Hopelessly traversing the docks of Bluff scanning for people, a billboard, an idling boat . . . any sign of Shark Dive New Zealand, I crunch irritably on the last few pieces of Inca corn. It’s 6:50 Sunday morning. The quay is empty and we’ve paid in full. A lone man in his early thirties stands by the bus stop anxiously twisting a strap around his finger. He’s also on this supposed shark dive. Paul offers him a seat in our warm car, but he declines. Through the open window the two compare notes on the correspondence they’ve received since booking. Perturbed by the frosty air now filling the car I whip the heat on high and reach into the backseat and dig for a snack bar. I’ve been up since 3:30am and am in no mood for small talk. There will be no Hilton breakfast this morning.Buoyant clomps upon the asphalt brings the conversation to an abrupt end as we all scan the otherwise noiseless quay for the source of this disturbance. Corkscrew curls skirt the bottom of her wooly cap and freckles splash her alabaster skin. Dressed in a pair of red waders and oversized boots, Nic looks more like someone’s kid sister playing dress-up in her big brother’s snow gear than a shark dive aficionado. Pleased to have located the last of her “crew” she motions for us to follow.
Three seats remain in the cozy cabin of the catamaran, which also doubles as Captain Pete’s home. Paul and I fill the two adjacent next to the door at the end of an L-shaped couch; and of course, being the girl, I get stuck in the middle. With legs crossed and arms folded tightly around my camera bag I wedge into the crook of the sofa trying not to make contact with elbows and thighs on either side. I am not in a good mood and sharing my personal space isn’t helping.
Like a fussy feline waiting for a reason to pounce I snuggle into my scarf, narrowing my eyes in an attempt to eschew the jaunty banter as we gad further and further into the cold dark Tasman Sea. Having just found out this trip could last upwards of nine hours I recoil further into soft thick layers of wool and polar fleece. Paul’s inadvertent foot tap is met with a huff and a snarl. Hanging out in the shark cage may be a safer bet for him right now. Sensing the impending clawing Paul solicits a cup of hot tea which I accept, albeit begrudgingly. Though I try and maintain my game face the warm herbal sweetness melts it away and soon I’m purring in unison with the putter of the engine as we power through the rolling waves.
The commencement of the journey into the depths elicits dynamic emotions fanning the fires of perturbation, excitement and fear. Their curious quest for the great white seems to foster an instant connection and effortless conversation. A milestone birthday, a surprise graduation gift, one more check on the bucket list. A construction worker, a teacher, an energy consultant, an eclectic mix from around the world, converged on a boat at the bottom of the civilized word for a chance encounter with the magnificent and enigmatic great white shark.
Captain Pete drops anchor at a seemingly random spot about an hour southeast of Bluff. As we follow him onto the deck he points out two islands. The first, barely visible from the boat, is Stewart Island, the largest of the southern cays. The second, Edwards Island, though vastly smaller, dwarfs the first due to its close proximity to our vessel. As I examine its rocky terrain through the zoom lens of my camera Captain Pete notes its important distinction; fur seals and lots of them.
Blissfully unaware of the impending doom the succulent orbs of meaty goodness toast upon the irons of the shore as the steady winds of Mother Nature stir their pungent aroma into the waters below. One flick of fates spoon dispels an unfortunate morsel into the chasm below. Seasoned to perfection in the salinity of the ocean broth, dinner is served.
Nic pulls a skipjack tuna from the deep white cooler and slugs it on the table; shark candy. These supreme preditors may dominate the underwater world but they are quite fastidious about what they eat. With one wield of the knife Pete severs its head. The tail and core are chunked into pieces and thrown into a big blue barrel outfitted with a grinder and a hose which feeds directly into the ocean. After several churns of the wheel the chunks turn to mush. Satisfied with the consistency Pete ladles seawater into the tub forcing the fishy pulp out into the dark blue sea. Now we wait.
Standing on the stern we watch intently for any signs of movement; silence amplifies sounds of lapping waves rolling gently around the vessel and the occasional splash of a seagull. I am the first to fall, retreating to the warmth of the cabin just five minutes into the assault. After all, mystery never unfolds under watchful eye. Nic greets me on the other side. She’s making more hot tea and I’m looking for a reason to stay. An unsuccessful search for a sheet of paper yields a small stack of cardboard coasters and a roll of paper towels. I choose the latter and she hands me two squares. As Nic heads out I locate a pen and continue work on our blog.
After crumpling the first square and tossing it into the trash I put my pen aside and scan the back of the boat looking for a distraction. From my seat in the cabin I watch the action unfold. Peering creepishly out the window I slide over to the door for an unobstructed view. The process of suiting up is quite comical and possibly the most interesting thing I’ve seen all day. I enjoy watching them all, but especially the men as they roll about in a clumsy show of unsynchronized swimming, arching their backs, raising one leg, then another in a crooked position attempting to roll the tight neoprene up hairy thighs and naked bellies. One deep breath to hold it all in as the zipper inches slowly up their necks. Like a hand coated in paraffin wax the wetsuits conform to every contour leaving little to the imagination. I settle back in my seat and reach for a fresh paper towel.
