In the second part of the extract from his book, Nick Hammond heads out to the open ocean, donning a wetsuit while his boat masters begin ‘chumming’ – and, soon enough, the inevitable happens. It’s time to face his fears…
The boat is a regular affair with a spotting deck higher up, and the handful of us due to sail today are given a few brief instructions. As non-divers, we couldn’t wear scuba gear. We’d have to make do with wetsuits and face masks and simply take a deep breath before submerging when a leviathan dutifully appeared. We would power out to an area a mile or so offshore, bait it and begin the waiting game. It could take all day, we were warned. There was no guarantee we’d see anything – and no guarantee of a refund if we didn’t. Wal and I exchanged a look. It’s a bloody long way from the pub to spend the day bobbing about on the briny blue.
If a passing shark was spotted, however, our wrangler would immediately throw out a lure – a big piece of fish tied onto a line – and try and bring the beast close to the boat by dragging it in front of him, just out of reach. At this stage, some of us would be told to get in the cage quick. And get ready to take a deep breath and dunk.
As we charged out of Gansbaai harbour, green surf spraying into the wind, sheepish grins were exchanged. I wondered if Wal felt like I did; a little cold despite the warm sun. My overpowering thought was ‘Will I have the bottle to do it when the time comes?” There was no way of telling without putting myself to the test.
After a crafty bit of negotiation with the skipper (Wal’s a master at this sort of thing) we were advised to get our wetsuits on as we’d be the first cabs off the rank if the opportunity arose. I wasn’t sure if I was pleased about that as I set about squeezing myself into a suit. But Wal showed no sign of backing out, so I didn’t really feel I could. After all, it was my bloody silly idea.
Then, a mile or so out into the ocean, we started ‘chumming’ – tossing out the fish soup goodies to bring the predators a’prowlin’.
Not a lot happened. The sun poured down from an unbroken sky and yet the sea breeze ensured we kept our fleeces to hand. We chatted intermittently, not really listening. And as the boat bucked and dipped in the feisty waters, we also kept a lookout. I found myself staring into the murky depths around the boat, trying to square away the fact that just feet away there may be man-eating monsters circling us. When we climbed up to the spotting deck in order to defeat the glare of the sun on the water, I clung with exaggerated intensity as I tiptoed around the rail thin side of the cabin and grabbed for the ladder.
One slip, I told myself, might be all it would take; you don’t want to be falling in there. It’s not as if the ocean is packed to the rafters with sharks I’m sure, but I felt hunted just the same. Coming from a country where the most dangerous animal is a deer coming through your windscreen meant I wasn’t used to the boot being on the other foot; I wasn’t used to things that wanted to tear and render my delicate flesh. Apart from my dear wife, of course. Let’s face it, at the British seaside all you have to worry about is the weather, broken glass and the occasional part-buried dog turd.
About two hours in, standing atop the boat, I see an unmistakable shadow cruising towards the stern.
“Shark!” I yell squeakily and point. And the race is on.
It so happens that I chose this time to get started on an uncontrollable fit of the giggles. I sometimes do, often in the most unfortunate of circumstances. I once nearly brought a Remembrance Day orchestral concert to a halt with my series of snorts, squeaks, shudders and gulps. Shameful, I know, but once past a certain point, I just can’t help myself. A sort of hysteria sets in.
“Shut up, you idiot,” muttered Wal as we donned our masks and made our way to the side of the boat, the rest of the crowd watching, where the cage was already thrashing about alarmingly in the maelstrom of the increasingly stroppy seas.
Ah, the cage. It looked like a considered assault from a battery hen would render it useless. Instead of the vast iron planks I had envisaged cowering behind, it consisted of nothing more than bars no thicker than my little finger. It was cylindrical in shape, around 10 feet deep with a vast, gaping hole in the top. It stayed afloat thanks to dodgy looking empty liquid containers lashed haphazardly to the top and sides.
I eyed it dubiously again. This was not a great idea. I giggled some more.
We were shooed in by the skipper. I’d been expecting a millpond calm viewing experience, but this was nothing of the short. The boat wallowed and churned amid the swells, the cage rising and falling alarmingly and crashing against the boat only to spring away a couple of feet with the arrival of the next wave.
What if I fell inbetween it and the boat?
I didn’t have time to reconsider. I was on the side of the boat, legs over the edge and suddenly into the mouth of the cage – and not that of a shark, thankfully. The water was cold despite the wetsuit and I discovered that giggling invited cold seawater into my lungs, so I even stopped that for a short while.
Down I went; the world turned silent and turquoise in an instant. I reached for the side of the cage to try and hold position. But as it danced and swayed, so did my arms and legs, haphazardly poking out between the bars as I desperately tried to stay within its confines. What if our toothy friend passed by while I was waving my appendages appealingly at him through the bars of the cage? It’d be like offering a kebab to a salivating pitbull.
Wal was suddenly in beside me and we rose to the surface, clinging on to the cage and each other for dear life, gasping, spluttering, giggling (me).
