I went shark cage diving – and I absolutely loved it!
Sharks – Cautious. Curious. Vulnerable.
A few weeks back I was invited by Brenda of Marine Dynamics to enjoy a complimentary Shark Cage Diving experience in the Overberg’s Gansbaai area. I drove out for an early start and what turned out to be a very special day.
This is something that I had done more than 10 years ago, something that I have booked regularly for International clients and an activity that has been the topic of many a discussion and healthy debate over the years. It is also something that I highly recommend, with the correct mindset and operator.
As a lover of the ocean, a diver and advocate for all the precious sea creatures, the opportunity to be in the water up close and personal with one of my favourite animals, was a gift I couldn’t resist.
Not because of the adrenaline rush that being this near to an apex predator would bring, as sensationalised in movies such as Jaws, but rather because here was an opportunity for me to look into the eyes of an animal that I respect and want to see protected.
One that desperately needs protecting.
Frightening statistics indicate that there are only between 3000 and 5000 great white sharks left in the world. Poorly understood and mostly misrepresented, the bad rap they get is placing them at ever greater risk. Not to mention the horrors associated with the shark fin industry. Actually here’s a fun representation of things that kill more people than sharks whichputs things into perspective. Toasters for one carrying a higher risk by far.
Back to my day out. Working under the mantra ‘Discover and Protect’, Marine Dynamics are one of only two Fair Trade Tourism shark cage diving operators in the area and have a strong conservation arm in their Dyer Island Conservation Trust. They are who you want to go out with.
Their trips are not based on the mass-market fly-by-night practice that has given the industry a ‘bad name’. They are carefully constructed, well-managed, carry a strong marine conservation theme and are built on the hope that once you have seen great white sharks, you will be converted to their allies. Sharks are highly intelligent graceful creatures that deserve our respect rather than our fear.
There I was at the Great White House, briefed over a coffee, a video of what to expect aired, chatting with some of their inspiring volunteers, my excitement ever growing. We headed down to the boat Slashfin, which would take me closer to the much anticipated visual moment.
Boarding ‘Slashfin’, fondly named after a shark with a broken fin that was regularly sighted in the area.
The luxury boat carries 30+ people and the cage comfortably holds 7-8 at a time. Depending on the time of year, you might head to shark alley. But between September and March its just off shore to anchor in reasonably shallow waters. Once Skipper Hennie was happy with a location we did just that, the cage was released and secured.
We were each given a bag with a wet suit in it having confirmed our sizes onshore. Booties were donned and we were ready to take our turn in the water. By this time the crew were chumming with fish heads and other by-products of the fishing industry to attract the sharks to the boat.
Fish heads for chumming. (More thoughts on chumming below)
My bag with 7mm wetsuit – as the Cape waters are cold.
All dressed up and waiting for my turn in the water. A staff member checked each one of us and made sure we hadn’t missed a thing with the gear. I was certainly ready. Soon sharks were drawing near and I was in the cage and got to stay in for about 30+ minutes. Amazing!
Happiness in the water!
Once you’re in the water, whoever is chumming calls out every time a shark nears. The words ‘diver front low’ tell you where to look once immersed. Simple and effective, once or twice the shark hit the cage and our heart beat escalated.
It took every ounce of willpower to keep my wits about me and not reach out to touch the shark as it swam by. The one I spent the most time observing was missing a large part of its pectoral fin. I am told most likely from a fight with another shark.
It was a particularly lucky day with numerous great whites gracing us with their presence. As well as a couple of rare bronze whalers swimming among them. A rare sighting indeed.
Sleek, quick, beautiful.
The badge to look out for when booking.
Once you’ve taken your turn in the water and caught your breath post the privilege of the experience, you can watch from the boat. Truth is this may actually offer better viewing and photographic opportunity. It certainly offered an idea of the speed and grace at which the great white moves. Impressive beyond.
Glowing with the sheer joy of the occassion, of time in the water, of having learnt more about the ocean, I settled in for the ride back to shore and a post trip chat with Brenda. She will vouch for the fact that I was all but speechless, fumbling for words to aptly describe the awe I was in. You see, I love and respect sharks with my very being.
