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Shark 'n Surf in South Africa

Aktualisiert: 6. Nov. 2023

Ever since Steven Spielberg’s underwater blockbuster ‘Jaws’ hit cinemas in 1975, people who swim in the sea have been divided into two camps: those who hope that they’ll never come face-to-face with a shark, and those who actively seek them out. I am one of the latter. Inspired by the celebrated film and its anti-hero, the great white shark, I try to dive with the elegant hunters whenever and wherever I can. On this occasion, I was in the coastal town of Gansbaai, two hours south of Cape Town.

There is probably no better place in the world for diving with great whites than Gansbaai. The small town at the southern tip of South Africa is considered “the great white capital of the world” and serves as the departure point for day trips to the famed Dyer Island and its shark-infested waters. Between Dyer and a nearby island, Geyser Rock, is a 150m wide, 600m long channel called Shark Alley, where the predatory fish can be observed all year round.

After we dropped anchor close to Dyer Island, the dive guide started to leave a trail of blood and fish waste in the water. As sharks can detect a drop of blood amongst a million drops of water, the chances that one would soon pick up the scent weren’t bad. Still, it can often take several hours or even days for the sharks to appear, and sometimes there are no sightings at all. For this reason, I had been prepared to wait for a long time. However, after just a few minutes, our first shark of the day pierced the water’s surface, with the guide’s bait hanging from its mouth. Amongst the murky waters, he was only visible for a second or so. With just one bite, he cut through the lure line. As suddenly as the shark had appeared, he was gone.

The shark cage was quickly lowered into the water and I climbed in. The water was cold with two to three meters of visibility at most. I tried to look in all directions at once. Something was moving in front of the blue background, something dark. Suddenly, the massive body of a three to four-metre-long great white shark appeared in front of me. I’ll never forget the moment when the shark approached the bait, just meters away from me, his upper and lower jaws stretched wide open, as I looked directly down the most famous throat in film history - filled with rows of huge, white, triangular teeth. Below the surface, the shark shook his head back and forth, tearing a large chunk of meat out of the bait with his powerful, serrated mandibles. I involuntarily took a step back when the huge fish swam by, just one meter away from the cage. I held my breath and said to myself, “People should not be in the water at the same time as great white sharks!”

The Atlantic Ocean showed its stormy side the whole day. Meter-high waves rolled under the boat in endless succession, its railings rising far up to the sky, and then tilting deep towards the water. I clung to the metal bars of the cage to arm myself against the violent shocks of the sea shaking the protective pen. The heavy swell, the stench of excrement from the numerous seals and birds and the unpleasant smell of bait are all liable to cause considerable problems for anyone with a sensitive stomach. As the waters churned and the boat made corkscrew movements, I struggled to hold down my breakfast. In the end I lost it to the sea, where it was graciously received by the fish. Less happy were my diving partners in the cage...

Even though shark diving was an unforgettable experience, I was very happy that day when I returned home. I’d had enough of the sharks, enough of the waves, enough of waiting in the cold water. My only thought was of being on solid ground again!

However, the next day I was drawn back to the waves - this time to go surfing. I could describe the feeling of paddling 100m from the shore on the board as being struck with a certain “uneasiness", but if I’m honest, I was actually scared shitless that a shark would come up and take a bite out of me. The silhouette of a person lying on a surfboard is very similar to that of a seal, the favourite dish of the great shark. The "dur-da-dur-da" rhythm from the opening sequence of the 1975 film ‘Jaws’, inspired by John William’s famous theme, involuntarily appeared in my head. Knowing that I was statistically more likely to be killed by a coconut than bitten by a shark didn’t help. For starters, there aren’t any coconut palms in Cape Town. The statistics were also against me in other respects: 93% of victims of all shark attacks are male. Where's the gender equality when you need it?

For the safety of the surfers, so-called "shark spotters" patrol the beach and sound an alarm as soon as a shark approaches. Then the beach will be closed and a white flag adorned with a shark symbol is hoisted. If a red flag is flying, it means that a shark was spotted a few hours ago; if it is black, the water is too murky to provide reliable information. Fortunately the green flag was waving, i.e. the visibility was good and there weren’t any sharks in sight. There wasn’t a alarm all day, at least not to the extent that I noticed. When I came out of the water, the green flag was still flying. But on the next day when I returned, the conditions were not as good. It was an ominous black. That day, I chose not to go in the water, and instead sat down at a bar, drank a beer and decided that when I got back to Germany, I’d take down my copy of "The Great White Shark" from the shelf, and allow myself a closer look at these magnificent animals. But this time, from the comfort, and perhaps more importantly, the safety of my own home, the best place to plan my next shark hunt from...

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