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Adventure: Freediving with sharks in Cape Town

The ocean is a place of deep serenity. It also contains sharks — a fact that becomes glaringly apparent while freediving in Cape Town

Adventure: Freediving with sharks in Cape Town
Swimming with seals. Image: Lisa Beasley

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“Okay, people. Listen up. A few safety rules,” says Brocq Maxey, an American with blond surfer hair and galaxies of freckles across his nose. He’s standing in the small cabin of the boat like a preacher in a pulpit. The nine of us along for the trip are frantically kitting up: arms are being wrangled into wetsuits, masks are being spat into and weights are being heaved on. I’ve spent the last 10 minutes trying to mash my neoprene-covered feet into the pocket of my fins, corral my fingers into gloves and don the diving hood in such a way that I don’t feel as though I’m in a sensory deprivation tank.

Across from me, my regular dive buddies Keri Muller and Lisa Beasley look like aliens in their wetsuits. This is because, despite Cape Town’s waters often hitting a chilly 12C, we always dive suitless, preferring to feel the water rather then blocking it out. But a blue shark has just been spotted and a prerequisite for getting into its domain is that we wear wetsuits.

“Makos are pretty shy,” Brocq explains. “But if they come up to you, stay still and make eye contact. Same for the blues. They’re curious and use their mouths to investigate. They’ll come up and might try to have a nibble. Engage with them: move towards them, look them in the eye and gently push them away. They’ll swim away and maybe come back for another look. Don’t back off or splash around. And if any skin is exposed, they’ll be even more curious. They’re attracted to light colours.”

I look down at my old wetsuit. It has two pale pink panels running down the sides. Fantastic.

Two hours earlier, we’d been skimming along the water a few hundred metres off the ragged coast of the Cape Peninsula. Mountains gave way to sea, clefts of dark green foliage twisting up ravines into the rust-red folds of cliff faces. “Look, there’s Water’s Edge,” Keri said, pointing at the small bay in which we’d dived countless times.

“And there’s Windmill.” From out here, where the water is deep and blue, our regular dive sites looked miniature, the boulders and floating kelp blades like ornaments in a pond.

Keri and I met about a year ago on a freediving course, where we learned to hold our breath and rescue each other. The kelp forests soon became our daily shrines, where we discovered the alchemy of sunlight in water and the magic of entering a world populated by creatures and plants so strange and surprising that sometimes all we could do was shake our heads.

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Freediving in Cape Town. Image: Faine Loubser

We took photographs with our compact cameras: of shafts of light streaming through golden ribbons of kelp, black-and-white striped pyjama sharks sashaying past, neon anemones blooming, octopuses eyeballing us. Lisa introduced us to nudibranchs, tiny sea slugs whose patterns and shapes are an audacious carnival of colour. I fell in love with the harmless, chunky houndsharks endemic to Southern Africa and silently patrol the reefs and forests. There was nothing I liked better than to descend into the silence and swim behind a gully, watching its tail curl through the kelp, holding my breath until my diaphragm started contracting and I was forced to surface.

I inhale deeply and raise my hand. “Has anyone ever bled from being bitten?” I ask Brocq. My husband has an amputation phobia. I need to keep all of me together.

“Only me,” says Brocq. “But not badly.”

Skipper Morne Hardenberg smiles and says it’ll be alright. I believe him — not only because he has a seafaring beard and wears mirrored sunglasses, but because he and his marine-biologist wife, Alison Kock, are highly regarded and passionate shark experts who have researched the ocean’s apex predators for the past two decades, helping to demystify the much-maligned fish and campaign for its conservation. Morne’s shark footage has been featured in various documentaries, including the BBC’s recent Blue Planet II series.

Finally, trapped in full neoprene, I sit and wait for the others. Keri and Lisa have opted to scuba and are kitting up. Staring into the water, I’m acutely aware I’ll be floating alone on the surface while everyone else bubbles below me, able to see one another’s eyes. What if the sharks take a liking to my pale sides and think I’m a tasty bit of sashimi? Crew member and all-round champion Nina Cole is patiently cutting up sardines and throwing them into a chum bucket attached by a rope to the side of the boat. She periodically shakes the bucket and a cloud of flesh and rust-coloured blood forms a trail in the water.

