We LOVE guest bloggers at Down Under Endeavours! Our friends Betsy and Zach recently got to do shark cage diving in South Africa. Here is an account of their experience.
The first shark to the boat lunges for lunch
It turns out that South Africa is a uniquely good spot to satisfy this somewhat unadaptive desire. The cold waters of the Atlantic meet with the relatively warmer (and clearer) waters of the Indian Ocean, creating a diverse marine environment that, when the winds and currents are right, can produce very clear waters. Between the Cape of Good Hope, which is south of Cape Town, and Cape Agulhas, the southernmost point in Africa, is a spit of land called Danger Point. Off the tip of Danger Point is a small outcropping of land, Dyer Island, where 60,000 seals make their winter home.
If you’ve ever seen a seal, you know they’re mostly whiskers and fat. So wherever there are seals, there are sharks. These particular seals seem not to know, or perhaps not to care, that the waters around Dyer Island have become known as Shark Alley. A big industry has grown up in the area taking folks to see the sharks, all of which are Great Whites, up close and personal.
Easing into the sea
Last Monday we clambered aboard a ship, Apex Predator, in Kleinbaai harbor, along with a bunch of like-minded shark bait, and headed out to sea. It was repeatedly emphasized in the safety briefing that we were not–not!–to try and touch the sharks, which seemed like a curious instruction to have to provide.
Anchored about half a kilometer (we think in km now) off of Dyer Island, the crew lowered the long, thin cage into the water, and we were ready to begin the diving. Cool as it sounds, “diving” with the sharks is a bit misleading. It was really a matter of ducking under the water. I’m not PADI certified, so a deeper dive wasn’t an option this time around.
The process had been outlined for us earlier in the morning: the crew would “chum” to attract the sharks, using a large piece of fish and a floating seal silhouette, which for whatever reason was oddly miniaturized, maybe 1/4 the size of an actual seal. We’d struggle into goggles and wetsuits, as the “warmer” Indian Ocean is still around 12 degrees Celsius/54 degrees Fahrenheit, and lower ourselves into the cage, which is attached to the boat and has buoys near the top to keep the upper bit above water. When the crew saw a shark approaching, they’d shout, “Down! Down! Down!” We’d get a big gulp of air and use a bar inside the cage to pull ourselves under.
The crew had said it could take 30-45 minutes for sharks to show, as the smell of the chum diffused from the boat, but our first Great White arrived within two or three minutes tops. After taking some photos on the surface, I suited up and hopped in. (Below is a short clip of the trip put together by the tour operator.)
The water was indeed cold but tolerable. After only a few minutes, we had another shark. He circled, made a bid for the fish, missed, and headed for the cage.
“DOWN! DOWN! DOWN!”
Most of the sharks we saw were 10 to 12 ft long
I submerged. There was the shark, inches away, slowly swimming the length of the cage. He was splendid. Large, maybe 10 feet long, visible in sharp detail, and completely at ease.
As he sauntered by, the strangest thing happened: I found I wanted to touch the shark! And not just a little. A lot! I really wanted to reach out my hand and touch him. Spoiler alert: I’m typing this blog post with all five fingers on both hands. I didn’t touch the shark. But I had to consciously restrain myself against the exhilarating urge to do the unthinkable.
The sharks really were completely relaxed. From my boyhood reading about sharks, I was expecting that the smell of raw fish in the water would drive them into something of a frenzy. Even when lunging for food, this didn’t happen. They were curious, but they stayed totally calm. It was almost like watching an NBA player shoot hoops at a youth camp–smooth and practiced, but there was no need for exertion, and it didn’t matter who won or lost; this wasn’t a real test of their skills.
It ended up being a very lucky day, and not just because I kept my hands inside the cage. We had perfect weather, clear waters, and lots of sharks–about seven different individuals stopped by to say hello. One had distinct bite marks on its snout, the result, a crew member said, of a seal. (Go mammals! Who’s the apex predator now? Oh, wait–still sharks.)
The face of disappointment: this floating seal is neither whiskers nor fat
I wondered about the environmental impact of all this. I’m sure the seals were grateful for the distraction, but how disruptive is the shark cage diving industry to the sharks’ hunting patterns? Research** has apparently shown that sharks which have come to a boat are less likely to return each time, rather than becoming more likely with each subsequent visit, which suggests they learn it’s not worth their trouble. It sounds like after maybe two or three visits at most, they probably stop visiting the boats at all. And most of the Great Whites range from the southern Atlantic all the way to Australia, so they aren’t encountering the boats repeatedly throughout the year.
I’d say that this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but I’d like to do it again. As cool as it was to see the sharks at the surface, and just beneath it, I would have preferred to dive deeper and stay underwater longer. I’m hoping to get PADI certified when we get back home, or if there’s a cheap way to do it further along in our travels, and then spend some more time getting near (but not touching!) sharks.
Thanks for the insight Zach. If you want to book your trip to South Africa with Down Under Endeavours, give us a call.