The tiger shark is unfairly considered to be one of the most aggressive shark species and in South Africa there is a location where they can be encountered up close on drift dives in open water - with no cages for protection. To dive with these beautiful animals is a wonderful experience and there is no better way to dispel the myths of sharks as mindless killing machines than to swim with them.
Many times I have been told by people that they would love to experience a shark dive, but they cannot because they don’t dive. With this in mind I formulated a plan to train a group of non-divers from zero to diving with these large marine predators in just one week! This would be a feat never attempted before - it just needed a group of willing volunteers to take up the challenge!
So, knowing that these things always sound like a good idea in the comfort of the pub, all I needed were some candidates and a few beers…
Scott: “The stag weekend to Barcelona’s a wash-out, what shall we do instead?”; Rob: “Well, I could always train you to dive and take you to swim with tiger sharks with me in Africa!”; Martyn: “That sounds like a great idea!”. I’m not sure if that was meant sarcastically or whether they fully knew what they were letting themselves in for, but in no time all the plans were made and flights were booked and the team - completed by Paul another non-diver – committed to the adventure. There was no backing out now. Dan Cain, an experienced cameraman tasked with following the intrepid adventurers and film their feats of derring-do.
PADI Open Water theory and confined water training was conducted in Bath before we left UK on 3rd April. The team flew into Durban and then transferred to the small town of Umkomaas (Zulu for ‘The place of the whales’) where we settled into our beautiful accommodation at Seascapes with views over the Kwazulu Natal coastline. Seascapes is the guest house owned by Walter Bernardis, owner of African Watersports, who would be running the tiger shark dives for us.
First, the PADI Open Water course had to be completed, and in South Africa this is no mean feat – heart-pounding surf launches on inflatable boats (RIBs) and the first ocean dive involves a backward roll from the boat into screaming current. The fact that we had been ‘helpfully’ told that divers had seen a great white shark on that same reef the week before just added to the ‘enjoyment’!
Lying 3 – 5 kms off shore, and about 5 km in length, the Aliwal Shoal is a rocky reef formed from ancient sand dunes flooded after a rise in sea levels eighty thousand years ago. The Shoal is on the inner edge of the Mozambiquan current, and hosts a huge array of fish species as well as rays, turtles, sharks and mantas with schools of dolphins and pods of whales are frequent visitors.
The PADI Advanced Open Water Course builds experience and develops skills that allow dives to be safer and more enjoyable. For this the guys did five adventure dives as diverse as underwater navigation, wreck diving, drift diving and underwater naturalist and these were selected to gain confidence and the skills specific to completing the adrenaline-intensive shark dives with a full complement of limbs!
Day after day the team arose at 6am for a light breakfast before going off on the day’s dives. The intensive training regime took its toll, and rather than the afternoons of drinking and debauchery imagined by others they spent most of the time asleep by the pool only rousing at 7pm to grab something to eat before slumping into exhausted sleep in preparation for the following day’s exertions!
The tiger shark dive takes place at a location just beyond the Aliwal Shoal. In the early days the pioneers of this dive would descend to the bottom at about 20m with spears, harpoons and any other weapon they could lay their hands on. With a large rock against their back they would then lure the tiger sharks in to feed on fish skewered on long sticks. How things have changed. Through repeated experience, it was realised that the tiger sharks were not exhibiting aggressive behaviour and were far from the nightmare man-killers of popular myth. The methods have developed to the point now when the divers have the sharks swimming all around them and in seven years they have had no adverse ‘incidents’ at all.
While the guys trained to dive, Dan and I took the opportunity to go and spend some time with the sharks. To my very great pleasure we were joined by Wolfgang Leander and Jean-François Avenier, two renowned freediving shark conservationists – wonderful guys with the best interests of sharks at heart. Wolfgang’s passion for the lovely tiger ladies oozes from his every pore, and is displayed in his incredible photography, and I defy anyone not to find his enthusiasm infectious. Read his blog at http://fleander.blogspot.com
One of the side-effects of the tiger shark diving operation is the increase of other shark species in the area. In particular the oceanic blacktip sharks looking for a quick and easy meal are encountered in large numbers. These 2.5 metre long sharks arrive very soon after the chumming begins, their fins cutting through the water all around the boat as an hors d’ouvres of what is to come.
