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Diving for sharks off South Africa

For food, sharks prefer the blubbery fur seal to humans, who are too bony.

David Yarrow/Getty Images

For food, sharks prefer the blubbery fur seal to humans, who are too bony.

SIMONS TOWN — My son Colin and I were standing on the stern of a boat 5 miles off the South African coast, a shark cage dangling at our feet, when the ocean suddenly welled up as if a grand piano was surfacing. Then the unmistakable dorsal fin of a great white shark popped up and began slicing toward us.

“Shark!” a crewmember shouted. “Get into the water!”

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We jumped.

It would take us the better part of the next day to process just how counterintuitive that command was — not to mention our immediate response.

Such is the novelty when you explore some of the most shark-infested waters on the planet. False Bay, off the tip of Africa, is the winter hunting ground for about 80 great whites — and many hundreds of tourists hoping to glimpse this very large animal.

Getty Images/Lonely Planet Image

A great white approached a cage during a shark-diving expedition off the South African coast.

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Alas, to the chagrin of Hollywood and the Discovery Channel, the take-away lesson this day would be that the great white gets a bad rap. It is mighty, but it deserves our respect, not fear.

The fish is not aggressive, nor is it a human-stalking eating machine. In fact, despite its perch at the top of the food chain, the great white fails in the hunt about half the time.

“Sadly, we are the great white’s only enemy,” said Chris Fallows, a world-renowned photographer who founded Apex Shark Expeditions 16 years ago. “The more that people appreciate the shark’s magnificence, the more they realize it is more exciting to see great whites alive than dead.”

In part because the fish is becoming increasingly rare (some estimate the population at about 2,500, five times smaller than a half-century ago), tours are thriving in South Africa, where a dozen companies take people to the sharks.

Sharks follow the food, and one of the largest fur seal colonies on the planet swims here. The mammals congregate every winter to sire pups on a tiny rock outcropping appropriately named Seal Island.

Ann Mortiz for the Boston Globe

The author (foreground) and his son await a great white off the South African coast, where the sharks feed on fur seals.

Popular culture suggests that great whites are people eaters. In fact, they don’t like us. We are too bony. Biologists speculate this is why only 14 percent of attacks on humans are fatal. Most often we get spit out (and bleed to death). But the shark loves the blubbery fur seal, and on a brisk cloudy morning last September, nine of the cute young pinnipeds would become breakfast.

We were 12 US and British guests and four crewmembers aboard the twin-hulled, 36-foot boat. White Pointer 2 works out of Simons Town, home to one of the world’s largest (recently closed) dynamite companies. Twice in the latter half of the last century, massive nitroglycerine explosions rocked the town — and nearby, one of the only mainland communities of African penguins.

Simons Town today is a suburb of Cape Town, located 12 miles across “The Flats” where the former apartheid government sent the city’s nonwhites to jail, to live, or both.

As the port fell astern, the day’s first light began to silhouette peaks that surround False Bay and spire 5,000 feet or higher straight up from the water. The bay’s name came from westward-bound sailors for the Dutch East India Co. who 300 years ago confused it for Table Bay and Cape Town, located just around the Cape of Good Hope.

We were 45 minutes at sea with Seal Island just ahead when Captain Poenas Jacobs yelled “predation!” This was a gentle way of saying that the fur seal population of 65,000 had just dropped by one.

The shark’s hunt is far from a slam-dunk. A 3-foot-long seal pup stands a 50 percent chance of outmaneuvering the maw of an animal that can reach 21 feet or longer. If the shark misses, the seal learns fast to dodge and twist just behind the shark’s eyes. Eventually the big guy tires and the pup darts away.

In False Bay the shark has learned to exploit the deep water just off one side of the island. The shark lurks far below, targets a prospect, then executes a rocket-fast ascent that can send the 2-ton animal into a 10-foot breach.

Whereas tours to the great white waters off California’s Farallon Islands might see 45 predations, tours to Seal Island record 600 during the four-month summer season.

“This is the shark’s terrain, not ours,” Jacobs said after the first kill had left the remains for the birds. “Yet we blame the shark, not the guy in the black wet suit flopping around like a seal.”

Humans are more likely to be struck by lightning than attacked by a shark. So why the paranoia? Fallows said, “People need to fear beasts. Think of the mythological creatures that were drawn in the corners of old maps. Fear of the unknown enriches our life.”

Observing surface predations was the first of three activities aboard an Apex half-day excursion. Next we towed a dummy seal to prompt a shark breach. It did not happen, and seldom does so late in the season. (There might be wildlife alternatives if the sharks are scarce. For us they were not, yet we detoured on the way home to observe the rare right whale laze around with her calf.)

The third activity is dip.

Half the guests chose not to suit up in the wet suits and masks stowed aboard, but to watch from the upper deck as sharks approached. Colin and I were the first up of the divers — which is a misnomer. Scuba gear, even a snorkel, would be a waste of time, effort, and baggage. Participants need to be above water to hear announcements of incoming sharks. The water is simply too murky (and cold) to wait below. The routine quickly becomes one of taking a breath and bobbing above and below the surface.

As we stood on the deck awaiting an incoming shark, I made a mental note to review why my son and I find ourselves on the edge of edgy places.

On command, we scrambled into the cage as a 12-footer approached. As it glided inches from my nose I had several thoughts. Not all were profound:

Twelve feet looks very big underwater.

Prevent nibbles. Keep fingers off cage.

I just made eye contact with a great white shark.

What a streamlined, fuel-efficient animal.

I feel like a curiosity, not a meal.

There are moments when expectations hiccup, myths vanish, and life feels ever so slightly changed. This was one.

I had come to gawk, now I marvel.

David Arnold can be reached at northwester@comcast.net.
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