Adventure: Freediving with sharks in Cape Town

Blue shark. Image: Morne Hardenberg

This is what has brought the blue shark here. I want to ask about great whites, but I’d overheard Morne telling the American filmmaker on board that they’ve been scarce over the past year. Morne had said this could be due to two things — humans’ impact on the marine environment or, for short periods, because of an influx of orcas, who move in on their territory. Whatever the reason, it’s clear that while so much of what goes on underwater is a mystery to us, it — like the land we inhabit — is sensitive to change, and we humans have a lot to answer for.

The first thing I see is blue. It’s everywhere: around, below, above, right, left. I lie face-down on the surface, slow my breathing, take a deep inhalation and dive. With more than 1,100ft of Atlantic Ocean below me, I fin deeper than I’ve ever gone before. The blue is broken up only by shafts of light radiating from what feels like the centre of Earth. It’s as though I’m dropping through a cocoon that could be infinity. Except I need to breathe. And quickly. I shoot back up to the surface and it’s almost a surprise to see the boat and the birds and the sky and the others, bobbing like islands, checking their regulators.

Floating on my stomach, peering into the blue, I see the shape of a shark about 30ft away moving through the water in quick sideways movements. As it heads towards me, I ready my hands, but there’s no gentle pushing required. Just before it bumps into me, it turns and glides past, allowing me to take in its form and colour. It’s magnificent — shaped like a fighter jet, its nose long and pointed, and its black eyes like massive discs a giant would use in tiddlywinks. But it’s the shark’s skin that really surprises me: it’s the texture of velvet and the colour of frosted mauve lipstick.

Below, the scuba divers float like astronauts newly ejected into space. Keri looks up and waves. I do an exaggerated okay sign with my fingers, and then point behind her, where two more blue sharks have appeared. They glide towards her. One peels off while the other sticks its nose right into her face. She gently pushes it aside and it carries on its way towards a second chum bucket, which is attached to a buoy rope and carefully watched by Brocq. I float next to the red buoy, watching the filmmaker push his giant camera rig around, twin lights sticking out like side mirrors. Soon, another shark arrives, and another, and the water below is a silent ballet of arms, legs, tails and bubbles. There must be at least 10 blue sharks; it’s hard to count them, as they circle and shimmy between the divers. One of them swims up to the buoy next to me, and is soon joined by two more. They’re close enough to touch.

Adventure: Freediving with sharks in Cape Town

Common dolphins. Image: Morne Hardenberg.

I take photos of their open mouths as they snatch and bite at the rope. As one of the sharks turns to head deeper towards the bucket, I dive down next to it, flying sideways, our bodies perfectly synced.

Back on the boat, greedily tucking into cheese sandwiches, Keri, Lisa and I stare at one another with big eyes. All we can do is shake our heads and snort hysterically. During the three dives we’ve done throughout the day, we’ve spotted a shy mako that kept its distance, its metallic blue back catching ripples of light. We’ve seen albatross, and white-chinned petrels squabbling over hake heads behind a trawler; two seals playfully arcing around us; clouds of tiny copepods glittering like sapphires down in the depths; and salps and comb jellies pulsing and lighting up like strobes in a nightclub.

As we head back towards the harbour in Simon’s Town, the setting winter sun creates an Instagram-friendly image of peaches and apricots and yellows on one side of the boat. On the other side, towards the horizon, a three-quarter moon shines bright in the sky. Suddenly, the boat turns back towards the deep and Morne starts whooping. The surface of the sea is boiling — as we get closer, we see dozens and dozens of dusky dolphins careening through the water.

Everyone hangs over the side of the boat, watching as the dolphins surf the bow wave, squeaking and clicking, the water slipping off their slick backs. Cameras on selfie sticks click along with the rhythmical sound of the dolphins snuffling and exhaling.

How to do it

Shark Explorers offers dives with blue sharks and makos from November to June (from R2,350 [£130] per person to snorkel, including kit). The company has a host of other shark experiences on offer, from cage diving with great whites (from mid-January to mid-October) to year-round dives with broadnose sevengill sharks and Cape fur seals. Shark Explorers also offers snorkelling expeditions with seals and diving expeditions further up the coast, near Port St Johns, during the annual sardine run, where you can encounter numerous marine animals, such as humpback whales, copper sharks and dolphins, feasting on bait balls.

Emirates offers non-direct flights from Heathrow to Cape Town from £635 return, while British Airways offers direct flights from £718.

Published in the Adventure guide, distributed with the September 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)