Yesterday, I swam with sharks and it was all thanks to my swimming teacher. Sort of like knowing you would have never completed that latest, important report, spreadsheet or slide deck for work without the invaluable contribution of your grade 1 to 3 teachers for the whole “learning to read and write” thing. This latest, death-defying accomplishment of mine would not have been possible without a swimming teacher who instilled in me the love of water and taught me the necessary foundational swimming skills. Ironically, this was the same person who was absolutely mortified when I told her the story – my mom.

Just off of the Scottburgh coastline, there is a magical place called Aliwal Shoal – a marine-protected area and one of the best scuba diving sites in the world, despite the relentless currents on the ocean floor. Taking a trip by boat, going on a snorkelling or scuba diving trip to this area guarantees you some magical sights and sounds. Scores of fish, manta rays, turtles, dolphins, whales and sharks await your gaze on this journey. This is a story of my most recent trip to Aliwal Shoal, which turned into one of the most memorable experiences of my life and one in which I reflected on the long-lasting impact made on me by my swimming teacher.

It all started as an ordinary, snorkelling trip…

I have been dying to head back to 18m below the surface (a depth specifically restricted by my open water diving licence), and explore the ocean floor below. But with the whole recent Covid-19 positive thing, I’ve decided to wait a couple of months before scuba diving again. I also want to get the all-clear from my pulmonologist, having a history of asthma. I know, I know, I seem to be an absolute bundle of health. My girlfriend, Gemma, also decided to head on this journey with me and it really wouldn’t have been fun for her to snorkel above while I explored the coral reef below. Chivalry is not dead, it seems – what a gentleman. Anyway, we called up an amazing organisation, Oceans Alive, who promised amazing sea conditions and a boat ride to remember.

And they were right – exceptional water conditions met us on our way out to sea, with hardly any waves blocking our path. The odd pod of bottle-nosed dolphins, distant whales launching themselves out of the water and the biggest turtle I have ever seen met us along the way. We then stopped in a supposedly random spot. The skipper made his way to the back of the boat and took out a box of sardines and started tossing them aggressively at the silky smooth, dark blue water beneath us. Another person on the boat took a large flipper and started beating the surface aggressively. Something was most certainly up. All of us on the boat gazed with a mixture of anticipation and excited expectation.

And then we were surrounded.

Hundreds of sharks (more like ten to twenty, but hundreds sounds way more impressive and dramatic) emerged on the surface, fins gliding ominously as the dramatic sounds of Jaws played from an invisible speaker. They circled the boat, bared their teeth and fought each other off as they made desperate dashes for the sardines lingering in the water.

Apparently, the sharks were blacktips, and prey only on small fish and crustaceans, while being one of the safest species of sharks to dive with. For this story, let’s not focus on this small detail. Rather let’s focus on the fact that these sharks grow to roughly 2m in length, weigh like 150 kg and swim way way way faster than me (or Michael Phelps in the now illegal suits used in Beijing 2008).

All-in-all, this was an exceptional experience and an amazing sight to see from the boat. So then, I’m sure you would be fairly surprised that the skipper then asked who would like to hop into the water. You would probably be even more surprised to find out that I quickly took off my shirt, popped on a snorkel, mask and fins (sadly, not Spurt fins) and awaited the command of the skipper to drop into the shark-infested water below. If so, you wouldn’t be alone – you should’ve seen how the colour drained from my girlfriend’s face (that said, she still managed to take some amazing pictures, like the one in the feature image of this article).

It promised to be like dropping into one of my nightmares – the one where I swim in a clear blue Virgin Active pool with sharks moving sneakily below. But how often is one presented with such an opportunity – despite the anxiety that now gripped my body, I took comfort from the fact that the skipper would probably not let me into the water if something bad was very likely going to happen (well, I could only logically hope for the best).

Strict instructions specific to snorkelling with sharks were given, pretty much to save a hand or foot.

Apparently, my very pale, UK-resident type skin tone resembled the reflective hues of a fish and was likely to draw the sharks’ attention. Also, diving with sharks in a wetsuit was more advisable than a pair of baggies – not very comforting, when all I had was a pair of baggies. I was also told not to move my hands frantically (in other words, “Do not panic”), as this would look like a tasty fishy snack for the surrounding predators. Finally, I was instructed not to move my fins too much, as this would also attract unwanted attention (as the skipper said, my fins were a tasty yellow).

Safety in numbers was the final helpful piece of advice as the three brave water adventures dropped into the 20-degree water below (water temp was certainly not too much of a priority at this stage). I tried to move with the group while remembering not to use my hands or feet at all. Imagine moving around in a large bucket of oil, while wrapped in a potato bag, legs tied together, blindfolded – this is what moving in the water felt like without having access to my hands or feet. But by some miracle, I maintained my buoyancy and hovered precariously from the boat trying my best to stay with the other two brave souls.

The sharks were a little too curious for my liking

Lowering my eyes into the water was surreal. Sure, watching from the boat was exhilarating, but being eye level with a number of sharks moving around you was exhilarating times one thousand. The sharks were very curious about the new strange creatures that had entered their territory and often came a little too close for my liking.

I was reminded of the strict instructions on a number of occasions, as I felt the predators bump into my fins. Feeling the smooth, slick backline of a shark that swam directly beneath me, had me repositioning my hands, tucking them close to my body to avoid any further touches or worse, unfortunate losses.

I’m a swimmer and so hovering using a natural scull is how I have been brought up… I’m not generally too reliant on a kick, but that’s always helpful when the scull is lazy. Now imagine me, 7km off the coast of Scottburgh, surround by blacktip sharks, unable to scull or move my legs, really out of fear of them being mistaken for a fish.

And it was at this moment that I acknowledged the importance of having an incredible learn-to-swim instructor.

Swimming doesn’t start out as a sport. It starts off as a life skill. And if the imparting of this life skill is done right, swimming becomes a love for a lifetime. It’s not only about learning to float, perfecting a symmetrical butterfly and tightening up a smooth underwater. It’s about being equipped with the skills so that when you’re on a boat in the middle of the Indian Ocean surrounded by sharks, you have the confidence to climb in and float (albeit without the use of your hands or feet).