It’s that time of the year again: Shark Week! And it’s no longer a phenomenon solely for the Discovery audience; it’s evolved into a viewing experience for the pop culture masses. Not only has it been mentioned in an often quoted line by Tracy Morgan in 30 Rock — “Live every week like it’s Shark Week” — but this year, SNL Digital Short king Andy Samberg is this year’s “Chief Shark Ambassador.”
Watching sharks through the safety of a television screen is one thing, but diving amongst them is another story — one I was willing to experience. Fortunately, for the adventurous type, there are commercial shark dive cage outfitters where sharks are known to frequent, especially near “Shark Alley” off the coast of the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. Just two hours away from Cape Town is the shore town of Gansbaai, base of operations for the White Shark Diving Company, which immerses willing divers in steel cages to encounter their fears of the famous finned predators of the sea (for about $200 per person).
Since shark diving arguably impacts the behavior of sharks in a negative way, there are government regulations in order to lure them to a boat. For one, mammals aren’t allowed to be used in luring sharks (thank goodness); a rubber cutout in the shape of a seal is used instead, in addition to mesh bags of tuna submerged in the water. Other fish are attracted quickly, which, in turn, attract the great whites. A steel cage is propped off the starboard side of the boat, where divers decked in wetsuits and hoods climb in, two at a time.
Since bubbles scare sharks away in the summer season, there were no tanks or regulators involved during my jaunt with the mighty underwater beasts; we merely waited for the call from a crewmember on lookout: “Divers down! Straight ahead!” I held my breath and climbed down the cage, using the grid of metal like rungs of a ladder. Looking forward through the murky and choppy waters, there’s a peculiar kind of anxiety I went through — one part fear, one part excitement. But that didn’t last too long because before I knew it, amidst the open expanse of ocean, a great white swam right before my submerged eyes.
My heart only raced for so long each time I went down into the cage because I had to come up for air. Coming up for air involved climbing back up the grid of the cage like a ladder, which didn’t seem too safe when I was a little disoriented with the lack of buoyancy; often times, my arms would go through the grid, right into the chomping zone. Fortunately for me, I kept my limbs intact; fortunately for the diving company, I had signed my life away on a release form anyway.
In the end, shark cage diving is something to experience for any thrill seeker. If you think Shark Week on television is exciting, you might like facing your fear in the water (as long as you’re in a protective cage). Just make sure that, as with any thrill ride, you keep your arms and legs inside at all times.