The Experience of Encountering White Sharks in a Watery Contact Zone
"I am just here! Suspended in the liminality of dream and awakening, abyss and light. Even if just five feet away from the surface and the other humans on the boat, you are isolated from the rest of the familiar universe. All you can perceive are the ethereal images created from your own demons and fantasies intertwined with what is there 30 feet in front and below of you, and things that lay unseen beyond. These images play hide-and-seek with the throbbing streaks of light penetrating the turquoise blue. As depth increases, light decreases, so does colour and contour. 11.3-degree water just standing and waiting, my five-millimetre neoprene suit is no longer keeping me warm. Like shards of glass, the drops capture minute newfound air pockets every once in a while. I clear the water out of my mask with forced air from my nose, and bite on hard on my regulator… Suddenly, there is a shift of energy in the water…" (Aich, in Press).
In this paper I introduce the agentic ability of water in the embodied experience of encounters between two species of different worlds- humans and white sharks (Carcharodon carcharias). It is based on a six-year long anthropological ethnography among them. White sharks are the largest predatory fish. Tourist from all over the world travel to Bluff, the last town of mainland South Island New Zealand, get on a small boat, travel across the treacherous Foveaux Strait to an uninhabited island called Edwards Island, and get in an aluminium cage suspended in the water for one chance to experience being with the animal of their dreams and nightmares in their natural environment. But this experience is as much shaped by the agency of the water it takes place in and on, as much the agency of the humans, sharks, and material matters involved. The cage and the water become the stage for the experience, and a unique marine contact zone. The encounters that happen between humans and other beings happens in embodied social and geographical spaces often termed as a contact zone. Here, varied cultures meet, clash and grapple with each other. Such contact zone negotiations are vastly different from their usual anthropocentric perspectives and norms, emergent from physical and conceptual boundaries, and 'us' and 'them'. But instead of being inert matter, the water of the Foveaux not merely provides a contact zone, but acts as a dynamic and organic agentive actor which minutely shapes the human experience of the shark encounter.
Being a marine practice, the affective agency of the water could be felt in every aspect- from planning the tours, travelling to Edwards, waiting, attracting the sharks, encountering them underwater, and returning. In the Foveaux strait, trips were often
cancelled on the morning itself because of the turbulent and unpredictable water. Even if the cage diving operators were able to leave Bluff for Edwards in the morning, the temperament of the water of the day, had significant effect on the comfort of the trip. If the weather was fine, the tourists were out on the deck, happy and talking, but if the weather was bad with high waters, sometimes as high as seven-meter, the journey could be scary. Tourists got sick, started vomiting and even needed assistance. And more than the fear of the sharks, the fear of the treacherous water was what was on every one's mind.
Even if the boat was able to reach Edwards, if the water was too choppy, then the equipment including the cage could not be put underwater, so all the operators could do was wait. The operators used to call the cage the "washing machine" precisely because it could get quite turbulent in there. Furthermore, if it rained, and the weather was gloomy, the mood on the boat could also get cold and gloomy, especially if the sharks did not come for a long time. The weather above the water shaped the weather below. Too much wind caused choppy short waves, if there was too much sun light it was hard to spot the sharks from the surface because of glare, whereas it was a better viewing condition under water; if there was less glare it could work the other way around. If the currents were not favourable, the burly that was put in the water to attract the sharks, could not reach out far enough creating a scent corridor to attract them. Alternatively, if the currents were too heavy, the sharks could have been swimming underwater, but did not come to the surface and close enough to the cage for tourist to see them, because they would have to spend significant amount of energy swimming in heavy currents.
The water also dictated the technologies to be used for the cage diving practice. Both the material matters and water had agentic impact on each other, ultimately shaping the human experience. The tourists not only had to learn how to breathe underwater for the first time; but endure the cold water, habituate with the dynamics of the cage space and also control their fear of the sharks just outside the cage. Not only was the cage a distinctive geographical existence that was located in a particular area of water, it was a psychological one between the worlds of the sharks and the worlds of the humans. In this embodied experience, this geographical space of 12ft in length by five ft wide was 'safe' and suspended the potentiality of humans being under the sharks in the food chain, if the humans adhere to the rules of the sharks and the cage. The equipment essential for creating a temporary sustainable habitat inside the cage were the 'on-body' diving adaptors, which we can further segregate as the breathing adaptors and the sensory adaptors. The breathing adaptors were the regulators, and air hoses. The sensory adaptors were the goggles, the wetsuit, gloves, booties, and weighted belts. The cold waters of the Foveaux (averaging from 12-15 degree Celsius), were not the best for any divers in a five-millimetre wetsuit staying static inside the cage. The first shock that everyone got was the water, especially in the bare skin around their face. For many divers, it was the chill of the water that got them out of the cage, and not necessarily the sharks. All the equipment had to work in some form of temporary synergy for the humans to be able to bare this cold water and indeed see the unpredictable sharks.
Inside the cage, the meeting with the sharks was dictated by as much as the agency of the water as the sharks themselves. The camouflaging colour of the sharks helped them disappear in an instance, especially if the water was murky. Visibility was affected by sunlight and suspended particles in the water on that day. White Sharks may often come near the vicinity of the boat- interested by the burley trail and to make circles near the seabed, but never to the surface. Especially in those situations, if water was extremely murky then the tourist in the cage would never be able to see the sharks. Furthermore, the air bubbles produced by the exhaling of the humans underwater often connected the sharks and the humans transcending the walls of the cage. The bubbles attracted the sharks but created a situation of disorientation for the divers who wanted to see them as clearly as possible.
Once the encounter was successful, that is the humans were able to meet the sharks, it was time to go back. Travelling back to Bluff in unfavourable weather and high water was a scary encounter, however if the water was calm, the tourist would be sitting quietly close with their loved once, no longer cold or wet, smiling and reliving the experience, as the captain brought them back to safety with a steady hand. At the end, the memory of the experience shall always remain in their mind as diving with white sharks in the Foveaux Strait is as much an encounter with the sharks of Foveaux but the waters of Foveaux as well.