The water is not particularly clean, nor distractingly dirty.
It's a normal day on Aliwal Shoal.
Above twenty degrees celsius,
blue water with small particles,
a little bit of a current pushing,
we drift along with it,
waiting for the sharks...
(THIS IS the story of my first
ever freedive with sharks)
It's a clear blue sky, warm air and a slight breeze- winter in this part of the world is not true to the word. We sit on the boat, drink water, share shark stories and wait. One fin, two fins, three fins four... the black tips have arrived. Like a pack of terriers they dash at the sardines thrown in the water, their bright silver sides play with the light, they are oblivious to their own beauty, quietly intent on not missing any fish. I pull on my fins, slip on my mask and softly drop into the water. My silver suit reflects the light back at the sky, the black tips part and let me through, they are oblivious. To them I am just another big fish in the water, scavenging for the same scraps. I float at the surface, deep slow breathing through my snorkel, slow in, even slower out. My heart-rate slowing down, my mind growing quiet. I am ready to dive. Deep breath into my stomach, more air, just a bit more- small kick forward, two strong fin kicks and I'm down. Ears ears equalise. Kick kick kick... and fall. I relax all my muscles and let the water catch me, pulling me deeper, past neutral buoyancy, through the free-fall to the sandy bottom below. Silent. I am alone below twenty meters, no sunrays here. Small particles drift around me, I hang quietly in the dusky light. Looking up I see the blacktips in tiers up to the surface. Silhouetted against the light they create an improvised choreography made to grace the great stages of classical theatres.
Then I see Her. Like the lead actress of a great performance, biding her time, waiting in the wings she is circling right on the very edge of my field of vision. Immediately I can tell is is She. Her movements are as different from the blacktips dashing around above as the slow languid circling of a great eagle bears no resemblance to the flapping of a sparrow.
I had been a competitive freediver for many years when I had my very first tiger shark experience. Like most of the great predators on our planet, this striped beauty is as misunderstood as she is complex. An intelligent survivor known for eating just about anything, but also a beautiful animal surprisingly easy to interact with on one breath. It was a revelation for me to use my hard earned skills as a deep diving freediver to explore the ocean wilderness and her animals. I have subsequently dived with numerous species of sharks and other marine megafauna around the world- and what never ceases to amaze me is just how different they all are!
If you’ve grown up with Labradors and then get to spend some time with a Jack Russell terrier, it’s apparent that these are two very different creatures! For me, this has been a fun game I play with the sharks I dive with; seeing how very different they are and then translating that into dogs! It’s a language many people understand better than philosophical descriptions of the nature of specific shark species. So here goes… For me, the black tip sharks described in my Aliwal dive above, are like a pack of terriers. They are fast and nippy and more interested in food than interacting. Blue sharks are like cocker spaniels, their big soft eyes and tendency to want to get really close is like the snuffling nose of your grandmothers spaniel. Then there are the shortfin mako; fast and intent they waste no time, swimming fast at the surface I find them slightly unsettling and deeply inspiring for their speed and agility, they are like Australian cattle dogs, more intent on the job at hand than anything else. Then of course there’s our beloved sevengill sharks cruising in the False Bay kelp forests are like lazy old basset hounds who would much rather just lay in front of a fire than go about their daily survival… but then again I have only met the so called ‘cow-sharks’ at night, and apparently their Mr Hyde also comes out and they transform to pit bulls, I am yet to see this transformation! The lemon sharks in the Bahamas were like a distant relative of our blacktip reef shark terriers, but slightly larger and more sedate, until there was food in the water and they turn at lightning speed- the Weimeraners of the Caribbean!
And then of course we have the tiger sharks, my gracefully swaying elegant shark of choice, reminiscent of a great Dane. Large, personable and somewhat predictable.
Now of course you would like to know what I make of great white sharks. Our apex predators that have inspired thrillers in a way that no other creature, albeit more threatening, ever have! We love to fear them, we love to study them and we love to shroud them in mystery and myth. I have not yet been freediving with a great white, but I have spent much time studying and observing them from a boat, and I have watched very experienced freedivers swim with them. And truth be told, not a Rottweiler, not a Staffie… no dog matches the presence of this creature. Like the solitary grizzly bear or the lone wolf, the great white is a creature of beauty and majesty, to be respected and protected. It is not on my agenda to ride the fin of a great white, not out of fear, but because I think some things are sacred, worthy of respect.
So next time you get the chance, rethink your idea of what a shark is, embrace their diversity and enjoy the variety!