South Africa

travel

The real Shark Tank: cage diving with great whites in South Africa

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Often called one of the most exhilarating experiences on earth, I decided to try cage driving with great white sharks while visiting Cape Town for about a month. It seemed like a hell of a way to kick off my time in South Africa – daring, bucket list experience that I will never have to do again in life. And frankly, that’s exactly how I feel about it to this day. If you have a free day in Cape Town and want to try something different, then this experience may be for you. If you hate getting seasick, long boat rides and feeling a shark’s slippery skin rub on your bodysuit, this may NOT be for you.

There are dozens of cage diving operators in the area, so we took one that our hotel suggested (rookie mistake, as I usually do my own research and book something without a middle man getting kick-backs, but the hotel owner was a very kind man, and we trusted his suggestion). The operator is called Supreme Sharks, they are highly experienced – and a day with them (including transportation from Cape Town and back, breakfast, lunch, boat ride, cage diving, wet suit and diving mask) sets you back ~2,000 ZAR (~140 USD) per person, which seems astronomically high compared to prices in the rest of South Africa. Nonetheless, keeping in mind it was a once in a lifetime experience, why the hell not?

At 3:00 a.m., we got picked up from Cape Town in a small van along with a couple of others and began a ~3 hour journey to Gansbaai, a small town near “Sharkstown”.  You can get some shut-eye on this journey, the road isn’t too windy or bumpy.

Arriving at the Supreme Shark center, we were fed a hearty breakfast of eggs, ham and hot tea (which many should NOT have eaten, but I’m getting ahead of myself…). We were also asked to listen to important instructions and warnings, and we signed waivers, essentially relieving the company of all wrong-doing in case we became shark food. So on that cheerful note and a few nervous chuckles later, we selected our wet suits. Note: I’m not scuba-certified, nor do I want to be. It was my second time ever in a wet suit, and unfortunately I learned later that the size was completely wrong (too large) and I’d regret this. We also got dry bags to carry things like cameras and waters, but most of the stuff was left securely at the Center.

Cage diving operators “Supreme Sharks” begin easing their boat into shark-infested waters
Appropriately apprehensive about this insane thing I’m about to do

We walked to the boat aptly named “Great White” to begin a rough 30-minute voyage to a spot where we might find great white sharks. Now, you’re not guaranteed to see any sharks, nor are you compensated if you have this bad luck (I think they give you a discount on your next trip, but no money back…). They do, however, monitor tide levels and weather the day before, so the journey would be cancelled or postponed for safety reasons.

They asked everyone to change into the wetsuits over our bathing suits on board while the boat got anchored in the middle of the sea.

Wet-suited up and wanting a lollipop

This was 7:00 a.m. The weather was not in our favor yet, and we worried that visibility wouldn’t be great, which meant shark sightings could be limited. It was slightly overcast and cold as hell during the month of October. While we were changing, we got divided into 3 groups of 8, as only 8 people can fit into the cage at a time. We were in the second group, so we watched and learned as the first group climbed into the cage to face their fate.

“Helping” people in and out of the cage – I suppose it’s better than becoming shark food
Packed like a can of sardines

The boat captain then tried to lure any nearby sharks in by throwing  stinky chum out into the water on a rope. After what seemed like ages in tumultuously wavy waters, we heard the captain yell “Down! Down!” to the first group. Before I knew it, I saw an ugly gray, razor-like fin speed its way in our direction from below. I would even say the view from the top is more impressive than in the cage if visibility is bad. I stood, stunned and frozen (literally and figuratively) as my mind wrapped around the fact that I was going to be in these icy waters (which was literally about 19 degrees Celcius) moments from now, going head to head with has been ranked the greatest predator on earth. No big deal. I didn’t feel fear, just the usual anxiety. All I saw were rows of jagged teeth, big dead black eyes and that ghoulish fin.

Fins of foes
Comin’ in hot!

Getting after that shark bait

Finally it was our group’s turn. I got in the middle of the cage, putting my swimming mask on tight, and then I felt the cold water hit me like a ton of bricks, because the damn wet suit was a size too big. ARGH!! I decided to divert my attention on not being eaten by a shark instead as the top of the cage door slammed shut with a loud bang. Now all I could hear was the nauseating creakiness of the boat and metal cage rocking against the rise and fall of the sea, while the eight of us waited, partially submerged in the Atlantic Ocean. What sucks is they don’t give you the snorkeling breathing tube, just the mask for your nose and eyes – if you struggle with holding your breath under water, this could be very difficult.

It seemed like an eternity waiting and shivering, and I was about to say, “Get me the fuck out of here” when I heard the dreaded words, “Dive! Dive! Dive!” And intuitively, without taking a deep enough breath, I stuck my head below the water level and moved closer to the edge of the cage, forcing my eyes wide open.

Everything looked murky and green for a second, when I saw a shadow darting around. That can’t be the shark, can it? As the shadow transformed into that familiar gray mass of the predatory creature I saw from above, I caught a glimpse of the stinky chum swing just in front of the cage top, followed by those teeth!! HOLYSHIT! I was cage diving with a great white shark!  The shark came around the cage several more times, bumping the cage angrily as it couldn’t tear off all the chum on the hook. We waited for further signals to dive while we graciously replenished our oxygen in between. I had to remember to hold the cage bars that were NOT outwardly facing the shark… because I fully intended to come back with the 10 fingers I came with.

