So after long delays prompted by work, ski trips, and then influenza, I've finally finished processing most of my South Africa pics, and I wanted to get the ones most requested online.  For once I'm going to lean more towards "happy snaps" and trying to explain how this trip worked, versus just putting the shots I like most on the web.  I've got some cool ones too, don't worry!  

The trip started with my colleague mentioning shark cage diving as something we could do over the weekend after our conference, and before she left (I was staying a few extra days).  I was immediately interested, given that I've had some interest in sharks since I was little, and that my sister took that "interest" to a new level becoming obsessed with sharks, Jaws, etc at a relatively young age.  I've actually read Jaws myself, and found it rather compelling, given that at least half of it is told from the shark's POV, with Benchley trying to explain how he thinks the shark senses and makes decisions. It's kind of neat way to approach the topic, and not a bad beach read for anyone interested! :)  Provided one stays out of the water!! :)     

So the interest was there, and we called the tourist company and booked our shark adventure dive for Sunday.  We then proceeded to go off doing some other touring, (pics to follow in the next weeks) checking out crazy monkeys, beautiful coastlines, and Table Mountain to name a few locales and instances.  However, on Saturday we got a note from the company that that all shark tours were cancelled on Sunday due to high winds and the resulting swells.  Luckily, I had the choice to reschedule the tour, however my colleague had a plane back to London to catch Sunday evening, and thus I was on my own going forward.  

The choice was made to rebook and I was set to go alone on Monday afternoon.  I drove out to Kleinbaai, which is next door to the more famous Gansbaai, to the "Shark Lady" tour operators.  This region is the primary hub of shark tourism in the Cape Town area.  Effectively the government has authorized a number of these shark tour operators to conduct shark tour activities, which include chumming and baiting sharks, but only in a very limited region where the great whites are numerous, and obviously away from public beaches.  There is a lot of debate as to whether or not the attraction and baiting of sharks should be allowed, but one thing that was clear, the people hosting the tours really love the animals, and clearly don't think they are doing anything but good for the survival of the species via outreach and education.  In fact, rather amusingly, the captain of my tour had been diving on several National Geographic specials, filming sharks from a special glass cage, and he singled out all the Asians in our group, and hassled them to no end regarding shark fin soup, and how devastating Asian dietary tastes have been on the world shark populations.  Probably not fair to the poor Singaporean guy and his girlfriends, but one takes his point I suppose.  

So we show up at the shop, check in, get some food, and then a lecture on how it all works.  I had assumed that we'd be doing some actual diving here, but as it turns out, there is nothing of the sort.  They've reduced the entire activity to its lowest common denominator, meaning you effectively just don a mask and hold your breath.  That way nearly anyone can do it, and it makes it easy on the tourists and on the operators alike.  So they ask around if anyone is scared, and the Asian and British girl teams' answers sound a bit weak, but then the Captain mentions that the S. African Great Whites love the taste of Americans....pointing specifically to the two of us on this particular tour....

So we go down to the harbor and await the preparation of our boat.  There are several of these large shark boats sitting around on trailers, all apparently designed for exactly these activities.  They were pretty good sized vessels, and ours, the "Shark Lady" herself, was decked out in full South African bunting as can be seen below.  

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A view of the slip.  
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So they piled us all in, launched the boat, and we were off.  

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These guys were some of the crew, looking pretty nonchalant before our meeting with the great whites.  Very "We do this every day"....  

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We get there and figure out that what they do is bring the cage out for the morning session and then leave it there floating and tied to a buoy for the afternoon.  They kept warning us that this was Summer in South Africa, the worst time to see sharks.  They said frankly we might not see any, and that if we did the water would be cloudy with low visibility, so not ideal, but they would try their best, etc, etc...
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Well, they were right about the water, but not much else.  This 4 meter great white was right there waiting for us as we pulled up next to the cage, prompting screams from several of the girls onboard.  Apparently the company left tuna heads as chum inside the cage over lunch, and these served only too well to attract and keep sharks in the area prior to our arrival.  
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Within a few minutes we had several great whites circling the boat, so much for Summer scarcity!  The head of the tour would stand on the gunwale and throw a tuna head out on a line, and then wait for the sharks to strike it, which they would do very suddenly with complete suprise and massive power.  
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The guide would usually try and yank the tuna head out of the water before the shark got a piece of it, but as you can see this time he got his teeth into it, and proceeded to bite it off and take his meal off to the depths.  
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Gone.....

