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Published: August 31st 2013
...pissed off guinea pig
So then, Hermanus.
A small seaside town on clifftops overlooking the ocean. Sunny and windy and quite reminiscent of any number of towns in northern Scotland. Except... it's very popular with southern right whales and great white sharks.
Hermanus is actually one of the reasons we chose South Africa to visit. When we wrote that bucket list over beer and wine on our kitchen table in Saigon one thing that bobbed right to the top was 'cage dive with sharks'. That was me. Kate had something about whales. So, Hermanus became the place to go.
So here we were on a blustery day at Hermanus Backpackers
considering the next few days.
Hermanus V Scotland (plus whales)
As I said above, Hermanus does have a passing resemblance to a coastal Scottish fishing town. In the summer, obviously, even though it was pretty cold. There are cliffs and cafes and a couple of bars and places that look like they may accept pensioners' bus trips for fish and chips (actually a widely available delicacy). However, the first thing you notice on an afternoon wandering on the cliffs is the weird rabbits. "Look! There's a rabbit!"
rather like Scotland
I cried (foolishly).
Obviously it wasn't a rabbit. It was a rock hyrax or dassie. It doesn't really even look like a rabbit apart from the size. On closer inspection I would suggest it looks like an oversized, pissed off guinea pig
. Sorry if that's a bit technical. I am a trained zoologist, you know. Anyway, they're dead cute and they're also related to elephants. I won't go into that here. Look it up. You're on the internet.
So, that was pretty un-Scotland-like. What else? Ah yeah, the whales. Not that you couldn't see whales off the coast of Scotland, but Hermanus shows them off in such an extravagant way! You can literally watch them off the coast as they leap out of the water at this time of year when they flock to Hermanus, seemingly to show off.
Walking along the cliffs it was early in the season, but it wasn't long before we'd lost interest in the pissed off guinea pig hyrax things and we were gawping at southern right whales jumping out of the sea
and waving their tails about. Sorta like how you see them in those magic eye pictures. If you can
but just playing with the lure.
see them. I've never seen anything in a magic eye picture personally and tend to think they're a conspiracy. You know, like the 'emperor's new clothes'. If you can't see anything, you're weird. Generally if, like me, you can't see anything in the mess of colours it's usually a good bluff to say you can see dolphins, unicorns or breeching whales.
Anyway, nevermind that, it's better to see the real thing in Hermanus. There's even a whale caller who blows a horn to indicate a whale is visible offshore. It's pretty amazing. Plus, what really made my day is that there's a pub there with a seat by the window where you can watch the whales leaping out of the sea while you enjoy a pint of craft ale. Beer and zoology. They go together well.
The jaws of death...? Sharks. Great white sharks.
They live in the sea off the coast near Hermanus. They're big. They have sharp teeth and they live underwater. All these things are kinda unnerving and difficult to reconcile with Hermanus's 'Scottish-seaside-town' appearance. That is until you wander past some of the cage-diving shops with toothy shark
Just floating past
not coming to eat you at all.
grin displays or pop into some of the museums and see the shark jaws from landed fish. But then, these fish were why I (Kris, that is - Kate wasn't that bothered..) was there.
Cue a flashback to the backstory......
As a kid I was into animals. I watched Jaws. I got a shark obsession. I had books on sharks. Lots of books on sharks. I learnt about them and was fascinated by them. I was a shark nerd. I actually studied zoology at university partly because of my previous shark thing. Then..... I did a PhD studying insects. I'm an insect nerd too. They're easier to mess about with and when you study them you put them in a cage rather than putting yourself in a cage. Anyway, I wanted to go shark cage diving and I took it pretty seriously.
Shark cage diving is a tourism industry in South Africa that attracts some controversy and quite a few misconceptions. It's an 'adrenalin' activity, right...? Don't the sharks attack the cage...? Doesn't it encourage sharks to attack swimmers and surfers??? Well, I wondered about all of these things before I went and I even did my
research by reading up on it before I considered booking. I had no intention of doing some anti-environmental work just for thrills. So, I looked into scientific studies on how cage diving affected shark behaviour and I found that there was no evidence that it encourages sharks to attack humans. The assumption is that dangling people in a cage in front of a shark and chumming the water will make a shark think 'food smell+humans = humans are food', but I always doubted this. I hope in the description of the trip that follows people reading might understand why.
But first, back to the trip.
When we arrived in Hermanus the weather was crap. The sea was rough and it was windy and raining. We saw straight away that several cage diving companies had cancelled trips. This didn't bode well. The weather was forecast for being pretty bad all week and my shark trip was booked for the next day. I quickly emailed the company and said I had a few more days if there was a cancellation. They quickly replied and said they'd email me early the next day if there was a problem, but otherwise they'd
pick me up at 10am. So we had to wait and see..
10am the next day...a minibus arrived at the backpackers to pick us up.
The company I chose was Marine Dynamics.
It's more expensive than some of the other operators, some by quite a bit, but I wasn't after a cheapy trip and I liked the professionalism of their website and their description of the day's activities. Turns out it was a good call.
The minibus took us from Hermanus to Gaansbai - 'the great white shark capital of the world'
and after a few brief whale-watching stops, we arrived at The White House, Marine Dynamics's HQ. They served us lunch under a whale skeleton and then they gave us a presentation downplaying the 'Jaws' image of the great white shark. Then for the key bit. It wasn't a 'flat sea' day. Which was an understatement. A lot of operators had cancelled, but Marine Dynamics decided it'd be okay.
