In the Realm of the Tiger Shark

These sharks cast a kind of spell — you desperately want them to stay, but they command too much respect to even consider chasing them.

The sun was shining on Aliwal Shoal that morning, and the sea was pure sapphire, clear to the horizon. As we sped out through the breakers, we could see the seafloor so clearly through the crystal water that it was like looking through a window. The ocean was flat and oily calm, reflecting myriad shifting shades of grey and blue upon its surface. When we got to the site, there were several other boats already out there, inevitably drawn by the idyllic conditions. I could see all the way to the bottom, even here, almost two miles from shore — occasionally, a blacktip shark appeared beneath us in a shimmering streak of liquid bronze.

We decided to leave the other boats and bait a few hundred feet further south. Slipping into the water was like surrendering to a different state of being: 360 degrees of clear, endless blue, punctuated with darting shoals of yellow-tipped kingfish and the ever-circling shiver of shining sharks. We had blacktips all around, but today we sought the Shoal’s famous tigers, and so we ascended after a while, and motored back to the other boats hovering over the drop off. By this time, they’d attracted three tiger sharks to the bait drum; we only had to wait for the melee to subside, and for the other divers to ascend, to have the tigers all to ourselves. Eventually, that’s exactly what happened.

You can’t possibly miss a shark with such presence and beauty. The tigers are a world apart from the blacktips, not only because they are so much bigger and more impressive, but also because they have an inexplicable, entirely unique feline grace. In the end, we were surrounded by four of them, their silver-striped forms materializing out of the depths and melting away in repetitive, cyclical synchrony.

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One of them, recognizable by the blue and black pilot fish hovering by her jaw, came closer to us each time. We would be watching the others, and then turn around to find her mere feet behind us. She would swim directly towards us, and then, just as her great wide head got a little too close for comfort, she would imperceptibly alter course and swim by, watching us closely with her great black eyes. I never felt threatened, and I found myself willing them all to come closer. These sharks cast a kind of spell — you desperately want them to stay, but they command too much respect to even consider chasing them. You wait, and if you are lucky, they will honor you with their proximity.

We spent over an hour with the tigers, coming up only on the very last of our air. I could have stayed with them forever. On the surface, I could not stop smiling; I felt that we had just been privy to something incredibly special. All the way back to shore, I reveled in the unique expansion of the soul that only comes from finding oneself completely aligned with nature, if only for one brief, magical moment in time.