Seeing is Believing by David Macfie
“I read an article today, about an extinct mega-shark called Megalodon.”
So said my surfer buddy, Paul. He was always reading obscure stuff, particularly about sharks, which had fascinated him for years. I sensed that he had more to come so I just fixed him with an interested look and encouraged him.
“And…” I said.
“This baby was big, bro, really big, maybe the biggest fish ever,” he replied fervently.
“How big?” I encouraged again.
“Maybe three times the size of a Great White. That’s like a nightmare looking for a place to happen, not so?”
“Sure is, but I assume this beastie is long dead. Am I right?”
“Some experts reckon it lived from about twenty-three million years ago until about three point six million years ago, then there’s no more evidence of it.”
“So, your nightmare isn’t going to happen, right?”
“Don’t be so sure, Shaun,” he said, looking serious. “Some guys think this sucker is still around somewhere in the world’s oceans.”
“You must be smoking something if you believe that,” I countered, with a chuckle that made him cross.”
“You’re too cynical, my friend,” he replied, with a bite in his voice. He was clearly pissed.
To mollify him I asked another question.
“How big did you say?”
“Up to eighteen meters long, with an average of ten and a half. Can you imagine how big that is? It’s bigger than a whale shark. Just think what it’d be like if it came towards you with its huge mouth open.”
“I am, and I think all my manly parts would shrivel up and fall off in the instant before I became a little snack before lunch.”
“But you might escape, being so small and all,” he suggested, enthusiastically. “This monster ate whales and the ancestors of killer whales and dolphins. All big stuff, so you would probably be beneath his notice.”
“That’s reassuring,” I commented, dryly.
Not put off, he continued.
“I got a picture showing the relative size of Meggie compared to great whites and a human swimmer. Check this out,” he said, handing me a printout.
“Shit, that is big,” I gasped, impressed despite my cynicism.
“I wish it still existed,” breathed Paul, eyes unfocused and staring into the distance. “Wouldn’t it be cool to see a shark that big?”
“Not going to happen, buddy,” I said. “But, still, it makes me think twice about our plan to go on a shark cage dive this weekend.”
“Ha, you’re a big chicken. Scared of an extinct shark, are you?”
So, Saturday at six thirty in the still dark morning, found us on Simonstown pier, not far from Cape Town. The small group of intrepid divers didn’t wait long before boarding the African Shark Eco-Tours boat and heading out into False Bay.
The guide explained that we were heading for Seal Island, where at this time of year, Great White Sharks come to hunt. He told us this can result in the awesome activity referred to as “Airjaws”, when the sharks leap out of the water in pursuit of a seal, a behavior known as breaching. He explained that this behavior happened in other areas, but not as often as in False Bay. He Then proudly announced that this had earned Seal Island the title of “Breaching Capitol of the World”. Our anticipation intensified, but we were a bit worried about the weather. It was cold, blustery and raining. As a result, the trip was rough and several of the passengers got seasick. Having lived in Cape Town all our lives, we were fine and concentrating on trying to spot the island.
As soon as it came into view, the boat slowed.
“We’re coming into the area where, breaching is commonest,” whispered the guide. “But it doesn’t always happen. Now, at sunrise, is the best time so look towards the island. We all did as the sun started to peep over the horizon. It was only just visible through the overcast conditions, but it gradually began to get light. The guide pointed and we saw two triangular fins cleave the dark water.
“We’re in luck,” commented the guide. “The Great Whites are here. Watch.”
We were bobbing on the water about fifty meters from the island and the fins were between us and the rocky haven for countless cape fur seals that were becoming visible in the dim light. They didn’t seem to have noticed the fins and several dived off the rocks into the choppy water. There was an expectant intake of breath as we all readied our cameras and suddenly, we were rewarded. Not ten meters from us a huge shark exploded out of the sea. Spay flew in all directions and the four-meter body kept rising and rising. As the shark breached, the seal was thrown high into the air by the force of water preceding the bulky body and, when it started to fall again, the shark, now fully airborne, twisted and opened its jaws. The seal had no chance. It was bitten in two as the great white crashed back into the sea. The boat was violently rocked by the resulting waves and the sea boiled as other sharks gobbled the titbits left of the seal until all that remained was a pinkish stain in the water. It was all over in seconds and we all remembered to breathe again.
