FEELING GREAT: Swimming with sharks

Paul Gough shark
Paul Gough shark

Pull up a chair...

And I’ll tell you a story that comes with a not so serious “health warning”.

After last week’s column about Chicago, I got this question from an online reader:

“Paul I note from your emails and newspaper column, and generally can just sense, that you like to travel (on planes). I’m wondering then if you’ve ever seen anything or done anything that’s a little bit “different” from the usual sight seeing and picture taking and if you have, would mind sharing it with me and your other readers?”

“Keep up the nice column.” Brian, 57, Saltburn By-The-Sea

By different, if Brian means swimming with Great White Sharks... then “yes I have”.

Here’s what happened: Few years back now I went to watch cricket in South Africa (Cape Town) with some friends from Hartlepool and Blackhall Cricket Clubs. And if I’m honest, I had NO intention whatsoever of getting into the Atlantic Ocean and going nose to nose with a great white shark.

But, it was New Year’s Eve and we’d gotten wind that there MIGHT be some spaces on this boat that was going out to sea to do it.

So a few of us got up early and drove the two hours along the coast to meet the rest of the people interested in doing it too.

Secretly I always thought I’d just sit and watch. Because even just being on a boat surrounded by 20 foot great white sharks, was an experience to be had, in its self.

Anyway, at the last minute I decide to do it! As in, place a wet suit on, grab a snorkel and mask, and get in the cage with six other people who wanted to feel the rush of being up close to a shark that looked like the one off Jaws.

I went in group number four (of five). Which meant for some pretty angry sharks by the time I got in. Why angry(er)? They’d been tormented for an hour before by a fake “sea lion” being used as bait to lure them towards the cage and to get them to open their mouths wide, in anticipation of being able to eat it. But, the bait was always removed just as they were about to bite down on it by a long rod held by a fisherman on the boat. Would get me pretty irate too I reckon.

Here’s what I remember about the day: The very first time I stepped into the water it was freezing! Heart was pounding and deep breathing to-boot, trying to pretend and smile as to seem like I was enjoying it as much as all the others. And when the cage lid slams shut, then you just paddle and wait. Literally, just wait as the guys on the boat throw chump, plastic sea lions and dead fish all around you, to attract the sharks.

And then you hear: “Down on the left”...That means you’ve got to go down under the water, and look to the left, because a BIG ONE is coming right at you! And seriously, they smash into the cage like they don’t know it was there. And for about two seconds you literally are “eye ball to eye ball” with a great white shark.

One who is trying desperately hard to smash the steel cage and eat you for tea.

And then...the shark relents. And that’s when everyone in the cage comes back to the surface and is bursting with energy, adrenaline pumping, and excited to death at having made it back up alive.

And when the adrenaline wears off, it’s then that it hits you...the realisation that you’re in that cage for another 19 minutes and you’ve got’ keep listening out for: “Down on the right”.

It’s the message that comes from the guys on top of the boat who can see “Jaws” coming from a 100 yards or so away. When you’re down in the cage, you only get about five meters (about one or two seconds) of sight before it’s right at you again.

Cape Town and shark diving, a nice idea for this summer’s family holiday perhaps?