How to React when a 3m Great White Tickles your Feet

Chris Hunt

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Updated 2539d ago

Shark encounters are harrowing, your life suddenly seems very insignificant when confronted by the real boss of ocean. For South African all-round waterman Sacha Specker, when a great white stared him straight in the face a couple of weeks back... well it's an experience he'll never forget.

Needless to say he survived to tell the tale and right now life's never tasted sweeter. Below Sacha talks us through the day:

Word is you had a pretty intimate encounter with a shark, what happened?
I was surfing a popular spot in the south peninsula of Cape Town, enjoying the 6ft beachie on the tail end of a pumping swell that had been delivering for a few days already. My entire existence funnelled into a tiny spec of time in the current reality that saw me looking at a 3m great white an arm's length behind me.After a long left, I made my way back into the lineup of about 12 guys and as I sat on my board, catching my breath and scanning the horizon for the next set, a young surfer nearby let out a blood curdling yelp, stuttering the words, "Shark! There is a shark right behind you!"

I spun around all the meantime not wanting to believe his words and expecting to see a seal or whatever it was he saw a fair distance away, but my entire existence funnelled into a tiny spec of time in the current reality that saw me looking at a 3m great white an arm's length behind me. It seemed to change course at the very last second, dipping down, leaving a small bow wave and me in an eddy of swirling water.

Although physically calm, I was scared for my life. I had played this scenario through in my head so many times and always saw myself having full control and knowing what to do. It definitely didn't feel like it now. I was on full auto-pilot, driven by instinct.

This man is a true legend in the face of danger. Mike Schelbach is a man you want around when it hits the fan.

This man is a true legend in the face of danger. Mike Schelbach is a man you want around when it hits the fan.

© 2023 - Sacha Specker

How did you react?
Fists clenched, heart rate heading towards 210 BPM and in my throat and my eyes probably looking like dinner plates, all I could do is watch the shark arc beneath me and surface, circling me, dorsal and caudal fin well out the water. It was moving slow. Seemingly inquisitive and determined to get a good look at me. Brushing my feet twice with its pectoral fins while giving me a front row seat of its jet black eye and defined line separating its monochrome grey upper and pearly white belly. All I could do is try keep up with its head and facing it as I swivelled around with it a number of times.

How did everyone else respond?
A friend of mine Mike Schlebach, who was one of the guys in the water that day, somehow convinced some of the others to join him as he to paddled toward me with the intention of creating safety in numbers. Fists clenched, heart rate heading towards 210 bpm and in my throat and my eyes probably looking like dinner plates, all I could do is watch the shark arc beneath me.It worked. I became less of an individual and more a part of a closely packed group of surfers, the shark left the surface, dipping beneath Mike and finally lost interest, moving off into the "great white green" southern Atlantic.

Collectively we paddled toward the shore, calmly but swiftly, never feeling like the threat was completely gone. Now none of us could see it. It was was almost worse. Paddling about halfway to shore, the first wave came through, breaking well beyond us and engulfing everybody in whitewater and ferrying us toward the beach.

And getting back to land, what was going through your head?
Only once my feet were on the dry sand I felt complete relief. Shaken and nerves shot, I pulled my suit halfway down, took my leash off and lay in the sand for a while, just letting it all sink in.

As we all recovered on the beach, one of the guys in the water liked the look of my board and asked me if he could have a look at it. It was at that point I realised that it was the same board I was riding during my previous shark encounter. While he was looking down the rail of my board, holding it under his arm and sizing it up, I asked him, "do you like it?" He replied. "It looks super fun and went really well for you out there before our session was cut short. I love it." To which I replied, "It's yours. Let me just take my leash off. You can even keep the fins." I wanted nothing to do with this board anymore.

He had to carry two boards back home, but I enjoyed the 25 minute walk back to my car with only my leash in hand, sucking in each breath like it was my first and life had never tasted any sweeter.

He's rather handy in the solid stuff too. Here's Mike at home at Sunset.

He's rather handy in the solid stuff too. Here's Mike at home at Sunset.

© 2023 - Sacha Specker

Spending as much time in the water around the Cape as you do, presumably you’ve had some form of interaction with sharks to some extent in the past?
I had been bumped before. It was a while ago and it all happened much quicker. Two weeks down the line, it's an emotional roller-coaster, highs and lows as I play it through over and over in my head.I never saw the shark coming. It hit me like a steam train, but no bite, only a bump, thrashed around me and then as quick as it appeared it was gone. This time was different in so many ways. There were countless scenarios that could have ended in countless versions of distribute chaos. But nothing happened. That was all that mattered at that point.

How did the experience dawn on you when you got home? Are you able to brush it off or is it going to stay in the back of your mind?
I was in the water the next day, enjoying pumping waves at my local with good friends. I felt fine. Although I was still processing it all, I managed to enjoy the surf. It only really started to take its toll on me a few days later and now, two weeks down the line, it's an emotional roller-coaster, highs and lows as I play it through over and over in my head. But it's all part of the process and in time I think I'll grow to appreciate my intimate experience with one of the planets most feared and revered apex predators.

I can't thank Mike and the other gents who against all odds, mustered up into super humans and changed the outcome of that day. In what way exactly, we will never know, but I will for ever be indebted to them.


Chris Hunt

Writer and Content Manager at MSW