A very deep ex­pe­ri­ence

Cage div­ing brings you up close to some rather scary crea­tures, writes Lwandile Bhengu

The Times (South Africa) - - Hunter -

Three sil­ver­tips, five ragged-tooths and a grey reef are calmly cir­cling me

One of the ocean’s most feared crea­tures, no­to­ri­ous for its flesh-rip­ping teeth, is just a few cen­time­tres away from me. In fact, not just one but nine sharks — three sil­ver­tips, five ragged-tooths and a grey reef — are calmly cir­cling me.

Thank­fully I’m in a glass box at uShaka Marine World in Dur­ban tak­ing part — vol­un­tar­ily — in its shark cage ex­pe­ri­ence.

Orig­i­nat­ing in Aus­tralia in the 1990s, the adren­a­line junkie’s par­adise has taken South Africa by storm. A premium shark cage div­ing spot is lo­cated along the shores of Gans­baai, just out­side Cape Town.

Here divers throw a mix­ture of fish parts, blood and oil into the wa­ter (called chum­ming) to draw the sharks closer to the cage. Par­tic­i­pants are dropped into the mid­dle of the south­ern At­lantic Ocean and get the chance to look a great white in the eye.

Those not ready to face this crea­ture or its rel­a­tives in the deep open waters of the At­lantic can do what I did and visit the Sea An­i­mal En­coun­ters Is­land at uShaka in­stead.

This unique ex­pe­ri­ence al­lowed me to see just how ma­jes­tic and harm­less these crea­tures can be — as long as you’re safely in uShaka’s aquar­ium, of course.

I was put into a 3m-long cage, and then al­most fully sub­merged into the shark-in­fested pool. The cage ac­com­mo­dates two peo­ple at a time — which means you can go with a friend or one of uShaka’s friendly divers if, like me, you aren’t ready to face this alone.

I had to swim to the bot­tom of the cage to see the sharks, but once I got over the salty wa­ter and learnt to hold my breath, I felt I was part of a mag­i­cal un­der­wa­ter scene with an au­then­tic feel of the ocean bot­tom.

Un­like open-wa­ter shark cage div­ing, uShaka does not chum.

“Chum­ming can make sharks ag­gres­sive when in fact they are very calm crea­tures. We want peo­ple to see that,” says Sea An­i­mal En­coun­ters man­ager Elias Lwa­boshi.

He added that the sharks adapt well to aquar­ium con­di­tions.

“Ragged-tooth sharks are slow swim­mers who are able to re­main al­most sta­tion­ary. The ex­hibit is not over­crowded and there­fore al­lows suf­fi­cient glid­ing area for both the grey reef and sil­ver­tip sharks.”

Not half as scary as an en­counter with sharks, but just as thrilling, is the Ocean Walker. Im­mersed in 2 032m3 of marine wa­ter, I stum­bled along the “ocean bed” of the ex­hibit, past stingrays and sand sharks, wear­ing an as­tro­naut-like div­ing hel­met. This ad­ven­ture is the only one of its kind in South Africa. Dur­ing the 15-minute walk you are ac­com­pa­nied by a div­ing in­struc­tor.

The Sea An­i­mal En­coun­ters Is­land merges ed­u­ca­tion and fun.

Says Lwa­boshi: “We want peo­ple to be ed­u­cated about these sea crea­tures, es­pe­cially sharks, through first-hand ex­pe­ri­ences, to see that they are not as scary and dan­ger­ous as they are made out to be.”

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