By: Natasha Archary
White tip reef shark
All my life I’ve been fascinated by the depths of the ocean and the predators that lurk within. In suggesting the shark cage dive experience at UShaka Marine World, as an innovative date idea, I realise that there will be many who do not share my enthusiasm at being submerged into these terrifying creatures’ world.
I had been willing the dive into existence for months, putting it out into the universe, psyching myself up to taking the plunge, (literally) and was ecstatic when my trip to the sunny shores of Durban was confirmed. My date, not so much. He opted out of the diving experience and offered to be my amateur cameraman, taking pictures and videos of me from the aquarium below.
A little disappointed, I decided not to let that marr the day planned, because, in hindsight, I had a good few months of mental preparation as opposed to him and besides this was something I wanted to do. It would probably have made sense to wait until we were three months in before asking him out on this date with me (yes, this feminist asks).
Preparing for the challenge mentally cannot be overlooked and if you do consider the dive as a couple, (which I recommend) I can’t stress enough how important it is that you give yourself time to psyche yourself up for the dive.
(I’ll give you a rundown off my mental prep towards the end of the post)
Finally, the day of the dive arrived and I landed in Durban on a beautiful, sunny day which was to me, a sign that the date was going to go according to plan. The arrangements for a couple diving experience were all set and I gave my date a final chance to get in with me, he refused, politely, and – seeing the fear in his eyes – I did not push him further. He was really encouraging and did everything to keep my nerves at bay and motivate me.
made my way down to the dive point, while he headed towards the aquarium, and after a quick talk by the diver on site, I get into the tank, the icy water stinging my body like needles. I was instructed to take deep breaths and pull myself into the cage and to the bottom, working against the intense water pressure of the tank. This was really happening. I did as I was told and on my first plummet, I struggled to get to the bottom of the tank altogether, I did however manage a wave to my date, dry and relieved on the other side of the glass that separated us. He was smiling back at me, but I could tell he was thinking…this woman’s crazy.
On my second dive down I spotted a small, lean white tip reef shark (yes, I did my research before I got in), they don’t exceed more than 1.6 meters in length, chuckling mentally that I’m a whole five centimeters taller than these guys, I take in the beauty of their underwater world with relish. I spotted a few giant sandsharks at the bottom of the shark tank as well, a member of the ray family, their distinct flat head and trunk are unmistakable. I go up for air. This isn’t so bad, the biggest factor with the mental preparation is to prepare for the claustrophobia expert divers cite as the scariest part of a shark diving experience, not the shark at all. Hmmm, guess I’m not claustrophobic afterall.
On my third descent, all I see is a huge “shadow” pass by the tank I’m in. I turn to follow the direction of the shadow and as I do all I see are jagged, pin-like teeth, poking out of this monster ragged-tooth shark that has now made it his mission to circle the tank. My gasp meant I had swallowed a mouthful of water, unable to breathe any longer, I propelled myself to the surface of the cage, gasping for air and as the reality of my situation finally kicks in, I start to panic.
Look at him, it’s no wonder I panicked
“Get me out! Get me out, I can’t do this. What the *bleep* was I thinking?”
Hyperventilating is not fun, especially when you have an audience of UShaka Marine World visitors looking at you from the bridge overhead. The diving guide, reassures me and urges me to stay calm and to breathe. My date has no idea I’m freaking out and I have no way of signalling my distress to him because I can’t stomach going back into the tank and coming face to face with old raggy.
“They can’t get in, you’re safe. I have you, you’re fine. Just breathe, stay calm and go back down when you’re ready.”
“Natasha, pull yourself together, twelve year old kids do this. Stop being such a big baby.”
I can’t help but notice the tank is maneuvered on a pulley system, with two ropes. That’s it…but he has me and I need to trust that.
The water pressure makes it tough to get to the bottom
I reach into my inner zen and sink down to the bottom of the tank, this time kneeling on the floor of the tank and search for old raggy. He’s massive, bigger than they look from the other side of the aquarium glass, it’s like everything is magnified by five when you’re in the same space as these beautiful beasts. I’m in awe of their majestic grace, the way they glide through the high pressured waters with such ease, always moving, commanding respect without effort.
