Lets head back to 1994 and my first trip to Durban. I found myself on Addington Beach with some young professional cricketers about to swim out into the warm Indian Ocean as part of their fitness regime. I was a child who grew up having watched the movie ‘Jaws’ and have never been a great lover of the ocean since. I had swum in the sea many times and not long prior to my first trip to KwaZulu Natal had spent time in and on the sea around the Islands of Tahiti, Moorea and Bora Bora. To help overcome my apprehensions when in Australia I had even taken a PADI diving course on the Great Barrier Reef. After spending time exploring the reef it made me think that maybe my days under the ocean were over and it was time to quit on a high. I did however swim out from Addington Beach that day to a sandbar. I asked the others, half jokingly. “Do you get sharks here?” I was greeted with, quizzical looks, laughter and expressions of, “Is he serious?”
Winding the clock on twenty one years to the present I am driving from Durban, right past Addington Beach, on my way to the South Coast. I have been nervous for a few days, possibly weeks. I had been exchanging text messages with John who I am meeting on the South Coast to see if our trip is on. The last text says “high northerly winds expected, looking doubtful” This made me more nervous as now I was worried about the sea conditions as well.
There is something about the South Coast of KZN that just relaxes you. I am not sure what it is. It could be the big blue sky and gentle breezes blowing through banana palms and Natal strelitzias. It could just be the laid back string of seaside towns that sit one after the other sandwiching the beaches between themselves and the ocean.
Reaching my accommodation at Rocky Bay Resorts I felt pretty relaxed. Parking my vehicle under the stilts of A3, my log cabin number, I took in the sea air and headed up to the front door. From here I could see and hear the surf rolling in and breaking on the beach. The cabins have everything you need to self cater but I had only bought snacks as I planned on eating at the on site restaurant. Wasting no time I strolled the resorts grounds and as tempted as I was by the swimming pool I opted to keep dry for the day. There are nature trails and even mountain bikes to hire as well. I wanted to see the beach and within a few minutes I was there. It was whilst walking down there that I got a text from John. “ok mate we are all go tomorrow 6.20am rocky bay thanks”. The nerves were back.
The beach at Rocky Bay was a great place to calm the nerves. There were individuals and families relaxing, strolling and fishing. I sat just above the boat launch site and absorbed my surroundings. I did paddle, only ankle deep, and explored the rock pools. There are some heavily weathered rocks, incredibly smooth and Neolithic like, that reminded me of standing stone circles at home here in the UK. On the pathway back to Rocky Bay I stood and watched mud crabs swimming in the small estuary as Southern Red Bishop birds flew amongst the reed beds.
Sitting on my raised deck back at the cabin, feeling hungry and thinking about dinner, I again found myself watching and listening to the Indian Ocean. For someone who is not a fan of the sea I have spent an awful lot of time next to it. The noise and view is occasionally broken by a passing train heading parallel to the beach on raised tracks. Next time I am in KZN I must look at using the train.
I could still hear the ocean from Casa Ballena Restaurant, a mere two minute walk from my cabin. Maybe this swayed me to choose calamari? The bar staff and waiting staff were friendly and the food was great. This really helped me enjoy my evening and feel as relaxed as I could. The bar and restaurant had a feel to it that reminded me of local pubs at home. There were even locally brewed beers from a south coast brewery.
I wake in darkness the next morning well before my alarm goes off. As I walk under the railway embankment the sun is just appearing over the horizon. Looking down the beach there are already people about. The launch area has a trailer lined up complete with a boat. A boat complete with cage! Yes, today is the day when I am to get back into the ocean, in a shark cage. The rubber-duck with two outboard motors was smaller than I anticipated. A line from ‘Jaws’ goes through my mind. “We need a bigger boat” Undeterred I introduce myself to Brian and James the boats crew. They size me up and hand me a wetsuit. It must have been nerves but I put the wetsuit on back to front.
Captain John arrives and we meet for the first time after many emails and texts. “It looks rough out there” I say pointing at the surf. He smiles and simply says “Choppy mate, choppy mate” Under direction of the captain and crew we push the rubber-duck out into the ocean. I struggle to pull myself on board but Brian and James haul me in. John gives us our instructions and he cannot stress enough how important it is that we remain in eye contact when he is talking and that we do exactly as he says. He has over twenty five years of experience and I am more than confident in his ability and skills. Legs braced, feet in place under the safety straps, hands gripping the ropes behind us, out we head.
There are five of us on the back of the boat, me, three Germans and a young Chinese man, plus the crew. None of us have really spoken, except for the crew who keep asking how everyone is. We all keep nodding and smiling politely as we crash through the surf. John steers us around swells, slows then accelerates as we navigate the choppy ocean. He has clearly done this before and his expertise shows at reading the best pathway through the ocean. There is of course the occasional moment when the boat leaves the top of a wave and we drop down to the next one. This creates that roller coaster feeling of leaving your stomach behind.
On reaching our destination John puts Brian and James to work releasing the cage. He again gives us firm instructions on what is going to happen and what we are going to do. Life jackets off, underwater masks on. To my relief I am on the second dive, I need to mentally prepare. With one German in the cage, the Chinese diver is not ready to enter. “Mark, you are now up first, get in place” John tells me. I had to be prepared now. Deep breath, deep breath, take no notice of the fins circling the boat and cage, I think to myself. Taking the correct seated position I adjust my bottom and drop into the cage, touch the bottom and float back up. I am back in the Indian Ocean after twenty one years!
It is a little surreal at first and I am grateful of having James in the cage alongside me. He knows what he is doing and acts under Johns instructions. We have sharks in front of us and I am thinking we must have sharks behind us. They approach the cage and dart off into the abyss. Visibility is good and I can see them approaching so they do not come as a shock as they almost brush the cage. Snouts, teeth, fins and tails pass by us for the entirety we are in the cage.
Back on board John tells us of the plight of sharks in the ocean off KZN and the conservation efforts in place to protect them. We have had in the region of thirty sharks around us during our dive. Black tip, dusky and spinner have all been spotted, the biggest measuring up to three meters. There are many more species in the area including tiger, bull sharks, ragged tooth, hammerhead and whale sharks.
Have I overcome my fears of the Ocean? Will it be twenty one years until I get back into the Indian Ocean? Captain John, it has been an adrenalin fuelled adventure. I have your email address and your mobile phone number. Watch this space.