And a story of how I survived being near them… kind of.
Our adventure began at 5:00 AM when we met with the crew and shark team at the Shark Experience in Bluff, NZ. The crew was really cool and nice. The team was made up of a father-daughter duo and a professional diver name Tittles (can’t forget a name like that, but he is awesome). There were about six guests headed out on the boat with us. Two of them were professional divers, while the rest newbies and landlubbers like Abi and I.
We loaded up the boat and headed out about an hour south to the shore of Stewart Island (Rakiura) along the Foveaux Strait.
When we arrived, we were each given a thick wetsuit. I don’t think I’ve mentioned yet that it was much colder in Bluff than anywhere we’d been so far on the trip. We watched the fall colors get brighter and more vibrant the further south we drove. New Zealand was heading into fall and considering that Bluff is practically the bottom of the world... it makes sense that not only was the air colder, but the ocean was more than a little chilly. Still, we headed out as the boat was tossed around, rocking constantly as wind and waves pushed against it.
Then, we arrived and dropped anchor along the coast of Stewart Island. The crew took a little bit of time to explain some of the basics and rules. Keep your hands, cameras, and really - ALL other body parts - inside the cage at all times. Climb out of the cage if you feel at risk or something goes wrong with your equipment. Don't stay in the water for more than 30 minutes (because you could get hypothermia). And lastly, don't be stupid and die.
Those of us who hadn’t ever been scuba diving before would be getting a lesson and a practice run in the cage with the equipment prior to going in officially for an extended viewing period. Our first task, putting on our wetsuits. As hard to get on as you probably can imagine, the suits were super thick and not very flexible. To put them on, you have to basically roll the suit on backwards. Then we got gloves, boots, masks, and head covers.
This cage cage is not like the ones you see in films. Instead, the cage is completely connected to the back of the boat (no hanging from a cable that breaks off into the depths). Also, the cage has a railing and tight wiring all around to prevent any overly excited sharks from flipping into the cage accidentally. Meanwhile, Tittles – a professional scuba diver and trainer – went in with each of the newbies on our first go. Before going in we were required to have heavy weights strapped onto our torso. The purpose of these weights is to help keep you grounded in the cage as the water rushing in and out (plus the rocking of the boat) prevents you from having any sort of secure footing when inside.
I had no idea what to expect as I climbed into the cage slowly. They had already begun baiting the sharks by sending a half of a giant tuna fish through a grinder before stirring it up into the rolling waves. Once in the cage, I was totally overwhelmed. Having never used scuba gear before it was easy to forget that I could actually breathe. I found myself holding my breath as I turned away from the ladder to face where Tittles stood motioning for me to begin my mask clear.
I felt panic rising, I couldn’t breathe!
Colorful fish darted around the cage eating the pieces of churned up bait floating around us.
The water was rushing in and out of the cage around me and it was all I could do to keep holding on to the ladder and not slam into the walls with the raging currents.
My mask was filling up with water at my nose and I could see Tittles motioning to me, but all I could feel was an overwhelming sense of panic.
I couldn't breathe!
I began to p—y… and suddenly I felt calmer. I could breathe, I just had to concentrate. It felt strange. To be surrounded by water, but breathing normally through the mouthpiece I held tightly between my teeth. It was then that I realized I hadn’t put my feet into the ropes at the bottom of the cage and that was part of the reason I was getting tossed around so easily. I focused on getting my feet in the ropes. Then, I looked at Tittles.
He gave me the hand signal to ask if I was okay. I gave a thumbs up in return. He again motioned for me to clear my mask. I felt the panic returning. I looked up and sloppily held my mask while pushing air out of my nose. It wasn’t a great clear, but I had gotten most of the water out. Now was the real test. Taking the mouthpiece out. It honestly was so terrifying. I took a deep breath, then removed the mouth piece. Staring at Tittles waiting for him to give me the okay to put it back in. He did. I put the mouthpiece back in and immediately breathed out in a rush. After clearing the tube, I began to breathe normally again. I had done it! It struck me that I was okay and I could do this. I just had to not psych myself out within my own head. As I processed my relief, Tittles grabbed my arm and pointed.
There he was. A Great White Shark swimming just a few feet outside the cage.
It passed slowly, I gripped the hand rails, amazed and surprised at how unhurried the shark swam by the cage. This animal appeared nothing like the raging Hollywood version I knew.
My test was over. Tittles motioned for me to climb back out so someone else could come down and have their test. I started to climb out the wrong ladder exit, but Tittles fixed me and I climbed out correctly. Mike helped me pull myself up (with a wetsuit and giant weights strapped to your chest it’s a lot harder than you may think). Mike asked, “Did you see the shark?”
