Mystery. Terror. Death. Since the dawn of oral tradition, this has been man’s collective memory of the great, generously-toothed beasts that roam the murky depths of earth’s oceans. It’s probably safe to say that Steven Spielberg tipped the boat (pun intended) when he released the horror movie classic Jaws in 1975. The word “shark”- whether whispered or shrieked – will forever incite visions of bloody high sea murder, and yet for years experts have been attempting to convince us otherwise. In real life, it’s apparently quite different, as I found out for myself.
I had the privilege of going shark cage diving with eco-tourism company Shark Diving Unlimited. We were picked up from home – a nice touch – and driven the 170 kms to the base in Gansbaai, the famous home of the Great White. Once there we tucked into a tasty brunch of baked beans, wors, eggs, toast and scones while getting to know our fellow divers. After a safety brief, we launched straight into what we were told was the most dangerous part of our trip – the two minute walk down to the boat.
It was a smooth ten minute ride to the dive point, at which we tied up to a buoy and paused while the cage was firmly attached to the side of the boat. Then some chum (a stinky mix of fish guts and other bait) was released into the water to attract fish and two large tuna heads were placed on hooks and thrown in front of the cage so that the sharks could pick up the scent. Then the captain turned to us and smiled.
Now I’m serious when I say that all the fear and uncertainty before you get into the cage is replaced with an excitement and an avid keenness to learn by the time that you are actually there. The cage itself is well built, with space for six or so people side by side, with their heads above water. When a shark comes near, you simply duck under the surface and peer through your mask at the looming shark. The diving was controlled and supervised at all times by the experienced, professional crew who, though somewhat cocky, were lent further credibility by the presence of two marine biologists.
The water was a blessed 19°C, but don’t get your hopes up, we were assured this was unseasonably high. It almost felt as if I was in an underwater aquarium. Seeing the sharks in their natural habitat, browsing around for food and utterly uninterested in me helped me to understand that these are mighty creatures who are vastly misunderstood by the general population.
Great whites are bigger and a lot less, er, white, than I had imagined and I was surprised to learn how skittish they are to sudden movement. Summer isn’t the best time for viewing by any means – experts usually recommend June through to August because water visibility is higher. But still I had good glimpses of four sharks while I was in the cage and a handful more from the boat.
After about 10 minutes in the water, it was time to let the next group have a go. Cold drinks and sandwiches were on hand and those who could stomach the push and shove of the swell went to tan on the deck while the rest of us – fully into the sharks now – acted as spotters.
Back at base, we were treated to a hot vegetable broth and fresh bread – absolutely the best thing after a long, salty day on the water. Some took hot showers while others watched themselves on the DVD that had been recorded during our trip.
Finally it was time to say good bye and head home. It was a magical, thrilling experience that still feels quite unreal. I definitely plan to do it again.
If you do decide to go on this great adventure, try to book a trip in winter. Take your sea-sickness tablets two hours before your trip, not if you’re driving because they make you quite drowsy, but before you get onto the boat. Sun screen, a hat and dry clothes are recommended. And have fun!
Kate was the guest of Shark Diving Unlimited. To see their web page, go to www.sharkdivingunlimited.com
A note on chumming: Controversy continues to rage about whether the use of chum teaches sharks to associate humans with food. It seems a logical argument, yet data indicates that the increase in attacks over recent years has been linked to dirty water (sharks often mistake humans for other sea animals), and the depletion of fish populations due to over-fishing. South Africa is still one of the only countries to ban shark hunting, though cynics would say this is not so much through a respect for the sharks as because of the value of eco-tourism. Every year, thousands of people flock to SA’s coastlines to catch a glimpse of these notorious predators. Most will concede that this gives them a greater understanding and respect for sharks – surely a good thing. So if people continue to come to see the sharks, the sharks can continue to be protected. In order for that to happen, chumming will also continue. It is important to note that chumming is very different from feeding… the idea is to draw sharks by setting an attractive smell in the water. The bottom line: do research on your tour operator and check that their feeding and chumming policies are legal and responsible (often two different things.)