Freediving with the enemy
by Hanli Prinsloo

The boat speeds along the bumpy blue of the Indian Ocean, I pull my hood up over my head, keeping your ears warm, dry and happy is the number two priority of all serious freedivers,
…number one being staying clear of sharks. I mean seriously, who can relax, breathe deeply and feel their heart rate slow down when an apex predator could be lurking close by, intent on eating freediver?
So why I am I on the bumpy blue Indian Ocean? To freedive with sharks… voluntarily, of my own free will. I’m in Umkomaas on the Natal south coast, the east coast of South Africa that boasts rolling green hills, sugar cane fields and the sharks of Aliwal Shoal.

The tiger sharks who reside here are all female, I heard, which makes me feel a bit more confident for a while, what with feminist solidarity and all that, but as I put my fins on and spit in my mask, I am sure that this will not be like any other freedive…

The visibility is good, I can see the bottom at 20m, as always I feel the pull of the deep…two, three four belly breaths and I’m off. The rocky reef at the bottom feels safe, nothing can come from below, I look up…they’re here. Sharks circle above me, five… ten, is it possible? Elegant but cheeky black tip reef sharks, smaller than the tiger sharks… where are they?

My time is up, I ascend slowly to the surface, bending my one leg slightly I position my long fins in a way that I spiral to the top. This way I can keep a 360 degree watch, waiting for the tigers to come…She’s right under me, I see her turn, slowly ascending towards me, 3 full meters of tiger shark. The guide’s words echo in my head, ‘if she’s coming at you, just gently push down on her nose’, and all I can think as she is approaching is: would the nose be that expanse of flesh just above the huge mouth? She comes, we meet, I push, she leaves, her beautifully marked back swanking away, like a model working the catwalk. Her remora-fish hurry after, their sole-like heads buzzing by in their eagerness to keep up with her, their queen of cool. Her name is Karen, she’s a well-known lady of leisure in this area.
For many years I have travelled in the hope of diving with the more beloved of the sea’s playmates- dolphins, whales and seals. Sharks have never been on my list of best friends, not for any personal reason, just because, like you, I’ve seen Jaws and I’ve believed every news article and doccie depicting them as brainless, toothy killing machines. But here’s the thing, we were wrong. These beautiful fish are as much of an encounter worth fighting for as any smiling bottlenose, but the reality is, very few are fighting for Karen and her kin.

Back on the boat my head is spinning. It’s like suddenly getting your head around the truth that the big bad wolf didn’t eat red riding hood’s granny, it was just a big bad media scam. I touched a very big shark and it was ok, and she has a name. Approaching land there are red and orange buoys bobbing not far from the beach, shark nets.

I’m in Umkomaas to teach freediving through Blue Wilderness, run by Mark and Gail Addison, who love sharks and the truth in equal measures. Sadly truth itself has been very much lacking in the world of sharks. Earlier this year three of these beautiful resident tiger sharks were caught, like common line fish. Many people, among them the Addisons, know who the culprits are, have spoken with all the prosecuting authorities, to no avail. Nobody has been punished and the bodies of the sharks were sold as cheap meat.
What really breaks my heart though, is that this random killing is sadly a small red drop in a much bigger bucket of blood. The shark nets I noticed as we came back from the dive, kill hundreds of sharks monthly all along the Kwazulu Natal Coast. The Natal Sharks Board proudly speaks of their drum-lines as a substitute to shark nets, to protect you and me, the swimmers. Do you know what drum lines are? Long fishing lines with big baited hooks… yes, the sharks are caught and killed. This has become common practice in SA, proudly copied from an Australian model. What a disaster. I feel my heart grow heavy, the plight of my new best friends seem to be in the hands of people who do not even care about the ocean. This is a problem, don’t you agree?

As South- Africans, we need to fight for our seas, her smiling and her toothy children. We have many challenges, it is true, but we cannot overlook this injustice just because we have too many injustices, it’s not an excuse. And any other ocean lovers, let this be known, because god help us if we allow such kind creatures like Karen and the others I met to be slaughtered in this mindless way.