It is the morning of our first South African dive. I have been anticipating the dive with mixed emotions – there is a bit of nervousness and excitement both rumbling around my body and this is normal for me. We go to the dive center where they size us up for the usual BCD vest and regulator (the apparatus that allows us to breathe underwater), but additionally, we get long wetsuits, booties, gloves, and a second layer wetsuit with a hood– this will be a colder experience than usual for us.
Our group of nine wet suit clad scuba divers walk along the road a short distance in the hot sun toward the beach where the Zodiac (a rigid inflatable boat) is waiting in the shallow water. Our captain Graham helps us in and we speed over the waves of False Bay toward our first dive. I can feel myself tensing as we slam through the choppy water (thankfully, there are straps on the floor to slide at least one foot in to prevent us from being thrown into the sea) and I remind myself to stop resisting, breathe, relax, and experience the moment.
As the boat slows, there is a conspicuous and pungent odor in the air and I realize we are nearing the seals. There are hundreds of them sunbathing on the rocks. It is time to strap on the weight belt and tank and backflip into the water. So far, so good. The divers all start to descend on the dive master Almos’ direction and we gather at the bottom (a shallow dive of about 18 meters). The water is a bit murky, but it is possible to see my dive buddy Chris and some fish. It is at about this time that I realize that I am sucking in water. I start to panic as I cannot clear my regulator and I am swallowing more water – the only thing I can think of is to make it to the top where I can breathe, so of course, I do what I shouldn’t and bolt up. I get to the top and inflate my BCD saying and thinking “I just can’t do this!!” Graham quickly makes his way over to me, drags me (ungracefully – I feel like a seal!) into the Zodiac where I start to regain my composure. There is a little girl in the boat trying to get the gumption up to snorkel with her dad and sister; she is crying and I think I’ve just scared the shit out of her so I tell her not to be afraid – that I just had a problem and it is really a very cool experience and I reiterate that she shouldn’t be afraid (good advice, Beth – why don’t you listen to yourself….). There is another dive master Eddie with the snorkelers; he helps calm me and invites me back into the water to snorkel with his small group. I jump back in and swim toward the sunbathing, slick-backed furry, barking seals determined to have my seal experience. The playful seals wiggle their way off of the rock, twirl into the water, gaze at you with their big doe-eyes, pointy face and small ears, roll around, dive down deep and just generally goof around. So much fun!
Finally we get back into the boat and are heading toward the second dive. I’ve already told Chris to not even THINK about trying to talk me into getting back in (in my mind, I will never dive again). Almos says, “Chris, Sherrie will be your buddy “ (Sherrie is an Australian PhD student studying marine biology – specifically sharks – who also helps me get my shit together as we approach the second dive); “come on, Beth, you will be my buddy!” Next thing I know I have a full tank on my back and I am flipping back into the water again! We descend this time using the sturdy kelp to pull ourselves lower, and I am holding on tightly to Almos’ hand (I never let him go until our ascent – although I eventually loosen up). We are told to be as still as we can because we are trying to see sharks; they will not approach if there is a lot of flailing going on. Almos and I lead, gently pushing the kelp stalks and their brownish slippery leaves to clear our path; he frequently checks in with me and I give him the a-okay signal. The water is cold and not as clear as the tropical waters I have been in. Suddenly, Almos squeezes my hand and points. I see a dark mass coming toward us and there – right there – directly face to face – is a massive Cow Shark. I hold still, look, breathe and he gracefully and non-aggressively glides away. This shark has smooth light grey skin, a protruding but blunt nose and small eyes; the sharks we encountered were about 10 feet in length. We see many Cow Sharks as well as the Puffadder Shy Shark who hides in the crevices between the rocks and also a Leopard Cat Shark (these two varieties are quite small). We see bright orange Red Roman Fish, schools of blue-ish silvery Strepie Fish, yellowy-orange starfish, and colorful sea urchins as we make our way through the kelp forest. Our dive lasts about 40 minutes and by the end of it, the cold is giving us leg cramps.
Click here to see a video of the shark:
When it is time to ascend, we all hold onto the kelp for our three minute safety stop, surface, take off our mouth pieces, and react to this exhilarating experience. WOW!!!
I am thankful that I did not give up!