Dark shadows that turned out to be sharks
View from the cage
When the sharks tail/fin almost knocked the GoPro out of our hands!
They do get insanely close to the cage without actually being inside
Someone wanted breakfast.. and it wasn’t me!
Hangry noms! And those teeth…
Dead eyes, am I right??

After about 20-30 minutes in the cage and a few more appearances by Mrs. Great White (we learned there were several females in the area that morning), we climbed out of the cage.

Me behind two German girls – ready to get into some warm clothes

The third and last group went next, ironically having worse luck and fewer sightings. The captain asked if anyone else wanted to go a second time, but frankly, I had had enough. I was freezing cold, to a point I could not enjoy the experience anymore – and what’s worse, half of the people on the boat were at the edge losing their breakfast. And I’m one of those people who has a serious aversion to vomit. Luckily, I had taken a precautionary Dramamine that morning specifically fearing this situation – but the sight of everyone puking truly made even me feel green at the gills. Funny enough, the solution for seasickness onboard was sucking on these obnoxiously bright sugary lollipops. Literally, the whole boat was all all over them! I hope it helped…

Finally, we changed back into our dry, warm clothes as the boat turned around and made its way back to Gansbaai (by now it was around 11:00 a.m.). I could not WAIT to get off of that boat and kiss the ground. If you haven’t guessed by now, I’m an anxious traveler who get sweaty palms and nervous from all unpredictable turbulence, bumps, waves, turns and what not. But sharks? Meh.

One thing I should mention is there’s a professional videographer on board who captures this entire experience for your viewing pleasure. Honestly the boat got so wet and you’re concentrated on seeing sharks, that I didn’t even take our my own phone or pro camera once! So we opted to buy the footage (I believe it was around 30 USD), and it was worth it!

The divers that day

Once back on land (and after breathing a sigh of relief and swearing off boats for a solid year), we actually had worked up a hunger. Lunch was warm and tasty, while they played the video montage from that day on the screens. I purchased the photos and videos, and after that, it was time to head back to Cape Town (around 1:00 p.m.). On the journey back, the entire van was knocked out, including myself.

I may have dreamed of swimming with sharks on the ride back, but my memory is a bit hazy. Overall, it’s an experience I’m glad I did but don’t plan on doing ever again, unless I know the sea conditions are smooth, visibility is high, and my wetsuit fits like a glove!

Would you go diving with sharks? Share your experience or thoughts below!

travel

8 great places for the solo female traveler

Views over Machu PicchuView over Machu Picchu

I am a seasoned solo traveler, and I am immensely proud of this! Perhaps now, it’s less uncommon as it was several years ago, and my heart is full seeing other women embrace the experience of traveling alone. There is something liberating about exploring new places on your own schedule, trying new dishes and sipping a local beverage (Party of 1, what it do?) and the unknown of who you may meet.

Many women worry that traveling alone can be boring, unsafe or they just don’t really know what to do with themselves. I’m here to tell you that you have nothing to worry about, and that a solo adventure will teach you quite a bit about yourself. Here are some GREAT destinations you can try on your own, based on my experience.

1. Dubrovnik or Split, Croatia:

Brela, Croatia

Dubrovnik was actually my first solo trip while living in Russia. Croatia is a tremendously beautiful country, largely overshadowed by its Mediterranean neighbors like Greece and Italy. You can take day trips to islands from Split such as Brac or Hvar, or you can check out stunning Montenegro (Kotor Bay is really nice), or you can explore the medieval old towns in white limestone. Try some burek and crni rizot (black risotto). Learn some history about former Yugoslavia, which has shaped what Croatia is today. People are very nice, but beware going in the peak of summer, where every beach is super crowded with families and kids.

2. Santorini, Greece

Sunsets in Oia, Santorini

Don’t let anyone tell you Santorini is a honeymoon destination. I went alone and LOVED it, and I wasn’t on any honeymoon. In fact, I went in early May before the hoards of tourists arrived for summer, the weather was a bit chilly at night but hot enough during the day to soak up some sunshine. Price-wise, Santorini is not cheap, but if you go during the shoulder seasons, you can get some great deals on places that would otherwise cost an arm and a leg. I stayed in Oia, the picturesque village on the north end of the island with Instagram-worthy views. I did a day trip sailing throughout the caldera, swam in hot springs and enjoyed a fun lunch on board, where I met an amazing couple I still keep in touch with. For my fit vacay folks, you can hike from Oia to Imerovigli in several hours of hours, then take a bus to the volcanic beaches on the south side of the island. And Greek food and Santorini wines? DELICIOUS!

