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A cruise down: shark alley.

Although I have been swimming with sharks for years as an indie filmmaker in Hollywood, when it was suggested I try it literally while on a visit to Cape Town, South Africa, I said, "Absolutely not!" I have no fear of the beastly man-eating machines with the bad rap, but I am terrified of being caged and dipped underwater. A lifelong sufferer of claustrophobia, I'm sent racing to the nearest stairwell by an elevator without decorative mirrors.

But you only live once, and the dive company spoke to me in comforting tones on the telephone, assuring me as if I were a small child that the cage had no roof and I would not be locked inside. No Fear Factor stunts involved. All right I was in.

I was picked up at 6:15 A.M. at my Cape Town hotel, and we traveled for two hours to remote and tiny Kleinbaai, nestled along the resplendent Cape coastline in False Bay Fifteen of us victims--uh, passengers--climbed aboard the 36-foot custom-built Predator II, under the confident command of Capt. Brian McFarlane. While I chastised myself for expecting our captain to be a gnarly, weather-beaten Robert Shaw in Jaws stereotype, upon meeting him I was pleased to discover he actually was, in every respect. He had a scary unbridled enthusiasm for sharks and told us, "I don't care if I keep you out at sea for 12 hours, mates, if that's what it takes to satisfy your thirst for the great white." I perceived this as a threat and a possible hostage situation. McFarlane has been at this for eight years, and business has been steadily growing since Notional Geographic did a cover story on him four years ago.

Great whites are migratory and don't hang around anywhere too long, although South Africa's Shark Alley has become famous as the great white shark capital of the world because of the thousands that congregate to feast on the seals that crowd the channel between Seal and Dyer islands, Shark diving has become one of the main year round tourist attractions in Cape Town, and because the channel is protected by islands on both sides visitors can see sharks even in bad weather.

My shipmates were from all over the world, and there were also four hunky local Cape Town guys in web suits. The journey to Shark Alley took a brief but suspenseful 15 minutes. Once we were anchored in the channel I volunteered to be one of the first three victims to be lowered into that dreaded cage. Although I love to surf, when it comes to sharks I am the original chicken of the sea. I was anxious to get this over with, my fears increasing as the captain and his crew sloshed buckets of horse blood and obscene chunks of raw meat into the water. Known for their poor vision, sharks instead rely on their sense of smell The crew's strategy is to attract the sharks but not feed them too much. Also raked through the water was a cutout of a black baby seal, which I thought looked terribly fake.

I suited up inside two layers of wet suit, and then a 25-pound weight belt was strapped around my waist. Two crewmates had begun to lower me into the flimsy-looking cage when I suddenly froze as if carved from granite. "I want to know how to get this weight belt off" in case I slip and start sinking to the bottom." The crew, who saw me as a big pain in the ass, gave me a quick belt release demonstration. They were so over me at this point that they would have gladly stuffed me into that cage like an obnoxious canary.

We bobbed along the surface as a threatening set of swells rocked the boat and cage. I stared at the distant horizon, thinking that now would not be a good time for the "perfect storm" to arrive. The cage was profoundly uncomfortable, and it seemed like we were drifting around in it for a long time. The water was icy cold, and I wondered how much effort it actually took to lure one of these creatures to our vessel. Where were they? This was Times Square for great whites, after all.

"We've got one. Go under My God, it's huge!" bellowed Captain McFarlane. Adrenaline pumping, the theme from Jaws echoing in my head, I held my breath and shot to the bottom of the cage. The captain wasn't kidding. There it was, looming from the darkened depths: a magnificent great white shark the length of a midsize Ford. Twenty feet long, it moved with awesome power and grace, completely focused on that gruesome hunk of bait. I think it scarcely even noticed us holding our breath and quivering with bug-eyed fear inside the cage. With a single undulation of its tail, the shark sprung at the bait, which was uncomfortably close to our cage. Too close, I thought, as I nervously tried to snap a picture with my silly little lime-green plastic disposable underwater camera. The shark rammed the cage, jostling us against the boat, bouncing us around like insects in a bug zapper.

Fabulous! I did it, I screamed to myself. I faced my fears. I went face to face with one of the earth's oldest, most enduring things--not to even mention the shark, I had faced my fear of cages, and I had won.

"Dude, I am seriously ready to get out of this thing now," I said to the crew, who awkwardly hoisted me up. More sharks arrived, five in total. A small shark actually poked his head six inches into the cage, freaking out the Cape Town boys, who were the last to dive. They covered their horror with youthful machismo.

A spectacular red South African sunset greeted us as we hit the dock. My last impression of the great white is that its reputation, primarily Hollywood-inspired, is terribly unjust. They are actually shy creatures that have little interest in us humans and must be goaded and prodded to join the party. And as for that monstrous clumsy beast that slammed into our cage and scared the holy crap out of us? Well, I dined out that night on the most delicious shark steak I have ever eaten. Touche. I was relaxed and confident that the next cages I would see would be filled with Cape Town go-go boys, the kind of meaty lures I'm most comfortable with.
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Title Annotation:Sweat
Author:Shafer, Dirk
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Column
Geographic Code:6SOUT
Date:Aug 17, 2004
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