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Face time with the sharks on the South African coast

Email|Print| Text size + By Erik Heinrich
Globe Correspondent / January 23, 2005

KLEINBAAI, South Africa -- The pointy-nosed, bullet-faced great white shark clears the boat engines and comes straight for us. My throat grows tight as I look into his black, lifeless eyes. The gaping, gummy jaws open. Rubbery flesh curls back revealing rows of jagged, saw-blade teeth close enough to touch. For a split second I stare into the black hole that is this ocean gangster's mouth.

He tries to bite down on a tuna head, but before he can get his mouth around the bait, it is pulled away. The torpedo-bodied, prowling great white ends up with a mouthful of Indian Ocean.

Having crossed our chum line, a protein slick of fish guts and shark liver oil, this underwater killing machine mistakenly believes lunch is being served alongside our 10-meter diving boat, Predator 2. The near miss has only heightened his appetite, and this Carcharodon carcharias -- most feared killer of the deep blue sea -- continues to circle the boat in search of flesh. On one occasion, I reach out from the relative safety of the five-person, galvanized steel cage dangling from starboard, and gently grasp his pectoral fin as he cuts through the water.

All divers are equipped with a wet suit and mask, but since the cage sits just below the water line, there is no need for a scuba tank. A snorkel is enough.

''Turn right!" barks Quint, the skipper. A new and bigger shark -- at least 13 feet long -- appears out of nowhere. Dark-bodied and sunlight-dappled on top, white underneath, he glides through the murky, blue-green water of the Indian Ocean in the direction of a seal decoy being pulled toward the cage. The jaws begin to open, but at the last second, this great white -- a perfect killer unchanged for 5 million years -- thinks better of taking a test bite, and sharply veers away with a sudden kick of his awesome tail.

Most people know about Africa's big five: lion, leopard, rhino, elephant, and buffalo. These impressive beasts are the highlight of any bush safari. But South Africa is perhaps the only country on the African continent to offer visitors the Big Seven by throwing the great white shark and Southern right whale into the mix.

The place to see both is in and around Walker Bay at the southern tip of Africa, about 87 miles east of Cape Town. Some effort is required to have a close encounter with great whites, but whale-watching, even from a distance, is a cinch from June to December. For me, it begins the minute I arrive at my hotel in the seaside resort of Hermanus.

As I check into The Marine, a vintage Relais & Chateaux property, the receptionist casually asks, ''Did you see the whale on your way in?"

She points past a bed of purple agapanthus, South-African lilies, to a dark, rocky reef at the foot of an escarpment. ''There," she says. ''Just there."

Before I can say, ''What whale?" the reef grows bigger and starts to roll gently. Then a spray of water shoots straight into the air. This is the first whale I have seen in the wild, and I am dumbfounded.

Later, from my balcony, I see a cow and her albino calf breaching the ocean's surface in the distance. Southern right whales are plentiful here because Walker Bay is a nursery and breeding haven for these magnificent mammals.

The Marine, whose list of celebrity guests includes Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston, offers some of the best terrestrial-based whale-watching in Africa thanks to its strategic location atop a headland. It may also be the only hotel in the world where you can observe Southern right whales while soaking in a hot tub with a glass of Cabernet sauvignon from nearby Stellenbosch, one of the country's top wine regions.

Later, I get a lot closer to Southern right whales, as well as great white sharks, bottle and hump-backed dolphins, and Cape Fur seals, when I go out with Dyer Island Cruises from Kleinbaai, on the southern edge of Walker Bay.

The nearest Southern right we see from the upper deck of the semi-rigid Gemini inflatable is about 45 feet long, and weighs about 60 tons. At first, only the rubbery bump-shaped head with its white patches of hardened skin, known as callosities, is visible. These markings are as unique as human fingerprints, and marine biologists use them to identify individual whales.

When the colossus rolls onto his side, I see his small, black, pig-like eye hidden behind folds of blubbery flesh. Below that is the giant mouth, with its twin rows of baleen plates, the giant, black, toothlike blades used to filter plankton and other nutrients. The dorsal fin rises majestically into the air, then the whale dives, leaving in its wake a patch of still water. This footprint was once used by whale hunters to track and kill these mysterious creatures.

A few minutes later a tail, with large lobes called flukes, pops out of the water, and for several minutes the Southern right dangles vertically in a maneuver whale watchers refer to as sailing.

Toward the end of the trip we visit Dyer Island and Geyser Rock, a kind of Galapagos Islands of South Africa. Dyer Island, 5 miles southeast of Kleinbaai, is home to a colony of African penguins (all black with no white bib), also known as jackass penguins because they sound like donkeys when excited.

Opposite is Geyser Rock, a skerry populated by a colony of 40,000 Cape Fur seals. The rank, fetid odor, barking, and constant commotion overwhelm me.

I'm here at the end of the great seal rut, which runs October to December. During this period, herds of bull seals pull in from Antarctica to establish harems of females numbering in the dozens. Those strong enough to make the trek back to Antarctica are usually skin and bones by the time they are ready to leave.

The channel between Dyer Island and Geyser Rock, known as Shark Alley, is teeming with seals this time of year. In some places, it is impossible to see the water for black, slippery knots of twisting, looping, amphibious flesh.

So where are the sharks of Shark Alley? After all, the reason great whites are plentiful here (the chances of seeing them are probably better than anywhere else in the world), is courtesy of the protein colony of Geyser Rock.

It turns out that during the rut, great whites will not venture near the island for fear of being attacked by packs of randy bulls that do not want marauding great whites messing with their ladies.

My last shark dive serves up bigger great whites than the first one -- each about 15 feet long.

When the biggest among them, a monster whose back is so dark it is almost black, creeps past the corner of my cage, I make a thumping sound with an open hand to get his attention. It works, and the shark makes a half turn in my direction. He looks at me, sees a terrestrial mammal inside a cage wearing a mask and wet suit, then completes his turn, and locks onto me. For the first time inside this cage, I am afraid, really afraid. It's primal and palpable, the kind of fear that tastes like a copper penny in your mouth.

We hold each other's gaze, this single-minded killer and me. Loathing is in his dead eyes. This muscle-and-cartilage thug of the ocean wants to take a bite out of me as much because he does not like me, as because he is hungry.

With a slight movement of his powerful tale, the great white propels himself to within inches of my face, looking more serpent than fish at this range with his pointy cobra face. His gap-toothed mouth twists into a strange kind of grin, as if to say, ''You're lucky to be in that cage today."

It is the look of murder, and I will never forget it.

That night on the terrace of my balcony, I survey the bay searching for whales, but see nothing. It is the end of the season, and maybe all the Southern rights have left to make their annual trek back to the plankton-rich waters of Antarctica.

Then, in the far distance, a spray of ocean water shoots into the air against a mauve and tangerine sky. Then the flash of a fluke. This is perhaps the last Southern right left in Walker Bay, working his way toward open water, to hitch a ride on a current that will carry him home.

Erik Heinrich is a freelance writer in Toronto.

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