3. Jaipur, India

Jal Mahal, Jaipur

Okay, so India may have stolen a HUGE chunk of my heart, and going there alone engulfed me in so many emotions that I will never forget the experience. Its dirty streets cleansed my heart, ironically, at the risk of sounding completely cheesy. Indians are some of the kindest and most humble people I’ve met. I went in March, and I did a 4-day tour of the Golden Triangle with a private driver and tour, where you see New Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. While the Taj Mahal in Agra is a sight to behold and a must visit, Jaipur wins for a place for solo travel. Known as the pink city, the buildings do, in fact, shine in a salmon hues. Be sure to visit the Amer, or Amber fort, ride up by elephant if possible (a tourist cliche, but I was told their treatment is humane, before you judge me for exploiting animal rides!), and take in the majestic mountains of Rajastan. Check out the Man Sagar Lake with the Jal Mahal palace standing erect among its placid water.

4. Cusco, Peru

The Sacred Valley of Peru

Cusco is so much more than the Machu Picchu starting point. The culture, food and richness of the the architectural ruins throughout the region, nestled among the soaring Andes Mountains, is something everyone should witness. Despite how cold Cusco was when I went in September, the warmth I felt with the host family I stayed with still touches me today. I did a few day trips, including to Rainbow Mountain, Maras, Chinchero, Moray and Ollantaytambo. There are plenty of buses that go to each destinations, or you can opt for a private transfer, arranged through your accommodation. Treat yourself to a Pisco Sour after a day of hiking and exploring, plus some alpaca (to wear and eat!). It’s a lovely city filled with tons of other solo travelers, ones you’re sure to meet and befriend.

5. El Nido, Palawan, Philippines

Island hopping, El Nido, Palawan

I first went to the Philippines with my best friends for one of their weddings, and I knew I had to come back to explore more of this incredible country and its thousands of islands. El Nido, Palawan, is paradise on earth, very cheap, and beaches will transform your last ounce of stress  into pure relaxation. I came alone, but almost immediately I met really cool, new friends that I went island hopping with and partied until dawn. You can scuba dive, explore nearby islands, snorkel, sunbathe, kayak, hike – you name it. Palawan has it all! Try some lechon (a giant Filipino pig, literally) and pancit for some local flavoring. Note: the south part of the island can be quite dangerous for tourists, so I am recommending to stay in El Nido. Also, flying directly into El Nido from Manila is much more worth it than flying into Puerto Princesa and taking a 7-hour nauseating van ride.

6. Cape Town, South Africa

Lions Head, Cape Town

I was pleasantly surprised with how incredible and affordable Cape Town was, despite all the warnings I had heard about the dangers in South Africa. Granted, I stayed in nice, safe neighborhoods and away from any crime zones, but I don’t think I looked over my shoulder in fear once. There’s a rich and complex recent history to South Africa that has shaped its diverse culture, but everyone I met was very friendly and helpful. The beaches in Camps Bay are as picturesque as they come, with the Twelve Apostles of Table Mountain looming in the background. Check out hikes to Table Mountain and Lions Head for rewarding views of the land and sea, check out Robben Island to relive Nelson Mandela’s 27-year prison sentence, lounge with penguins in Boulders Beach, sip the country’s best wines in Stellenbosch, take in the magnificent view on Chapman’s Peak, and, of course, hike the southwestern most tip of the African continent at the Cape of Good Hope. Oh, and if you’re really feeling brave, why not go cage diving with great white sharks?

7. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Beijos from Rio

Get ready for a colorful, artistic and musical experience when in Rio. You won’t feel lonely for a second! In fact, after taking a very interesting walking tour of the Rocinha Favela (which I highly recommend), I met very cool new friends with whom I explored the rest of Rio for several days. Stay in Copacabana beach, walk through the iconic Ipanema beach (preferably while listening to “The Girl from Ipanema”), hike through the Tijuca forest, see the EXTREMELY crowded Corcovado Mountain with Jesus looming over the city, and explore the colorful, multicultural Escadaria Selarón. Be sure to try the many flavors of caipirinhas, the heavy typical dish Feijoada, and if you have a sweet tooth, Brigadeiros are to die for! Plenty of rich and fun nightlife in Rio de Janeiro – but of course samba music is what you should catch while in this fantastic city. Note: not all parts of Rio are safe, so I don’t recommend wearing anything too ostentatious while out, especially alone.

8. Tel Aviv, Israel

Relaxing in Rabin Square, Tel Aviv

Forget about everything you’ve heard from the media about Israel. It is hands-down one of the safest places I’ve ever been to in my life. Next, the people are the most vivacious and assertive you’ll encounter – with an obvious history and conflicts that have formed the attitudes and ideals of the Jewish State. Politics aside, I have been to Israel six times, and each time I fell in love with Tel Aviv more and more. Try some yummy Shakshuka for breakfast, relax or play Matkot on the long stretch of Mediterranean coast with extremely clear water, or take a day trip to Jerusalem for some spiritual enrichment (or just to explore a new city, whatever floats your boat!). Let me tell you: solo female travelers won’t stay solo for long here. Between the hoards of extremely attractive men who will be vying for your attention and the super friendly groups who are always welcoming to strangers, especially if you are alone and don’t a place to have Shabbat dinner, you will quickly feel a sense of family here. A remarkable place, where the nightlife rages 7 days a week!