ONE Dyer Island,
The Cape, South Africa
Were not just afraid of predators, were transfixed by them, prone to weave stories and fables and chatter endlessly about them, because fascination creates preparedness, and preparedness, survival. In a deeply tribal sense, we love our predators. E O Wilson
All those years reading about great white sharks; all the thousands of feet of film that have rolled past my glazed eyes on 100 TV sets; all the documentaries, the magazines, the glossy images. None of it has prepared me for my first sighting of a great white in the wild, that vast slate-grey back that appears magically and silently out of the gloom, a shadow that promises bulk and immense power, and yet moves with lithe grace.
In the water, cage or no cage, there is no mistaking who is the predator, and who the prey.
The sharks dont investigate you - they assess you. They look for an opening, a weakness. You are a potential food item being regally surveyed and then arrogantly dismissed.
It is day one of our epic journey, and what better place to start than in the cold waters of the Benguela Current off the coast of South Africas Cape. In the capable hands of Reon and Karin Coetzee of Dive South Safaris, we are working with local operators the White Shark Diving Co, and Marine Dynamics.
This combination of expertise and experience has put us in the right place at the right time. Within minutes of anchoring off Dyer Island, there is a great shout from the clients on the boat, followed by a stunned silence.
Looking into the oily surface of the water, we see an immense shadow only feet away, moving with effortless control. Our first great white has arrived.
We are in the company of Piet Smal and Andre Hartmann, among the best individuals around when it comes to getting clients and great whites into the same small piece of water.
By carefully examining conditions on the day, and slowly creating an irresistible chum slick, they draw the sharks away from their lazy patrols of the reefs around the island, and towards our boats. During the morning several individual sharks come to investigate the baits cautiously. Then, at midday, all hell breaks loose.
Our divemaster Coenie spots a fin breaking the surface in the middle distance, tracking back and forth across the chum line, but heading at some speed towards us. Ladies and gentlemen, he says, this fellow means business.
Hes not wrong. The shark boldly swims to the first bait, and then rolls past the boat, black eye peering at the team as we crowd the rail. Within seconds, another bigger shark arrives, then - what a sight - a third. The first divers enter the cage.
I am last to go in, and have to put up with a series of euphoric, head-shaking divers stumbling past me after their once-in-a-lifetime view of a great white under water.
Hands trembling with excitement, I don my weightbelt and slide into the hatch of the cage, scanning the middle distance wide-eyed. First theres nothing, then a shadow of sea water takes shape in the gloom, a dark eye over a sickle-shaped mouth, and the shark swims slowly past my cage.
The sheer bulk of a large great white under water beggars description. The girth seems absurd, hippo-like, powered through the water by a broad tail, tiny changes in angle and direction altered by the broad wings of black-tipped pectoral fins. It is tremendously graceful, but seems to quiver with suppressed power.
This show of easy elegance in the water doesnt fool me, an intuition that is reinforced when Coenie allows one of the sharks to take a bait. There is an explosion of foam and spray, a ferocious sawing of an immense head, then a hiss as the water settles on an empty ocean. Bait and shark - gone in a second. Unquestionably this was the greatest thrill of my diving career to date. I am cowed into silence as I climb back aboard the boat.
But there is so much more to this area than great whites. The sharks are here for the Cape fur seals, 60-90,000 of them on the island, filling the air with a high-pitched din of bellows and calls, and with a stench that can be whiffed a mile away.
Reon leads us to a small clearing within the kelp, an area of sugar-white sand in an amphitheatre of tall kelp stalks.
The locals tell us that the sharks will not penetrate here, as it is far too shallow at around 7m and the kelp too dense, giving them no time to gain momentum for the powerful rush of a fatal ambush. The seals know it, too, and within minutes of anchoring the water seethes with golden-brown bodies.
Rolling off the boat, I am immediately surrounded by darting, wide-eyed, twisting forms. Settling on the bottom, I look up to see the rest of the team being serenaded by their own entourage of playful seals, performing pirouettes and fly-bys, nibbling fins and blowing bubbles.