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In case you want to see how close to the cage they come....
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Shooting sharks from a rocking boat turned out to be a photographic challenge.  Given that I normally shoot travel photography and landscapes, this finally put my camera to the technological test.  I had to bump up shutter speeds and switch everything to high speed mode to get the best results.  There was no way to really time a shark attack photo, rather you sort of a get a feel one is coming, and then hold down the shutter hoping you grabbed the crucial moment and thanking the high FPS of the camera you lugged far out to sea.  
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So the cage...the way it ended up working was that the various guests rotated through the cage, four at a time, for maybe 20min a period.  
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Here are some nice Asian girls serving as shark bait for the group.  Once in the water visibility really was poor, so the main guide with the tuna head would call out "Go down and look left" or "Down and center", etc to tell everyone where to look.  Then we'd proceed to hold our breath as long as possible and hopefully catch a glimpse of the animals up close.  It was pretty difficult to have any idea what was happening overall once in the water, and there was a strong argument to be made that the "show" was better and easier to follow above water on the second deck.  The sharks came around the boat at all angles and depths, so often we'd be down in the cage, gripping our specially colored "inside" cage grips, careful to keep our hands and feet inside the main cage, all the while trying to figure out where the next attack would come from.  One lucky group had a shark hit the tuna head so hard it literally crashed into the cage, with fins and other shark parts whacking the frightened divers inside the cage before swimming off.   
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These last two pictures remind me of the famous painting by "Watson and the Shark" made by John Copley in 1778.  The painting has that typical 18th century staidness to it, but the shark, complete with handlebar mustache, takes a very aggressive angle of attack in biting off the leg of the unfortunate Watson.  
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Every so often the sharks would just disappear for a few minutes, and this is what we would see...nothing but bait.  We saw 7-8 different sharks during the afternoon, including one famous and huge one that had easily identifiable scars on its sides, and which the operators knew well and had seen many times before in the area.    
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However, as soon as we thought they might have swum off, we'd spy something like this giant just lurking there, letting us know that oh no, they hadn't gone anywhere except perhaps into the deep to assess the situation.  Here you can see how close to the cage they get as well.  None of our sharks actually hit the cage itself, but apparently it does happen on occasion, probably scaring the poor in divers to death.    
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Occasionally, a shark like the big one I shot here would come up to the tuna and kind of nudge it, as if it was considering attacking it, but generally couldn't be bothered.  Everyone in the boat would be watching the now disappointing shark swim off by itself, and then BOOM a second one would explode out of the water like in the photo above just destroying the tuna head and reminding anyone on the boat, that if you ever find yourself in the water with great whites, the one that gets you will be the one you didn't see....
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Here is another of the tuna heads being yanked right out of its opening jaws...nothing like pissing them off.  
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A bit of scale here, no? Seriously you don't see that everyday!
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Missed it again! I have no idea what these tuna heads go for, but while the sharks got a few of them, the guides certainly got their money's worth in yanking them away more often than not.    
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Here is a close up of the tuna yank...look at those teeth! He was small one...!
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All the while we were there, the back of the boat was dominated by the chum guy, who had this very pleasant tub of fish guts and blood, and who would slop it over the side and try and attract more sharks to our little party.  
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 One more of the tuna being yanked, this time with the shark coming straight up through the splash.  

So during the couple hours we were out on the boat, I rotated through the cage three times, and got to see at least a couple of the animals from the water. Generally they seemed more interested in the tuna heads than in us, but once a huge one swam right under the boat, and thus under us, and then came right by the cage eyeing us warily.  It was, I have to admit, a bit creepy!  What was it thinking behind its cold black eyes? Finished with our rotations, we pulled in the cage for the day, and sped back to the harbor, where we took showers and then watched a video of our day that had been filmed by our guides.  It was a pretty impressive piece of work for such a short period of time, and as the company said, we ended up getting a "Winter" day in the Summer, meaning a huge number of sharks and plenty of action, much more than could be generally expected for this time of year.    

All in all, the trip was an amazing experience, and I highly recommend anyone who gets a chance to do it, shark lover or not.  It does imbue one with a newfound respect for these amazing creatures, that really are the top of the ocean food chain for good reason.  Very very impressive killing machines...  The above are a good sampling of the adventure, and if anyone wants to view the rest, including a couple where one can really see the action frame by frame, then feel free to visit my smugmug page.  

http://sokol.smugmug.com/Other/Shark-Cage-Diving-Kleinbaai/22694817_pXCJNP#!i=1818756961&k=4Lk7Nnm

 

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