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I had never been more confident. I was alone in a restaurant with my book, laptop, and belongings spread across the table. I was 20 years old and had been living in Cape Town, South Africa for the past 5 months. I had come a long way from the girl who spent the first 18 years of her life in Texas. I was taking classes with students from around the world and learning all about who I wanted to be in the process. I had been on safaris in Kruger National Park, driven up the South African Coast on the Garden Route, and hiked up Table Mountain to see a sunrise. My list of things I wanted to do and see was never-ending, and I was running out of time before I had to return to the states.
Right at the top of my list was diving with sharks in one of Discovery’s top Shark Week cities.
Tomorrow was the day. I was going with a friend, Lainey, who I had met in Cape Town. We needed to wake up at 3 a.m., so I packed up my stuff in the restaurant and took the train to Lainey’s house for the night. Instead of going to sleep, we spent the night watching shark videos on YouTube and reading about the deadliest varieties. There wasn’t so much fear in me as there was eagerness and anxiousness. I knew I could do it. I knew I would follow through.
Our alarms rang the next morning, and I looked outside. It was cold, the sun wasn’t yet peeking over the mountains, and all was quiet. It was somewhat eerie for the busy city that is usually Cape Town. We were giddy and got ready in what felt like no time. On the ride, Lainey immediately fell asleep, but all I could think about was where I was going to be in 2 hours: In a cage. In the middle of the ocean. With sharks surrounding me.
When we arrived, after all the formalities and paperwork, they explained to us exactly what was going to happen. We were going an hour out on a boat and we’d be dragging chum — basically a hodgepodge of fish and guts. Then we were going to sit quietly, and the chum would attract sharks to us. During this downtime, we would all change into wetsuits and watch. Once the sharks were spotted, we would get in a cage and they would lower us. It was that easy.
We were told the water temperature was so cold the only sharks in this area would be Great Whites. All I heard was Great Whites, and all I could picture were the videos we watched the night before.
The next thing I knew, we were on the way. The ride was the mostly fun and relaxing. We watched the sun come up over the ocean. Instead of being scared, I spent my time throwing fish to the birds and laughing as they caught it mid-flight.
Suddenly, we stopped and all was silent. We took turns putting on wetsuits and helping each other with gear. I felt fine because they had told me exactly what was going to happen and because I had tasks to keep me busy.
It was almost surreal, hearing one of the guides say, “First shark spotted! Port side!” We all rushed to the left side of the boat and looked out. Sure enough, a Great White was approaching us. Then she stopped. (I only know it was a female because the guides told us so.) It was weird — at first I thought she was scared of us and as going to swim away. But then she immediately started to circle our boat, with each circle getting closer.
More sharks spotted. They too circled us. They weren’t scared, but suddenly I was. Very much so.
No one told me the sharks were going to circle us like this. No one told me I would be so close I could smell them approaching. Maybe I wasn’t going to follow through after all. I started to feel like seeing them from the boat was good enough.
“Time to load the cage with the first group,” someone shouted from what seemed like really far away. I froze, completely forgetting that Lainey and I had volunteered to be a part of the first group. I was thinking, No way. You want me to get into that cage? The cage the sharks are currently circling? I was ushered to the cage and given the rest of my gear. Sit and put your feet in first, grab the handle, and slide down: I remembered those instructions from earlier, and I kept repeating them to myself to keep calm.
The water was icy, even with the wetsuit on. I was shaking and couldn’t tell if it was the temperature or fear or both. Before we were lowered, the guide looked at me specifically and asked if I was OK. I couldn’t get an answer out. I couldn’t speak, I couldn’t nod. The sharks were getting closer, and I was so freaking cold.
“Pee!” he yelled at me.
“Pee right now!” he was shouting while the three other people in the cage and everyone still on the boat were staring at me.
Before I knew it, there was warmth running down my wetsuit and also floating up into it. I was peeing, and I was positive by the looks of it the other people in the cage knew it.
It was calming and warm and I didn’t have time to be embarrassed. We were now underwater, and I needed to focus on breathing. Everything started shaking and the water was moving quickly. The sharks were taking turns biting and rocking the cage, trying to figure out what we were and how to get closer. I was holding onto the handles inside and everything was clenched.
Then, it all stopped.
The sharks started swimming slowly around us, taking turns passing the cage in circles. They moved so slow, I could count the teeth in their open mouths. The view was clear as day, and I could see scars on their faces and fins. As one passed me, I had an urge to stick out my arm and touch it.
Time flew by and the cage started to rise. This startled the sharks into a frenzy, and I immediately realized my fear again. They were going to get inside, I knew it.
I peed again. It worked like before, and I felt my heartbeat slow down and caught my breath. As we were still lifting up in the cage, I suddenly felt more warmth, except this time it wasn’t coming from me. Someone else was peeing.
When I was warm, dry, and back on the boat, the guide who told me to pee approached me. He asked how it was and I struggled to put into words how unbelievable the experience had been.
He looked at me and laughed while asking, “Did you pee?” I was mortified, which gave away my answer without a word. He said, “Better to pee your pants and have the experience than to have to be pulled out, am I right?”
I couldn’t agree more. I still think about that guide and what he said. Whenever I am nervous about a situation or too afraid to try something new for fear of embarrassment, I remember peeing my wetsuit. In the end, my shark cage diving didn’t go exactly as planned. Let’s be honest — I panicked and peed myself. But looking back, I don’t care at all, because what’s important is that is happened — I went shark cage diving in South Africa.