|Face-to-face with great white sharks: What it's REALLY like to go cage diving with the ocean's mightiest predators|
You're stranded at sea, head bobbing just above the surface, three great white sharks encircling you. It's the stuff of nightmares.
But what if you're in a cage? Do the thin metal bars and the knowledge that you are technically safe eradicate the fear?
That's what I set off to find out when I took myself shark cage diving in Gansbaai, the most shark-infested waters in the world, located a two-hour drive from South Africa's Cape Town.
I abhor animals kept in zoos and I most certainly don’t like aquariums, so the prospect of me being the one behind bars while the sharks got on with their lives felt very fair.
|Up close: The dive took place in Gansbaai, the most shark-infested waters in the world, located two hours from South Africa's Cape Town|
I went with a company called Marine Dynamics, which charges 1750 Rand (£92) for the dive, based on their award-winning track record with conservation. In addition to its cage diving and whale watching tours, the operation runs a penguin sanctuary, and studies the sharks to help protect them.
Our vessel is the SlashFin, carrying 30 passengers, and it takes about 20 minutes to get out to the shark's domain - the same time it took for me to contort myself into a full-body wetsuit, flopping around the deck like a convulsing caterpillar.
As the anchor dropped, skippers on the boat released 'chum' - an enticing mixture of fish oils – into the water, and chucked around a fake seal made of wood to summon the attention of the sharks.
It doesn't take long for a few to appear, as the passengers peer over the side straining to make out the ominous dark shadows.
|The cage is set so that your head is just above the surface, but there are handrails in front of you which you use to dip under|
The sharks are entranced by the dummy seal, circling it a few times before exploding out of the water and into the air, teeth bared; over and over again as the skipper yanks the seal away at the last moment.
I asked the marine biologist on board why the sharks don’t get fed-up of chasing a chunk of wood. At no point do they get given real food. What's in it for them?
She likened it to a kitten playing with a ball of thread. They know it’s not food, but the chase is rewarding and, especially for the young sharks, it’s good practice.
The time had now come for me to enter a small cage roped onto the side of a boat - heart hammering - and plunge underwater to meet these, the scariest creatures on the face of the earth.
|Annabel Fenwick Elliott, 29, cage dived in South Africa's Gansbaai, the most shark-infested waters in the world|
Disconcertingly, as I wobbled down the ladder into the cage, its lid flung open, a particularly frisky shark leaped out of the water behind me and sank its teeth into the wooden seal, fast as a firework, only feet away from my head.
'Can’t the shark jump into the top of the cage?!' I hissed. 'I think you should close the lid.'
The skippers giggled in the face of my panic and assured me that, no, the shark would not jump in through the top of cage.
In fact, only a few months ago the boat’s videographer fell into the water after a shark tried to eat the GoPro off his pole. Rather than feast on him, all the great whites shot off, startled by his human splash, and didn’t re-appear for three days.
Armed with this anecdote, I shuffle down to the far end of the cage. Six other wetsuit-clad, mask-wearing cage divers slithered in next to me and the lid clamped shut.
|Inches away: This way, you can observe the sharks swimming towards you underwater, and pop your head up when they breach|
Almost immediately, I started hyperventilating; partly because the water was so shockingly freezing, but mainly because the primitive wedge of my brain was flooding the rational part with alarm signals.
I knew I was safely behind bars but I found myself pinned to the back of the cage, instinctively, as if by magnet.
The contraption is set so that your head is just above the surface, but there are handrails a few feet under that, which you use to pull yourself underwater.
This way, you can observe the sharks swimming towards you underwater, and pop your head up when their noses shoot out of the water to attack the wooden seal.
|Behind bars: In addition to the wooden seal (pictured) the skippers released 'chum' - an enticing mixture of fish oils - into the sea|
The skippers on the boat, who can spot the sharks’ shadows slicing through the water from an impressive distance, periodically yell 'down left!' or 'down right!' and then we all plunge ourselves underwater and swivel our heads in unison to spot the beast, like a flock of gormless pigeons.
So here’s the surprising bit: great whites are really very beautiful, very elegant, very peaceful, very likeable, and not that scary.
They may look chaotic and terrifying when they breach the surface, but underwater they transform into sleek silver bullets. Once I stopped hyperventilating, I was enamoured.
For more info : http://white-shark-diving.com/packages/