“We’ve just been really lucky,” said our guide. “The breaching sharks often don’t come all the way out of the sea. That breach was perfect. Now we will move to the best place for the cage dive.”
We had decided to go last and five were able to get into the cage at a time, so we were in the third group of four only. When the first group came up again, they were a bit disappointed.
“The sea’s very cloudy, so the visibility is poor. We only saw the sharks when they got closer than two meters away,’ said a German visitor, in a disgruntled tone.
“When the weather is windy and wet, that often happens,” replied the guide, placatingly.
“We should get a discount or a free trip,” countered the tourist.
“Please remember that you saw an awesome breach. Most divers aren’t that lucky.”
The second group also complained about the visibility. Then it was our turn.
We entered the cage that was lowered into the murky sea. It stopped with its top just under the surface and we gazed into the cloudy water. The other divers were right. The visibility was terrible. A small great white passed within a meter, like a ghost coming from our right and silently disappearing to our left. It was visible for only two seconds.
I squinted after it and saw a large dark shadow whisk past. I quickly turned to check if the others had seen it, but they were all facing the other way. I turned back just in time to see a black shadow rapidly approaching the cage. I was frozen with shock and in the last second before impact, a huge maw lined with large triangular teeth opened in front of me. I had no time to do anything before it hit the cage with a huge impact, its massive mouth trying to bite a hole in the cage. We were all knocked over by the impact and instantly the cage started to rise. One diver had lost his mouthpiece and spluttered and coughed as we exited the water. The cage had been bent seriously out of shape and we had to be cut out with a blowtorch. All of us were seriously shaken up and bruised where we’d hit the bars of the cage, but there were no broken bones.
“What the hell happened down there?” asked the guide. “We saw nothing from here.”
I waited until all the others had admitted they’d seen nothing. All had been looking in the opposite direction. Only then did I speak.
“It all happened so fast, I’m not sure what I saw. I think it looked like a shark trying to bite into the cage, but I’m not certain. It hit us, bloody hard and knocked us off our feet. After that I saw nothing.”
“Well, let’s get you back on solid ground. I’ll have an ambulance at the pier to check you guys out.” With that the guide got us all a drink of hot sweet coffee, while the pilot turned and headed back.
The paramedics examined all four of us and declared us black and blue but not seriously damaged, so we all went our separate ways. Paul and I got to my car and started back to Cape Town. As I pulled off, Paul looked at me.
“You didn’t tell the whole truth back there, did you?” he asked, with a serious look on his face. I can always tell when you try and keep something to yourself.”
I glanced across to him and grinned.
“You think you’re such a smartass, don’t you? But you’re right. I didn’t tell the whole truth because nobody would believe me.”
“So, what did you see?” he said, impatiently.
“I was just about to tell you, before you so rudely interrupted. I saw a shark’s open jaws. And it really did try to bite a hole in the cage.”
“That can’t be all. You said that on the boat. What else did you see?”
“That’s exactly what I saw, but what I didn’t say was that the jaw was much bigger than anything I’ve ever seen before.”
He understood instantly what I wasn’t saying.
“You think you saw Megalodon, don’t you?”
“I haven’t got a clue,” I replied, evasively. “All I can say is the jaw was far bigger than a great white’s jaw could be.”
If we hadn’t been driving, he’d have jumped into the air.
“We’ve got to go back. We must see it properly. Get some pictures even.”
He was shaking, he was so excited.
“Man, you’re crazy,” I replied, in sincere disbelief. “That thing, whatever it was, was bigger and faster than a great white. And it attacked the cage, so it was meaner than a great white too. I don’t want to be anywhere near it again.”
“But just think of how important such a discovery would be. It would be more important than the coelacanth. A monster shark thought to be extinct turns up alive and kicking after three and a half million years. Cape Town would have a boom in eco-tourism. We’d be famous.”
“I’m sorry, Paul. I’m not interested. I got a glimpse of that thing and I was really scared. I won’t go back into the water anywhere near Seal Island and I advise you not to as well.”
He was cross and called me a chicken and worse. We parted angrily and for three days I didn’t hear from him. I tried to call but got no answers. Then my phone rang. It was Paul’s mother, in tears.
