28 September 2011

Meeting a raggie face to face

Catherine Lanz-Hofmeyr

Catherine Lanz-Hofmeyr is a freelance travel writer who counts among her employers Getaway magazine, for which she worked as a photojournalist for 10 years. This article about diving with the ragged-tooth sharks at the Two Oceans Aquarium was originally posted on the website for Sanlam’s lifestyle programme, Reality. We loved it so much that we simply had to share.

Since I was a small child I have always loved aquariums – loved looking at the fish and watching them doing their thing from the other side of the glass. Not having gills, it never occurred to me that I might one day become an aquarium exhibit myself. While doing a diving course upgrade recently, someone mentioned that you can dive with the sharks in the I&J Predator Exhibit at the Two Oceans Aquarium at Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront.

Photography by Geoff Spiby

Which is how, a few days later I found myself in the company of the Aquarium’s dive master, Ian Robertson, and four ragged-tooth sharks – still fortunately behind glass – as Ian conducted our pre-dive briefing in front of the I&J Predator Exhibit.

The biggest raggie was about two-and-a-half metres in length. Apparently the Aquarium catches smaller sharks, keeps them for a couple of years, then releases them back into the ocean before they grow too big. So I wouldn’t be meeting any four-metre-plus creatures. The other good news is the water temperature in the shark exhibit is a reasonable 18 degrees Celsius.

Photography by Geoff Spiby

After the briefing and info session it was upstairs through the slightly fishy smelling corridors of the Aquarium where the public don’t normally go, to get kitted up in full wetsuits and scuba gear. Fully kitted we moved to the little launch platform above the exhibit. Below, those dark cruising shapes were suddenly starting to look rather big.

Ian filled me in on a few more points of etiquette. “The sharks might come very close, but don’t try to touch them. They are sometimes hand fed by divers so might mistake your fingers for a tidbit. Remember, unlike the open ocean, here they don’t have anywhere to escape so don’t do anything that will make them think they are trapped.”

Ian then produced his only means of defense against the ocean’s super predator – a short, blunt length of broomstick. “For prodding, in case the sharks get too interested in either of us.”

With that we plopped into the exhibit, down the rock face to settle ourselves on the bottom for 30 to 40 minutes of interacting with the inhabitants of the exhibit. My young daughter Kira, watching from the other side of the glass, kept pointing behind and above to warn when a shark was coming. It was quite an odd feeling to wave and smile at her while the sharks cruised between us. 

Photography by Geoff Spiby

The raggies, I’m pleased to say, mostly gave me the cold shoulder, treatment that was bordering on rudeness. But they did swim so close that I could see their beady eyes at work and clearly understand why this species is called a ragged-tooth shark.

Of course, there aren’t just sharks in this exhibit. Two very large dusky kobs showed so much interest in me and my bubble blowing that Ian had to prod them away more than once.

Most entertaining of all the critters were the [loggerhead] turtles. A small, cheeky one came to nibble a strand of my hair. Finding nothing of sustenance there he swam round to my mask, staring me straight in the eyes with a quizzical look. Later we swam around to the dark recesses of the exhibit where the big, ugly, knob-nosed black musselcrackers hang out.

After a bit more time spent chatting to the turtles, we ascended slowly up the wall, just to diminish the chance of surprising a cruising shark, and emerged with all fingers and toes intact.

I thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience, which is a great way to interact closely with all sorts of large predators, including rays, in relatively safe conditions. And if you’re a diver, it’s a rather unusual and special entry for your logbook.

Photo courtesy SenzEnina

Divers have to have an open water scuba qualification, which you can get at the Aquarium’s dive school. If you’ve got an advanced qualification you can also dive in the Kelp Forest Exhibit and feed the fish. Try it when you’re next in Cape Town – you won’t regret it.

Book your dive at https://www.aquarium.co.za/shop/buy/diving/ or phone +27 (0)21 418 3823 for more details.

Come and sea for yourself

Diving with our ragged-tooth sharks costs from R450 for non-members using Aquarium gear – but you can pay as little as R338 if you are a Solemate (with valid membership) with your own gear.

Click here for more information about our dives and to book your slot now.

Remember to buy your tickets online to save money and time. We’re also running an incredible cut-price family membership special until the end of November, saving you up to R220.

No kids? No problem. Aquarium membership is discounted online. Buy now.

Stay in touch: For daily Aquarium updates, follow us on Twitter (@2OceansAquarium) and become a fan on Facebook.

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