The eye of the tiger
By Fiona McIntosh.
A four metre-long, striped torpedo makes a beeline for my legs. I’m trying to keep calm, to keep eye contact, to be dominant. So far the shark has veered off before contact. But this time its approach looks for real - it’s coming in with intent. I let out an involuntary scream, fin frantically upward and, as the shark passes underneath me, look up to find my guide aggressively wagging his finger. ‘No, no, no!’ the digit says. He thumps his fist into his open palm and I remember the briefing: ‘Be aggressive, if it comes too close push it away with your camera or fist. But NEVER back off, use rapid movements or in anyway act like prey.’ I know the rules; I know exactly what he’s telling me. But man, when a massive tiger shark looks like it’s about to take your legs off, it’s easy to lose your cool. I’m scared.
If you thought shark cage diving with great whites was extreme, try this one for size. The latest heart-stopping dive adventure follows the same principles of baiting in, then diving with sharks – but without the cage. Off the KwaZulu-Natal coast, it’s one of the most dangerous sharks in the world that tends to take the bait: the indiscriminate, scavenging tiger shark.
In Sharks & Rays [Elasmobranch Guide Of The World], Ralf Hennemann notes: ‘without doubt the tiger shark is one of the most dangerous shark species. Its large size and undifferentiating, opportunistic feeding habits make underwater encounters with this animal a serious threat. Scuba-divers, spearfishermen, surfers and boats have been attacked, and additionally there are cases reported for the tiger shark where a single individual attacked several people – very unusual when considering shark attacks in general.’
Not the sort of information that fills you with confidence before a dive. However, as with any dangerous wild animal interaction, the bottom line is to accept the risk and then prepare for the encounter. I’d learnt as much as I could about the shark and its habits and had hired the best guide, but my homework wasn’t reassuring. This is a dive for adrenalin junkies only.
Of course, for many people all diving is for adrenalin junkies. And diving with sharks is a particularly scary one – thanks to the success of movies such as Open Water, Jaws and other sensationalist reporting. We’re largely ignorant about shark behaviour and often perceive them as maneaters. Not true, say the experts – but those of us who want thrills let our imaginations run riot. Drifting in the open ocean, even without the presence of a shark, certainly gets the pulse racing.
Tiger sharks (Galeocerdo cuvieri) are big and intimidating. The largest ever photographed was a seven and a half metre-long female (caught in Indo-China). Four to five metre-long sharks are regularly sighted by South African divers. With their distinguishing stripes, blunt snouts and large, saw-edged cockscomb teeth, they are easy to identify. Diving with tiger sharks is quite a growth industry on the Natal South Coast.
After the usual exhilarating launch off the beach at Umkomaas we head to Eelskin, a favourite tiger hangout in the big blue. The bait bucket, filled with sardines, is lowered into the water and we commence the vigil, trying to hide our jangling nerves. The first action comes within 20 minutes. Dark shapes moving a metre below us; the distinctive stripes of the tiger. Then an instantly recognisable, triangular fin breaks the surface. It’s a great white, unusual in these waters. Walter Bernadis, owner of African Watersports and my guide for the day, can barely control himself and immediately starts kitting up. We’re more apprehensive. ‘What happens if you get in the water with a great white?’ asks my dive buddy somewhat nervously. ‘You get the most awesome, rare footage,’ comes the response as Bernardis makes the final checks to his video camera housing. Mmm, that wasn’t the question we were asking.
We wait, hoping that the sharks will settle and hang around so that we can slip into the water without scaring them off. But they’re not playing ball – or rather they’re ahead of the game. Suddenly the bait bucket is wrenched from the line and disappears as quickly as the predators. Another bucket is lowered and again we strike lucky, this time a female, known to local divers as Scarface. Two youngsters join the party and it’s time to jump in. We do our final buddy checks, grab our cameras and slide in as quietly as our adrenalin-pumped bodies allow. There’s no going back now, the buoy supporting the bucket is released from the boat and the current carries us further into the open ocean.
Initially the sharks circle at a distance, checking us out and avoiding the bait. The circles get smaller and smaller until they’re making passes between and below us – curious but non-threatening. I had been warned that ‘the sharks will love your bright silver fins’, but with landlubber’s bravado I’d ignored the option to dress down. Now I’m regretting that decision: Scarface is on a mission; my legs seem to fascinate her. The number one rule of diving with sharks is to keep orientated – know where your buddy and the sharks are at all times. Easier said than done – particularly since my buddy and I are back to watching the sharks tussle with the bait bucket. But as we relax so do the sharks and we slowly drift in the company of these fascinating creatures. They cruise in closer and closer until we’re almost handing them off.
The briefing had been thorough and Bernardis’ scolding makes sense now. A shark is a primitive animal and its basic instincts are fight or flight; danger or food. Everything that it eats tries to swim away from it in a horizontal position, so the last thing you want to do is trigger an attack response. By holding your ground in a vertical position you confuse the shark as it doesn’t quite know what to make of you. Just when it thinks it’s got everything worked out and comes in close you push it away or shout through your regulator creating lots of bubbles and noise. This causes it to back off and re-evaluate the whole setup. Well that’s the theory at least.
It’s simply awesome – this is not your flash of white belly or menacing jaws in murky water that you get on a great white shark cage dive. Rather we are in the presence of some of the ocean’s great predators. We’re in their territory, studying their movements, noticing the bites, their stripes and identification marks; mesmerised by their raw power. I shoot these magnificent creatures from every angle, feel them brush past me, look straight into those beady eyes. I’m no longer afraid, I’m focused on this incredible dive experience that will stay with me forever.
After 75min I’m down to 50 bar and have shot off the film in both my cameras. I don’t want to go back to the boat, back to the terrestrial world. Looking into the eye of the tiger has been a privilege. My initial fear certainly heightened my senses – I’m seriously pumped, but in truth I didn’t feel in danger. I’ll be back to swim with these apex predators again.
NEED TO KNOW
Diving with tiger sharks: Aliwal Shoal and Protea Banks have always been somewhere you might expect chance encounters with tiger sharks, but dedicated trips to dive with the tigers have been offered for the last decade. There have been no recorded incidents involving tiger sharks and divers on these dives. Nonetheless divers should always go with an experienced guide and respect the fact that they are in the shark’s realm. As with any adventure activity there is an element of risk attached but this is minimised by thorough pre-dive briefings and codes of conduct underwater.
Where: Aliwal Shoal is just off the town of Umkomaas, a popular dive resort on the KZN South Coast, about half an hour from Durban. Protea Banks is a little further south off Shelly Beach.
Best time to go: The tigers are there all year round, but March to early June are probably the best for sightings. If you’re lucky you might also encounter other sharks on the dive. When I went in July we had 20 black tips around us as well as three tigers.
Qualifications required: Open water 1 (i.e. novice) divers can sign up for a dive with tiger sharks provided they have around 20 logged dives. The dive is a long, shallow drift dive, and usually around six to eight metres below the surface.
Contact: For Aliwal Shoal, African Watersports, +27 39 973 2505 / +27 82 565 1210, e-mail [email protected] or visit www.africanwatersports.com.
For Protea Banks, African Dive Adventures +27 82 456 7885, email [email protected], or visit www.africandiveadventures.co.za.
First published in Men’s Heath Magazine, www.mh.co.za