Shark Cage Diving With Great Whites In South Africa
THERE’S BLOOD IN THE WATER | Sharon Henry
Of all times to start my menstrual cycle – it would be when I decide to jump into the icy sea for an audience with a Great White Shark. Sharks can sniff blood from a mile off right? Plus I’ve seen all of the ‘Jaws’ films, so to say I’m apprehensive is a bit of an understatement.
Turns Out Sharks Are Attracted To Sheep
That said, the frigid sea temperatures makes me shiver more than outright fear does which takes my mind off this insane position I’ve put myself in. In the depths of a South African winter, I’m encased inside a flimsy feeling metal cage, dunked in the middle of shark infested waters. This is shark cage diving. The fin of a great white is stealthily gliding my way. I dip underwater for a better view but visibility is low and I can’t make out where it’s gone.
There are eight of us in the cage and I feel a tad like a sacrificial lamb, praying that my water-soaked wetsuit doesn’t leak blood, ‘cause surely that would be like waving a red flag at a bull. “Make noise like sheep,” shouts our on board marine biologist, “they like it!” So we bleat (true).
Then Darrin nudges me, his masked face beams with excitement as he spots and points the camera toward this nightmare of a creature, just metres away on our right. It draws closer and suddenly breaks the surface snatching a bite at the bait line floating mere centimetres away and we get an extreme close-up view of a razor-sharp set of teeth. There’s a flurry of splashing and it’s gone as quickly as it appeared. We laugh (nervous reaction), it’s crazy stupid and we love it – gawd, the things we do for this blog.
Marine Dynamics for Shark Cage Diving
Check out our short shark cage diving video:
Let’s just say from the get-go that Darrin and I are not the adrenalin junkie types, we don’t need to jump into the face of danger to get our kicks. But, when the proposal to do so was suggested by Cape Town Tourism we thought how dangerous could it be?
Our lives are in the hands of Marine Dynamics who operate two and half hours out of Cape Town at Gaansbaai, aka the ‘Great White Shark capital of the world.’ They are specialists in shark cage diving with these apex ocean predators as well as being active marine conservationists of the Gaansbaai ecosystem and the marine ‘Big 5,’ whales, sharks, dolphins, seals and penguins.
The sea was choppy when we set out at dawn this morning and was churning up a frothy surf (thank goodness we took seasick tablets). ‘Slashfin’ our double hulled boat flew across the water at full pelt; riding the swells as the sun rose was a thrill all by itself. Within 20 minutes we dropped anchor, the cage was positioned and everyone (about 30 in all ranging from 10 years to 60) got suited and booted for a shark encounter.
Shark sightings cannot be guaranteed but are more likely during winter (Jun-Sep), so it’s well worth braving the cold to increase your chances. We were in luck and it took about half an hour for our first shark to arrive, all eyes rushed portside to watch its menacing shadow and fin slice the water.
No Diving Experience Required
A steady flow of chum (a mixture of fish oils) is dished overboard to attract great whites to the boat, a seal decoy (wooden float) and bait ball adds further enticement. Bait however, is not actually fed to the sharks, the ball and the ‘seal’ are yanked away by boat crew just before the shark can reach them – which takes some impressive reflexes.
We were with the first batch of divers to slip into the cage, many of whom were ticking off bucket lists with this once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Disregard what I said earlier about the cage – it is definitely NOT flimsy! It’s made of steel and is super strong like Superman. The mesh holes might let tiny sized fish swim through but not a shark, and the cage has a lid. The cage is 4.5m long and 2.5 m high, wide enough to comfortably fit eight adults and deep enough for the tallest person to float head out the water or be fully submerged if they choose.
The top of the cage remains out of the water so no breathing equipment is required, nor are actual diving skills needed, just the ability to hold your breath if you want to duck under for a better view. There are multiple foot rails to stand on and hand rails to keep yourself stabilised so you don’t have to use energy treading water. All in all quite a clever design.
