Face-to-face with a shark

Words: Sam Bradley | Photos: Shark Watch SA & Sam Bradley

I have a confession to make: sharks fascinate me. Don’t get me wrong, I’m as scared of them as the next guy. If I ever had to meet a great white face-to-face in the wide-open ocean, I reckon I’d get to dry land so fast I would beat some of Chad le Clos’ swimming records. However, seeing them on Discovery Channel, they actually look quite graceful. In fact, if it wasn’t for that huge mouthful of razor-sharp teeth, they could possibly even be described as peaceful.

To see if there was any substance to my hunch, I travelled to Gansbaai in the Western Cape, a sleepy fishing village that is quickly being transformed into an adventure tourism Mecca. Just off the coast lies Dyer Island and Geyser Rock, home to about 60,000 Cape fur seals, with the deep stretch of water between the two islands known as Shark Alley. The two-hour drive from Cape Town, all along the coast, is absolutely stunning. The town itself, with every second business and hotel having some reference to the word shark, clearly thrives off its fame as the undisputed shark capital of the world.

Initially, I was very hesitant about shark cage diving. Most people, especially surfers, believe that the industry is to blame for attracting sharks to our beaches, and therefore increasing the number of attacks on humans. To make up my own mind, I decided to sign up with a company called Marine Dynamics. Not only are they one of the biggest and most reputable operators in the business, they are also very involved in protecting the shark. They run an intern and volunteer programme that enables up to 18 students to participate in various education and conservation activities. The company also holds a Fair Trade in Tourism certification, and profits from shark cage diving are used to fund the Dyer Island Conservation Trust. This trust has done fantastic work in protecting, conserving, and educating people about the sharks, whales, and penguins in the area. But back to business.

We started off with a quick breakfast and safety briefing. Guests were informed that worldwide, sharks kill about five people every year, less than ants (30), bathtubs (340), shopping (550), and toasters (600). In other words, the drive to the destination was by far the most dangerous part of the whole adventure. It’s a short boat ride out into the bay, and because whales and dolphins are often spotted in the area, we kept a sharp lookout for them, but with no luck. The young lady sitting next to me, Gill, had been dreaming of this moment since she was a child, and was literally shaking with excitement by this stage.

Once we arrived at the location, the staff got to work. The cage was lowered into the water and tied to the side of the boat, while one of the staff prepared the chum (a mixture of fish and fish oils). Contrary to popular belief, the chum doesn’t actually feed the sharks (as that would allow them to become dependant on man for food), but is rather just a scent to attract the sharks that are nearby. It’s also worth noting that the practise of mixing shark livers into the chum has been stopped, as any practise that encourages trade in shark parts is strongly discouraged. The two throwers prepared their attractions for the sharks, which consisted of a wooden decoy seal and a small bait ball of fresh fish heads. These were attached to a rope and then pulled across the front of the cage, giving the divers in the cage a great view of the sharks.

It only took five minutes for the first inquisitive sharks to appear, so the first set of divers were quickly kitted up and sent down under. Gill was in the cage before anyone could blink and was soon squealing with excitement as sharks came into view.

The water was a chilly 12 degrees, so even with the wetsuits on it took a while to adapt to the water. The cage is built for eight people at a time, and is completely closed off on all sides (just in case the sharks get a little too curious). The top of the cage sticks out the water and when a shark swims past, the divers sink below the surface to see the shark eyeball-to-eyeball. No diving experience is required, as swimmers pop to the surface whenever they run out of air. The Marine Biologists who are working as interns on the trip recognise most of the sharks by name and are a wealth of knowledge about everything shark related.

When my turn in the cage came around, I couldn’t believe how large and powerful these great beasts are in real life! A shark of 4 metres calmly glided past, coming so close that I felt I could stick my hand through the cage and touch it (although this is definitely not allowed). Each guest spends about 20 minutes in the cage and during this time I must have seen at least six or seven different sharks, all within 3 metres of the cage. While they are undeniably kings of the ocean, I was able to confirm my original hunch that they are indeed graceful animals. Most of the sharks swimming past our cage seemed merely curious, almost as if just popping past to say hello and investigate our decoy toys.

Relaxing on the boat afterwards and comparing stories and photos with the other guests was just as much fun. Our custom-built shark cage diving boat, aptly named Slashfin, is a double-decker boat that can accommodate 40 guests. We could sit on the top deck and look down at the sharks, which presented great photo opportunities.

Sitting on a comfortable boat, food and drinks close at hand, the sun shining brightly down on us, the wind blowing through our hair, and playful sharks twisting and turning through the water below - what could be better? Even a seagull offloading a well-timed bomb on me couldn’t take the smile off my face.

What you need to know:

Trip: Trips can be booked through the website, www.sharkwatchsa.com. Trips cost R1,400 (R800 for children under 13), and generally last three to five hours. A link to the footage of your trip can be purchased for R100. Trips are run every day, and twice a day during the busy seasons.

What to take: Marine Dynamics provide safety equipment, wetsuits, towels, and snacks before, during and after the trip. Take a camera (preferably an underwater one), as well as a hat and sunscreen.

Accommodation: Accommodation options in Gansbaai and Kleinbaai are plentiful. Have a look at the Gansbaai Explore website (www.gansbaai.com) or the Gansbaai Tourism website (www.gansbaaiinfo.com) for more information.

Volunteering: To find out more about intern and volunteering opportunities, have a look at the Dyer Island Conservation Trust website (www.dict.org.za). This company is also founded by Marine Dynamics owner and well-known conservationist Wilfred Chivell. There is also a dedicated website for volunteers (www.marinevolunteers.com). Note that this is a paying programme, and trips can be organised for as short as a week at a time (although at least a month is recommended).