So we boarded their purpose-built boat - Slashfin - and took off out to sea in the icy wind in life jackets and big rubber fisherman raincoats with me feeling more afraid of the temperature of the
ocean than the sharks...
The title of this blog is a quote (it might be a paraphrase, I didn't double check) from Jaws. Referring to the shark. But here I actually meant it in reference to the ocean. The waves were huge. Going out to the shark area was like riding a rollercoaster. While at no time did I feel in danger, I was worried of getting seasick. I concentrated on the horizon while the Peruvian woman next to me yelped and grabbed my arm. Kate was on the other side and perfectly calm.
Then we got to where the sharks were and the sea was clearly more sheltered as the water calmed quite a lot. At this point we were all issued with our dive bags. These contained our wetsuits and would be where we could safely and dryly stow our clothes. I quickly got changed and wandered towards the cage entrance....
The cage is rectangular and dropped into the sea with one side of it against the boat and the other side looking out to sea. It's always attached and in contact with the boat and the top of
the cage sticks well above the water because the 'divers' breathe air from the surface and hold their breaths to view the sharks. We were fitted with weight belts and diving masks and we climbed in. When I say 'we', I mean me and 7 other people and not Kate. She had no wish to be in the sea with sharks as she is often freaked out by other menacing entities such as seaweed and rocks, so she stayed on board and manned the camera.
The sea was surprisingly warm. In fact, I was warmer in the water than I was on deck and I dipped my head under the water to look out into murky blue with a few shoals of fish gliding by. The crew on the boat then start using lures. These include a load of fish heads on a rope and a wooden plank in the shape of a seal. These are drawn through the water to attract the sharks to the cage. The sharks aren't fed intentionally and this is actually a strictly regulated specification. Basically, a guy on the top deck of the boat spots the sharks and calls to the divers -
"down right!" or "down left!" and you take a deep breath and sink down in the cage to watch the approaching shark. Within no time...a shark sailed into view. Then another. Then another
... They were big and they were very close. Close enough to touch in fact, though I resisted the urge. Big grey and close enough to make out the scars on their skin. And they showed absolutely no interest in the cage. When I mention cage diving to people they think of that scene from Jaws with Richard Dreyfuss. People often assume the sharks are in the sea ravenous for human flesh and when they 'drop' in the cage they go mad with blood lust, gnashing at the bars. They don't.
They swim by and barely see you as they get the whiff of fish or swim up to inspect (or chew on) the seal decoy. It feels no more dangerous than looking at a tiger in the zoo...but it was amazing to get so close and quite a peaceful experience. Kate agreed. She snapped shots from the deck as sharks broke the surface, but claimed later that she didn't find it scary. It's animal
viewing, not bungee jumping.
I was in the cage for at least 20 minutes. Then it was the next group's turn. But I stayed on deck and watched from the surface. It was just as good to see them up there. Probably as I'd stayed in my wetsuit, I even got another go in the final cage as there were free spaces.
Finally, it was time to go back to land and we cruised through Shark Alley to see the sharks' main interest - the seals on nearby Dyer Island. Much tastier than tourists. Back on land we were served soup and given a debrief by the resident biologist and an appeal to give money to shark conservation. There was also a preview of the video shot of the day. We'd done well. It'd been a big day for sharks. Apparently, 13-14 different individuals had been logged. Maybe because so few other operators were out there..? The rough sea actually seemed to work in our favour. It was 'JAWS'ome.
Yeah, I've been working on that for a while....
Anyway, back to the 'controversy'...
First of all, I didn't find shark diving scary. I was
apprehensive beforehand, but I wasn't worried about getting into the cage. It felt rather peaceful and I still do not think that, if it's done right, cage diving encourages sharks to attack humans. Before I went I figured it was a big leap for a shark to link a group of people in a cage with a person swimming in the water or a surfer. I genuinely couldn't see how a fish would think they were even the same thing. And the trip reinforced this. The sharks showed no interest in the cage at all. I doubt they even recognised that people were in the cage and I assume they perceive the cage and boat as one object floating in the sea - a non-food item. This is anecdotal, but there are studies that back this up.
All in all I think cage diving is worth it. I don't think it encourages shark attacks and I also think (if done correctly, following regulations) it has a positive effect on the image of great white sharks and therefore can have a positive effect on conservation. No one left the trip thinking of great white sharks as Jaws. They're fish that
Seawater swimming pools around Hermanus
well, you don't want to go in the water, there are sharks!
happen to have big teeth, but they're really more interested in seals than people.
Shark cage diving (conditionally) has my seal of approval.
Dr. Kris Kirby - English teacher (and err...retired zoologist)
Hmm. I'm sure that's helped... ..and there were penguins
With all this talk of sharks and whales and pissed off guinea pigs I'd almost forgotten about the penguins of Betty's Bay. After the shark trip Kate's parents caught us up driving a hire car over from Cape Town and we went to see a penguin colony in nearby Betty's Bay. They'd also been to it's more famous sibling in Boulder's Bay and said this was much better. Not the mention quieter.
Penguins are cute and you don't need to be in a cage to view them. Which is nice.
Soon after it was time for us to climb into our new transport and head off to the next place on our immaculately devised itinerary....
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