GAINESVILLE — The weather complicated their best-laid plans. The Great White Sharks were much bigger than a large flat-screen television can convey, and the initial fear of a 15-foot Great White leaping from the ocean caught them off-guard.
But Florida basketball coach Billy Donovan and his 12-year-old son, Bryan, returned this week from eight days in South Africa feeling they had been part of "the trip of a lifetime."
With a traveling party that included Donovan's mother Joan, a longtime family friend and his daughter, Donovan and his son culminated a five-year dream of swimming with Great White Sharks on South Africa's Seal Island and also spent several days in Kruger National Park witnessing wildlife in its most natural setting.
"It was great, just so much fun and such a great experience for Bryan to be able to do this," said Donovan, who will begin his 14th season with the Gators this fall. "I'm a good talker, and I've been talking about it all these years. But my wife made it happen. And it was just great."
A rocky start
The Donovans arrived in Capetown in the late evening of May 29. It took fewer than 12 hours to realize they'd have to be flexible to make the trip worthwhile. South Africa is in the heart of its winter season. And along with brutally freezing temperatures, the sea can be extremely unpredictable.
"I was really, really disappointed the first day," Donovan said. "On Saturday morning, they came and knocked on our door at 6 o'clock and said the seas are too rough. You can't go out."
Because it had taken 18 hours to make it to Capetown, the family saw the delay as an opportunity to rest and recover. But as they arrived at the dock at the break of dawn on Sunday morning, bad news came again: The seas were 12-15 feet high, and the trip would have to be delayed another day.
"I could not believe the look on my son's face," Donovan said. "He was so disappointed. And I was really disappointed, too."
The moment of truth
By Monday morning, Donovan and Bryan were becoming concerned. They had come a long way to live out a dream and had only two days remaining in that part of the country. But things worked out.
Along with the captain and boat guide, they drove 30 minutes from Capetown to Seal Island, which sits in the middle of Falls Bay. About 54,000 seals reside there, and Great White Sharks go there to feed.
"We get out there, and obviously I'm hanging close by (the captain) because I'm asking 10,000 questions about stuff," Donovan said. "It was freezing out there. We had on winter clothes.
"The first thing that we did was we ended up trolling with a seal decoy pulling on the back of the boat. He pulls through a certain area where the seals are going. He's making an educated guess, and sure enough, two Great Whites came out of the water a bit."
The sharks leaped about half-way out of the water to attack the decoy, which was pulled back onto the boat. That's when reality hit.
"I cannot tell you the size of these things," Donovan said. "I was like 'Oh, my God.' I was concerned about getting in. I'm like, 'Okay, I don't know if I can get in.' "
Five years of dreaming of this moment had come to this: Now face to face with the mammoth animals, doubt crept in.
"The cage holds two people, but it's not like it's an overly-intimidating huge cage," Donovan said. "The sharks are drastically bigger than the cage. They were between 12 and 15 feet, but the thing that was so impressive was how wide and round and thick they are."
With two sharks circling the boat and a roped piece of bait and fish skin and a dummy seal floating atop the water to attract them, the captain asked: "Who wants to go in the cage?"
"I'm still asking questions," Donovan said. "Then I'm like I came all the way here, I've got to do this. So I'm like, 'Okay, I'm in.' "
Equipped with weights on his back to help keep him from bouncing around in the cage and a scuba tank-like hose with air running from the boat, Donovan and a vacationer from London went down together. A shark cruised by about 10 feet away.
"Just the size of them going by really makes your heart pound," he said.
Meanwhile, Bryan was still debating whether he wanted to go down. Because their trip had been canceled the previous two days, the captain offered to take them back out after lunch. On that trip, Donovan and Bryan spent the afternoon watching the sharks and eventually spent 10 minutes lowered together in the cage about 20-30 feet below the surface.
When it was all said and done, the chance to spend time with his youngest son and fulfill a lifelong dream is something Donovan said he'll never forget.
It was a lifetime memory for Bryan, as well.
"It was awesome," Bryan Donovan said. "And it was the best trip of my life."
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3389.