Written by Keith Bain
Gays Brave The Deep, Dark Depths Of Shark-Infested Waters…For Fun!
As I steel myself on the edge of the little concrete slipway, it makes me queasy to think that I’m about to voluntarily suit up for time in the freezing Atlantic Ocean. Instinct tells me that I’m nervous for the wrong reasons: It’s the wet suit I’m worried about, not the fact that these waters are shark-infested.
Apart from the voyeuristic thrill of watching surfers peel them from their bodies, wet suits are my nemesis. Squeezing into them is pure torture. Sadly, for prolonged spells in the Atlantic, they’re also a necessary evil.
In spite of the claustrophobia to come, I stand mesmerized by the glimmering water, dark and choppy beneath low, threatening clouds. Tiny fishing vessels bob about in the foreground, and screeching sea gulls add a dash of Hitchcock overhead—all in all, an atmospheric buildup to a seafaring adventure. Resigned to my fate, I suck down lungfuls of air scented with salt and pending rain. Back in Cape Town—a three-hour drive away, beyond tranquil wine-growing valleys and easy mountain passes—the storm has broken, and it’s pressing this way.
I’m in Kleinbaai (literally “small bay”), a quaint, quiet fishing village of kitsch-modern houses that’s had a new lease on life as the self-proclaimed shark-cage-diving capital of the world. Boats are waiting to transport us to eyeball one of the most ancient and feared creatures on the planet.
Prince Harry has done this trip, as have various kings, sheiks and a bunch of Hollywood heartthrobs from DiCaprio to Pitt, but today’s outing is meant to be the first-ever attempt to dunk a pair of drag queens into shark-infested waters, part of a publicity stunt to promote the South African gay flag. “We’re going to find out whether or not sharks are homophobic,” the flag’s designers have told me.
Right now, though, the queens are missing in action, perhaps dragging their heels after a late night of village shenanigans. Or perhaps delayed by a fear of what lies in wait out at sea.
Alas, even after our prelaunch briefing, there’s no sign of them. We make limp excuses as the boat captain shakes his head at the menacing weather tumbling in from the west. Rather than let the tardy queens scupper our trip, he shepherds us onto his boat and we’re on our way.
In lieu of drag queens, it’s just us three gays—myself and the flag designers—among the thrill-seeking tourists and swarthy seamen. We’re headed for “Shark Alley.” It’s near Dyer Island, an offshore breeding colony attracting globe-trotting sharks for their favorite high-energy snack: seal pups. Proximity of the feeding zone to the boat launch makes Kleinbaai a utopia for predator enthusiasts. In some parts of the world, it takes hours to get to shark dive sites. Here, the trip is 20 minutes. Viewing is best between May and November when blubbery young seals venture into the water and Shark Alley becomes a veritable fast-food swim-thru.
There is nothing glamorous about shark-cage diving; we’re briefed on vomiting etiquette, told to do it over the side rather than in the glove compartment of a toilet stall. Worse than the motion of the ocean, though, is the smell of shredded tuna and fish blood used to grab the sharks’ attention. With a massive 18 percent of their brain mass taken up by the olfactory bulb, sharks rely heavily on smell, and pick up anything unusual, be it blood or pee. They should come to us, curious about the odor
of the “chum” used to create a scent slick in the water.
It’s possible to free-dive with tiger sharks, scuba with cow sharks and snorkel casually with gentle whale sharks. I’ve long ago swum with ragged-tooth sharks in the warm Indian Ocean off South Africa’s east coast, but the great white—Carcharodon carcharias—remains perilously unpredictable. Reaching 20 feet (some records suggest double this) and weighing as much as two tons, it’s an unparalleled apex predator, topping the ocean food chain thanks to its ambushing skill. Yet because of the vastness of its habitat, it’s able to appear almost imperceptibly—a great shadowy darkness creeping silently through the water, preferring to take prey by surprise from below, usually at high speed.
For more on Cage Monsters, pick up the June/July double issue of Instinct—out now!