The Incident in Shark Bay

Great White Shark

Jon Letko stepped off the plane in Cape Town, South Africa with a single goal in mind: to see a great white. Captivated by the natural environment from a young age, Jon had developed a fascination for nature's largest and most fearsome creatures. From the imposing silverback gorilla of the jungle, to the regal lion of the African plains, Jon's friends can testify to his near-encyclopedic knowledge of big animals. However, in his mind, no creature compares to the great white shark. Its awe-inspiring size, distinctive dorsal fin, and menacing teeth have made it the premier character in the nightmares of swimmers, surfers, and fisherman worldwide. However, Jon also admits that the sea predator's prominent place in our popular culture may have played a role in shaping his opinion. Thanks to movies such as "Jaws" and television features like Discovery Channel's "Shark Week", the great white is almost universally recognized – and feared.

The source of his fascination aside, encountering a great white up close was on Jon Letko's bucket list. Back in 2003, he finally saw an opportunity to do so. With the dental clinic shutting down for the holidays, he took a couple extra days of vacation and traveled to South Africa. In doing some research online, he had learned the waters off the coast of southern South Africa were teeming with great white sharks. Indeed, some of the largest sharks ever measured were found near Cape Town, situated near the continent's southern tip.

Jon Letko had also read about the extreme-tourism industry known as shark diving. The details of this adrenaline-packed activity are somewhat unsettling; willing divers are taken out into the shark infested waters on a boat operated by experienced local guides before being lowered into a large cage aside the boat. The guides then proceed to throw large chunks of bait into the water. Great white sharks, with their notoriously good sense of smell, arrive within minutes to feast on the ample portions of meat. As the guides drag the bait chunks back and forth on the surface of the water, the giant predators put on a dramatic (and terrifying) show for those watching tensely just yards away behind the bars of the cage.

Shark Cage

While just reading about the experience may be enough for most people, Jon Letko has never shied away from an opportunity to increase his heart rate. Plus, it had been one of his life-long dreams to get up close and personal with a great white shark. What better way, he realized, than to get in the water with one? Upon arriving in Cape Town, Jon visited several different shark diving outfits around the city. At each office, he engaged with the guides, asking them pointed questions about the boats, the quality of the cages, and the animals themselves. Eventually, he settled on a small company called Cape Adventures. They specialized in shark diving, but also offered scuba diving and deep sea fishing expeditions.

The following morning Jon Letko stood on the pier, gazing out at the ocean. It was overcast, and a layer of fog had made its way into the marina. As the guides loaded up the boat with all the day's supplies, Jon tried to suppress an ominous feeling in the pit of his stomach. Climbing aboard the converted fishing boat, he still was unable to shake the strange sensation. It was no use; before long, they were headed out to open ocean.

In all, there were 7 divers and 3 guides in the group – one of whom stood at the helm of the small vessel. They made their way out to deep waters and the captain cut the engine. The other two guides lowered a large cage off the side of the boat, and began preparing the bait. Jon Letko and his fellow divers all gingerly donned wetsuits and snorkeling masks.

Before getting into the metal cage, there was a quick presentation on safety protocol. Divers were advised to remain in the center of the cage and avoid lingering on the edges. Furthermore, under no circumstances was anyone to stick their limbs through the bars. Jon and his fellow thrill-seekers nodded in agreement.

They were to go three at a time, and Jon Letko was put in the first group. His companions were a 47-year-old architect from Canada, and a young woman from the U.K. Hearts pounding, they lowered into the cage one by one. The guide tossed a massive chunk of bait in the water, and sure enough, within minutes a medium-sized great white shark appeared out of the murky abyss.

Jon Letko and his companions watched in awe as the shark passed directly in front of them, and proceeded to swallow the bait whole. The guides quickly tossed another chunk in, this one even bigger than the last. However, as the shark began chasing after it, Jon noticed a large shadow pass beneath the cage. It was another shark – this one much larger. The bigger shark went straight for the bait, pushing the smaller one aside.

Jon turned to his left, and was alarmed to see the woman with her arm extended all the way through the bars of the cage, trying to snap a photo on her underwater camera. Jon quickly pulled her arm back in, but not before the bigger shark, still hungry, had circled back around and noticed an opportunity.

Great White Shark Cage Breach

It all happened in flash. The huge great white slammed into the cage at high speed, creating a disorienting shockwave. His massive jaws clamped around the thin metal bars of the diving cage, and to the horror of everyone inside, crumpled them immediately – creating a gaping hole in the side of the cage.

Panicked, the divers scrambled to escape their now-compromised safety confines. A small ladder led back to the boat, and Jon Letko sent the young woman up first. Next was the Canadian. Finally, Jon grabbed ahold of the rungs. As he began climbing, he took one last glance over his shoulder. A mistake. The big shark was straining to fit through the hole in the cage to get at Jon. Just as Jon was reaching the top of the ladder, the shark burst through. He felt a sudden vice grip on his lower right leg, and reacted instinctively, kicking down with his free foot. Although Jon hadn't been aiming for it, the blow landed squarely on the shark's nose. Looking back, Jon acknowledges this action likely saved his life – the creature released its grip and retreated back into the depths. Bleeding profusely, Jon was helped up on deck by the mortified guides. They fired up the engine and headed inland at full speed.

Thankfully, Jon made a full recovery in a Cape Town hospital. Despite the size of the shark, the wound in Jon's leg was not as serious as it looked initially. Jon was lucky it was a brief encounter; if the animal had any more time, it surely would have sunk its teeth deeper and caused much more damage.

Jon Letko returned to the U.S. in high spirits. Injury aside, his dream of seeing a shark was fulfilled, his thirst for adventure temporarily quenched, and his leg now sported an impressive scar he could show off to everyone back home.