“I sure did!” I said after breathlessly removing my mouthpiece. I climbed out before watching others, including Abi climb in for their practice. On the boat we got a few more glimpses of the dark grey body gliding by in the dark water. Once everyone had passed their “test”, it was all systems go to spend an extended period of time in the cage.
So, you can imagine my surprise in discovering the most peaceful thing about shark cage diving was in fact the sharks themselves. They swam by the cage at a snail’s pace, just observing before disappearing into the murky distance. Then, they would be back around again, just to look, curious about the four divers in the cage. They were so calm, graceful, and unhurried.
I have now come to the opinion that humanity does these creatures a great injustice when we choose to portray them only as man-eating, revenge seeking monsters of Davy Jones Locker. Don’t get me wrong, I’m under no disillusion that the rows of razor sharp, icicle-like teeth aren’t used to inflict major damage, but that’s only a part of their need to survive. At one point I looked the shark, I swear he looked me in the eye, and I saw those teeth and had this “WHOA” moment of terror followed by simple awe at the strength and enchanting nature of this beast.
While the sharks were peaceful, the most horrific and violent portion of the trip was the cage itself. I can only describe the sensation of being in the cage as feeling like you are inside a washing machine.
As I explained earlier, the sea was particularly rough that day. Our skipper Mike told us on a scale of 1-10 – 10 being they don’t take the boat out – our day was a 7. He told us that the waves crashing into the boat were up to about 30 feet in height (over 9 meters). I’m not exaggerating. The waves were constantly rushing in and out of the cage as it rocked harshly from side to side. You, meanwhile, are in all this gear, wearing weights to keep you grounded with your feet tucked into a rope beneath you just being slammed over and over into the sides of the cage or the divers beside you.
After about twenty minutes in the cage, your mouth and throat begin to get extremely dry because you cannot swallow only continue breathing in dry oxygen. All of the pain and discomfort is worth it though, when a 11 foot (3.4 meter) Great White Shark swims by you over six times, getting so close you feel as though you could reach out and touch him (no one did, ha). After about twenty minutes of awesome shark interaction a pair of us still in the water were hit by a giant wave that lifted the cage up out of the water before slamming it down again. It knocked the air out of my chest, jostled every bone in my body, and it was at that moment I decided I was finished. I'd seen the shark more than enough times to be satisfied with the experience and I was in a lot of pain. I climbed out of the cage, removed the weights and mouthpiece from my body and then, I am not kidding, I immeidatley proceeded to be sick over the side of the boat… again. I probably should mention that wasn’t the only guest who was sick through the course of the trip, which I suppose is a small conciliation to my pride, but still... it was not fun.
The crew prepared a lunch at the sea for us, but I chose not to eat (because if the boat ride out was any indication of what the boat ride back be like for me, it wasn’t worth the effort). Abi and I struck up a conversation with a nice Minnesotan couple who was road-tripping through the South Island in a rented camper van. It was fun to swap stories of the things we’d seen and loved about NZ throughout both our journeys so far.
When we finally made it back to Bluff, a trip that went over as well with my stomach as I imagined it would (READ: not well at all) we were gifted certificates of introductory scuba course, as well as, a “Congratulations for surviving a shark cage dive” certificate. I shall show both of them off with pride!
Once on solid ground, Abi and I showered, scarfed food (I was so unbelievably hungry, and we ironically got some take-out Chinese from a little restaurant right below our AirBnB, haha). After discussing all our thoughts and processing through what we had actually seen and done we went to bed WAY early, haha. I remember I was so tired that the coldness of Bluff almost! didn’t bother me that night.
This means that below I have some actual footage Abi recorded during the time we were both in the cage together. The fool you see waving like a crazy person is, of course, me... and the shark is the 11 foot Great White I first mentioned.
This is the moment when, I could swear to you that, I made eye contact with the shark. Maybe it’s in my head, but it was a cool moment to watch him going after the tuna bait the crew was dragging through the water above the cage. You can hear the currents rushing forcefully in and out and see how intensely the cage rocks around us.
I also love that, after this experience, I will never think about sharks in the same way. They’re beautiful. They are also fierce and threatening. Though this combination of attributes makes me think that they are not unlike their Creator in capacity for both wrath and stillness. I'm hearing the faint whispers of a line about Him not being tame as I reflect on the majesty of these masterful deep-sea predators. I feel grateful to live on an earth with such a awe-inspiring G-d and to see pieces of His character and passions in all of His creation.