“What the **** are we doing here?!” Wal said, somewhat crossly, as we were tossed around the cage like shirts in a washing machine.
“What have you got me into now?” he continued, his face as white as a sheet. I supposed mine was too, but I couldn’t tell, so I giggled and swallowed seawater instead.
From sea level, we couldn’t see much apart from the rising side of the boat, but now we were in, it was a case of waiting for a signal from the skipper that a fish was somewhere nearby. Until then, we had time to kill.
45 minutes we trod water in that cage. Until our teeth chattered and our lips turned blue. We didn’t say a lot to each other. We waited and watched seagulls wheel overhead and tried to keep our arms and legs out of harm’s way.
Forty five minutes is a long time to ponder a potentially horrible death. Admittedly, my research had revealed that no-one had ever been eaten while studying Great Whites in a cage. But wouldn’t it be just my luck to break the duck?
“SHARK!” came the cry, loud and clear and then suddenly came the twitching rope, spinning droplets of water past the cage as the skipper pulled it in past us as fast as his arms could work. I took a deep breath and plunged.
Again, eerie silence. Motes of plankton and sea debris danced in front of my vision. Bubbles and foam splash overhead. And an image I’ll never forget.
Straight past the cage, like a 737 lifting in take-off, soared the shockingly white underbelly of a Great White Shark. Unmistakable in silhouette, the shark’s pectoral fins cleave water and block out sun.
Apparently, it wasn’t that massive – 10 feet or so in length, we were later told. But it looked vast and as it glided over it appeared to mince the rope bait in slow motion, great serrated teeth reaching, chomping, reaching, chomping. Flecks of ragged tuna flesh and soft pink gouts of seawatery blood puffed from the shark’s extended gills as it passed.
And then it was gone. Prehistoric. Monumental. Magnificent.
I felt a scrabbling pressure, a hand on my shoulder and then, unmistakably, a foot on my head. I was shoved to the bottom of the cage.
My head was still reeling at the sight of the shark and I my compass was scrambled. I tried to lift to the top of the cage and merely banged my head on the bottom. I righted myself and tried again.
I banged the cage once more. Odd. I was confused. Sure I was the right way up, I began to carefully ascend to the top of the cage only to find a commotion and instant demotion once I got there, something shoving me hard back into the depths. All this excitement on one breath of air. I really must think about taking another. Really quite soon.
I’m sure this strange episode lasted but seconds, but in the time lapse of my memory, it happened over and over again in ultra-slow motion. I wondered ponderously if I was to dodge death by shark and drown in a shark cage instead.
Suddenly, the threshing above subsided, and with sunlight pouring back down onto from above, I got my bearings and rose, gasping, to the surface. I looked up to the boat. Wal was peering over the side, looking rather sheepish.
“Sorry boy,” he said.
It appears my dear friend had decided enough was enough at the entrance of the shark, and had opted to leave the cage early in an orderly manner. Except that he forgot the orderly part.
Wal came face to face with the fight or flight syndrome – and flight won. He scrambled hard for purchase against the thin bars and whenever he came into contact with me, he used me as a human stepladder. Each time he toppled back in as the waves bumped him off his precarious perch, he had started from the bottom rung again, using my noggin as a handily placed stirrup.
I was hauled onto the familiar surface of the boat and lay gasping, giggling, still spouting seawater. The other seagoers gathered around, asking questions, had we seen it, was it big, was it scary, was it still there?
I looked across at Wal and offered a weary high five. We burst out laughing.
There was a massive adrenaline rush that lasted for ages afterwards. We stood in our wetsuits, the hot African sun warming our chilled bones, grinning like kids, arms around shoulders.
What would you do if you had no fear? Dive with Great White Sharks, of course. And we had. There’s some satisfaction to be had in that, you know.
The rest of the boat trip is a hazy memory. We had no desire to go back into the depths – we’d had our turn. We sat in the stern, top halves of our wetsuits peeled down, salt drying on our skins. I reached for my backpack and pulled out what was to me – and the rest of the world, for that matter – a new cigar.
The man behind it was destined for bigger and better things in the Cigar world, but he didn’t know it just yet. The Cuban ex-pat had but a tiny shop in Miami’s Little Havana, with a dozen rollers turning out some ravingly good Nicaraguan cigars. The man was Don Pepin Garcia and my smoke on the water was the Cuban Classic Black Label in robusto size.
With a trembling hand, I lit up the cigar and looked out across the vast, deadly, fascinating, ocean. We sat all afternoon in the back of that boat. I shall remember those hours all of my days.
It wasn’t until we’d finally made it back to our HQ at Hermanus later that night, (incidentally, the whalewatching capital of the world – you can see them from the clifftops in season) and prepared ourselves for a celebratory meal that I realised I’d burned my face to a crisp without realizing it. Ah well. Looking like a Lobster while eating one was a price I was more than willing to pay.