Finally the day came when the training divers were qualified and they were ready for the tiger shark dive. As the team readied their gear and boarded the boat on the beach there was a strangely silent departure from the usual noisy banter. For all the reasoned debate in the preceding months about us not being in the sharks’ food-chain, for all the macho bravado, there was a palpable trepidation that the event that we had been building up for months was nigh.
The surf launch seemed higher and more challenging and once through those massive waves, it took about 20 minutes to reach the mark where Walter stopped the RIB and dropped a ‘chum’ bucket into the water. This is a drum of fish carcasses and oils, supplemented with ‘tiger coke’ a secret concoction which turns even the most hardened stomach. The scent in the water drifts on the current to form a ‘chum slick’ and any shark crossing this odour corridor will follow it back to the source to see what yummy delicacy is there. Each shark dive is preceded by a comprehensive briefing from Walter and all safety aspects and procedures must be adhered to absolutely - these are apex predators in their own environment and so should be respected. The theory is that as long as we don’t look like food in the water then the sharks won’t treat us like food!
“So,” someone asks, “what happens when a shark that is expecting a meal turns up to find just a plastic bucket, and a few divers in the water?!” “Just follow the safety briefing and all will be well” Walter says – they don’t look convinced!
The tension mounts when the blacktips arrive and the guys realise that they are soon going to have to backward roll into the water in the midst of these feeding sharks.
It took about an hour of chumming before our first tiger shark arrived - and when Walter was sure it was hanging around he told us to get our gear on and get ready to drop into the mass of sharks circling below us. Initially we couldn’t see the shark, but Walter pointed it out circling cautiously about 15m away just within visibility. The blacktips were everywhere competing for the drifting scraps with a myriad of fish, cutting through us like a pack of excited dogs, jostling for position and food.
It’s unbelievable to think that being in the midst of 30 or more sharks, you could forget about them, but that is exactly what happens when the tigers approach. Two, then three, tiger sharks rise to our level and slowly circling closer and closer they transfix the divers with their large black eyes. You can almost feel them assessing you for food potential – and Walter’s briefing is still ringing inside your head – keep your hands in close, stay vertical, face up and don’t back off - easier said than done when a 4 metre shark is heading directly at you. Of course they were just being inquisitive about these new and strange creatures in their domain and though the occasional close-pass and rare bump kept them alert, the team relaxed and started enjoying the encounter.
They came closer with each pass until they were weaving in and out of us – the tigers slowly, the blacktips charging through from all directions. Apparently taking it in turns, the tigers voraciously fed from the drum before returning to view us interlopers again.
After about 60 minutes of absolute, shark-diving heaven, the sardine drum was empty and the tigers were gone. A few blacktips stayed around optimistically, but we had reached the end of our air and so reluctantly we left the water. Returning to shore the elation in the team was obvious as everyone wanted to share their individual experiences with whoever would listen – talking excitedly long into the night, the sharks growing in size with each heroic retelling!
Not only had the team learned to dive in some of the most extreme and challenging conditions on the planet, but they had confronted their fears and came face to face with some seriously big and toothy sharks. With the dives behind us, and all safely returned to base, a well-deserved couple of days of R&R in Durban was called for and we partied long and hard!
Back in Blightey, and watching Dan’s footage of the adventure to remind us all of what the newly qualified divers had actually achieved in such a short time I felt a great pride in what they had done. All the macho bravado has now turned to practiced nonchalance and to a person they are behaving like the champions and ambassadors of sharks and the marine environment that they have become. My only problem is where to suggest that we go for the next trip!
Thanks to the crew (and friends): Rob Allen, Wolfgang Leander, Dan Cain, Walter Bernardis and Jean-François Avenier