Another hour passes as a steady stream of chum trickles from the big blue tub dissipating into a calm dark sea. Slowly the others break too. Some peel off their neoprene tops and slip into cozier jackets. Some join me in the cabin. Paul does both. Pete continues his shark charming. What pressure. What happens if he can’t find a shark? He ties a tuna head to rope and tethers it to a plastic blue ball. Again and again he tosses the bait into the water mimicking an injured tuna. Throw, splash, pull, over and over again. There are no hooks in this lure. If he does this wrong he’ll loose the bait and the interest of the shark.
Every few minutes the watchful crew take turns leaning cautiously over the boat scanning for movement. Another hour passes. Suddenly a spotting. Shark! Shark! The eager wrestle back into wetsuits ensues. Several clamber fervently toward the stern hoping to be among the first down. Soon the lucky four are fitted with goggles, hoodies and gloves as they dash into the cage.
Paul descends and I call to my little fur seal to muster up one last smile. As he looks up at me from the mouth of the cage I try not to giggle. Mask strapped tight against his noggin, lips pursed into a big cheerio suckling a chunky respirator, eyes basketed in the Plexiglas mask he pauses for a picture looking like someone who has enjoyed a bit too much cheese. Yep that’s definitely going to leave a mark. If there was any anxiety, it certainly didn’t show through to the lens.
Descending into the belly of the ocean is a wash of tranquility and wonder. The bedlam of chatter and rocking motion of the boat are left behind. Great schools of fish in every direction glide effortlessly through the turbid water. The effervescent sound of human breath bubbles to the surface. One blink and they’re gone, but the divers are not alone. The eerie fog in the water summons a ghostly figure, a faint silhouette, gaping mouth and beady black eyes. As the great white makes a slow turn toward the bobbing decoy it thrusts its jaws agape to expose a mouth full of razor sharp teeth. One mock attack followed by a torrid flick of the mighty tail; a reminder of its immense power. The shark is gone. Another approach, faster and more aggressive, torpedoing through the water for a closer look at the divers. One slow pass, then another; with curiosity quelled its tail stops and the regal creature sinks into the abyss.With each encounter the divers bob with delight and a delicate dance around the cage commences. GoPros slide back and forth in the open gap for an unobstructed view. On several occasions hands find themselves far outside the cage burning gigs of data on empty water. Finally, it arrives, but alas footage of the elusive creature is thwarted by chaotic gasps and the panicked recoil of limbs inside the safety of the bars.
The length of time I have to spend on this boat is dependent on two factors; one, the presence of sharks and two, the cold tolerance of the divers. As long as there are sharks in the water and willing participants, we stay. Even in 7mm thick wetsuits the water is brutal. The ocean attacks the body like a great white defeats its prey. Sneaking in slowly in a brisk but bearable chill up the limps as they crawl down the ladder. Once fully submerged in the dark cloudy water, icy droplets seep into the wetsuits through the fleshy exposed areas around the respirator and the crescent just above the eyebrows. The first bite penetrates, numbing the body. Prickly tingles roll over the skin like a swift fall into the spinney-toothed leaves of a holly bush. Hope is restored in the absence of the predator as the thin layer of water warms within the wetsuit. However, comfort is short lived as the cold returns, this time with a vengeance.
Standing on board is only slightly more tolerable since wet divers are not allowed inside the heated cabin. Sporadic rain showers and constant wind forces the two female divers to relent, and they unsuit shortly after the second dive. However, contemplation of a third dive by one of the guys gives rise to an unspoken challenge. Manly pride almost always trumps common sense and today is no exception. Shots of hot water down the front of their suits provide the only solace as they wait patiently for another shark to appear. Paul reverts to zen breathing exercises to try and stop the uncontrollable shivering while others sit on the deck hugging their legs in an attempt to ward off the cold. Clearly someone has to freeze to death before we head to shore.
Naturally, I’m a bit concerned as Paul leads the other men into the cage signaling the start of this ridiculous challenge. However, Nic assures me she’ll pull them up well before anyone has a chance to lose any digits. Relieved to discover this is not the first battle of wills to conspire aboard the catamaran I grab two more paper towels and snuggle back into my seat. Twenty minutes pass before Nic tugs on the hoses signaling the time has come. One by one they climb up ladder and back into the boat. The last of course is Paul. Hypothermia narrowly avoided, wetsuits peel to the ground as naked feet race toward the cabin door. Thank goodness, I am so ready to check into our hotel!