Shark cage diving is 100% safe and contrary to myth, great whites are not bloodthirsty for humans; seals are their preferred choice of food – the fat and meat tastes better. The sharks we encountered paid no heed to the humans in the cage, even me in my menstruating state.
Did I Really Just Do That?
The rocking of the boat, the sea and chum smell became too overpowering for a few, who unfortunately suffered seasickness and couldn’t do the dive. Some people also chose not to dive, happy with the view and photo ops from both decks.
It is a real privilege to see Great Whites up close and on their own turf; quite surreal. It reminds me of swimming with whale sharks on our home island of St Helena, although there, it’s you and them in open water, no safety cage required.
I’m someone who even in swimming pools sometimes gets an irrational sensation there’s a shark in the water – a consequence of watching too many movies. The Marine Dynamics team do a good job helping to reverse this bad press, through education and from showing sharks in their natural environment in a respectful and responsible manner.
These powerful, intelligent creatures are on the IUCN endangered species list. Their numbers are dwindling fast, mainly due to shark fin hunting putting them at risk of extinction. There is an estimated 5,000 left in the world and 2,000 are in South African waters.
Wow, I’ve just cage dived with a Great White, something I never dreamed I’d do. It’s an exhilarating, dare devilish, ‘did-I-really-do-that’ experience. And I’d most definitely do it again, it’s amazing.
Sharky Facts and Trivia
Our boat trip was fortunate enough to have five shark sightings, the biggest measured a whopping 4.5m. It was cold, the sea temperature a chilly 11C but a cup of hot chocolate after the dive did the trick of thawing the bones and a free snack bar on board was provided to stave off any hunger pangs. Once we returned to shore hot soup and rolls were waiting to finish off the warming-up process.
Unfortunately for us as nature would have it, visibility was low, up to half a metre due to calcium deposits being churned up by the sea.
The Marine Dynamics are a very professional outfit, the crew made us feel safe on board and marine biologist, Jax shared her knowledge of Great Whites, conservation and the marine environment throughout the trip.
We had an early bird 3.40am pick up from our Cape Town hotel for a two and a half hour journey to Gaansbaai, 167 kilometres outside of the city. On arrival at the Great White House of Marine Dynamics we were served a non-greasy breakfast that included croissants, stuffed eggs and fruit kebabs. We were sized for wet suits and bootees, shown a video on great whites and given a safety briefing. A short walk to the jetty took us to the launch of ‘Slashfin’ the sturdy, double -hulled boat.
Slashfin, named after a shark, is a 46ft purpose-built catamaran designed for speed, stability and comfort. The boat has separate ladies and gents toilets, waterproof benches to stow away personal belongings and plenty of viewing space on both decks. Like its namesake it is powerful and goes super fast!
Fun Fact: More people are killed by toasters than sharks! There are on average 700 toaster related deaths per year mostly due to electrical shock from sticking knives in to dislodge toast (300 in the USA alone.) There are on average only 4 shark related deaths.
In actual fact, the most dangerous part of a shark diving excursion is the drive there! More people are killed on the roads than by sharks.
Gaansbaai is a hotspot for great white sharks and high season is during the winter months of June through to September when sharks hunt Cape Fur seals around Dyer Island.
As a precaution, Marine Dynamics only confirm trips after 4pm the day before, upon favourable weather forecasts.
There is an estimated less than 5,000 Great White Sharks left on the planet, 2,000 of them in South African waters. Each shark has a unique dorsal, like fingerprints are for humans.
The cost of a tour with Marine Dynamics is 1,900 Rand approximately £110. Transfers from Cape Town on the shuttle bus costs an extra 500 Rand (approx £29).
We’d like to thank Cape Town Tourism, #lovecapetown for sponsoring this unforgettable shark cage diving trip with Marine Dynamics. As always, all opinions contained within the article are our own, without bias.