Kirsty Andrews tells the story of a surprise encounter in the rich waters of South Africa’s Aliwal Shoal.

How can I describe this encounter? I’m pretty sure I won’t do it justice, but I feel compelled to try. 

I’ve always been drawn to sharks; to me they’re so beautiful; graceful, powerful, sleek, faintly mysterious and altogether just fabulous to be around. And they’re so important. It’s been well documented that sharks, often the top predators on a reef, are key to a healthy marine ecosystem. Not documented by the gutter press of course, who persevere with Jaws-inspired man-eater headlines just to gain a few clicks, thereby maintaining a mostly unjustified fear and dislike of sharks in Joe Public.  

It was my shark fascination that took me to South Africa for my overseas trip this year; to Aliwal Shoal, on the cusp of ragged-tooth-shark breeding season. Many oceanic sharks had headed South to feast on sardines, but I was hoping for quality time with the goofy looking daytime-sleeping ‘raggies’, and I wasn’t disappointed. 

I saw the outline of a shark ahead, and it just got bigger, and bigger, and was swimming straight towards me

It was the last dive of our trip (it always is, isn’t it) – we descended and dutifully followed our dive guide Spencer in the accepted manner. All of a sudden, only minutes into the dive, he dropped his ultra-relaxed demeanour and indicated rather forcibly by means of waving and other gestures that we should head for the edge of the reef, pronto, in fact faster than that if possible. Talking later, I understand that he had seen a silhouette which was unmistakable.

I duly put on a lick of speed. I thought, oooh, perhaps an animal I hadn’t seen before. In this I was correct. As I swam, I saw the outline of a shark ahead, and it just got bigger, and bigger, and was swimming straight towards me, and it dawned on me… this was a Great White Shark. An animal I’d never thought I’d be lucky enough to see in my lifetime, if I’m honest. Heading straight at me looking relaxed and curious, if anything. Time seemed to stop. Subconsciously I held my breath and just admired the spectacle briefly. As she approached, a majestic female over 4m in length, I saw her turn, swim past the group and with barely a ripple of her solid muscles, head back out into the blue, giving us a memory to cherish forever. 

My heart was beating hard and, after a series of delirious high-fives with my dive buddies, I spent the rest of the dive in a daze.

Friends have asked me since whether I was scared, even a little bit. The answer is a resounding no. Exhilarated, yes, mind-blown, probably. I just didn’t have time to be scared in this brief encounter, but even if I’d thought about it, no, even with such a fearsome hunter. 

If she’d thought of me as prey, that’s what I’d’ve been before I’d had a chance to think about it, but she just saw me as a confusing bubble-blowing visitor to her world. She was relaxed and a little intrigued, and I count myself incredibly grateful to have shared precious time with such a wonder of our oceans. One of our group had been diving for decades and had run a dive centre in Aliwal for 14 years, diving every day. This was her fifth Great White encounter. I wonder if I will ever have a second. I wonder if my shark will avoid the longlines and the nets and the fin trade and live a long successful life. I do hope so. 

Article 'The Visitor' by Kirsty Andrews first published in SCUBA magazine, Issue 138 September 2023.

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