The hour that follows is remarkable, and we all emerge exhausted by endless tag partners and acrobatic dive buddies.
As a finale, Reon takes us the next day to a local reef famous for its cat sharks. This small, mottled species can be gently handled, and is something of a contrast to its powerful relative of the day before. The sharks swim over reefs that are a bright patchwork of sponges and anemones, alive with crabs and crayfish and with octopus in some of the darker nooks and crannies.
As we leave the Cape, the impression is of an area rich in life. The waters are cold, full of oxygen and nutrients, and have created an environment where both large and small flourish. The dive operators with whom we worked care passionately about the animals they see day to day, and regard it as a solemn duty to maintain local reefs in their present pristine condition.
The Full Circle Expedition has begun, and what a reception South Africa and the Cape have given our team. The dark gullies and raggedtooth sharks of Aliwal Shoal awaitÃƒ
TWO Aliwal Shoal, South Africa
The first thing that hits you is the surf. You hear the beach before you see it, and as the team arrives in the evening, we have to spend a sleepless night listening to several thousand tons of water a second smashing into our launch point for early the next morning.
Dawn sees a group of hollow-eyed divers gathered on the beach in a fine drizzle, staring slack-jawed at serried ranks of white horses charging towards us atop crackling green breakers. We climb into the RIB, hear the outboards cough into life, slip our feet into the straps, and ask ourselves if its all worth it.
Aliwal Shoal is a mountain of sandstone that juts into the warm conveyor belt of the Agulhas Current, 5 miles off the shores of the town of Umkomaas in Natal. This current has a significant effect on the climate of the area, and there is a hint of the tropical about the place.
Take a breath and the air is warm and rich - like breathing in damp fruitcake. This current extends the range of the tropical species south from northern Natal and Mozambique, although there is also a mix of temperate species in the area. The Shoal itself is a highway cafÃ… in the three-lane migratory expressway of the current, a stopping-off point where predators feed, and smaller species take refuge.
Because the predominant rock of the shoal is sandstone, the passage of the current and the muscular Indian Ocean swell has created a labyrinth of gullies and tunnels, crags and fissures. The result is a spooky reef rich in life, with endless dark hideaways guarded by various toothy sentinels.
The most famous of these, and the primary reason that the shoal has a worldwide reputation among divers, are the raggedtooth sharks. These magnificent animals grow to 3m, and are every childs nightmare image of a shark.
They have the capacity to pump air over their gills, as well as gulping air into a swim-bladder, and this gives them the ability to hover motionless in the water, occasionally making slow turns around their immediate vicinity.
Matt Dicken, a marine biologist studying the sharks, tells me a little more about them.
These are ambush predators. he enthuses. They lurk in gullies and caverns on the reef, and wait for a prey item to pass within range. They strike with a tremendously rapid sideways motion of the head, and use their perfectly adapted teeth to grip a slippery twisting fish.
These teeth are hooked like crooked fingers, and are crammed into a mouth that can pass within inches of you on a dive. Theyre a slow-moving and generally benign species but theyre not to be underestimated, Matt continues. Theyve been implicated in a number of incidents where visibility is limited, and mistaken identity is thought to be a factor.
Armed with slightly more knowledge than I require, I listen particularly attentively to Reons brief the next morning.
We are the guests of Aliwal Dive Charters, a well-established operation which runs four RIBs from the beach with commendable efficiency. Its skipper stands by, casually surveying the spin-cycle of the launch without batting a sun-browned eye.
Today we will visit Raggie Cave, a cavern thats a classic spot for the raggies, says Reon. Stay still, stay calm, and let the sharks come to you.
With that we climb aboard the RIB, bracing ourselves for the Nantucket sleighride ahead. This has to be one of the most extreme surf launches in the world, but the skippers are wonderfully competent. They play cat and mouse with the waves, running parallel to the biggest breakers, seeking an opening and then darting through, their hulls crashing into the back of a wave with an audible smack, the engines howling as they grip the foaming water for the next full-on charge.
