where giants sleep

A recent diving trip to Sodwana Bay offered a lifetime first for me – diving with sharks.

I’ve never been afraid of sharks. Maybe it’s because I fully understand the odds of being attacked by one or maybe it’s because I’ve studied them since childhood, appreciate their true natures and find them fascinating. That being said, until recently, I’d never been in the presence of large sharks; “real sharks” as I affectionately refer to them.

When we arrived for dive planning on the eve of our first dive of the holiday, the lodge was abuzz with talk about 50+ Ragged-Tooth sharks who were being seen all the way from 5-mile reef to 9-mile reef. Needless to say, we booked our spot on a 7-mile dive the very next morning.

dun-uh…dun-uh…dun-uh Descending upon the gorgeous 7-mile reef after a fairly long and bumpy boat ride, the sharks completely left my thoughts as I soaked in the scenery around me. The reef is teeming with life dotted all around impressive coral structures. There was so much to see but this was a deeper dive which means bottom time is limited and we needed to keep an eye on our no-deco time. Finally, at the very end of the dive and far off into the distance, a shark made an appearance. My lack of excitement surprised me – perhaps it was because she wasn’t fully visible or perhaps because it was at the very end of the dive when my core temperature had plummeted to the brink of hypothermia. (I’m the guy that dives in 28 degree water with a hoodie, 5mm wetsuit plus a fireskin and is still freezing 20 minutes in.)

mommy shark meets angry bird (Photo credit: Gerard Browne)

take 2 After taking in the sights and sounds of closer reefs the day before, we decided to give 7-mile another go in the hopes that we would get a closer look at these beauties. Once again, we were at the mercy of our no-deco limit and bottom time was limited. Mr Wild had already surfaced as the dive was nearing its end but I opted to stick with the group for a little longer – the effort paid off. At 8 minutes to deco, two giants appeared out of the blue. Not more than 5m away from me and swimming slowly through a crevasse. So in awe was I of this sight that, I’m ashamed to admit, I lost track of my dive computer’s readings and had to do a deep stop as well as the normal 5m safety stop. I may have slightly annoyed our divemaster, Chester, but it was worth it!

in the presence of giants On what was supposed to be our last day of diving, we opted to visit 9-mile reef. Not really for the possibility of spotting more sharks but because it’s one of our favourite areas. This reef is renowned for its structure and variety of sea life and, of course, the famous “green tree” coral that serves as the landmark and drop point for every dive on this reef.

Descending at a snail’s pace due to equalisation issues, I was way behind the group when I looked down and saw that we were dropping right onto a group of raggies swimming close to the sand. They were circling underneath us and not changing course which meant that we would be practically in the middle of their figure-of-eight swimming pattern and the chances of getting close was very high.

Photo credit: Gerard Browne

By the time I had levelled out at green tree, the rest of the group was on the sand patch below, waiting, and I was frozen for a moment - not sure whether I should descend further or stay in place. The reason for my hesitation was that a 2m raggie was cruising at eye level straight for me. Most people think I’m crazy for staying put in that situation but I really wanted to see how close she would get – hoping she would come close enough for me to view the algae that’s been growing on her teeth*.

Let me take a moment to explain why this scenario was completely safe for both myself and the shark. The raggies in the area this time of year are pregnant. Ordinarily you wouldn’t come across them in the reef system like this and they only hang around here when they’re breeding or just about ready to give birth. During the pregnancy they don’t eat* and have entered a semi-catatonic state where they are not fully awake. This strategy to lay their eggs in the reef systems helps to improve their pups’ chances of survival and also keeps the mothers safe from other predators during their most vulnerable time.

Photo credit: Gerard Browne

Back to me facing off with a 2m giant 16m underwater. Having fully assessed the risk to both the shark and myself, I decide to wait and see what happens. Seconds feel like an eternity as she creeps closer and closer until, at the very last minute, she realises that I’m there and darts away. At this point her tail makes a noise which sounds like a loud whip or small gunshot as she propels herself in the opposite direction. It’s at that point that I almost soil my wetsuit. My heart is now, finally, racing after swimming with the giants.

During the course of 12 dives, Chantelle also had the pleasure of swimming with dolphins in a completely natural environment along with seeing some amazing creatures on each dive. Check out all the pics in the gallery below.

Photo credit: Gerard Browne

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