A glimpse into the world of shark cage-diving
These days, many tourists consider themselves responsible travellers, and care about the impact they have on the places they visit.
People want to know about the effect that their holiday activities have on the environment, or on the nearby human or animal population. Sure, you may have it on your bucket list to come face-to-face with a lion, for example, but if one was taken from the wild and caged so that your dream could come true, at what cost to the natural world would your experience come?
At the same time, there is no better way to get people to develop an interest and compassion for nature than to be as fully immersed in it as possible. For conservation organisations, it’s impossible to get people to care about something, and offer donations and support, if they've never seen or heard of it. The more 'real' the experience, the better the chances that somebody will invest in conserving it.
It is within this delicate balance that shark cage-diving operators in Gansbaai, on the Western Cape coast, must work. They offer an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: people of all ages (and no prior experience required) are able to get into the water with great white sharks, and see them up close, swimming around in their natural habitat. Visitors head out to sea by boat, and once a shark is attracted nearby, wetsuits are donned, underwater cameras are readied, and the cage strapped to the side of the boat is filled with nervous but excited shark-spotters.
It is an impressive operation altogether. I am picked up by shuttle bus in Cape Town, some two hours away, and driven to Gansbaai by Rudi, the first of White Shark Projects' employees that I have the pleasure of meeting. We arrive in time to enjoy a buffet breakfast, before making our way to the boat. There's a quick safety demonstration, and with our lifejackets in tow, we jump on board. There are sandwiches, cooldrinks and snacks available, as well as lollipops, which are touted as a way to tackle seasickness (something I will experience quite severely on this trip).
After about 20 minutes’ heading out to sea, the crew drops anchor. A shark appears almost immediately, and there is a flurry of activity as the first group of visitors changes into the provided wetsuits, eager to get into the chilly Atlantic waters. The cage is submerged about three-quarters of the way into the water. As the great white passes by, the crew shouts "Down!" and everyone in the cage takes a deep breath, using the foothold at the bottom to remain submerged while they look into the blue-green world they have just entered.
With 18 of us on board, I was in the third group to take the plunge into white shark territory. I could already gauge the size and sheer power of the animal circling us from the upper viewing deck of the boat. There were several, actually, but one female, roughly 5m in length, made the most appearances during my time in the cage. The bars are solid metal, and yes, quite safe (there is a moment of 'what if?', but once you focus on the majesty of what you're seeing, it soon passes).
The experience that White Shark Projects offers is unlike any other you could find on the planet. It's only once your head is underwater, the world goes quiet, and you are staring into the eye of the most evolved apex predator on the planet – and you know full well that it is staring right back at you – that you realise this.
There is, for most of us, simply no other way of being in such a position again, certainly not with all the safety precautions and professional know-how that is provided to you. Any irrational fears about being in danger quickly dissolve when you watch a great white glide past, every now and then making an inquisitive turn towards the cage. A small bait is floated a few metres away, and provides a visual target for the shark. They are not fed, and we’re told that the chum that initially attracted them to the boat is just a smell in the water, to pique their interest. They are not the hungry, aggressive killing machines that Jaws and Sharknado might have you expect.
I tried my best to hold my breath for as long as possible, to savour every moment. The water visibility was good, and seeing into the waters of Gansbaai through a pair of goggles beats a nature documentary any day. Looking straight down, I could see the ocean abyss below me (well, it’s only 25m deep, but it does feel like it could go on forever) and a number of little fish passing by. To my left and right, my fellow cage divers were bobbing up and down, snapping photos and equally trying to soak up the sights.
And then, straight ahead, a great white shark. They are perfect in their design, having ruled the oceans for some 400-million years. Grey on top and white underneath, their fins cut through the water with minimal effort, and their huge black eyes appear to be constantly scanning their surroundings. The jaw is both terrifying and magnificent, made even more curious by the rusty hook lodged in the side of the female's mouth. They are sleek, agile, powerful and beautiful, and while they are naturally inquisitive, our presence doesn’t seem to bother them in the least.
After plenty of time in the water, we climb out of the cage and head back to shore, where lunch is waiting for us, and an opportunity to watch a DVD of footage taken during the trip. This is my chance to chat to Julia Burger, volunteer manager for White Shark Projects. I want to know more about the company's role in shark conservation and research, and whether there is any concern for visitors about impacting the environment or the shark's natural behaviour by supporting this industry.
'Our main aim is ecotourism – we're here to promote the white shark and educate people about it, getting rid of misconceptions and highlighting the need for conservation,' Burger explains. As a commercial operator, they don't have a permit for conducting research aboard their boat, and instead donate a small portion of their earnings to the South African Shark Conservancy (SASC), based in Hermanus.
'We do take some basic data on board, and have been observing sharks for many years. We've not noticed any change in behaviour,' Burger says. 'These animals are natural inshore predators anyway, and only pass through the bay for a few days or weeks at most, not long enough to get used to us or become conditioned.'
'Every time you go out you'll have different sharks, different behaviours, different waiting times. We're not feeding the sharks – we're not allowed to. We tell our guests that we can't guarantee sightings. These are wild animals and they will do what they like. Even the chum is just a smell in the water – just like us, some respond to the smell and follow it, while others ignore it. Sometimes there are even seals nearby and the sharks won’t be interested. Our guests are shocked when we explain that if they are not hungry, they won’t eat them.'
Julia is aware that some people are worried about an apparent increase in shark attack incidences. "Ninety-eight percent of the time, shark attacks are a case of mistaken identity. There are more people in the water now than ever before, but sharks are not interested in us. We are not on their diet – we're too bony, and can't provide the high-energy blubber that seal or whale meat can. And yet, humans continue to take them out of the water, to the point where they could soon become extinct."
So what is the lasting impression that one should leave White Shark Projects with? 'Our main aim is to keep the shark in the ocean for as long as possible. We are here because of our love and passion for the shark, which we hope to instil in our visitors.'
Two people on the trip shared their thoughts on the experience. Danielle Kingston, of Toronto, said: 'It's incredible to have an animal that powerful so close to you, and to see that they are just as curious as you are.'
Richard Paxton, from London, said: 'I thought I'd be terrified, but when you see how majestic they are, you aren't scared at all.'
White Shark Projects is certainly one of the better operators out there, although on our trip, much more could have been said about the plight of the great white shark, why it is endangered, and what people can do to help conservation efforts. There were very few learnings to take away, despite the amazing memories of the day.
Meaghen McCord, managing director at SASC, says that she is concerned about the lack of an independent body to regulate the industry, and that other operators are less ethical in their approach to the sharks, seeing them purely as money-spinners. She has worked closely with White Shark Projects volunteers, observing their operation and producing a shark cage-diving training manual to help provide guidelines for those in the business.
'If tourists are concerned about the credentials of an operator, do checks and read up about the companies before you book,' McCord recommends.
Cage diving with great white sharks is a rare opportunity to glimpse another world, one that may not be around much longer if shark population figures continue to decline. Unique to the South African coast, the operators here offer something very special, and anyone who goes will certainly walk away with a new-found respect for the species.
However, the industry also bears a lot of responsibility in how it conducts itself, the messaging (or lack thereof) it passes on to its visitors, and the way the sharks are treated by its staff. If being a responsible tourist is important to you, give careful thought to which company you choose to go shark cage-diving with, and take the plunge for yourself.
Oh, and remember to take some motion sickness tablets before you do.