Aliwal Shoal is an unusual dive site in that I would recommend travelling thousands of miles to get here just for the trip to the reef!
I am dripping several gallons of seawater, and with a confused computer telling me that my dive may well have started when the RIB took the first wave, as we speed for 25 minutes to the reef. Kitting up in a RIB rolling sickeningly in the oily swells proves as emotional here as anywhere else in the world, but soon, feeling slightly green around the gills, we are ready to dive.
A barked Three, two, one, GO from the skipper, and were away. Fourteen bottoms point skywards, 28 fins waggle in mid-air, and our Aliwal Shoal experience has begun.
The reef is a bewildering combination of rocks and soft corals, sponges and sea fans. The sea floor itself looks confused, caught between the tropical and temperate.
The swell extends all the way to the bottom, and dives can be thrilling as one soars through arches and gullies, and is whisked around pinnacles and crags. The topography looks as if it should be the home of spectacular, charismatic species, and after 20 minutes we meet our first.
Arriving at the Raggie Cave, we follow Reons instructions and settle slowly to the sandy floor. Peering into the cavern, we see the wondrous sight of five large sharks hovering motionless in the current. As moments pass, they drift towards our group of wide-eyed divers until they are in among us, and our vision is filled with dappled skin, cat-like eyes and gaping mouths.
They seem naturally curious, and will pass breathtakingly close if you stay completely still. On occasion, divers in the group even have to lower their heads, grovelling in the sand as sharks drift inches over their prostrate forms.
This first dive is symbolic of the remainder of the week, all preceded by a white-knuckle ride through the surf that is never anything less than wildly exhilarating. The sharks are not the only big animals on the reef, and the team experiences encounters with dolphins, turtles, and - unforgettably as we ride home from a dive - a humpback whale and calf.
On the second day, our skipper informs us that he saw a great white on the surface above our bubbles as we drifted, blissfully unaware, on the reef below. The result is a quieter trip home than normal from a group still wide-eyed from our encounters in the Cape.
Our South African phase is over. The impression is of wild diving: big predators, bigger waves, adrenalin and adventure.
THREE Lake Malawi, Malawi
Island time: the whisper of the waves against white sand, the creak of a hammock, the steady hum of cicadas, the distant shriek of a hunting fish eagle.
The team arrives in Malawi somewhat shell-shocked after the rigours of Aliwal Shoal, looking for a place to recharge physiological batteries and enjoy diving beyond the reach of roaring currents and hissing breakers. The Lake Malawi National Park fits the bill perfectly, with the haven of the islands of Domwe and Mumbo, home to Kayak Africas exquisite base camps, a perfect balm for shattered nerves.
Although the surface of the lake is mirror-like when we arrive, below all this tranquillity is a fascinating secret. Here lurk the cichlids, a remarkable family of fish that has evolved, adapted and overcome competitors galore to dominate virtually every biological niche in the lake.
The lake is the 11th largest in the world, 370 miles long and 640m deep. Although this is a substantial body of water, it is still remarkable that this relatively small area of the planets surface contains more freshwater fish species than in Europe and North America combined.
There are about 600 species of cichlid in the lake known to science, though new ones are discovered every year, and the real number is thought to be closer to 1000. These species are in constant flux in an arms race that mostly takes place in the first 90m of the lakes considerable depth. Cichlids are grazers and predators, scavengers and ambushers.
The only characteristic that they all seem to share is a propensity for mouth-brooding (only one species doesnt), and a strong leaning towards being gloriously technicoloured.
The latter makes diving in the lake uncannily similar to diving in an aquarium, with rounded boulders, waving tendrils of aquatic plants, white sands and the attendant swarms of riotously coloured fish.
The lake is also home to several other fish species, including seven types of catfish. The largest of these is the bombe catfish, 30kg of bewhiskered blackness lurking in the lakes depths and occasionally glimpsed in the caves beneath massive boulders, half-fish, half-shadow.
