Bungy jumping and sky-diving – these had been completed with relative ease whilst touring the Garden Route. The prospect of shark cage diving however had provided a lingering sense of anxiety for weeks. With a montage of scenes from Jaws and of course “That Music” resounding in my head, I left Hermanus for Kleinbaai – a small coastal town and the Shark Capital of the World.
After a quick breakfast at the headquarters of Marine Dynamics (our dive operator), we were provided with a brief presentation on the Great White Shark. Due to modern fishing practices, the use of gill nets off beaches and the growing demand for shark meat and fins in Asia, the numbers of Great White Sharks have declined dramatically. Scientists estimate that only 3500 still survive and despite global protection their numbers are estimated to be falling by 20% every three generations.
Marine Dynamics, in partnership with the Dyer Island Conservation Trust, both funds and conducts world class research on the sharks in conjunction with local and international universities. The team is conducting pioneering work in the recording of shark behaviour through acoustic-tagging and tracking. Photographs of dorsal fins are also submitted to a global database which allows scientists to monitor individual Great White Shark movements.
On a comfortable 14 metre two-tiered cruiser, we made the journey through fields of kelp to Shark Alley. This shallow channel separates Dyer and Geyser Islands and their near 40,000 strong population of Cape Fur Seals. As we slowly cruised down Shark Alley, I could not help but feel that I was in a David Attenborough documentary- surrounded by nature in all its magnitude. Whilst the majority of the colony laid encamped on the rocks, a few of the younger seals swam without care in the clear turquoise waters. All eyes on deck darted around the boat, half-expecting an ominous dark shape to appear and snatch an unsuspecting pup. There were a few half-starts, namely a larger male seal and some kelp bobbing in the distance, but this treacherous strait of water was strangely devoid of its namesake. The crew decided to then try the warmer waters off the beach where the larger females tend to congregate.
Responsible eco-tourism is the core principle of the tours. The sharks are attracted to a release of fish oils into the sea as opposed to a chum consisting of meat and blood. The sharks themselves are never fed so that there is no connection between human contact and food. We were lucky enough to attract Great Whites within 15 minutes of fish oil release and over the course of the tour spotted 8 sharks ranging between 2.5- 3.8 metres in length.
After putting on my wetsuit, mask and weight-belt I entered the cage (attached to the boat’s side) with 6 others. Despite knowing that I was perfectly safe inside the cage, I started to panic and found it difficult to breathe. All this anxiety subsided however after being told to dive below to view the first Great White Shark. I was overcome by a sense of deep calm and awe at the sheer size of these creatures. Years of Discovery Channel had imparted a sense of their length but it was a great shock to see up close their height from dorsal fin to belly. With this being approximately the same as three humans lying horizontally on top of each other, one could easily imagine themselves as lunch!
Whilst we were watching a large female glide effortlessly by, out of nowhere a second shark sped towards the cage from below. It aimed for the right hand corner, where I was swimming, and attacked the cage! The whole experience occurred in slow-motion and my faith in iron has never been so sorely tested. The huge jaws opened, my heart pounded and it made a few exploratory bites before letting us be. The entire boat turned to me once I surfaced and I let out a sigh of relief which fortunately was not recorded. After spending half an hour in the water, my group exited the cage and watched the others become live bait…
Topside, I had the good luck to witness a breach attack on a decoy bait. It was simply amazing to watch a white mass launch itself out of the water with its jaws gnashing. Upon return to land, everyone I spoke with described it as an extraordinary experience and had a newfound perspective on these often misunderstood predators.
Marine Dynamics Shark Tours run daily from Kleinbaai. www.sharkwatchsa.com. The correspondent was a guest of South African Tourism.