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My Great White Dream Come True (15/05/12)

May 16, 2012

When my alarm clock went off at 3am and resounded around my pitch-black hostel room I was already awake, in fact I’m not sure I’d even been to sleep. Today was the day that I’d be leaving ‘The Backpack’ and heading for Gansbaai (a 2 hour drive South East of Cape Town). Today was also the day that I would be joining the Great White Shark volunteer project and I was overflowing with excitement and anxiety – although my nerves were mainly down to hoping that I’d get along with the other volunteers and nothing to do with the sharks I was hoping to meet.

That said these nerves were extinguished almost immediately; as I headed to the front gate where the volunteer bus would be collecting me I bumped into another girl called Robyn who was also headed for the same project. We were both alone and instantly seemed to click – already I had a friend and we were both as hyped up as each other, which only boded well. However our excitement and new found companionship nearly came to an abrupt end. As the white bus pulled up with it’s shark logo prominent on the side I could barley contain myself but when the driver got out looking confused I sensed something was wrong.

‘There’s two of you?” …I was right, there was something wrong. Robyn wasn’t on the list and there was no room on the bus for her and all of our bags but after many phone calls and discussions we decided to leave all of our luggage at the hostel where another volunteer van would pick it up for us later. So after grabbing our bikinis and cameras and leaving everything else behind, we set off.

The two-hour drive was enough time to get to know the other two volunteers who were with us and we also chatted to the clients who were joining us for the cage dive that day. As we neared our project base in Kleinbaai the bus fell quiet, in front of us was the most spectacular view of the harbour and the best possible welcome to what would be my home for the next two weeks. The morning sun was breaking and spilling through the many rocks and crags that lay on the shoreline and the sea mist was heavy in the air. I hadn’t seen any sharks yet but already I was elated and so grateful to finally be in South Africa and about to embark on the adventure of a lifetime.

There was no time wasting as we went straight from the bus to the briefing room where we met the project staff. Twenty minutes later we were out of the door and headed for the boat, the sight of which had me tingling with anticipation as the cage sat invitingly on the back. I’d never doubted for a second that I would have any problems with sea sickness but the boat ride out felt more like a rollercoaster as we peaked and troughed over the choppy waves, my stomach lurching with every motion. But I held it together, wasn’t sick and managed to maintain my kudos with the sea hardy crew.

As the engine cut and all went quite our skipper started to take us through the safety rules, but a cry of “shark!” cut him short and he managed to finish his piece at speed before ushering everyone over to get their wetsuits on. As a project volunteer I let the clients go in first and climbed up to the top deck to get the best view from the boat.

I cannot describe to you how it feels to see your first Great White Shark. For me it was the most captivating sight I’ve ever seen and I found myself staring desperately in it’s wake hoping for another glimpse, which came shortly afterwards. The sheer size of the shark was the main thing I couldn’t get over – any photo’s or videos I’d seen before just didn’t do justice to the scale of these magnificent animals.

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When my turn eventually came to get into the cage I didn’t hesitate and climbed straight in – you get in through the gap in the top with your back to the boat and step down the front bars like a ladder – at this point I tried not to think about the chances of a shark biting my toes off as they poked through the bars!

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Once you’re in the cage, you hold on to the bars above your head until you hear the call “shark”, then you grab on to a red bar below you and pull yourself under the water, where you can hook your feet pnto another bar at the bottom of the cage to keep yourself down until you run out of breath. The sharks came incredibly close and to look into their dark eyes (which are actually a very deep blue) was a truly magical experience.

However, there was one encounter that had me very much on edge whilst I was in the cage. As I pulled myself under and scanned the endless waters for any sharks that may be lurking in the depths, I noticed what looked like a rope floating next to me. As I looked closer I realised that it was actually what appeared to be a huge purple eel and it was swimming straight at me.

I shot up to the surface and turned to Robyn all wide eyed. “Oh my god, there’s an eel in the cage!”  I couldn’t bare to see if it had wrapped itself around me, so I stared at Robyn hoping she could tell me where it was. Luckily it had decided to take an interest in another diver and as long as I kept tabs on it’s whereabouts, I was able to keep my panic under control. It was only when we got back on the boat that we realized the irony of my sudden fear, not of the four meter apex predator prowling in the water nearby but of a harmless creature that turned out to be a hag fish!

After seeing seven different sharks and having taken a trip to see the colony of Cape Fur seals that live nearby we headed back to shore, still buzzing from our first trip. We had experienced so much already and it was only lunchtime. Next we were off to help at a local ‘Swap Shop’ for the afternoon, where children trade in their recycling for items in the store, this was an equally rewarding activity but in an all together different way. But I shall save that for a different post as another early morning awaits and I need some sleep!

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