Overhead wheel fish-eagles, and in the lakes margins are two species of otters. Throw in the promise of hippos and crocodiles (although they are rarely, if ever, seen around the islands in the National Park) and you have a truly different diving experience.
It is difficult to describe just how remote and tranquil the island camps are. Housing only 10 guests on each island, the lodges are beautifully contoured into the rocks and undergrowth. The sand of the beach shimmers under the African sun, and the wavelets that lazily flop onto the shore are crystal clear.
In the shallows, cichlids occasionally flash a silver side as they forage on the lake bed, and the water temperature can only be described as tepid. Discreet staff pad silently along weathered walkways, bringing an endless supply of delicious food. After only a few days on the islands one enters a rather enjoyable condition of catatonic relaxation, rousing oneself only to stagger to the next dive.
These dives are, I am pleased to note, certainly worth the effort. It goes without saying that the fish life is abundant and visibility splendid. What is slightly less well-known about the lake is its abundance of drop-offs, caverns and swim-throughs characteristic of the steeply sloping shoreline as it plunges into the lakes waters.
One of the most spectacular of these is Zimbabwe Rock, a sharp pinnacle that rises from the deep water just over a mile from the lake shore, and a gentle 20 minute boat ride from Domwe Island. It is a site I am particularly keen to visit.
Entering the water, I am presented with the clear impression of a great buttress of fissured granite vanishing into the depths of the lake. Around it swirl schools of cichlids, and the deeper parts of the pinnacle promise much, with gigantic overhangs and mysterious dark entrances that beg to be explored.
We are guided on this dive by Morne, a veteran of the lake who seems to have an uncanny knowledge of where all the best caverns and hollows are located. Mornes descriptions of the numerous sites in the lake are peppered with awesomes, though this particular dive is notable as it falls into the very awesome bracket.
Following Morne into what appears to be a completely black cave entrance, a moment or two in the velvet darkness allows my eyes to adjust, and I can see the merest hint of daylight glowing eerily ahead. The narrow passage soon opens into a wider cavern, shafts of light dancing on the bouldered floor.
Morne gestures excitedly ahead of me, and I catch a glimpse of a sweeping dark tail as a bombe catfish drifts before us. Floating through the cavern, we glide through one of the entrances out onto the face of the pinnacle, weightless rock-climbers on a dark mountain.
All of this would, of course, have made a splendid photo, but while Im having a wonderful dive, my camera is not. The O-ring is bridged by an errant hair, and the result is a camera sulking under the ingress of a pint or two of rift lake water.
I am tormented by the grandeur of the dive, and my inability to capture it. Such is expedition life, and after cradling my camera all the way home murmuring sweet nothings, it shows remarkable powers of recovery and sits for the rest of the week glaring at me moistly from its drying perch. It is now talking to me again, albeit in outraged electronic bursts.
The greatest pleasure one can get from a dive in Malawi is to hover motionless in the shallows and watch evolution race along in fast-forward around you. The cichlids are a fascinating family of fish, full of adaptive extras and specialist features.
My final dive is spent in 3m, watching a fat blue cichlid defending its patch of turf against all comers, and wondering how long he can keep it up. Hes probably still at it even now.
So our African odyssey is over. We have shivered in the Benguela current off the Cape, partly from cold, partly from primaeval instinct. We have charged the breakers in Natal and been nose to nose with sharks on a timeless migratory route. And we have swum in one of Africas great rift lakes and seen natural selection gone mad.
Anyone who says that the days of adventure in the Dark Continent are over is very, very wrong.
Next month: On to Palau, Yap and Australia
- Dive South Safaris: 0027 12 991314, www.divesouth.co.za
- White Shark Diving: www.sharkcagediving.co.za
- Aliwal Diver Charters: 0027 399 732233, www.aliwalshoal.co.za
- Kayak Africa: 0027 21 783 1955, www.kayakafrica.com
- South African Tourism: 0870 155 0044, www.south-african-tourism.org
- Malawi Tourism: 0115 982 1903,e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Full Circle Expeditions: 07812 136781, www.divefullcircle.com