“Shaun, the police have just been here. Paul went scuba diving in False Bay two days ago and didn’t come home. He said he was going to look for Meggie. I don’t know who or what that is. But the police found one of his fins on the beach at Fish Hoek. It still had his foot in it. Please, Shaun tell me if you know about Meggie.”
I took a deep breath and tried desperately not to cry. She had problems enough.
“Mrs. Armstrong, I’m so sorry for your loss. Meggie is a giant shark. Paul and I argued about it three days ago. He wanted to go and look for it and I didn’t. He was angry with me and left. I haven’t spoken to him since.”
“The police thought it might be a shark. Thank you for confirming. Now I must go.”
“If there’s anything I can do….” I began but she had hung up.
I sat stunned and thought of my friend, who I would never see again. I cried and then I got angry. Why didn’t I go with him? I felt forlorn and guilty. I didn’t sleep that night and drank too much beer then I realized that I couldn’t leave it like that. I owed him at least enough to find the shark. But I decided I wouldn’t go alone.
After two headache pills and a hot shower, I drove to the Marine Research Institute at the University of Cape Town and asked to see one of the professors doing research on marine biodiversity. I was kept waiting for twenty minutes then ushered into a meeting room. Two minutes later the professor arrived. He didn’t introduce himself.
“What can I do for you, young man?” he asked, still standing and looking impatient.
“I need help with some research that I’m doing in False Bay,” I replied, politely. “I hoped you might be able to identify the right people.”
He seemed to relax, enough to sit anyway.
“What sort of research?”
I briefly told him about the discussion Paul, and I had had about Megalodon and shared my experience during the cage dive. Finally, I told him about Paul.
“I refused to go with him and now I feel obliged to follow through in his memory. But I don’t have the resources required to find this shark without getting killed as well.”
“Describe, in more detail, what you saw during the cage dive,”
“First a huge shadow that moved faster than a great white then the shadow end on as the shark charged the cage and finally the huge jaws opening just before the impact on the cage. The jaws were two to three times bigger than those of the great white we saw breaching only a few minutes before. That one was about four meters long. The shark tried to bite through the cage. It was damaged so badly that we had to be cut out with a blow torch. I’m sure Eco Charters would be able to show it to you. I don’t think a great white would have the bite power that must have taken.”
“And you say the shark attacked head on?”
“Yes, straight and fast.”
Now, at last he seemed interested.
“Young man, I believe you saw something unusual. A great white usually goes for its prey from underneath so a head on attack isn’t normal for them. Megalodon came head on and its bite was different. Your description tallies with what we think about that extinct shark’s behavior. I’m going to go and look at the cage and try to estimate the bite required to explain the damage, then I’m going to talk to the people I know, who specialize in sharks. I will call you to set up a meeting as soon as I can. Thank you for bringing this to me. It might be very important.”
To cut a long story short, he was as good as his promise and the meeting took place. Its conclusion was the establishment of a research team sponsored by the WWF and equipped with the latest research mini subs, because it was decided that it was too dangerous to use scubas.
I was accepted into a Masters’ program in marine biodiversity and invited to join the team. The team included shark experts from South Africa, Australia and the USA and we concentrated on the area round Seal Island as a starting point. After two weeks of observing great whites, we got our first glimpse of something bigger. It was a rough day and visibility was poor, but we got some stills and videos that confirmed something much bigger than the biggest known great white.
“Seeing is believing,” was the professor’s only comment.
The very next day we hit pay dirt. We’d moved a little further out into False Bay because of a Killer whale sighting and witnessed and captured on video this mega shark attacking and devouring one of the Orcas. It came from the side and rapidly increased speed before slamming into the ribcage of the Orca and biting off a flipper. The killer whale was disabled by this maneuver and was then easily killed and devoured. This caused great excitement among the researchers because it was exactly the attach strategy suspected for Megalodon from fossil evidence.
The bonus was that a second mega shark appeared once the Orca was dead and shared in the spoils. The research project was renamed ‘The Paul Armstrong Megalodon Research Program’ and Paul was given the credit for the initial discovery in all the press coverage that followed. It wasn’t enough to make up for Paul’s death, but I felt sure that, somewhere, he was smiling at the recognition.