Shark Diver

Gansbaai, South Africa. 

Gansbaai, South Africa. 

The weather is the first indicator that I’m screwed. The rain is slamming into the pavement and streams of collected droplets are gushing and wiggling down the van windows. I force myself to stare at the ocean—the color is caught between grey and black as the clouds surge forward and sideways, revealing slants of sunlight only occasionally. The waves are unsynchronized, toppling over one another like confused and desperate fish caught in a net.

I slide out of the van and am careful to avoid stepping in the 2-inch deep puddles below me. I hitch up the bottoms of my navy velour sweatpants and tiptoe toward the storefront. My Vans are soaked by the time I walk through the door.

Gansbaai Shark Diving is clean and minimal. There are white walls and aqua wooden benches placed in front of a flat screen TV on one side of the room. On the other side is a table with bowls of clementines, slices of bread and other pastries, and tea and coffee. I grab a clementine and take a seat as the boat drivers and instructors introduce themselves. There are framed photos of past clients lining the tops of the walls. A handful of impressive celebrities have been here—Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Blake Lively—though clearly not during winter because the sky is blue and the ocean is glassy in each photo. You lucky SOBs, I think.

After we listen to informational lectures and videos, the boat drivers give us the go-ahead to use the toilets one last time and begin making our way to the dock. I dart out of the store and down the road to an apparel shop where I pay the equivalent of $50 in Rand to purchase a puffy charcoal waterproof windbreaker with a hood and zippered pockets. It reads SHARK DIVER under the collar. I instantly feel more prepared for the storm.

I position myself on the top outer deck of the boat thinking that a healthy exposure to air (read: 25mph winds and heavy rain) and a view of the ocean will curb my seasickness. Within minutes, I’m drenched. My velvet sweatpants look like wet dog fur wrapped around my legs, but my upper body is snug in my SHARK DIVER gear. I take approximately two blurred photos of the churning water before the boat crests a wave and I slip forward and bang my elbow into the metal side rail. I tuck my camera into the depths of my purse, shove my purse beneath my jacket, and clutch my bulging middle with my left hand while holding onto the rail with my right.

Each wave looms toward us—growing walls of murky green, the kind of green that fills the lobster tanks at two-star Japanese restaurants. I note the way the boat captain navigates through the water, never steering around the waves but cutting through them from the side to reduce their impact. Even done this way, the impact is extreme. Each time we slice through a wave, the boat teeters on the high point then falls a few feet and smacks the ocean hard, sending torrents of water splashing on deck. The way the waves reform and surface is like the arcade game where you bop a frog on the head and it pops up again: maddening and impossible to beat.

I’m the last one remaining on the top deck and I only last about twenty minutes before I scurry down the slippery white stairs—my water-logged sneakers squeaking as I go—and take a seat next to my friends, shivering with dripping hair. It takes us a bit over an hour to reach Shark Alley, a longer than usual ride because of the foul weather. Shark Alley is a strip of several miles of algae-covered sea located between Dyer Island (home to thousands of tasty seals) and Geyser Rock. 

The boat tips back and forth once the anchor is dropped and it occurs to me that not moving might actually be worse than moving.

With every rocking motion I become increasingly aware of nausea permeating my every vein, organ, and pore. It’s the kind of feeling that creeps through your bones and stomach and hovers there, waiting for a trigger. You go in defense mode and try to assuage it by refusing to twitch even your pinky finger. You sit still and breathe and stare ahead lest a sudden sway or slosh should cause the nausea to reach an uncontainable point and overflow.

Four and a half hours pass in Shark Alley as I sit in the back of the boat with my arms around my knees. I see the black twelve-foot shadows beneath the surface next to us and can summon no additional reaction besides “Oh.” I watch through tilted vision as friends of mine change into wetsuits, don snorkel masks, and climb into the rectangular cage attached to the boat’s side. I hear excited shouts. Someone shoves a Go-Pro in front of my face to show me an eleven second underwater video of a Great White dorsal fin emerging from the blurry darkness. I politely resist encouragements to change into a wetsuit—a stumbling feat that makes me sick to even consider. The boat captain opens my curled fingers and sticks a peppermint lollipop inside them: “Suck on that lolly and you’ll be feeling better in no time.” I nod then don’t unwrap it. Three people puke over the boat railing then declare relief as I glare in envy. Self-pity tears and rainwater mingle on my cheeks.

Despite several instances where I swear the boat almost capsized, the ride back to shore passes quickly. I mentally kiss the street as I walk hunched and with slow, small steps back up the hill to the store. The storeowner greets us with bowls of hot lentil soup and we congregate around the benches, dripping water on the floor and spooning bites of mashed goodness into our mouths with pruned, shaking hands.

I stay quiet as everyone else recounts stories of seeing the sharks up close. It’s only once I thaw out a bit and select a spot on the van that the full weight of me going shark diving and not actually diving with sharks sets in. I paid a hefty sum to drive almost six hours round-trip to one of South Africa’s most prestigious shark diving companies, listen to radical shark tales and learn how to interact with the formidable animals, and spend an entire day on the water only to sit in the corner of the boat giving monosyllabic responses to everyone’s concerned questions and feeling sorry for myself for not following through with the one activity I wanted to do most in this country.

Full mind and body exhaustion prevents me from renewing my tears at this realization. I pull my jacket sleeves so they cover my hands and glance down at the arm embroidery. It says GANSBAAI, SOUTH AFRICA in raised stitching with a little colored South African flag. I shut my eyes. At least I got the windbreaker, I think. 



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