Monday, August 13, 2012

Hermanus, South Africa: Swimming with Sharks

There is an area near Hermanus, South Africa which is known as "shark alley," and which features the densest known population of Great White Sharks in the world.  We boarded a boat and went to shark alley.  Then we got in the water.  Click the link to read more.

We arrived in Hermanus a day before our scheduled swim with the sharks.  Hermanus is known as perhaps the best place in the world to see whales from the shore.  During the whale-spotting season, many Southern Right Whales are seen breaching each day.  To make things easier for the tourists, since 1992, Hermanus has employed the world's only "Whale Crier," who blows a loud horn anytime a whale is seen breaching from shore.

We stood on the rocky shore of Hermanus Bay and watched for whales.

At first, all we saw were the cute critters pictured above, known officially as Rock Hyrax and colloquially as Dassies or Rock Rabbits.  Although a Dassie resembles a guinea pig, its closest relative is the elephant.  (I don't understand how that could be, but I looked it up in two separate places.)  But then, as we were enjoying the Dassies playing on the rocks in front of us, we heard the Whale Crier's horn.

Sure enough, a Southern Right Whale treated us to a nice show, repeatedly breaching from the water.  Above is a video showing the whale, along with a few Dassies and the remains of a rainbow.

That night, we ate a nice dinner.  When you're going to be in the water with Great White Sharks the following morning, you don't skimp on dessert.

When we arrived at the shark diving headquarters, we were greeted with a less-than-comforting t-shirt.

There was a single sign on the wall with a single rule:  Do not touch the sharks.  I would have obeyed that rule even without the sign.

While we waited for the shark diving tour to begin, we read some fun facts about Great White Sharks.  When you begin life by practicing intrauterine cannibalism, you are not to be trifled with.

Our guide gave us a short lecture on dry land.  Above is a photo of a section of the type of cage we would be in while the sharks swim around us.  The main point of his lecture seemed to be that we should keep our hands and feet inside the cage.  Again, I would have followed this rule without being told.

We walked to the dock and watched as the boat was loaded.  The cage can be seen hanging from the back.

We then took a 45 minute boat ride to the channel between Dyer Island (home to a large penguin colony) and Geyser Island (home to a large seal colony), known as "shark alley."  Then the cage was lowered into the water and attached to the side of the boat.

By the way, when I say Geyser Island has a large seal colony, I mean it.  Above is a video taken from our boat as we cruised past this colony of 55,000 seals.  Given that a seal is a Great White Shark's favorite food, it's easy to see why this area has the densest population of Great Whites in the world.

After the shark cage was readied in the water, we put on our wetsuits (the water is cooooold), which made me look and feel like a seal.

We lowered ourselves into the cage.  I'm the guy with the blue stripe on my head and Shane's pictured next to me.
A guy on the boat then begins "chumming" the water--basically dumping buckets of blood in the water to attract the sharks.  The guides also bait large chunks of tuna (a chunk is pictured at the bottom of the above photo) and throw them into the water.  And if the sharks are not sufficiently enticed by that, the guides also throw a foam toy in the water in the shape of a seal.  The foam "seal" is visible next to the shark in the photo immediately below.

Sure enough, the sharks appeared and began circling the cage.

Finally, the sharks attacked the baited tuna and the foam "seal" repeatedly.  It was an awesome sight, both from above the water and especially from inside the cage below the water.

It's difficult for photos to do justice to the experience of watching the sharks up close.  Above are some videos taken from the boat as we rotated in and out of the shark diving cage.  The first video shows the first good look we had of a Great White, and it features the first of many times Beth quoted Roy Scheider's famous line from the movie "Jaws":  "We're gonna need a bigger boat."

Unlike in "Jaws", we did not in fact need a bigger boat.  The boat, as well as all of the humans aboard, came out of the experience unharmed.  Above is a photo of me looking very relieved to be back on dry land.  

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