Swimming with great white sharks

On the 6th January we got up early to start a few hours drive down the coast to Invercargill. It is here that we would be swimming with great white sharks.

The journey was broken up by a standard sight in New Zealand, cattle crossing the road. You don’t get that in London. We had planned a halfway point stop for lunch at The Whistling Frog, near the Tautuku River. We eventually found the Frog and enjoyed a decent meal. We saw an abundance of signs for ‘McLean Falls’ nearby, so thought we would take the opportunity to check it out.

The waterfall is beautiful and most of it is accessible, so the pictures will do the talking for me here.

Dad getting his feet wet

Dad and Gemma

Once we were done, we continued on to Invercargill with Gemma asleep and me reading. It was a long journey, but I hope that didn’t affect my mood when we arrived at our hotel to find our rooms were on different floors. It wasn’t a big issue, but I had booked Invercargill Apartment Hotel over 6 months ago, and there were plenty of empty rooms back then, surely we should have been booked into rooms next door to each other? Nonetheless, we gave the parents the room on the lowest level and went upstairs to unpack.

The rooms are very small, but functional. All you need in most cases. Double bed, small TV, kettle, shower, toilet. Our room was creaky but clean. We nipped down to see Mum and Dad’s room and they had removed the quilt because it was dirty! Fortunately we were in for a warm night.

Gem and I grabbed some bits from the supermarket then went for a walk to check Invercargill out. I thought we had walked into the future. Not because there were flying cars, but because there were no people, it is a ghost town and reminded us of ’28 Days Later’. January and February is peak tourist season in New Zealand, and here we are trying to find evidence of life throughout this town so worn and decrepit looking that you could have been forgiven for thinking you were in the North of England.

Undeterred we began walking South, to try and find the water. We eventually came to an estuary, which was an interesting walk. There were rotting wooden poles coming out of the water, apparently a reminder of a bygone era when trains between Bluff (southern tip of NZ) and Invercargill were commonplace because of trade. After scaring some sitting ducks (unintentionally) and a brisk walk, we fell back into bed excited for our impending deaths tomorrow.

Rail tracks, Gemma and ducks

The day was upon us. Excitement turns to nerves, nerves melt into fear. The 20 minute drive to the meeting point for our shark experience was a reflective one. I’m not sure about the others but I considered etching my will into the plastic armrest in the car, just in case the worst happened.

We eventually found Mike, the fella that runs the show, after driving past him a couple of times. He was abrupt as ever, but smiling. He introduced us to his assistant and the other passengers, one of which was just there for spectating.

Us 4 Brits, another solo Brit, 2 Israeli fellas that were skinnier than my arm and a Dutch couple in their 50s. She was the spectator, and said she was claustrophobic so the metal cage would send her loopy. I remember thinking that I’d rather go loopy than get bitten.

We had to pay $99 per person extra, just for a 10 minute chat with his assistant showing us how to breathe underwater. Definitely over-priced. The boat set sail and the water was a wee bit choppy to begin with.

Mum did very well at breathing underwater – her lungs are terrible!

Once we hit the open water though, I thought we had left ’28 Days Later’, and joined ‘The Day After Tomorrow’ (that’s the last film reference, don’t worry). The waves came up way over the boat and for every wave crest, there is a huge dip. It wasn’t too comfy either. Mum did a good job of calming Gemma down as she’s not all that fond of the sea. In fact any body of water in which she can’t see the bottom.

Laughing the pain away!

We eventually arrived at our destination, which is less turbulent due to being sheltered by an uninhabited island. Another boat was already there, and almost immediately we saw our first great white shark. First impressions are always important, and they certainly give you one. They are absolutely massive. This one was 4.5 metres long, which is huge, but apparently they get even bigger. This was a male and the females are even larger.

All good!

We suited up and the first group dunked into the water to try and sight this magnificent beast. To attract the sharks they use a technique called ‘chumming’, which is legally okay, but morally, I’m not so sure. Basically they pour fish guts into the sea so that the sharks smell it and approach. It’s not all that dangerous, but it is teasing them a bit.  Another technique is dipping a dead tuna fish in the water then pulling it up before the shark gets there. I don’t think this practice is too bad because in real life the tuna would be swimming away, but then again I’m no expert.

Me and the old man

The first group went down and the tuna was flung in, as we had seen a shark approaching. The shark came cleverly from the side of the boat and went for the fish, only for Mike’s assistant (I can’t remember her name, apologies) to move it out of the way at the last minute. I just so happened to be looking over this side of the boat and the bloody thing leapt out of the water, with it’s mouth wider than Jaws (definitely last one this time, I promise) and soon recoiled back into the water once tasting boat instead of juicy tuna. I was too close for comfort at the time, but looking back it is my most vivid memory, and I am very grateful.

This video will give you an insight into what we saw when we went down…

Everyone was very brave, and Dad was even pretty stupid at one point, putting his fingers and head very close to the edge of the cage! The first sighting of the shark was when I heard Gemma screaming next to me and pointing, I followed her finger line until my eyes reached this huge lump of muscle, fins complete with battle scars. The dark, black eyes follow my waving hand (I was saying hello!) as the shark swishes past us, seeing who looks the most edible. At one point he approached the baited tuna from underneath and managed to bag himself a snack. 1-0 to the shark.

DCIM100GOPRO

It is difficult to explain the feeling, but I would recommend it to everybody. After the initial rush of dopamine to your brain (or whatever it was), you relax into a nice underwater viewing booth, watching in awe as some of the world’s greatest hunters go about their business. Phenomenal.

We had 3 or 4 goes in the water and everybody had plenty of time down there. Mike was very knowledgeable about the sharks, and was all too happy to share that with us. We ended up seeing 3 great white sharks, of varying sizes. The views from the boat can be just as good as underwater too, as the sharks often swim close to the surface.

Seeing these creatures can make you forget other shortfalls, but I feel they have to be mentioned. The crew were supposed to be there for our safety, and whilst Mike was driving the boat back, the lady fell asleep, leaving some passengers crashing around on the back of the boat out of view. They could have easily gone overboard with the rough sea. Mike’s manners, for example when I was going into the water for the first time I wanted to take my time, and he said ‘Am I going to have to put my foot on your head, hurry up’, which wasn’t appropriate. There was very much a feel of, ‘another group of tourists, here we go again’, rather than ‘lets take these people that are paying me in excess of $4000 to see some fantastic sea life’.

As I said though, the reason they continue to trade with this level of service is the sheer magnitude of seeing a shark in it’s habitat. Strong, agile and dangerous, it was a great day that we will not forget in a hurry.

Warming up with a black tea

Fittingly, we had fish and chips once back on dry land and then had a brief drink at a bar in Invercargill, which was eerily quiet once again. As the hotel had a laundry room, Gem and I took some washing down and as we did we stumbled upon a games room complete with table tennis and a pool table. We played table tennis until the washing was done, and retired to bed ready for yet another long journey tomorrow, all the way to Milford Sound.

To see all of the photos relating to this post, click here.

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