4th October Gansbaai Shark Cage diving
We needn’t have been concerned. First we were greeted with the sight of our first Southern Right Whale off the coast right outside our window. The sea state seemed quite a bit calmer than the previous evening, yet still there was a bit of a swell. We met up with the other Shark Bait... er I mean divers for our breakfast and briefing at a local restaurant. A marine biologist from Marine Dynamics gave us a safety talk and spiel about how this company has a better ethical record than some others because they supposedly do not pull the bait towards the cages (where sharks might injure themselves), and they don’t deliberately feed the sharks (which some other companies allegedly do). The marine biologist giving the talk also told us about the migratory behaviour and conservation issues facing the Great White Sharks (from finning and bycatch), and how tagging them is helping to monitor their movements so that marine protection areas can be set up.
We were expected to then sign an indemnity form for the excursion. This really bugged us! We did not get why you have to sign, particularly when you even have to waive any claim over negligence. This wouldn’t be acceptable in UK law and was frankly quite worrying when the shark dive operators are required by law to have high levels of indemnity insurance which you hope to rely on if something goes wrong. Particularly when most travel insurance policies won’t cover that activity.
We then got kitted out with trendy fluorescent red waterproofs and headed down to the boat. With Marine Dynamic’s own boat out of commission, we were placed on Apex Predator, an apt name for a Great white shark dive boat if ever there was one! We were told there were two sites where the boats operate at this time of year, one a shallow bay and the second, the infamous Dyer Island and Shark Alley. It was to the latter site that we were headed. We were joined en route by a Subantarctic Skua who kept pace with the boat, picking up scraps of food that were being offered by a member of the crew.
As we arrived on site, one of half a dozen or so boats, the crew started to chum the water in order to lay the scent trail that would surely lure in any sharks in the area. Soon enough the first dark shapes of great white sharks started to circle the boat. I’m not sure if anyone said it out loud but I know I was thinking that we were going to need a bigger boat! The crew kept the sharks interested by tossing both a float in the shape of a small seal and a tuna head tied to a line off the side of the boat as the cage was lowered into the water. Shark diving is a bit of a misnomer, since you don’t actually get any diving equipment other than a face mask and wetsuit. This means you have to hold your breath and duck your head under whenever a shark swims past.
As the first couple of groups of brave (or foolish) souls entered the cage, we watched from the top of the boat as sharks repeatedly struck both the float and the tuna, sometimes getting away with their prize. Funnily enough we didn’t really see much difference between what the crew were doing, and what we had been told was bad practice! One particularly large shark, generated some excitement from the biologist who exclaimed “I tagged this shark, I know this shark!” One woman had a hard time ducking her head under water and chickened out of the dive altogether.
We were the third group in the water and I took up a position on the far right hand side of the cage. This was right at the end where the bait and float were being tossed out and dragged back in. As such, I was treated to many close-up encounters with hungry white sharks striking and tasting the float and tuna in front of me. It was totally exhilarating, especially when on several occasions the sharks would grab the bait, turn and power straight towards me, only turning to avoid the cage at the last possible moment, passing so closely that it felt like I could have reached out and stroked it..(not advisable of course!) One particularly special moment was when the shark went for the bait which was close to the cage at the time, and I could see right down its throat. Another time, the shark dived deep and then reappeared, powering head first up out of the depths like a torpedo.
The water was freezing cold though and it was a struggle to hold my underwater camera steady enough to record the action. But I did manage to record at least some of the dive which gave a real sense of being under water and the closeness and sheer awesomeness of the sharks. After ten minutes we needed to make room for any other people, but as most people had had their turns there was space for those who wanted to go in again to do so. Helen decided to sit that one out, but I jumped at the chance of going back in. This time I was right in the middle of the cage and once again I was treated to an exhilarating experience. Eventually, shivering in the cold and with my fingers getting numb it was finally time to call it a day.
A number of other seabirds were also seen on this trip including a distant albatross, but I didn’t see which one it was. These included, Sooty Shearwater, White-chinned Petrel and Great Winged Petrel.
We returned to a nice hot buffet lunch whilst DVDs were burned for those of us who wanted them. We shopped for souvenirs, Helen plumbing for the obligatory “I survived” and “dare to dive” t-shirts, whilst I opted for a 3 million year old fossilised Great White Shark tooth necklace as a nice reminder of the trip.S AFRICA JO 060 Great White Shark
, on FlickrS AFRICA JO 039 Great White Shark
, on FlickrGWS 1 copy Great White Shark
, on FlickrGWS 2 copy Great White Shark
, on FlickrGWS 4 copy Great White Shark
, on Flickr