks reared up underneath and charged the dummy seal. The shark didn’t get completely air born like on the Discovery Channel Shark Week shows, but the force of the shark took a bite out of the dummy. The sharks charge upwards with so much force that the force itself would kill a human instantly before the pain of the teeth. We were in the cage for close to half an hour and we saw at least half dozen sharks underneath.
Now being in a shark cage is a little bit like being in a minnow bucket, a Scrambled Eggs amusement park thrill ride and a washing machine—all at the same time. As I mentioned earlier, the waves constantly tossed us up and down in the cage, and it was a struggle to keep our limbs from poking out of the bars. When we got out of the cage, the Indian man rushed immediately to the opposite side of the boat and puked. I was only on the deck for about a minute when the clouds of seasickness returned to me, and I felt the cartoon green return to my face. Slowly, I walked over to
the other side of the boat, my stomach tangled like an old strand of Christmas lights.
“I don’t feel too good,” the Indian man said.
“Yeah, I don’t think I’m doing too well either.”
I grabbed the side rail and puked into the water. The Indian guy immediately started puking again beside me. While puking your meals flash before your eyes, but I’d only had two Poptarts, which I’d brought from the States, and a muffin at the dive company’s office before departing on the boat. I finally calmed down and the Indian guy and I looked at each other, faces askew from sickness.
“I saw you puke, so I puke too,” he said.
“Oh no, you were puking before I was,” I defended.
We both turned back to the side and puked some more. For a while we continued this process: puke, chat, puke, chat. In hindsight, we became Barf Buddies, and eventually accepted our sickness. It wasn’t exactly the same as Ishamel and Quequeg becoming blood brothers in Moby Dick, but as Billy Joel eloquently put it in Piano Man “Yes, they’re sharing a drink they call seasickness, but it’s better than being sea sick alone,” or something like that. In the mean time, a second batch of divers emerged from the shark cage. A British woman, probably in her late thirties, early forties, approached us and, in a way only British people can put it, asked “Can I join you gents?” She launched right over the side rail beside me, and the Indian man and I both turned and puked some more.
Now all this time I am still in my wetsuit, and I am freezing. My teeth chattered and my limbs shook from the cold dampness of the fiber. There was a small cabin where we could go change, but since coming out of the cage I hadn’t managed to go five minutes without puking. Eventually I took deep breathes, as if preparing to dive down the Marianas Trench, and ran into the cabin. Taking off a wet wetsuit is the clothing equivalent of peeling wallpaper off an old wall, and I fought to strip the wetsuit from my cold, sickly body. In the cabin I felt the bouncing of the waves and heard people puking outside, and it took all my concentration to focus on the wetsuit and block out the environment around me. I managed to put only my pants on and emerged from the cabin, tossed my wetsuit into the worn pile, and made yet another deposit into the sea. At one point, there was an entire line up of people puking along the side and a great white swam beneath us, and everyone was pointing and trying to call the shark out to one another in between barfs. I forced myself to relocate from the puke port to the cage side of the boat and took some pictures of the breaching sharks while I continued to pause and concentrate on the land. I think I threw up everything I had eaten since the 5th grade and although my pukes subsided, the dizziness and greenness still lingered as I rotated between pictures and the land.
Now I’m not naïve enough to rank my performance with Kirk Gibson’s “on two bad legs” homerun, or Michael Jordan playing with the flu in the NBA Finals, or Tiger Woods winning the U.S Open on one leg, but I thought about Woods’ performance to push myself to continue taking pictures. I’d waiting nearly a month and dealt with three postponements just to go on the shark dive, and I wasn’t going to let a little vomit ruin my day.
After three hours at sea the crew pulled up the cage and we headed back to port. Like the backpacker had said, about 2/3 of the boat ended up getting seasick during our time at sea. One little black girl, perhaps 12 or 13, was so sick she couldn’t even change out of her wetsuit. We all kept encouraging her and telling her that she was in good company.
“We’ve got a spot for you right over here,” one passenger said from the side, in between pukes.
As soon as I stepped foot on solid land, my face switched from green to Caucasian. It was like the scene in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory when they finish riding the rive boat through the scary tunnel and are suddenly at the peaceful dock in Wonka’s factory. Everyone was laughing and sharing with one another their cage experiences. My Barf Buddy and the little girl were still shaken, but everyone else was cured by the certainty of the solid ground. The sea may have taken our stomachs, but it didn’t take our hearts. In fact, after the shuttle dropped me off back in Newlands, I went to Steers, a local fast food chain restaurant, and ordered a double cheeseburger and fries for dinner: the meal of champions. I grinded through the day and came face to face with great white sharks, something that only a meal with over 500 calories can justify. None of the sharks jumped completely into the air, like on Shark Week, but the great whites we saw were still large, impressive animals that are smarter than Jaws depicts them. According to the ship captain, where other animals would see the ship and the cage as one giant entity, great whites can see each person individually and analysis their senses and feelings. I’m sure they sensed all of our impending sea sickness, and knew that they’d have the last laugh at the end of the day.
The entire excursion, from dealing with the postponements to the seasickness to the actual dive itself, was incredible, and the highlight of my first month in Cape Town. When I returned to the comfort of my bedroom after the long day and checked my e-mail and Facebook, I was caught by a quote on my friend Erika’s Facebook that summarized the entire day: “No one said it would be easy, they just said it’d be worth it.”
Words like that cure any sickness.
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