“Down!” our guide yells, I thrust my body under the water, hook my feet under the yellow pole, and grab the handle on the cage just in time to see a great white shark swimming like a torpedo directly at me. For a moment I am paralyzed with fear—the shark is mere feet from my face! It angles right and disappears from view. I come up for air and give a yelp, fear now replaced with excitement, and I prepare for the sharks next pass.
I am in Gansbaai South Africa. Here, hundreds of sharks search the cold waters for their favorite food: seals. You may not have heard of Gansbaai, but it is famous. It has one of the highest concentrations of great white sharks in the world, and is not far from Seal Island where many famous, incredible shots of sharks jumping out of the water were taken. Gansbaii is conveniently located near Cape Town if you find yourself needing something to do maybe cage shark diving could be it.
Cage shark diving is not without its controversy. I have always been torn as to whether cage shark diving was ethical. In essence you lure an animal to you with food. Something I generally hate and avoid in any other eco-tour context. Additionally some argue that cage shark diving allows sharks to associate boats and people with food. Although there have been more shark attacks in the area in recent years this explanation is unlikely. Finally cage shark diving arguably generates a lot of income and creates an economic incentive to protect sharks and their habitat. With all this in mind I decided I would give cage shark diving a go.
If you are staying in Cape Town, many of the cage shark operators will come and collect you early in the morning. I was however, staying in nearby in Hermanus, a place famous for it’s wine and whales. I woke up early and headed across the bay to the small town of Gansbaai. The town itself seems like a small coastal fishing village—imagine Cape Cod-meets-South Africa. I pull up to the harbor and park in front of Shark Lady, the cage shark tour operator I selected from the half dozen that work the area. Inside, I am welcomed with some breakfast and an orientation to cage shark diving.
I had imagined cage shark diving would entail putting on scuba gear, being thrust into a cage and dumped into the sea waiting for sharks to try and tear open the cage and consume me. I was wholly unprepared for that, since I have never scuba dived in my life and wasn’t keen to learn under those conditions. Luckily, cage shark diving in Gansbaai is a more pedestrian affair. I was put in a cage, yes, but the cage was at the surface of the water and was firmly secured to the side of the boat. No scuba gear was necessary because it was easy to pull your head out of the water to take a breath. Kind of like snorkeling, but you don’t swim.
The weather wasn’t particularly good and so I had considered cancelling, but I only had this day to see great whites and I didn’t know when the opportunity would strike again. The waters were choppy, making visibility poor. The boat plied through the bay, while the tour operators “chummed” the water to attract sharks. As the name suggests, chum is a disgusting mix of fish parts and blood. Someone at the back of the boat was pouring liberal amounts of it in the water making a “chumline.” A shark would hopefully hit the “line” and then start to follow it to the source—us! The water off the coast of Gansbaai is cold. Imagine San Fransisco and the Bay area cold! Me and the other guests were all in full body wet suits sitting on the deck looking for any signs of sharks.
A shark spotter used his keen eye to spot the first shark of the day. I missed seeing it, and was disappointed, but others on the boat saw it and a few suddenly realized that in mere minutes we would be in the water with one of these. The shark spotter threw a black paddleboard cut into the shape of a seal out in the water. We learned earlier that sharks see the silhouette and will strike from below. And it turns out this was not an exaggeration! Seconds after the board hit the water, a small 8-foot shark lunged out of the water attempting to devour the paddle-board. However, our shark spotter was quick and managed to pull the board free. He worked the shark for a few minutes as the first group prepared to get into the cage. We all exchanged glances—everyone was starting to look a little nervous.
Soon it was my turn. Getting in and out of the cage is simple and there is room for about 4 people shoulder-to-shoulder. I found it comforting that I wasn’t alone. The water was freezing cold, but the adrenaline had started to flow, which helped me forget the cold. The shark spotter worked his magic, coaxing a shark too and fro, trying to bring it closer to the boat. Did I mention the visibility was poor? This meant that we actually couldn’t see the sharks very well under water, but it also added a layer of intrigue because we didn’t know where the shark was until the last second. A few times, a great white barreled toward us, and for a brief moment we all watched in awe and fear of this powerful beauty. Every time I thought the shark would ram the cage and try to tear me out of the cage, but it didn’t. That is, until the last pass. On the last pass, the shark came a half foot closer to the cage, opened its incredible jaws, and made moves to bite the cage right in front of the person beside me! At the last second the shark’s mouth snapped shut, just missing the steel bars of the cage and the seal decoy it was chasing.
Out of the water and back on the boat I exchanged a few high fives with the others that were in the cage with me. Although I am a solo traveller, on this voyage we all bonded over this powerful experience. Even though the weather wasn’t great and visibility was poor, we actually saw six different sharks, and we all got up close and personal with the most feared predator in the world. I had always loved and respected sharks, and this trip helped solidify those feelings.