If you love sharks as much as we do here at Untapped Cities, then you’ve probably dreamt of going cage diving after watching Shark Week wide eyed and mesmerized, wishing you could get up close and personal with them. But while trips like this always seem to require going to the far reaches of Australia or South Africa, the truth is, you can do what we did and come face to face with a shark without ever leaving the state of New York.
A mere three-hour bus ride from Manhattan sits the quaint, little town of Montauk. Colloquially known as “The End,” this town is just that, at the very end of Long Island. The “Downtown” is small, taking only seven minutes to walk tip to tip according to one local, whose recommendation for something exciting to do was a miniature golf course — and trust us when we say they are really leaning into the miniature part of their name. But, over on the other side of town in Montauk’s West Lake Marina is something different, a hidden gem. Docked on the pier sits the Sea Turtle with its big metal cage — the whole reason we were there.
Sea Turtle Charters is a company run by Captain Chuck, the modern day equivalent of a salty sea dog. He’s a cheerful, large, muscular man, sporting a big bushy beard and tattoo sleeves, exactly the kind of guy you’d expect to be spending his life around sharks. Captain Chuck runs everything from shipwreck excursions to free diving, and of course, the reason we showed up, cage diving with sharks.
When we arrived at the marina, Chuck gave us a quick rundown of the rules then left us on our own. We were spending the night on the boat, something we highly recommend. Not only is it cheap, but you’ll also get a wonderful view of the sunset. Just make sure to take some motion sickness medicine before you turn in for the night.
We woke up bright and early, around 6:00 am, joined by a history teacher, financial advisor, a soldier who had just come back from deployment, and a woman who worked in HR. As our captain prepared for the voyage, we began to trade stories. We may have been strangers, but we all shared one passion: sharks.
The soldier had just enrolled in college and was studying to be a marine biologist; the financial advisor had loved sharks since she was a girl and dragged her friend from HR along that day. They had a penchant for extreme sports. The woman from HR had, in turn, dragged her husband, the history teacher.
We all became quick friends, trying to subdue the fear that was slowly creeping in with small talk, all of us equal parts terrified, nervous, and excited, unsure if it was the motion of the boat or our nerves that was causing the uneasy butterfly-like feeling in our stomachs. Before any of us could change our minds, we pushed off and started our journey deep into the ocean.
The trip out to the diving location was worth the price of admission alone. As we drifted out into the ocean, Long Island slowly started to fade away. All we could see was a single, lonely, lighthouse, the only indication of anything but ocean for miles. Suddenly, our boat was joined by a pod of curious porpoises, their slick bodies jumping in and out the water, revealing their white bellies and the thick black line strung across their backs.
They frolicked alongside the boat for some time, then left us, replaced by a cluster of whales. Spurts of water shot from their blowholes as they breached out from the sea, their tails splashing out only to dive back in a few seconds later. It all looked like something out of a postcard — not something we ever expected to see in real life. Our ride out was brimming with experiences like these, the still water interrupted by whales, porpoises, and even, on one occasion, a school of fish jumping out of the water and sailing through the air, hopping from wave to wave.
When we arrived at our destination, Captain Chuck began chumming the water. We got off to a promising start when, after about ten minutes, a huge thresher shark rocketed out from a wave, its full, unmistakable silhouette clashing against the morning sun before it disappeared back into the blue. Unfortunately, this start was not as auspicious as we had hoped.
That would be the only shark we would see for the next few hours. In the meantime, Captain Chuck had us all practice using the regulators, and entering and exiting the cage. We all donned our wetsuits and then, one by one, took turns in the cage. It was absolutely terrifying. Down there in the cage there is nothing, just you, the sound of your unsteady breathing, and utter and complete emptiness in every direction. The water was green and dark, but surprisingly clear, the algae that had grown on the bottom of the boat was clearly visible. It all felt like something out of a horror movie — like a shark would come swimming out of the darkness and break through the cage at any second.
We climbed out of the cage, even more nervous than we were before, and then we waited. Chuck kept chumming and we all sat looking out over the clear water. We watched the ocean for any signs of a shark, every wave looking like a possible fin, but there was nothing. The next two hours were spent waiting, basking in the sun, and relaxing. Then all of the sudden the soldier pointed out into the ocean. It was finally here.
We all quickly scrambled for our masks and our weight belts, our hearts pumping, excited to finally see a shark. It came closer and closer and as we jumped in the cage, we hardly noticed how cold the water was, or how just a few hours ago we were all terrified. The fear was gone, it was just adrenaline.
The shadowy figure came closer to the cage, slowly and steadily. It was beautiful. A deep aquamarine: it swam around us, it swam under us, it even bit the cage a little. A blue shark, common, but beautiful. Entranced, we in the cage hardly noticed when another blue joined. “They’re called wolves of the sea,” Chuck said, “travel in packs.”
Image courtesy Sea Turtle Charters
The hours of waiting were worth it. There are few words that can describe the feeling of seeing such a beautiful animal in real life, of having it so close to you, close enough to touch. The soldier even reached out and rubbed one of the sharks on the nose a few times. Chuck towed a fish through the water, guiding the shark, almost playing with it.
Even from the boat, it was hard to be anything but stunned by the animal. Even Chuck, a man who spends his life with sharks, couldn’t help but smile. We came out of the water feeling braver. We had swum with the sharks, we had experienced something magical. The ride back was filled with the same gorgeous sights we had witnessed on the ride over, but none of them could compare to the majesty of the sharks, not even a little.
There are few experiences like this. We here at Untapped Cities cannot recommend it highly enough. Do yourself a favor, take a weekend to head out to Montauk, meet Captain Chuck, and experience the wonders of the ocean. We promise you won’t regret it one bit.
If you can’t make it to Montauk, or are too scared to see sharks up close, go watch Sharknado: 2 The Second One and then check out the filming locations in NYC.