In a small cabin under the main deck of a 20-foot catamaran, far out to sea, I struggled to get each of my legs into a wetsuit. What should have been a quick change took what seemed like hours. To make matters worse, I heard people above me yelling, “OHMYGOD!” and “HOLY #$%@!”
A great white, breaking the surface (Photo: Thinkstock)
I cringed, knowing I was missing out on the first few minutes of the adventure of a lifetime. Finally, I got suited up and emerged from the cabin. Nothing — from the videos to the instructions to even my wildest imagination — could have prepared me for what was happening in front of my eyes. There was a huge great white shark jumping out of the water, baring its teeth, and attacking the bait tethered to our boat. Then, just like that, it was gone.
“Holy #$%@” was right. I was going in next, and I couldn’t wait to swim in those shark-infested waters.
The author, Lisa Bonner, about to dive with great whites in South Africa (Photo: Lisa Bonner)
Every year, thousands of tourists flock from around the globe to Shark Alley — about 100 miles southeast of Cape Town, near the tiny port town of Gansbaai — to get up close with the world’s most feared predators.
My crazy quest started in 2012 when I first visited South Africa. On my way to frolic with happy penguins at Boulders Beach, I’d seen a billboard advertising the opportunity to dive with great whites, and just like that, this obsession began. After much research, I decided to get aboard the Shark Lady catamaran and chase this dream. Literally.
With the penguins on Boulders beach (Photo: Lisa Bonner)
Shark diving is fun, yet somewhat controversial — and it’s not for the faint of heart. If done properly, it can be very safe, and anyone can do it — no dive experience necessary. It’s one heck of an adventure. Not to mention, you will get major cool points from your friends and damned good selfies!
What I learned: Look for a responsible tour operator. There is a lot of controversy regarding shark diving’s impact on delicate marine life and the activity itself antagonizing sharks, thereby increasing attacks against humans. Work only with companies that are properly certified and promote eco-friendly tours and conservation. There is an acceptable way to lure sharks to the boat, and responsible operators adhere to standards set by marine wildlife organizations. I used Shark Lady, but White Shark Ecoventures is another good operator. The South African Board of Tourism can also help.
Be shark smart when swimming or diving with sharks. (Photo: Thinkstock)
Listen carefully: If you zone out on this informational session, you could end up as shark bait. In order to have a safe and fun dive, take mental notes and pay close attention. You’ll be glad you did.
What I wish I’d known: The best advice is to take it all in: It goes by too quickly. Be present. You’ve traveled halfway around the world to experience this adrenaline rush. So get a few awesome photos and stash your camera; most operators have a video to record your experience.
(Photo: Cape Xtreme/Facebook)
Scariest moment: Taking that initial plunge. Even though you’re in a cage and you listened like an attentive schoolgirl to the instructions, there is nothing like that first dive. When you hear, “Shark, bottom left!” and dive underwater, you’re really thinking, “Holy crap, this is scary!” But make absolutely sure that your arms and legs are in the cage and that you’re breathing; it’s all good in theory until you get down there. Focus, breathe, then suddenly, when that nine-foot great white floats by, you’ll be thinking, “Everything is all right in my world!”
The best thing you can do: Be prepared. I research everything because I don’t like surprises, especially when 11 miles out to sea. If this is on your bucket list, I suggest you do the same. Do you get seasick? You may need pills for the speedboat. The water is very cold, even in a wetsuit, so bring a change of clothes. Being on the boat in Shark Alley for three hours isn’t the time or the place to find out that this wasn’t your cup of tea. Even if you don’t get in the water, you can enjoy watching sharks in their element. Or you can serve as your friend’s photographer. Whether you dive or remain a spectator, it’s an adventure of a lifetime, and one that I can’t wait to do again.
(Photo: Cape Xtreme/Facebook)
Lisa Bonner is a New York based travel and Op-Ed journalist and legal correspondent who daylights as an Entertainment Lawyer. She has written for Essence, TheGrio, and is a regular contributor to Ebony. Follow her adventures on @lisabonner.