Yup, they circle you alright
It’s beautiful underwater with them, circling me, underneath me, around me. The crystal clear water that houses them magnifies every minute detail about them. Their beady eyes, every tooth, the way the sunlight bounces off their smooth skin. They have to be one of the most misunderstood creatures on earth. Dangerous when threatened but did you know sharks love to be petted? Ragged-tooth sharks are more closely related to great whites than tiger sharks.
One of my bucket-list to-dos includes the open ocean, great white shark cage-diving experience in Cape Town. I’ve not plucked up the courage to see this out yet but perhaps after a scuba dive in the UShaka Marine World, shark tank at a later stage I’ll be there. So, I take pride in the fact that I was in the same space as a relative of the most feared shark in the ocean. Raggies aren’t remotely close in size to a great white though, so while I can have bragging rights after this, the two should never be compared.
The ten minutes are over before I know it and I now regret being pulled back to my world. Old raggy, still circles the tank so my diving guide has to wait for his primary dorsal fin to sink below the surface because attempting to reel me in.
I’m so glad I went through with it. It’s an experience I will never forget for as long as I live. It goes down as one of the scariest things I’ve done in my life but also one of the most powerful. Conquering a fear is undoubtedly one of the most liberating things you can ever experience. Definitely one for the record books.
My date gives me a good, long hug and wraps me in a towel to warm me up. He checks to see if I’m okay because at that point I had no control over my trembling body. It took a few minutes for my body temperature to regulate, jeez it’s freezing in there with THEM. The adrenalin surging through my veins took a little longer to wear off and for a good fifteen minutes, my hands couldn’t stop trembling and my jelly-legs wouldn’t stop wobbling. It was the most intense rush I’ve ever felt, the highest high. I would give anything to feel that charge of fear and uncertainity all over again.
The shark cage dive is as an innovative date idea and I give it two thumbs up. I hope you try it together as a couple but it may not be the case as there will most likely be apprehension and fear from one or both of you. Something that I find with a lot of my dates is that most have a fear of fear itself. Where it’s missing with me, they have it in bucket loads and it doesn’t bode well for a long term relationship when someone isn’t open to trying new things or pushing past the barricades of their comfort zone.
Near-death experience or not, be open to adventure and give this a go the next time you are in Durban. Unlike open ocean shark cage diving experiences, the UShaka dive is in a controlled environment and is not nearly as intimidating as getting into a tank with great whites around you. The sharks can’t breach the tank, you’re safe, it’s just your mind you have to control.
Thank you to UShaka Marine World for being so hospitable and indulging my crazy, I’d do it again…in a heartbeat!
Preparing for my dive
I spent close to three months researching the UShaka Marine World shark cage dive, watching videos and reading previous divers experiences. I also watched a number of shark documentaries, my favourite has to be the Netflix series: Sharks. Detailed, honest and informative, this series put my mind at ease a little more than the National Geographic documentary – Savage Great White Shark.
Sharks: Scavengers of the seas is also a really great doccie to start with.
Next I spent time watching scuba divers swimming with sharks and many talk about the claustrophobia that grips you more than your fear of these predators. It is scary being in their world with no control and no way out. Running out of air, hyperventilating, being confined to the shark tank while they swim around you…it all weighs in on you. Nothing can ever prepare you enough however, it comes at you out of nowhere.
Ocean Ramsey, a free-diver who is also a shark conservationist, inspires me immensely. She speaks of sharks in a way no one else has before. She talks about them having feelings, being peaceful and with a passion to protect the many endangered species of shark tells the “anti-Jaws story” .
Watching her dives taught me not to get into the water until my mind is totally calm. So when my panic-attack kicked in, I knew not to get back into the water until my mind was in control. Sharks can detect low sound frequencies and weak electrical signals, this is often what triggers them into a frenzied attack.
Practice your underwater breathing techniques, I could probably only stay under for about thirty seconds but if you can get that under control better than I could you would be able to take in a lot more per dive down.
UShaka Marine World takes every precaution to ensure your safety during the shark cage dive. You don’t have to be the most experienced swimmer but you will need to be able to hold your breath underwater as you are not given oxygen masks, just a pair of goggles.
Pack your own towel, bikini (you’re not given a wet suit) and a set of dry clothes, unless you’re hitting the Wet & Wild water theme park thereafter.
Follow UShaka Marine World to get the latest specials on packages and to book your Sea Animal Encounter Adventure.