I placed my mask over my face and checked the regulator. We had made it from the beach through the big surf — it was a rough day — and were now 6km off the South African coast, sitting on the gunwales of an inflatable dive boat that was rising and falling through 2m or more every few seconds.
“Remember,” said Kenny, one of the instructors, “I’m your dive buddy — you stay with me. OK? If we see sharks, we remain calm, we stay upright in the water, we give them space.”
There is something quite comforting about the steady suck and hiss of Scuba apparatus. Your breathing slows and becomes regular. You are separated from the world by a sheet of glass. You get that irrational feeling of safety that a mosquito net can bring in man-eating lion territory.
And we were in man-eater country. The Indian Ocean coast of South Africa saw 86 shark attacks between 1992 and 2008, with 11 fatalities. Before the trip I went through the species of shark in my copy of Sea Fishes of Southern Africa, noting their characteristics: “may threaten divers,” “positively linked to attacks on humans,” “voracious predator” — the word “aggressive” came up time and again.
In Cape Town there is a much-publicized thrill available whereby divers are lowered in a steel cage with some bait. Sharks then attack. Sharks, after all, are fiendishly dangerous. They are demons for a secular age. Even snakes have a better reputation.
Nigel Pickering, however, disagrees with all the demonization. A former police diver from England, he came out to South Africa with his wife, Lesley, in 2003 and chose to live in the small and leafy town of Umkomaas, 40km south of Durban on the KwaZulu-Natal coast. Umkomaas is a quiet, amiable sort of place with a few good restaurants and bars on a long stretch of sandy shoreline. Nigel and Lesley set up their dive school in a handsome clapboard building with bright comfortable rooms for divers to stay in. There was, however, one other major attraction that drew Nigel to this coast: sharks. About 6km offshore, in the impressively muscular ocean, is a shallow area known as Aliwal Shoal. It is regularly listed among the world’s top dive sites, being home to myriad sea creatures, including several species of shark. And Nigel is on a mission when it comes to sharks.
“They can be dangerous, of course, but I believe that, with caution and care, they can be appreciated and watched like any other animal.”
On our boat there was a countdown: “three, two, one ...” and we all rolled backwards and into the water. I followed the rope that led down into the murk. The rough weather had ruined Aliwal’s normally good visibility and we were reduced to about 8m. I couldn’t see any other divers; the leader was already out of sight. After a minute I reached the sea bottom at 18m. I turned to look behind me and got an instantaneous jolt of adrenaline.
The shark was 3m long, and about the same distance from me, cruising effortlessly away. It didn’t seem at all interested, or particularly shy. I found this strangely comforting. It was also comforting to see that it was neither a tiger nor a Zambezi shark, both notoriously aggressive species that live on Aliwal at certain times of year.
More divers appeared. I recognized Kenny’s blonde hair. By hand signals he told me to search in the coarse sand patches between rocks. Within a few seconds I’d found several shark’s teeth and tucked them in the cuff of my wetsuit. The ragged-tooth shark, or raggie, loses teeth throughout its life.