So there I am, at sea in the magical False Bay, home to South Africa’s famous “flying” sharks – as seen in many a popular Airjaws TV show – and my mouth is open, heart racing, and senses numbed as I have just had an encounter with a Great White Shark that I will never….ever…forget. I was out there filming for a new feature documentary, titled “Great White Shark Legend”, under the guidance of South Africa’s very own shark legend, Rob Lawrence, and his amazing crew at African Shark Eco-Charters. Rob not only pioneered the use of a fake seal decoy to encourage and film the “breaching” behaviour (where a shark actually thrusts its mammoth weight 6 feet or more from the water to surprise attack it’s prey of seals), but he has been to the world famous shark hotspot, Seal Island, more than any other human being on this planet. Period. He’s also heard the phrase “we’re gonna need a bigger boat” more than any human on the planet also!
He knows Great White Sharks in this part of the world like no other human alive – and today he was getting me close to the sharks. Very, very close indeed.
So we’ve been out since 6am; travelled the half an hour by moonlight to Seal Island; watched silently for signs of the morning predation activity; marvelled as the glorious Cape Town sun rises over the mountains and casts its golden hue on the swell of the water, the cold faces of the guests on board, and the also the frantic activity as the millions of years old gladiatorial battle between shark and seal ensues. Fins thrash, seals leap for their life, waves crash on the island rocks and cameras click like machine gun fire for that glimpse, that one shot, of an open mouth; a flash of teeth; a crimson splash; or maybe a smart seal winning the day and darting home for the safety of the rocks. Some people see this every morning of their lives for a job? It’s a beautiful and inspiring experience to get close to these apex predators in their natural habitat.
So it’s afternoon now, and we’ve anchored the boat, dropped the cage and begun to lower excited guests into the water. Yes, cage goes in the water. Yes, shark’s in the water. Our shark. (You know the lines…come on…you may as well start singing “Farewell and adieu to you fair Spanish ladies” now). Things have started to quieten down for us and I already have plenty of footage in the bag. I thought I had got as close as I could to these amazing animals for the day. Been waiting. Waiting. Whistling. Eating a veggie sandwich from the cooler box. Waiting some more.
I raise my camera from the water and start to power down. The silence is broken quickly as our divemaster Gary shouts that he has a shark right under the boat. “Bottom bait, bottom bait! Shark! Big one!”
Instinct kicks in and I immediately lower the camera back into the water to see the 4 metre Great White rising fast from the deep to the small bait which sits about 10 feet from the boat. But today, this day, the shark is not interested in the bait. It’s interested in that shiny piece of plastic and glass that I am holding a couple of feet away from me. It’s a diva and it wants its close up. Rising fast, missing the bait, it sees the camera and instantly turns towards it. I keep my cool and hold position, expecting the usual bump on the lens and a swim away. Not today.
The camera bumps the nose, twice. The mouth opens. It’s over the camera housing! I have no idea what I am supposed to do. No film school ever teaches you about THIS! It lowers it’s teeth and I actually feel and hear the clink against the camera casing. My mind is full of impossible thoughts in a second. What do I do? What if it wants it? Do I fight? Do I try to pull it back? What if it pulls me in?! Is any shot worth this?!
Having spent a few days at sea, and knowing the reality of these fish, I figure that the slightest scare and it will surely swim away in caution. So I gently pull back on the camera and feel the power of the sharks weight through my arms. It relaxes and swims away and I pull the camera to the surface. In my mind are several wild thoughts – “Did that just actually happen? Did I just feel the teeth of a Great White Shark on the camera I was attached to?” and more importantly “Did I press record?”. In my heart the adrenaline pumps, having come as close to a huge apex predator as any cameraman could want. In my ears the sound of divemaster Gary as he turned to me, laughed hard, and said “Dude! A Great White Shark shark just bit your camera!!”
The feature documentary “Great White Shark Legend” is in post-production and will be released early 2014 – but in the meantime you can see a short video that captures the magic of being at sea in False Bay on a shark boat, and yes, you can see the Great White Shark that tried to eat my camera. Enjoy!