Shark Cage Diving seems to have had a bit of a battering in recent years, with many branding it as a cruel sport. Nothing could be further from the truth. Shark Cage Diving has several main priorities – observe – educate – protect. It is an ethical animal encounter that travellers can experience under a professional marine biologist’s guidance to understand these magnificent animals fully.
Animal conservation groups have recognised white Shark cage diving as a vital conservation tool in Southern Africa, where the shark is a highly threatened species. By allowing biologists, scientists and the general public a chance to get close to the sharks means increased observation of their well-being and behavioural patterns.
Recent data revealed by the WWF reveals that up to 100 million sharks are killed every year by fishing (shark finning) and as a by-product of other fishing methods. Another report by Statista shows the number of unprovoked shark attacks around the world in 2020 was 57 with 10 fatalities. This makes us re-evaluate the sometimes dark image we have formed of the shark thanks to over-zealous news reports and Hollywood films. The question now is which species is the real predator and which species is the prey?
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How Do You Choose a Shark Cage Diving Experience?
On my trip to South Africa, I carefully researched which company I would use for my family’s Great White Shark Cage Diving experience. I wanted to make sure that the diving company’s priorities were the welfare of the shark (it was), that we would be given plenty of information on sharks before our dive (we were), and that part of my booking fee would be ploughed back into shark research (it was). Once I was satisfied that those criteria were met, I was happy to book on to shark cage dive and play a small part in the fight to protect these mighty creatures of the ocean.
We were staying at Grootbos Private Nature Reserve in Gansbaai, a 2.5-hour drive from Cape Town. We booked our shark cage dive with Marine Dynamics, South Africa’s only 5-star shark cage diving operator.
Our Shark Cage Diving Experience
We had been in South Africa for two-weeks and had experienced several other ethical animal interactions. From an incredible lion encounter at Shamwari Game Reserve to sleeping and walking with elephants at Knysna Elephant Sanctuary and not forgetting the bird and monkey sanctuaries, we visited on our Garden Route road trip. We had not, however, had any underwater experiences in South Africa until now!
With adrenaline pumping and excitement levels at an all-time high, we set off from our accommodation for the 15-minute drive to Van Dyks Bay in Gansbaai, the best place in the world to see a great white shark. In South Africa, shark cage diving is only done in three areas – Gans Bay (Gansbaai), False Bay and Mossel Bay, where there are colonies of Cape fur seals, a preferred prey of white sharks.
Our first stop was at the Great White House, where we were given lunch, an educational talk about sharks, told what not to do – no fingers to be wiggled outside of the cage – and then given our wetsuits, weights and goggles, and we were on our way.
Heading out to Shark Alley for our Shark Cage Dive
Onboard the boat, a 20-minute ride took us to “Shark Alley”, near Dyer Island, home to the Cape fur seals and smelling fishier than you could ever imagine! The anchor was laid, and we were invited to climb into our shark cage viewing platform, which is attached to the side of the boat and immersed halfway into the water. Your head always remains above the water, and you decide when to hold a breath and submerge yourself to take a look for the sharks.
Angie’s Top Tip: Take sickness tablets before you embark – the choppy water can make you feel very nauseous.
The cage accommodates 6-8 people, and once inside the structure, it was a waiting game. No guarantees are given that you will have a shark sighting; these are wild animals and do not perform on demand. Chum, a mixture of fish, blood and bone, is thrown into the sea to attract any sharks that happen to be in the area and the boat stays out for 2-hours to give all passengers a turn in the cage.
Now to say the sea in South Africa is cold is an understatement – it was freezing even with a wetsuit on. After 40 minutes of ducking my head under the water to see if any sharks were heading my way, I was cold, had a headache and, to be brutally honest, was bored.
I signalled to my two boys that we should get out of the cage and head onto the deck to dry off. They were disappointed but didn’t put up too much of an argument to stay in the water – it was not going to be our lucky day. My husband, never one to give up easily, decided he would stay for a bit longer.
Sighting a Great White Shark
Up on deck, we swayed about trying to release ourselves from the hold of the rubbery wetsuits, which, believe me, was like a workout itself, and just as we had wrapped towels around our shaking bodies, the deckhand shouted out, “GREAT WHITE”!
This was the bucket list moment we had come here for, and I could see the mammoth predator circling beneath the surface of the water. The chum was being whipped into a bloody mess, and my dear hubby was under the water trying to catch the event on his underwater Go-Pro camera and video.
The boys looked at me and looked at the deckhand and pleaded to get back into the cage. The deckhand said they needed to be quick, and so with no time to try and wriggle back into their skintight wetsuits, they plunged themselves into the cage to catch an underwater glimpse of the great white shark.
The sight of two young boys immersing themselves into that freezing water brought a few gasps from other guests to which I called out, “Don’t worry, we’re British”, a nod to the stiff upper lip and hardiness that the Brits seem to possess. This brought laughter from guests of all nationalities.
With the great white shark thrashing around by the cage, the deckhand told me to get ready with the camera as it would rear out of the water before diving back underneath. And then, just as he promised, in a split second, the shark’s nose and mouth, full of razor-sharp teeth, appeared almost smiling, ready for me to capture its presence!
And then, as quickly as this incredible animal had appeared, it suddenly turned and was gone. What an amazing encounter with a great white shark and one that I will always treasure. As for my husband ( so pleased he had caught images on his camera) and my boys (complete with purple lips from the cold water), well, thankfully, they all survived shark cage diving to tell the tale!
Where Have all the Sharks Gone?
Sadly, since my encounter with a Great White Shark, the numbers of sightings in Southern Africa have become almost zero. Marine biologists believe it could be caused by smaller sharks and fish (60% of a great whites diet) being eliminated by overfishing.
Another suggestion is that killer whales (orcas) are coming inland and hunting the great whites and decreasing their population numbers. Whatever the reason, I am thankful that my family and I got the chance to participate in shark cage diving – a truly magical and exhilarating bucket list experience.
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