FLY­ING WITH SHARKS

There’s noth­ing quite as mag­i­cal as be­ing sus­pended in a warm, cobalt ocean with friendly blue sharks. You can do this close to Cape Town

Getaway (South Africa) - - TRAVEL - WORDS BY DAR­REL BRIS­TOW-BOVEY PHO­TO­GRAPHS BY TEA­GAN CUN­NIFFE

Tea­gan is afraid of sharks. Ev­ery­one is afraid of sharks but she’s re­ally afraid of sharks, which is no­tice­able be­cause she isn’t afraid of many other things, but I’ve some­how per­suaded her to come out on an ex­pe­di­tion to swim with sharks in the open ocean without a cage. Tea­gan is Get­away’s pho­tog­ra­pher. So we’re some­where south of Cape Point on a clear warm day in April, and I have a pock­et­ful of anx­i­ety pills in case she needs them. She seemed cheer­ful enough dur­ing the long ride out, but now we’re bob­bing in the deep blue and there’s some­thing about bob­bing in the deep blue with time on your hands, wait­ing for sharks to ar­rive, that makes a per­son start to think. She’s start­ing to get fid­gety and frowny and take long, sus­pi­cious looks at the sea, but for­tu­nately a sun­burnt Brit in a yel­low T-shirt be­comes spec­tac­u­larly sea­sick and that cheers her up. Ev­ery shark trip needs a sea­sick Brit: it’s al­ways com­fort­ing to see some­one more mis­er­able than you. There’s a per­fo­rated drum in the water, filled with sar­dines and pilchards send­ing out a scent trail that stretches sil­ver as a fish scale across the sur­face of the sea. We have spent more than an hour to get here, nearly 20 nau­ti­cal miles from Si­mon’s Town har­bour to where the warm Mozam­bi­can cur­rent sheers off the con­ti­nen­tal shelf and forms a great loop in the ocean. The cur­rent shifts day by day but the best place to find pelagic sharks is just at the edge of it, where the sea tem­per­a­ture sud­denly climbs. The ocean is 20 de­grees and we’re right on the line where the cold- water fish and the warm-water game­fish col­lide. There are tuna down there, and do­rado and sil­ver clouds of yel­low­tail and bonito. We’ve seen gulls and cor­morants and al­ba­tross and shear­wa­ters and south­ern gi­ant pe­trels, but we haven’t seen any sharks. Sharks are wild an­i­mals; there’s no guar­an­tee they’ll ar­rive. If they do ar­rive, they’ll be blues. Some­times you see a mako, the fastest shark in the sea: three me­tres of fast-twitch mus­cle, a tor­pedo with teeth, shaped like a sleeker, pointier great white. I would love to see a mako – I’ve spent 20 years try­ing to see one – but they are skit­tish and rare and I have never had any luck. You can break your heart wait­ing to see a mako. I tell Tea­gan this. ‘I don’t want to see a mako,’ she says. An hour passes, just bob­bing, and the Brit is wish­ing a shark would eat him so he can stop throw­ing up. His girl­friend started off rub­bing his back sym­pa­thet­i­cally but now she’s throw­ing up too – it’s a hard Brexit off the side of the boat for both of them. Tea­gan is start­ing to re­lax. ‘There’s a shark,’ says some­one from the front of the boat. When shot-down pi­lots and sailors from sink­ing ships in the Sec­ond World War found them­selves float­ing, the first sharks they en­coun­tered were usu­ally blue sharks ( Pri­onace glauca), but al­most none were eaten by them. In the his­tory of shark at­tacks, very few deaths have been

‘When you get in the water they rush over to greet you’

pinned on blues. There are more blue sharks than just about any other shark in the seas, but they’re hov­er­ing on the brink of be­ing a threat­ened species; up to 20 mil­lion of them a year are caught and killed for their meat and their fins and the oil in their liv­ers. They’re ex­cep­tion­ally beau­ti­ful, about two me­tres long and as smooth and slen­der as stockinged legs. Their backs are a rich deep blue, a pur­ple flecked with mica, and their bel­lies are the soft­est creami­est white. They’re also very cu­ri­ous, like pup­pies: when you get in the water they rush over to greet you and they like to bump and jos­tle. Some­times they glide di­rectly for you in a grace­ful game of chicken then tilt a fin to veer away at the last minute, run­ning the length of their body against you. If they weren’t so lovely it would be a kind of sex­ual ha­rass­ment. Tea­gan sits on the side of the boat, fum­bling with her dive mask. ‘You okay?’ ‘I’m okay,’ she says, which is what peo­ple say when they aren’t okay. Then she jumps over the side. You can stay snorkelling on the sur­face, or you can scuba down the five or 10 me­tres to hover mid­wa­ter along­side the drum of sar­dines. The sharks come to you which­ever you do but for max­i­mum ex­po­sure and 3D im­mer­sion I rec­om­mend the scuba. There’s some­thing splen­did and hal­lu­ci­na­to­rily sur­real about be­ing sus­pended in the warm blue with no seabed be­low you, en­veloped in a cloud of 20 or 30 sharks, like a nu­cleus sur­rounded by a calm ec­cen­tric or­bit of elon­gated elec­trons. It takes some time to get used to be­ing bumped from behind and be­low, and even more time to stop swing­ing round or jerk­ing your head up and down to see where they are. You can’t see where they are: they are ev­ery­where. Af­ter a while you start to tell them apart and de­tect per­son­al­i­ties. The big one trail­ing the fish­ing line from the cor­ner of his mouth keeps his dis­tance then sud­denly rises

to­wards you from be­low but never makes con­tact; the long one with the notch in his tail likes to rub against your tank; those two al­most-turquoise-coloured ones are al­ways near each other, like a pair of young lovers. It’s un­likely you’ll ever see a blue shark un­less you go out to the open water. They travel vast dis­tances be­tween con­ti­nents but they pre­fer to stay deep, in 30 me­tres of water or more, hunt­ing squid and pelagic oc­to­pus. They sel­dom come near shore and you can’t keep them cap­tive ei­ther; they usu­ally die within days of be­ing in a tank. Like most pelagic sharks they have a poor sense of con­fined space – they col­lide with the glass and be­come con­fused by the shal­low­ness. The long­est they’ve lasted in a San Diego aquar­ium is three months, in a large deep cir­cu­lar tank where they could ride an end­lessly cir­cu­lat­ing cur­rent, but to see the blues in the open sea is to un­der­stand that keep­ing them in cap­tiv­ity is like putting river water in a bath­tub. It’s the same thing, but it isn’t at all the same thing. I try to med­i­tate ev­ery morn­ing, and now when I do I like to think about that hour I spent in the deep blue, watch­ing them cir­cle and soar and dart like bright blue shad­ows, fast and slow, near and far. They sing a kind of story of space and mo­tion that I haven’t seen from any other fish or sharks or any other crea­ture other than hal­fre­mem­bered from my child­hood dreams of fly­ing. Back on board, Tea­gan is beam­ing like some­one who was scared of fly­ing but has just re­turned from space. The others tell me that the mako came when I was down there but I didn’t see it. It came around the out­side, a blue shadow in the blue, and I was look­ing some­where else. I don’t mind. I’ll see it an­other time, or when it’s ready for me, or never. All you can do is go look­ing; you can’t be greedy.

Cape Point and its lower light­house by the first golden light of day.

Blue sharks are more a prin­ci­ple of space and the ocean than they are fish, with a ten­der beauty too fleet­ing to fully grasp.

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