Sunday, April 27, 2014

A Dream Come True

At some point back in junior high I got hooked on Shark Week on the Discovery Channel.  I'm talking clear-my-schedule, turn-down-social-events-so-I-could-watch-it hooked.  I loved it!  I called it "my favorite holiday of the year".  I don't know if my love of the movie Jaws came before or after my Shark Week obsession, but I got hooked on that, too (and all its crappy so-bad-they're-good sequels).

Since moving out of the USA nearly 7 years ago I haven't found any channel that ever plays round the clock shark coverage, sadly.  But if there's ever a shark show on TV you better believe that's where I'll be for the duration of the program.

So imagine my delight when I realized you can cage dive - cage dive - with great white sharks in South Australia!  I booked that trip so fast my head spun, cost be damned!

And it was the greatest thing I've ever, ever done.  Photographic evidence:

My feelings on the experience summed up in one facial expression
The pictures aren't 100% clear because we had a GoPro and had to take still shots from the video.  It's difficult to get a good shot with bubbles flying around all over the place.  The bubbles are pretty necessary, though, since they allow you to breathe.

Since I've been getting questions on the logistics of this I will run through a Q&A of how this whole thing worked.

Where did you do this?
We had to go to Port Lincoln, South Australia, a small town that is deceptively far from the capital city of Adelaide.  We chose to drive there (and not take the ferry, which saves no time or money) for various reasons.  This is the starting point to get to the Neptune Islands, where the sharks are, which are a solid 3-4 hour boat journey from the mainland.  Pro tip: pack your sea sickness meds!

How deep did you go?
Once you're in the water they say you're "about 2 meters" beneath the surface, but calculating that to normal speak that's 6.5 feet.  No way were we that far down!  I think I could have reached the surface with my hands if I stretched my arms straight up.  My guess would be 2-3 or 4 feet, max, certainly not a full body length.  Maybe my perception was off (I forgot contacts so had to use a prescription mask that was not my exact prescription) but the surface was not far above my head.  If you feel the need to bail to the surface you can do so very quickly and easily.

Do you need to be a certified diver to do this?
Nope.  Scuba means "self contained underwater breathing apparatus", so this was more of what I'd call "uba".  It isn't self-contained with tanks on your back.  The air supply is up on the surface, on the boat, and you bring it down with you on a hose.  At the end of the hose is the regulator (mouth piece to breathe through) that you put in your mouth and breathe through that.  Your nose is in a mask (goggles) so is out of commission for the duration of your time underwater.

For those who have scuba'd for real before, this regulator is different than legit ones.  This didn't have a clearing mechanism in case you got water in your mouth or - comically - barfed underwater.  I don't know what would happen in situations like that.  Bail to the surface, I guess.  Just keep your lips sealed tight!

Are you alone in the cage?
Nope.  It's quite spacious, and they send 6 people down at a time.  Martin and I were in the same group, which we tried to avoid to maximize our videography time, but it didn't work out that way.  Oh well, at least it was fun to experience it together and communicate feelings such as "OMFG this is amazing and the best thing EVER" through nothing but hand gestures and squeals.

How long did you get?
The company advertises 45 minutes with the caveat that it all depends on the conditions and sharks.  That was a huge caveat they use liberally, as we had some seriously shy sharks who didn't show up for hours.  Our time was quickly running out (remember, 3-4 hour journey back home and there's nothing to see once it gets dark) so we had to rush through to get everyone in the cage.

We had about 15 minutes in the cage, and the shark was present less than 10 minutes of that.  It felt so much longer, though!  The only way I know those numbers is because of the GoPro video.  There was a good portion of the day we didn't think we'd get to see a shark at all, so a handful of minutes was a very welcomed relief.

Do they use bait?
Hell yes they do.  There is another company that uses sound to attract sharks, not bait, an an attempt to be eco-friendly.  It's not that I want to be eco-unfriendly, but this is my once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see great white sharks.  I'd chop off a finger if that's what it took to attract one.

