"NO bars just stripes, yeah?" Mark, the dive instructor, is addressing our dive group. Mark Addison heads up an underwater filming logistics and expedition company and has spent the past 20 years pioneering shark diving in and around southern Africa. Addison's company, Blue Wilderness, serves a demanding clientèle who bring the most amazing underwater and shark images to the world’s screens and print media. This helps to raise awareness about sharks and their necessary place in the oceans.
“None of that cage-diving they do down in Cape Town,” he continues, referring to the Great White cage-diving that attracts thousands of visitors to Gaansbaai, a two-hour drive from Cape Town on the other side of the continent.
“So I noticed,” I think to myself as we board the boat and chug out to sea. Half an hour later, the skipper turns off the engine and we drift over a painted sea. I am wondering if I can come up with some vitally important reason not to plunge backwards and headfirst into the churning dorsal fins. Nah, sack it. I've dived with ragged-tooth sharks, and they are just silly old poodles. And, yes, hammerheads, you clanky old softies.
Mind you, tigers? Too late, and besides, I'd never live it down.
Away I go. Splash. Envelop me water, love me. The familiar, acid rush of adrenalin offset by the pleasure of getting back underwater after a year land-lubbing. My last dive was in Cape Town, off Hout Bay's freezing Atlantic kelp beds. Seals and dolphins and wrecks and the ever-possible chance of a great white, those misunderstood terriers.
Off the boat and sinking through clear, warm water, I equalise then look around. A extra squish of lightning juice zaps my belly as I realise the rest of the dive group are still on the surface, some 10m above me. Oops.
40, two-metre long black tips are circling the bait box, hammering it, ducking away like cheeky vervets, while aloof tigers knife the perimeter restlessly. Tumty-tum. Hallo, boys. Ehm, girls, I mean. We divers swirl like the dancers in Swan Lake. Perimeter check. Seven female tigers, each about three and a half metres, pre-cordal (not including the tail). Big. Stripy. Sleek. Inquisitive. Nice day for it. How y'all doing?
Now, if the tigers come too close, just put your hand on their nose and push down, but careful - their noses are sandpaper-rough. Cheery, pre-dive advice from Mark, who guarantees a 100% chance of seeing a tiger, no matter the time of year. This marine energy is indescribable. I can't be suffering from nitrogen narcosis - we're only at 15 metres, but I want to serenade the jellyfish, whose pulpy flesh shimmers with orange-blue electricity. I want to hug my dive buddy, but he's a scary, bearded man from Uitenhague, who wears his knife on his outer calf.
A tiger glides upto my face before veering off like a good cricket outswinger - just time to reach out and nick an edge. Smooth, supple flanks, this girl. The tigers have rounded up all the divers into one ascending prey spiral, and are herding us like eager collies. No time to fluff my buoyancy. Get separated from the pack. Like instant noodles. Just add diver. There are thoughts, emotions maybe, zinging behind those big black eyes, so different to the venom in the raggie's piggy eyes.
I refuse to surface at 50-bar. We're only at 10 mts now and anyway, I'm sure I heard Mark tell us to finish our air. An hour underwater has rocketed by. I'm paying the price for not diving for over a year. My aluminium cylinder has just turned into a helium balloon, and the boat skippers are sniggering into their hoods at the sight of me, fins and ass in the air.
Then, pure Hollywood. Pure Open Water. I'm 30m away from my boat. I'm a tasty turtle, floundering merrily on the surface. Dinosaur synapses are afire in the shark's mind and in treacherous response in my R-Complex, the oldest part of my brainstem, the reptilian bit. Hey, shark, we share physiology, I think to myself. Pavlov's dog is howling at the moon. Chops slavering. Easy. Tasty. The skipper dawdles politely over. Tumpty-tum. "Hey, how was that? Have a cheese and ham sandwich."
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