Retrospectively and having taken time to really think about my morning with the ocean’s greats, these are some further thoughts:
– Go shark cage diving if you have the opportunity, not to take silly brag photos for the mantelpiece, but for the surreal experience of being within an arms reach of an incredible animal. Find a reason to speak out for their conservation and rights. Learn more about them. Connect with them. They need our support.
– Chumming is not habit forming. I have spoken to numerous authorities on this and yes, it does attract the sharks, but with less than 5000 in the world we are lucky to see any at all. If a shark comes by and can’t get the food – as they are not being fed, he will quickly lose interest and move on. We are not altering their behaviour. Being a bit of a safari-baby, I compare this to the ‘impala in a tree’ practice for which many Sabi Sands game lodges have become known. A practice adopted by them to guarantee a leopard sightings for their high paying client.
– Be very careful which company you select to book your trip with. Sadly most operators may be licensed, but their hearts are not in the right place, they take chances and have little respect for the sharks and the ocean. Let alone the surrounding communities. The crew of Marine Dynamics and Shark Watch SA certainly lead by example. The staff have been with them for years, they have teams of international volunteers assisting, there is always a marine biologist on board and the owner is a man who is warmly respected in the community.
– Marine Dynamics partner with The Dyer Island Conservation Trust, founded by co-owner Wilfred Chivell in 2006, running unique conservation and research programmes in this fragile marine eco-system. The breeding and calving grounds of the Southern Right Whale and the world’s densest population of Great White Shark.
– Marine Dynamics are the preferred operator for my beloved Grootbos Private Nature Reserve and that is certainly further endorsement.
Personal notes from the day that may just make a difference:
– I suffer from motion sickness and took tablets prior to the boat trip, as well as another during. They completely knocked me out and I couldn’t function by the time I got back to shore, let alone drive. Treat with caution.
– The attention given to each individual on board by the Marine Dynamics team is admirable. I felt cared for and considered throughout. The wetsuits are fresh and clean. The crew friendly. Food and drinks are offered throughout. There is not a feeling of being rushed into or out of the water, quite the opposite actually. And when I not uncharacteristically fell and gashed my leg open (after the dive) – I was beautifully looked after.
– Operating our of Gansbaai which is about 2 hours east of Cape Town, you can arrange a transfer with Marine Dynamics or opt to stay over in the town. The activity is weather dependent, but you will be pleased not to have to drive through at 5am if you can help it.
– I took a camera and captured some great shots. But they sell underwater disposable cameras in the shop and I should have bought one. I would retrospectively LOVE to have underwater photos of the sharks.
– Last thing. When in the cage, smiling and filled with happiness as I was, be sure to keep all your bits tucked in. My feet kept floating out the back which isn’t smart.
I am well aware that experienced divers have many opportunities to free dive with sharks, both for pleasure and research purposes, on organised trips and by sheer luck. But that is the exception and not possible for most of us, no matter where our hearts and motivation for the encounter may lie.
Shark Cage diving allows us this special experience in a ‘tame’ and controlled manner. As well as the opportunity to see some of the Marine Big 5 – whales, dolphin, seals and African penguins whilst out there.
Actually as a conservation focussed writer I have come under personal criticism for going shark cage diving, but I stand by my decision to do so and would again given half the chance.
I have learnt that nothing in this world is black and white. Threatening bumper stickers and the sentiment that sharks should be killed off to protect surfers and beach goers are absurd and dangerous. As are those crying a blanket foul and calling for a ban on shark cage diving.
In areas such as Gansbaai, its the shark cage diving that is funding the much needed marine research. Its the converts on the boat that go on to be volunteers and advocates for the oceans.
Thank you again Brenda and the team at Marine Dynamics for the opportunity. Keep up the good working in converting ordinary people into advocates for the ocean and its marine life.
‘Discover and Protect’ you lead by example and it has been my pleasure to learn more about you and your work at the Dyer Island Conservation Trust.
I will continue to sing your praise and encourage the encounter.