A new meaning to “Shark Week”

Few places in the world can parallel the epic beauty and adventure offered by the small costal town of Hermanus, South Africa.

My last workweek in South Africa was cut short by National Women’s Day, a public holiday in South Africa that fell on Friday, August 9. This holiday commemorates the 1956 women’s march in Pretoria against the apartheid government’s “pass laws” which required all Africans to carry special identification. There weren’t any big celebrations to my knowledge, so Luke and I drove 120 km down the coast to Hermanus for the long weekend.

When I say that we drove, we drove… on the wrong side of the road, on the wrong side of the car. Being more acclimated to the traffic climate here through taxi and bus rides, we were probably more prepared than my dad was, and we miraculously made it in one piece. Our accommodations at a backpackers hostel were modest, but nice. Perhaps, they were a little bit too modest because our car was broken into on the first night there. Welcome to Africa.

Being a world famous whale sanctuary, we directly headed to Hermanus’s whale rout to catch a glimpse at the massive creatures. The World Wildlife Fund even named Hermanus as one of the best 12 whale viewing sites in the world. Home to rocky cliffs that drop into deep water, whales can be viewed from the cliff tops directly below at close range. There is a path along these cliffs for a few miles that makes viewing the whales almost too easy, with periodic benches situated atop rocks with stunning panoramas of the brilliant blue water, mountains and cliffs. The most popular whale by far for sighting in Walker Bay is the Southern Right Whale.

I spent most of my time in Hermanus wandering along these pathways, sitting comfortably at a bench for twenty minutes at a time to be enthralled by the periodic spurts of water from the Southern Right Whales. At some places, the ocean remained smooth, without any whales to be seen. When this occurred, it was nice to merely sit and enjoy the vistas of the clear days with the deep blue water of the bay. Moving down the path for ten minutes there would then be up to five whales breaching, playing, and rolling in the water at a close proximity. Seeing it all, from fins, tales, spouts of water to full breaches I left with a full appreciation for the creatures, which are about 40 tons, and two tons at birth.

Feeling a little more adventurous, we picked up our paddles and took on the sea by kayak, hoping to spot some of our new enormous friends. Unfortunately our trip was one of the small minorities of groups not to see any whales up close and personal, but we did see seals. The seals lay in the kelp forests with one fin to the sky, blending in. With the water being so cold, this fin acts as a solar panel to warm the seal. We were able to paddle right up next to these friendly animals and observe them resting. Other than that, it was the perfect day to be out on the water, and despite not seeing any whales, the excursion was completely worth it.

The highlight of the weekend, by far, was being able to tick one box off of my bucket list during shark week. Gangsbaai, a costal town near Hermanus, is the great white shark capital of the world. Being PADI certified, I have seen sharks in the water before, not always on purpose, and definitely not too close. I have always been intrigued, and Discovery Channel’s shark week peaked that intrigue. Before I knew it, we were off, waivers for personal health damage signed, into the bay for a morning with the sharks.

The sharks that we dealt with were exclusively great white sharks, although there are many other species in the bay. This is because great whites are surface feeders so the boat more easily baits them. When we arrived at our location, which was close to Shark Alley and Dyer Island where there is an enormous colony of seals, we anchored and put on our wet suits. The crewmembers then “chummed” the water. The chum they used was fish blood and guts, the point being that they never feed the sharks. After this, they latched an enormous fish head to a rope to act as bait. It only took a few minutes for the sharks to come, and Luke and I were the first into the cage. The cage is attached to the boat, and at all times your head is above the water. When the crew sees a shark coming, they yell “DOWN DOWN DOWN” and you pop your head under the water for a close encounter with these salty predators.

The experience was unreal. I was inches away from the great whites as they swam right up to the cage aggressively, as they had just been baited. The water was unbelievably cold, but the experience trumped any discomfort. Witnessing the sharks from the boat was arguably more fascinating than watching them from the cage, because I could see them approaching, had a better view of their breaches, and could better understand their size. When the crew asked if anyone wanted to get back in the cage for a second time, I readily accepted. At the end it was only Luke and I in the cage (usually there are 5 people in the cage at a time) as we waited for the great whites. Ultimately we saw about 7 different sharks throughout the day, and many of them we were able to observe numerous times as they returned. The entire day was absolutely unforgettable, and I felt so lucky to have been given the opportunity.

**All photo credit to one of my beautiful best friends, Chelsea Jolly. My pictures left something to be desired, so enjoy hers for the full experience.

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