Sliding into a relatively small and fragile looking cage that is being circled by 15 of the ocean’s apex predators, while the crew ‘chum’ a cocktail of fish guts, oil and blood into the water may seem like ringing a dinner bell. It maybe easy to imagine the prowling sharks saying to each other, “tinned food today chaps.” It is a massive misconception, however, as shark cage diving in the Indian Ocean is an epic but safe adventure.
Our media group had earlier crashed through the breakers in the large inflatable immediately after witnessing a stunning sunrise. The skipper, John had coaxed the powerful outboard engines into blasting through each successive wave and after a relatively short and smooth trip we were soon drifting over his preferred spot above the Aliwhal Shoal.
As his assistant James began the chumming, which provides a slick trail of fishy scent for the sharks to home in on, John explained that we would most likely encounter black-tipped reef and possibly dusky sharks. The experience is totally different from a great white encounter, which usually involves individual or several predators, while we would spend time with more than a dozen sharks.
Tiger sharks are also common during the warmer months, but unlikely at this time of year. This was a shame as an encounter with the ocean’s second largest flesh-eating shark would have been an amazing experience.
Sharks were alongside the boat amazingly quickly, emphasising the effectiveness of their sense of smell. They are capable of locating a single drop of blood in the vast expanse of the ocean. The water was ‘boiling’ with their activity and the cage was quickly dropped into the water and we took turns slipping into it, in groups of 2 or 3 at a time.
Once in their environment it is possible to understand why these apex predators have remained relatively unchanged for over 60 million years. Sleek ocean-going bullets that seem to glide effortlessly through the water, moving gracefully, even languidly, but with the ability to accelerate rapidly with a single powerful tail sweep, snapping up any floating morsels.
They are the perfect killing machines, appearing like ghosts; often suddenly cruising up from the depths or materialising in the peripheral vision, graceful and beautiful but with a hint of menace. Most have a small armada of remora in tow, smaller fish that accompany them, feeding on any scraps that their larger host may have missed. The sharks are like the aircraft carriers surrounded by their fleet of destroyers.
There is soon a dozen or more sharks playing out a graceful underwater ballet just beyond the confines of the cage; it is almost as serene as the streamlined torpedoes glide in and out of the ‘stage’. There is an occasional sudden flurry of motion as one large shark puts a smaller one in its place. The only downside is needing to continually surface for air, so it is impossible to witness every second of the scene before us, which was both exciting and breath-taking.
The boat drifted some distance and the sharks were spooked by a larger marine research vessel, which had anchored nearby. Our skipper returned us to the ideal spot, and along with the chumming, his other assistant commenced some vigorous slapping of the surface with a fin in an attempt to attract them back in.
We were all provided a second opportunity to share a few moments with the oceanic free spirits. This time knowing what to expect it was an improved experience, spending longer underwater, only coming up to quickly gulp a lungful of air and maximising the time spent watching these beautiful ocean-going killing machines.
Spending time with these sleek, oceanic nomads, it is difficult not to feel saddened and ashamed that we hunt them merely for their fins. They have been prowling the oceans for hundreds of millions of years and yet man has hunted many species onto the endangered lists; merely for an ingredient in a soup, which requires chicken broth to provide any flavour. The fins are usually hacked off the living shark which is then just discarded, left to die a painful and slow death. Hundreds of thousands of sharks are killed in this manner every year, and the balance of our oceans eco-systems is being dangerously upset.
Anybody that enjoys dining on this relatively tasteless ‘delicacy’ should try shark cage diving. Witnessing the grace with which these agile creatures effortlessly patrol our oceans, snapping up weak or injured prey would surely change their perception. Sharks may not be cute and cuddly, they’re not the poster boys of environmentalist campaigns, but their sheer beauty is a joy to behold.
All too soon we were heading back to base, but there was one last surprise in store. The skipper paused the boat just beyond the breakers, expertly judging his moment before gunning the outboards and riding a wave beaching the boat high on the sand. It was an exhilarating and fitting climax to a morning spent in the company of the graceful ghosts of the ocean.
*Apologies the images are not up to the usual standard, they were taken on a compact camera.