This is a good place to point this out: Everybody knows the statistic "sharks can smell a drop of blood from miles away".  I assume that's true, but I watched the crew work tirelessly for hours trying to attract a shark with fish guts and blood, and it took at least 3 hours for one to show its face.  There was a lot of waiting around, staring at the ocean willing a shark to show up.  Blood and gore does not automatically equal sharks.  If you ever find yourself in the middle of the ocean with a leg chopped off don't automatically assume you'll be shark food.

Curiously, the shark didn't come until people got into the cage just for fun.  Sharks can hear your heartbeat and electromagnetic whatever-it-is humans put off, so I have decided it's not blood and guts sharks are attracted to, it's living things (ahem, prey).  Trust me, I am a qualified sharkologist after many Shark Weeks.

How many sharks did you see?
I'm told there were 2 around, but I only saw 1 [at a time, at least].  I'm perfectly happy with this, again because there was a long period where seeing zero sharks was a very real possibility.

There was another boat about half a football field away and we could see quite early in the day that they had a shark swimming around them.  I don't know what they were doing to attract it, but we should've done the same thing!  They got so much more time with a shark than we did.  I don't think it was the same shark that came to check us out, but I can't be sure.

How big was it?
10-12 feet (3.04 - 3.6 meters).  The boat crew could tell it was a female.

There's one that comes around sometimes that's 18+ feet.  I would have died!  Of happiness, to be clear.

Did the shark attack the fish I see there in that picture?
No, it didn't even look at them!  It's like those fish didn't exist to the shark.  They must have been too small/inconsequential for it to waste its time on.

Did the shark attack the cage you were in?
Oh god no.  I wish!  It swam around the cage - I know it knew we were there - but it just swam around chillin'.  No violence whatsoever, not even on the bait chunks.

How close to you did it get?
It got closer to us the longer we were down there.  They're curious about us, and it was there to check us out more so than to chomp on the bait (it had a few nips but never devoured the bait chunks).

At its closest it was probably 4-5 feet directly in front of me, and at one point swam directly beneath my feet, which is harder to gauge distance but no more than 3-4 feet I'd say.

It was so cool!

Sorry, I just had to interject that.

Is it safe?
Completely and totally.  The most dangerous part is getting in and out of the cage, which is tied to, but not completely secured to, the boat.  It clanks around in the waves so you've got to jump from the cage platform onto the boat.  The crew are there to steady the cage and help you cross, but I'm sure that's not what you want to know when asking this question.

Even if the shark did have murderous intentions, it wouldn't get into the cage.  It's totally safe.

Was it scary?
Oh hell no!  It was just fun, and exciting and awesome.  I remember distinctly thinking, when it was right in front of me, "I'm not even scared at all.  I'm just happy!"

How much did it cost?
Oh man, a lot.  A thousand bucks all up for the two of us, and that doesn't even include getting to the remote(ish) departure location and spending 2 nights there before and after the big day.

Was it worth it?  Would you do it again?
Yes.  Yes.  A thousand times yes to both.

Are you f@<%*$g nuts?!
That has yet to be determined.

Martin isn't the shark nut I am, but even he said it was so awesome and totally worth it, even if our face-to-shark time was very short.

Calypso Star Charters is the company we used on this magnificent journey, and they really put on a comfortable ride for everyone on what turned out to be a long, often eventless, day.  I'm so grateful to them and the 5 crew members on board!

Humans are horrible, horrible beings who could eradicate these fabulous creatures for selfish and ignorant reasons.  It would be to the detriment of our planet and ourselves if we let this happen, and seeing one up close only reinforces my belief that we should do more to protect these species (not just the great white).  Killing off the ocean is killing off ourselves, so killing off the apex predator of a vast ecosystem is shooting ourselves in the foot.

Sharks were here long before us and we would be so lucky if they remain long after we're gone.  Seeing one up close and personal was really, truly a dream come true.

Go here to view the video of all the action (sorry, I haven't been able to successfully embed a video on this blog for years now).  It starts off really bouncy and shaky but I promise it straightens out.

The squeals and grunts, embarrassingly, are all me.  It's hard to convey excitement underwater, OK?!  And I had a lot of excitement!

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