Encounters with a great white shark: Do something “scary”, it will change your life

22 March 2012 | Jillian Grindley-Ferris

Hi, my name is Jill and I have a confession to make: I’m 38 and … I’m scared of fish! A hair-raising snorkelling incident of 10 years ago in the Phi Phi Islands (Thailand) left me so badly scarred (mentally) that my skin crawls at the mere mention of submersion into the ocean realm.

Over the years, this irrational fear has kept me out of the ocean, negatively impacting on my honeymoon in Mauritius when I refused point blank to participate in any of the island’s many diving opportunities and robbing me of countless opportunities to snorkel with my kids on our holidays along the Cape South Coast.

It’s become something of a joke that as the person responsible for marketing and positioning the Two Oceans Aquarium over the past 14 years to hundreds of thousands of people on an annual basis, I nurtured this innate fear of the animals I was tasked with promoting.

But that all changed today when a very generous invitation from Wilfred Chival, owner of Marine Dynamics (a shark and whale-viewing boat operator off Kleinbaai) resulted in the management team of the Aquarium and a motley crew of international tourists setting off in Marine Dynamics’ new catamaran, Slashfin, for Dyser Island to witness great white sharks in their natural habitat.

This would be my third time out to the island but on both occasions I remained respectfully positioned on the top deck admiring the courage (while secretly questioning the sanity) of the visitors (most of whom consist of hormonally driven adrenalin-junkie students who, as we well know – having been there ourselves – will do almost anything to prove their invulnerability) prepare to don wetsuits and get into the cage.

But on this trip I would no longer be granted the opportunity to sit back. The collective whining and cajoling of my fellow colleagues had me suited up in a wetsuit before I knew what was happening!

Like my mood, the day started off grey and overcast. A briefing session by one of Marine Dynamics’ young and passionate marine biologists, Nick, remindes us about the great white sharks’ superior ability to use its very large teeth.

Every nautical mile closer to the island had me shrinking further and further into my wetsuit in the vain hope that if I applied the principal (used so successfully as a toddler) of “If I don’t see you, you won’t see me”, I’d somehow escape this trip with my dignity and limbs intact.

Now let’s get this straight: you don’t gather the meaning of the word “great” in relation to these magnificent animals until you’re in a boat that in some cases is a mere metre or two larger than the animal itself.

Some of the larger animals have girth sizes equivalent to giant nuclear warheads and, make no mistake, within this kelp menagerie these animals are the alpha and, for some poor seals, the omega.

No sooner had we anchored than two of my colleagues became violently seasick, affording them the opportunity to be shuttled back to the safety of the guesthouse. As I watched them boarding the relief vessel, pale and disappointed in stark contrast to the joy of the group of students bopping up and down in the cage, I realised I had a choice to make: I could either take advantage of this amazing opportunity, or feign illness and head home.

I chose to live dangerously and when I emerged, spellbound and in awe, from the cage an hour later (having been supported every step of the way by my colleagues and the super-professional crew) having seen four great whites as close as sanity allows glide gracefully past the cage, I knew that I would never again allow my mind to dictate when unforgettable memories were ripe for the picking.

I’d like to thank my colleagues for pushing my boundaries, and for supporting me and Wilfred and his super-crew from Marine Dynamics for this amazing opportunity.

2012 IAC field trip: Marine Dynamics shark cage diving

Delegates of the 2012 IAC are invited to go shark cage diving with Marine Dynamics. Marine Dynamics operates from Gansbaai (Western Cape, South Africa), a world hotspot for the great white shark. You will experience an incredible cage-diving adventure onboard the custom-designed Marine Dynamics boat, Slashfin (named after one of their visiting sharks).

Click here to find out more about the great field trips available for 2012 IAC delegates.

Click here to learn more about day trips in and around Cape Town being offered to 2012 IAC delegates.

Click here to learn more about pre- and post-congress tours.

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  • Author: Jillian Grindley-Ferris
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