Dec 2019

White Shark Cage Diving in South Africa

By Katherine Nash

Many of us have been conditioned to fear the Great White Shark (Carcharadon Carcharias), by a repetition of two musical notes and a series of bad movies. As more research shows, and Peter Benchley’s apologetic book “Shark Trouble”, attempts to rectify, the reputation as a maneater is misplaced and more people want to get as close as possible to experience these magnificent animals in person.

It is easy to see why it has been portrayed as a villain in so many movies. The toothy, torpedo-shaped animal can grow up to 6 metres long and weigh up to 2,000 kilograms. It’s very design makes it an incredible hunter, from it’s under/ over camouflage, muscular body to its massive jaws, lined with sharply pointed, coarsely serrated teeth. In short, it is big and scary looking.

Because it is big and scary looking, research into the lives and behaviours of these animals has been slow. I would imagine it was a brave person who first stuck their toes into the water to take a better look in the wake of the Jaws movies. Nowadays, researchers can study a great many facets of the lives of these animals, but there are still many secrets.

Where to go Cage Diving?

The fishing town of Gansbaai in the Western Cape of South Africa is one of the hubs of white shark research, because of its proximity to Dyer island, a sanctuary and formerly the largest Colony of African Penguins (thanks humans), Geyser island, a Cape Fur Seal breeding ground, and the channel between them, known as Shark Alley. During winter, May to August, the area is a hive of activity as the pups enter the water, and the sharks move in to feed, using the kelp beds below as cover.

Tourists flock to this area because, just like on land, the chance of seeing the “Big 5 of the oceans ” is very high in the waters around Dyer Island. The Big 5 being, sharks, seals, dolphins, penguins and whales. The biggest drawcard, though is the white shark. Everyone wants to see the unique breaching action as the shark chases its prey from below. Air Jaws has made sure of that.

There are a significant number of companies that offer shark cage diving in the area, and the suburb of Kleinbaai provides a vibrant variety of accommodation options. We picked an Airbnb that was hosted by, by far the sweetest gentleman and his wife. As three ladies travelling alone, we felt as though we had an honorary dad for the three nights we stayed. He brought us blankies and wine and even checked our tyre pressure when we left — a true reflection of old fashioned Afrikaans hospitality.

Be Prepared!

Like all trips on the ocean, you are at the mercy of the weather. If you are going, especially in winter, you are going to need to be prepared. We arrived as a storm was passing and it started to look as though we may not go at all, and when you go down to the beach and see the size of the breaking waves, you don’t argue. If this is something that you decide to do, here are some things to remember:

It is going to be cold. Bitterly cold. If you are from Iceland, it may not bother you, but if not be prepared. You will get a 5mm wetsuit, and booties if you want them, but you have to have a weatherproof jacket for the boat, and I suggest some serious winter woollies for after the dive.

It may be choppy. If you don’t have the stomach for being on a boat that rocks and rolls, either make sure that you have some seasickness meds in good time for the trip or rethink it. The crew will give you a lollipop to suck on if you need it, but otherwise, there is no respite.

Listen to the safety briefing, and follow the instructions. You don’t get a dry run with the cage, so if you don’t listen, you could miss the action while you are trying to find footholds.

After the land briefing, you are taken down to the boat launch ramp, and you board the boat before it launches. The boats are big and comfortable, but there are house rules, especially about tracking water around and creating slip hazards, so pay attention. The best view is from the top deck so grab a seat up there if you can. You will be encouraged to stow any belongings in the bunk that you sit on. This is an excellent idea if the weather is a bit choppy.

The boat trip out is not too long, and the crew make it fun by encouraging the seagulls to fly in close and grab treats from their hands. It is a new unique experience having these big birds flying right next to you, almost stationary because their speed matches the boat.

One of the things discussed in the briefing is the fact that the number of white shark sightings has diminished in the last couple of years. I guess it is like any wildlife tour; there are no guarantees. The tour company we used attributed it to recent orca activity, but there are some suggestions that it may be due to changing prey distribution. The company will work hard to get the animals to come and say hi, but we have to be realistic.

When I say they work hard, I mean that they will take you to known shark sighting areas, chum effectively, communicate with other companies to share sightings. When a shark is sighted, the cage is lowered, and you get kitted up and slip into the cage in small groups. The lid is closed, you grip the bar in front of you and wait for the command to duck down and look at the animal in front of you.

To draw the animal in, a foam seal is tossed into the water and drawn towards the cage, and you really do come face to face with these fantastic creatures. You are acutely aware of how little and weak you are as a human being. The sharks on our tour were not the biggest but would compare to an Ikea couch. They were fantastic to watch both in the water and from above. The foam seal took some punishment but judging by the number of bite marks in it; it wasn’t the first time.

All in all, the trip is eye opening. We didn’t get any breaches, but there was a lot of fantastic passes with lots of drama. After we got back, we were treated to a delicious meal, and a viewing of the video taken of our trip. The footage we purchased was supplied on a shark-shaped USB stick.

Is Cage Diving Ethical?

We had a fabulous trip, but we are always asked, is cage diving ethical? There are several arguments against sticking tourists in a cage and drawing sharks for them to see. The first is that the chumming changes the shark’s behaviour and brings them inshore to where humans are seeking this source of food. Many cage diving operators work closely with marine biologists and disagree. They argue that the animals have to be in the area to be drawn to the chum. If there are no sharks in the water, then chum won’t bring them in. As mentioned, most operators have marine biologists on board, and the sightings all provide information that is fed back and used in broader research. The tourists provide the funds for the trips. Most operators are committed to keeping group sizes small and limiting the number of trips to minimise the impact.

Lastly, as I mentioned earlier, there so much fear surrounding this animal, that it is hunted and killed unecessarily. Bringing people closer to it and educating them on the ecology of them, serves to substitute the fear for wonder, and hopefully inspires continued conservation efforts.

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Katherine Nash

Ah, the mini-bio... OK, so I am a former paramedic (not a first aider, a real paramedic) who moved to a teeny island for a change of pace. Qualified Dive Medic, and Assistant Life Support Tech (for commercial divers). Did my PADI IDC in Dubai way back when, and now am sitting back watching.