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November 2010    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 36, No. 11   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Zen and the Art of Cageless Shark Diving

a rejoinder from Amos Nachoum

from the November, 2010 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

In September, we published an article in which Amos Nachoum was derided for letting divers leave their cage to dive with Great Whites off Guadalupe island in Baja California. Some operators called it an accident waiting to happen.

As an answer, Amos asked us to publish another piece about his diving with great whites in South Africa (written by Amos and Angela Schuster, it originally appeared in the Explorers Club Journal – June 2010). We agreed, but we also include a second piece that raises other issues about South Africa great white diving.

* * * * * *

Zen and the Art of Cageless Shark DivingI bring my breathing down to a mere 15 pounds an hour, as my pulse settles in at a steady 50 beats per minute. Nothing outside of the present moment lingers in my mind as I focus on the totality my surroundings. I am but ten meters down on the seafloor, relaxing in the relative comfort of a large steel cage. I am in Shark Alley off the coast of South Africa, where I have come with two fellow divers to observe the Great White on its own terms. The time has come for us to abandon our protective cocoon.

As I slowly open the gate and exit the cage, I spy a Great White, just to my right, his body scarred by seasons of spirited mating and encounters with other marine life. He glides through the water in front of me, barely noticing my presence or that of my fellow diver, who, like myself, is heavily laden with camera gear.

My motion is fluid, my view is crystal clear, and my heart light as I focus on the shark and its graceful movements and work to read its complex body language. For the Great White to trust me, I know I must first trust myself. Any self-doubt or apprehension is sure to compromise the mission ahead. After a passing glance, the shark comes in for a closer look. His curiosity sated, he moves on to more interesting targets.

Our view of sharks as hunters of human flesh has been skewed by films such as Jaws. To acquire such footage, it has been common practice to “chum the waters” with fetid fish remains to attract and then agitate the sharks into a feeding frenzy. It is exciting to watch, indeed, but a misrepresentation of normal shark behavior. Contrary to popular perception, humans are not on the menu, our bodies too bony and devoid of energy-rich fats. Most shark attacks, which average 100 a year—most non-fatal—are the result of mistaken identity or of test bites, that is a shark’s taking of a small sample to identify an object.

The Great White is gifted with a special “sixth sense”—a network of jelly-filled canals known as the ampullae of Lorenzini, which are linked to pores concentrated around the shark’s eyes, snout, and mouth—that enable it to detect electric fields generated by muscle contractions in other creatures and sense direction through electric fields ignited by ocean currents moving through Earth’s magnetic field.

I first entered the world of the Great White in 1982, while serving as a logistics expert for a National Geographic shark documentation project undertaken by Rodney Fox; Eugenie Clark, aka the “shark lady;” and photographer David Doubilet. Since then, I have ventured to South Australia annually to work with Fox, who in 1963 famously survived an attack from the Great White, which left much of his abdomen exposed and took 462 stitches to repair. Rather than resenting his attacker, Fox committed himself to learning all he could about the Great White, pioneering the use of a protective steel dive cage, which has afforded him hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of shark observation.

I also have had the opportunity to collaborate with legendary underwater filmmakers Al Giddings, Howard Hall, and Marty Snyderman—all of whom began working with the Great White “outside the cage.” In 1994, I began exploring the possibilities of diving with Great White in South Africa, working under the auspices of Shark Research Institute and in cooperation with South Africa’s leading sport fisherman, Andre Hartman. In time, we began carrying out dives in Shark Alley, located between the islands of Dyer and Geyser, where much important research has been carried out.

Our work with the Great White is governed by a few simple ground rules. We must have a minimum of 10 meters of visibility underwater; we operate in the company of a safety diver armed with a yardstick should a conflict arise; and we retreat from the area if more than two sharks come into view.

Dealing with sharks is all about attitude, not aggression, power, or strength. Diving with Great Whites require an unusual pairing of heightened awareness of all things around you and a zen calm and control over your mental and physical state. It is an ultimate expression of living in the moment. From diving and other experiences in my life—be it carrying out a mission as a military commando, racing motorcycles, or even falling in love—I have learned that a pounding heart is but an internal alarm that tells me it’s time to hold on, time to focus, and time get into the moment. For only then can I commit. Within seconds, I can relax, sensing lightness and a calm as I take comfort in the decisions I have made.

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