Swimming with the Sharks... Literally

“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.



After the Smoke Settles

Cape Flats, South Africa -- With a couple of swift blows from an axe, a women wrapped in cloth removes a sheep's horns from its head. These sheep are called "smileys," according to Thando, our Xhosa guide. "because of how the lips pull back into a smiley face when they are dead." Smoke fills the air as other women are searing the skin off the head of each sheep using red hot pieces of iron, preparing them for sale in the township. The 'smileys' are a sort of delicacy enjoyed by many who live in the township.

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Thando is a local guide who conducts both organized and custom private tours into the townships around Cape Town. A slight man with dreadlocks, and covered in the scars of apartheid, he does not look like the conventional guide. But while the scars on his face, created by the batons of police officers, remind you he was a soldier in the fight against apartheid, his polite demeanor and eloquent speech suggest that he used his words before violence.

Thando brings a sense of hope and optimism to a tour that might be perceived as looking at poor people in a zoo. His pragmatic idealism is contagious and he quickly convinces you that by visiting the townships and meeting the people who live there you are improving their lives. It's a sales pitch that needs to be made because "looking at poor people" is something this tour is not. Rather, it is about making connections and establishing relationships with people who have been subjugated simply because of the colour of their skin. By visiting these townships you empower them first with money (Thando himself lives in a township and you can patronize the local craft markets); also, you help to foster a sense of importance among those who live in the townships.

Thando starts his tour in Cape Town, where a short drive from the Waterfront brings you to District Six and the Apartheid museum housed inside an old building. Inside, remnants of the old District Six are on display – an area that was the scene of forced removals in the 1960s to make way for "white" businesses.

Oddly, amongst some of the factories and businesses the old churches and Mosques still stand. Reflecting on this now vanished community, Thando explains that the churches still stand because "it was the height of the cold war and knocking down churches would have been something only communists did."

The people were moved and relocated to different areas based on racial identity. The museum provides a great starting point to learn about the creation of the townships and a fantastic place to learn about how people have managed to overcome horrible atrocities.

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“People shouldn't let their circumstances circumscribe their outlook," Thando reminds us as he looks over a map of what district six used to look like. Where houses and apartments once stood, signatures of old residents mark the map -- an attempt to reconcile the fact that only memories of their homes remain.

From the museum, Thando guides you on a short drive out of Cape Town to various townships such as Laanga, Guguletu, and Khayelitsha. These townships are located along the highway near the international airport. Khayelitsha township is smaller than Manhattan but contains over 1.6 million people.

Along the way you may drive past one of the cemeteries, and looking at the vast space one wonders if apartheid could have killed so many people. However, Thando will quickly correct you since "only the first quarter of the cemetery is filled with the victims of apartheid over 40 years. But look at the rest. These are the victims in only the last 10 years from HIV." As in the rest of Southern Africa, HIV has become an

epidemic in South Africa, infecting as many as 25% of the population.
North Americans tend to think that visiting a township is one of the most hazardous

things you can do in Africa especially in light of the this years "xenophobic" attacks against black immigrants and because the South African murder rate is one of the highest in the world with much of that violence occuring within or near townships. However, visiting a township remains wonderfully safe.

"When you visit a township," Thando says, "you become the guest of the township, and therefore you are taken care of." This feeling of being "taken care of" is pervasive as people smile and wave as you pass through. The children are the most unabashed as they rush around you when you walk through the township, each vying for the best position to hold your hand. "The children don't fear white people," Thando says. "They don't know apartheid, and they are the future."

Within fifteen minutes of arriving you will be surrounded by a half dozen smiling children all clinging to at least a finger. They are happy to talk to one of their new "friends" who have come to visit their home. Some might be surprised that these children do not beg. They don't ask for money or candy, even though they are amongst the poorest people in South Africa. However, they will ask you to take their picture and will love it if you have a digital camera so that they can see themselves. "Feel free to take as many photos as you like," Thando says. "This is about people connecting with people, and the more we speak to each other the more we see our commonality."

That is why it's important to visit and walk around the townships. "Before, the tour buses would drive by," Thando says, "but no one would visit and we began to question our own existence. Now we have friends from Canada, Germany, and the U.S. and we no longer question our own self worth." This is evident in the townships

where more tourists visit as they are much cleaner than those that don't attract visitors.

Aside from improving the "self worth" of people in the townships, tourism is bringing much needed money into an economy struggling to survive. "There aren't many work opportunities" Thando explains, and with unemployment within the townships reaching 70%, many have turned to the "second economy."

This second economy consists of small-scale work within the townships, either making crafts or selling "township art" in the city through dealers or street vendors. Others find employment building and fixing houses in the community, or owning and operating a local bar (often a shack with a hand-painted sign).

Tourism has become an increasingly important factor improving the economy of the townships. Near the end of your tour , for example, Thando may take you to Vicky's Bed and Breakfast. Here amongst the houses made of old wood palettes and corrugated tin is a small two-storey building built by Vicky as a destination for foreigners to stay while visiting South Africa. For less than $30 dollars, Vicky's offers you a beautiful room and a morning meal. Vicky also provides an opportunity for visitors to give back to this community through donations or gifts. Outside Vicky's B&B, you find a number of vendors eager to sell very inexpensive yet beautiful township jewelery, and nearby stands a bar in which to relax and chat with the locals.

Thando finishes the tour by taking you on a walk through the community where you continue to be followed by children. He spouts statistics about how some townships have no electricity, one toilet for every 64 people, and only a single water tap per thousand people. The poverty is palpable but the feeling you have when you leave is not one of despair. Aside from the smiling children laughing at their images in the back of your digital camera, Thando gives you an experience that would be

difficult to find elsewhere. You leave with hope and optimism and the satisfaction, as he puts it, "that you have been part of the solution and not part of the problem."

Originally Published in the Nashwaak Review.

Travis Steffens leads active-travel tours for Backroads Inc. Travel through Belize, Costa Rica, South Africa and Botswana, as well as in the Canadian Rockies.