I’d like to think I’d try just about anything once, well except for watching the Spice Girls in concert. That I cannot do. But as far as adventurey, travely experiences go I’m willing to try it all. Jump off the wall of a gorge attached only by a wire and a harness? Sure! Black water rapids in an underground cave in sub-freezing water? Why not! But there was one experience recently that challenged my fears and put to the test what I will and won’t do when I travel; cage diving with great white sharks in Shark Alley South Africa.
I was the guest of Cape Town Tourism; part of a campaign to share with you all what Cape Town is all about. At first it may seem strange then that they coordinated a visit to Gansbaai, about an hour and a half from Cape Town, but once you visit you realize it’s not odd at all. Cape Town is great and there’s definitely a lot to do within the city limits, but there’s also a treasure trove of activities in the nearby region. From picturesque drives to world-class wineries and yes, even diving with white sharks. So that’s how I found myself huddled over a cup of coffee on a very chilly morning in Gansbaai, South Africa.
Gansbaai (pronounced Ha(ch)ns-by, like you’re choking on something) is the unofficial, or official who knows, capital of Great White Sharks. I’d heard of the town well before my visit thanks to watching many a documentary on the Discovery Channel during Shark Week. So I knew of nearby Dyer Island, Geyser Rock and the seals and of course Shark Alley. Thousands of seals live on tiny Geyser Rock and the waterway between Dyer and Geyser has been named Shark Alley thanks to the plethora of sharks that use the opportunity to eat as many of the Cape Fur Seals as they can. The sharks in this area are also famous for their proclivity to jump out of the water as they feed on the seals, a behavior we caught glimpses of during the dive.
Winter is the best time to encounter the sharks, that’s when they feed in shark alley thanks to the juvenile seals that are making their first treks into open water. (I know, I think it’s sad as well but I guess sharks have to eat too) But for us humans that meant frigid temperatures at 6:00am when we met at the headquarters of Marine Dynamics, one of the leaders in great white education and conservation. I love wildlife experiences but it’s important to me that they’re handled by reputable vendors who really care about the animals; Marine Dynamics ticks those boxes and then some.
It was their high season so there were a lot of us gathered, probably about fifty people stood in line to board the buses to the nearby docks and join our expedition craft for the morning. Although it’s an expedition boat, it was still comfortable and there was plenty of room for everyone. This was an especially important fact as the boat sped off in search of the great white.
The waters off the coast of South Africa are stunning, especially on a crisp winter morning. The sun bathed the nearby mountains and birds flew alongside, racing us to the finish line. We stopped a couple of times to take a closer look at some Southern Right Whales; they too had newborns and seemed to be showing them off to the world. While Shark Alley is the winter home of the great whites, we dropped anchor not in the waterway, but in a safer position within sight of the famous killing zone.
Then everything seemed to happen very fast. Before I knew what was going on I was in a wet suit, handed a snorkel mask and told to get ready to go into the frigid waters. Whether I liked it or not, this was about to become a reality and fast.
The cage probably isn’t what you think it is. Well, it’s a cage so that part is accurate, but it’s not free-floating in the middle of the Atlantic. It’s dropped and secured to the side of the boat, so one climbs in directly from the deck and the boat protects the back of the cage. Seven people enter at once, taking up positions next to each other and hold on to the interior bars of the cage. Then, whenever the spotter sees a shark approach he yells the direction at which point everyone takes a gulp, makes sure their snorkel gear is on tight and plunges below the surface to see the great apex predator of the oceans.
I won’t lie, the experience is a little disorienting. There I was, in the freezing South Atlantic in waters teaming with Great White Sharks with nothing but some iron bars blocking the way. Every few seconds I’d take a gulp of air and submerge and glance around in amazement at the massive sharks. After a while I began to appreciate their beauty, their grace and even their intelligence. The boat was baiting with seal cut outs and chum and after a couple of bites, one shark would leave bored and another took its place. The water was murky, but the white sharks weren’t shy and came pretty close to the cage. They never seemed especially interested in us though; the bait clearly had their attention.
We were in the water for almost twenty minutes, but it seemed like only a few moments when we received the instructions to leave and let the next group have their turn. Watching from the boat though was just as interesting, sharks leapt up from the water in an errant surprise attack on a wooden seal. Their power and speed was amazing, and I walked away with a whole new respect for these beautiful creatures.
That’s the real goal of Marine Dynamics. Sure, they want guests to have a good time, but they also want to educate people. Sharks get a bum rap, I think we can all acknowledge that. More than bad PR though, they’re being hunted to the point of extinction by poachers who want to supply Asian countries with fins in order to make shark fin soup. It’s disgusting and brutal and I can’t believe in the 21st century people are still so barbaric. The poachers cut off the fins from the shark and then let them sink to the bottom where they suffocate. It pains me to even write those words; the act is just so gruesome. But if enough people learn about sharks and appreciate the need the conserve them as a species, maybe some good will be done.
After everyone had their diving experience, the boat motored in between Dyer Island and Geyser Rock, splitting the middle of Shark Alley. Before I saw the seals I heard their barking and detected their unique odors. They bayed like sheep or goats, and to see tens of thousands of them together in a massive biomass was truly a spectacle. In a fit of morbid realization, I couldn’t help but wonder which of them wouldn’t make it to see their second season.
The sun was shining brightly and the day had begun to warm up as I sat in Gansbaai slurping some hot soup and relishing equally warm coffee. I’ve had a lot of once-in-a-lifetime experiences and I’m lucky for that, I realize. But this experience was different, it touched me more. Sure it was an adrenalin rush to swim with the sharks, but the appreciation for them was the real prize and it’s something I will try to share for the rest of my life.
What do you think, is this an adventure activity you’d be willing to try?