Cage diving eye to eye with Great White sharks

Eye to eye with White Death

The picture above gives a good impression of what it feels like to be suspended beneath the ocean surface, almost like bait on a line. You are in a seemingly flimsy cage, that seems to be more holes than protection, and a creature the size of an MPV, though more streamlined, cruises by within feet giving you the cold black eye.

You also know that with its unrivaled array of senses, the shark is not only aware of the electrical impulses in your body, but can also sense how fast your heart is beating. If you are scared, the shark knows it, so you stay calm and concentrate on your breathing and forget Jaws.

Little did I think a few months beforehand that I would find myself in that exact situation, but when friend and BBC natural history producer Sue Flood showed me her Great White picture that had made the front cover of BBC Wildlife magazine, I remember saying something along the lines of, ‘oh for such an opportunity’!

A short while later came the call from Sue, she was making another shark trip to get new footage and pictures and would I like to come along. As a recently qualified PADI diver, I didn’t even think before saying yes and it was only later that all those Jaws films and my own slightly superstitious dread of these amazing creatures re surfaced.

Anchored off Guadeloupe lowering the dive cage

Anchored off Guadalupe lowering the dive cage

When we arrived the next morning, the cages were made ready, but surely those holes were way too big, a shark could get its head in there couldn’t it? Too late now, we were a long way from home and no turning back . Despite qualms, I was first into the right hand cage and so hyped I forgot to ask for my camera to be passed down on that first dive.

Within seconds of entering the cage and clearing my regulator, a large Great White cruised past my side of the cage so close I could have touched it.

I didn’t, as the dive-master had pointed out that others attempting such heroics had ended up minus an arm, so fast can the Great White turn, belying it’s massive size.

Seldom if ever in my life can I remember such a feeling that I can only describe as a sort of primeval chill as when that first shark passed. I imagine it is something like our cave dwelling ancestors must have felt confronting a sabre-tooth. You are fully aware of your own mortality and just how far down the food chain you are in this creature’s environment.

Great White Shark Photographed Off Guadalupe

Five days of great shark watching, photography, post dive cocktails and jiving in the sunshine on deck to the Stevie-Ray Vaughan tracks blasting out of the shark boat’s public address system followed.

Tunacam provided the BBC Wildlife team with a prey's-eye-view of being swallowed by a Great White!

Tunacam provided the BBC Wildlife team with the first prey’s-eye-view of being swallowed by a Great White!

We had plenty of good shark action, the professionals were in the cage most of the day and Doug Alan also got an amazing shot with a remote camera in a fish head known as ‘Tuna-cam’, I also captured the moment as the shark devoured fish head, camera and all, from the boat.

As a newbie diver and as I also had a fairly thin borrowed wet suit and it gets cold down there as you wait, I restricted myself to a couple of dives a day, but it was enough, I was overwhelmed by the experience, it was awesome. On one dive I made on our last day, with only me and one of the wranglers in the cage, we got almost more than we bargained for as a psycho Great White slammed head on into our cage and repeatedly tail slammed us. It felt like being in a tumble-drier! The camera (EOS30) and housing performed well and I was also able to get some shaky video from my Sony Handicam that I had also brought along in a Ewa-marine housing and thank goodness, because there is a sting in this tale.

On returning to the UK, I immediately took my underwater films in to process and returned to the lab a couple of hours later, jet lagged, but happy and expectant. The lab technician was ashen faced – a cog had broken in the processing machinery and someone had tried to open the machine to see what was wrong, without ensuring the surroundings were light-safe. All the films that had bunched up pre-developer like mine were ruined! Be warned, photographers may not be covered by the lab’s insurance under such circumstances – I wasn’t.

There are several cautionary morals to be drawn – If you are shooting film, then shoot as much as you can and perhaps don’t put all your important films in for process simultaneously like I did. If possible shoot digital as well, and back-up as soon as possible – I do now.

I’ll probably never quite get over losing those underwater films, but luckily I still have my surface shots and still-grabs from the handycam footage and besides such was the power of the experience that I have thousands more shots imprinted directly on my brain and those will be with me always!