Swimming with great white sharks isn't for everybody, but it was an idea that one Minot man just couldn't get out of his mind.
"When you get older you start thinking about a bucket list, and that is definitely one of the things I wanted to do," said Mark Hamilton, Minot. "I talked to a guy from Sherwood who did it about 15 years ago and decided right there that it was something I had to do."
Hamilton has been scuba diving for 30 years and has visited various locations where sharks are known to frequent. However, knowing sharks are in an area and seeing them while diving are two different things entirely. For most divers a lack of sharks is just fine - preferred in fact - but not for Hamilton.
Great white sharks are fearsome eating machines. It is not unusual for the sharks to stage close encounters with divers submerged in protective cages.
"Wherever I go I'm always trying to find a divemaster to take me to see some sharks," explained Hamilton. "I've always wanted to see them in the water. It is something you very seldom see."
Recently Hamilton agreed to accompany a fellow Minoter on a trip to South Africa with the stipulation that they make a stop at Gansbaai, an old Dutch fishing village situated on the scenic coast of the West Cape. It is there that the southern Atlantic Ocean merges with the Indian Ocean. It is also known as the "Great White Shark Capital of the World," rivaled only by the Great Barrier Reef of Australia.
"Gansbaai was established in the late 1700s," said Hamilton. "Their main industry now is shark diving. People come from all over the world to shark dive. It is the highest concentration of great white sharks of any place in the world."
Television crews often journey to Gansbaai for the purpose of getting video of sharks for networks like the Discovery Channel and National Geographic. The big attraction for great white sharks is a nearby island that is home to an estimated 60,000 fur seals. The seals are hunted by the great whites who spend much of their lives patrolling the waters around the island.
One of the reasons the seals chose that location for a nesting island is because of the abundance of baitfish, such as sardines, that provide excellent food. The seals are very careful about swimming in shark-infested water, always watching for the presence of sharks before slipping into the water to feed. The sharks are never very far away. Watching a great white shark attack a seal, says Hamilton, is "not for the faint of heart."
"I was told you might be out all day and maybe see an encounter," said Hamilton. "Before we got to go out they gave us a half-hour lecture on sharks, saying why sharks are not really the horrible predator they are made out to be. Well, they are. They are a killing machine. A week before I left a 20-year-old South African competitive surfer was taken by a great white shark just around the corner from where we were. Another was taken after we left. That's tragic. Horrible."
In the cage
The trip by boat from Gansbaai to "Shark Alley," a famed white shark haunt located between two islands, nearly didn't take place at all. According to Hamilton, rough weather kept the community's shark diving boats from venturing out, with the exception of one. The Minot man was fortunate to climb aboard that boat, although 12-foot seas made for a precarious trip on the ocean.
"Half the boat was puking. A lot of people were sick when we got there. It was not pleasant at all. The ride out there was awful," said Hamilton. "That was the scariest part of the entire trip."
The boat was a 65-footer powered by four 300-horsepower motors. Once the boat was anchored, the rocking and rolling diminished and the crew lowered the shark cage into the water. The top portion of the cage remained above the water, a change from several years ago when scuba gear was required and the cages were completely submerged. According to Hamilton, pressure from environmentalists and various safety issues led to the changes.
"None do scuba anymore. You don't even have a snorkel. You need a full wetsuit because the water temperature is cold. The water is about chest high and you duck under the water when a shark is coming," said Hamilton.
The shark cage measured about 4 feet wide and 10 feet long, holding a maximum of seven people. To help insure that sharks will be attracted to the area of the cage, chumming is done as the boat approaches the anchor point.
"We had sharks following the boat by the time we got there," said Hamilton. "They have a bait line, tuna heads wired to a float but they don't feed the fish. They are very careful about that. They use a Styrofoam decoy of a seal and pull that right towards you as the sharks appear. Spotters on the boat tell you to get down in the water. Sometimes the sharks bump the cage."
Hamilton said a dive operator admonished him for extending a hand outside the shark cage while operating an underwater camera. It was explained that sharks can appear suddenly from underneath the cage and that extended appendages make inviting targets. Hamilton didn't have to be told twice.
"The biggest shark we saw was about 13 feet long and about 1,200 pounds," said Hamilton. "It is quite an awesome experience seeing them in that close proximity. They are an awesome creature."
Not all of the paying customers aboard the chartered shark boat climbed into the cage. Instead, they preferred to stay on the boat where the overhead view of sharks approaching was striking and unforgettable.
"People ask me if I'd do it again. I'd say no," remarked Hamilton.
The reason why is that the seasoned scuba diver said he would have preferred a more natural "dive" than just ducking below the surface of the water and looking through a mask. Still, he says, "being in such close proximity to such a magnificent predator was a unique experience," and one that he would recommend to others.
"I certainly would recommend doing a shark dive," said Hamilton. "Everything was first-class, quite an operation."
Much of the preparation prior to the shark dive focused on the need to continually study great white sharks. Each shark that approaches dive boats is documented. Many have unique features that allow them to be identified on sight. Seven sharks that were encountered during Hamilton's trip were recognized by members of the crew.
"They emphasize studying sharks, raising awareness of sharks," stated Hamilton. "They were very, very emphatic about not feeding sharks. If you reached out and touched one they would jerk you right out of the cage."
Pressure from the "green" movement is cited as the main reason that scuba is no longer an option on commercial shark dives.
"There are those who don't want to see any interaction between humans and animals," said Hamilton. "There's a lot of controversy about the whole shark thing. It might be coming to an end. It would be a huge financial loss for the people of Gansbaai."
Some proponents of ending shark dives make the claim that great white sharks are becoming endangered, or are already endangered. However, notes Hamilton, "no one really knows how many there are. Just don't have shark fin soup tonight."
West Cape region
In addition to shark diving, whale watching is another superb experience available at Gansbaai. Whale watching in that region is often referred to as spectacular. Hamilton describes Gansbaai as a picturesque collection of cottage-like homes that are all freshly painted and neatly arranged in a community without a visible speck of garbage anywhere.
"The whole area is just very beautiful. The southern cape region is very different from the rest of Africa," said Hamilton. "It is an absolutely beautiful part of the world. I was struck by that."