My friends and family know this about me when it comes to sharks: I LOVE THEM.
Nurse sharks, black tips, tiger sharks – and especially great whites. Shark Week gets put on my calendar each and every year, and yes, I may or may not even own a shark onesie that I will wear in the middle of August in celebration.
For as long as I can remember, I've wanted the chance to get up close and personal with sharks in the wild. I snorkeled with sharks in Belize, and have paddleboarded with them in Florida. But of course the ultimate shark experience is cage diving with great whites.
So when I was planning a trip to South Africa for my dad and I and I found out we would have the opportunity to go cage diving in Gansbaai near the famous Shark Alley at Dyer Island, my first reaction was to freak out and nearly explode with giddiness.
And then my second reaction was to reluctantly wonder whether I should really do it.
I'm not a vegetarian, nor will I completely condemn all zoos in the world. But I AM sensitive to animals being abused and exploited (read my opinion on riding elephants here), and I know that cage diving with great whites is one of those gray areas when it comes to wildlife encounters.
Two sides of an argument
Those who are against shark cage diving say that it's a dangerous, irresponsible practice that habituates sharks to associate humans with food. These opponents correlate the increase in shark attacks (usually on surfers) to the increase in cage diving activity – and this applies in South Africa, too.
On the other side of the argument, cage diving advocates argue that, because great white sharks are migratory instead of “resident” in an area, they are not around cage diving boats regularly enough to become habituated. And, while many cage diving boats do “chum” the water with fish guts and blood to catch the attention of curious sharks, none of the companies operating in South Africa actually feed sharks.
But, opponents argue, isn't baiting the sharks with chum and fish heads on the end of a rope just as bad as feeding them?
Maybe. But advocates point out that many cage diving operators contribute to conservation (and not just of sharks), too, and also work towards better educating people who still harbor Jaws-induced misconceptions about great whites.
The decision of whether or not to go cage diving wasn't easy for me. It was difficult to decide between something that I've really really wanted to do for a long time and the knowledge that the practice definitely toes the line of being unethical.
In the end, though, after reading arguments from both sides and acknowledging that neither side has been scientifically proven right or wrong, I decided that I would go on one cage diving trip in order to come to my own conclusions.
Cage diving in Gansbaai
The tiny town of Gansbaai is the heart of South Africa's shark cage diving industry. Gansbaai is only a few miles away from Dyer Island, where hundreds (or more) of great whites go each and every winter to hunt seals. If you've seen any of Shark Week's Air Jaws specials, this is where they were filmed.
RELATED: Check out my own video:
The weather was not super cooperative when we arrived, though – it was deceptively sunny, but high winds made the sea so choppy that all the cage diving boats shut down operations for the first two days we were there.
On the third day, though, most of the boats were going back out. Originally, the group I was with was booked on a tour with Marine Dynamics, which I was excited about. They have won a couple of responsible tourism awards within South Africa, and also helped found the Dyer Island Conservation Trust, which aims to study and conserve not only sharks, but also penguins, whales, and other marine mammals in the area.
But Marine Dynamics still had its boat out of the water, and so we were re-booked with Great White Shark Tours. I wasn't super excited about this (I don't like money-back guarantees when it comes to wildlife encounters, which this company offers), but there wasn't much of a choice – it was either go out on their Apex Predator boat or not go at all.
And so we went.
The ride out to Dyer Island took about half an hour. We weren't able to get into Shark Alley itself because of the rough seas, but it didn't take long to see the first sleek gray form come within view of the boat. While we waited to see if any sharks would be curious enough to stick around, the company's Marine Eco Guide told us a bit about the sharks we would be seeing, as well as gave us a run-down of how everything would work. The chum slick started going out, and Gladys the rubber seal decoy was thrown into the water in front of the cage once it was in place. It all happened quite quickly.
The cage on board could hold 8 people, so we'd be wetsuiting up in groups and getting into the cage once the crew determined that we had a “player” shark nearby – i.e. a shark that was curious enough to stick around. Not all of them were – many lazily swam around the boat and then left. Others were probably further out in the murky water than we could see, not quite brave enough to come in closer.
Because that's the thing about this activity: the sharks don't see people in a cage. They see the boat, the cage, and the people in it as one huge organism bigger than they are, much like lions or elephants will see a safari vehicle filled with people as one large animal.
I volunteered to get into the cage in the first wave of divers, and so was quickly stuffing myself into a wetsuit while trying to ignore the people on the boat who were already starting to get sick. We were given full 7-mil wetsuits complete with booties and hood, a weight belt to help us stay underwater, and a mask. When a shark came by, we would be told which direction to look as we sunk under the water.
The water, by the way, was cold. But I was so excited about the prospect of seeing a great white face-to-face that I barely felt it.
It took a while before we saw anything. This was partially because no sharks were coming close enough to the boat, and also because the visibility underwater was awful. Thankfully, Great White Shark Tours doesn't set time limits when you're in the cage. Instead, they try to get everyone an equal number of “pass-bys,” even if it means one group of divers waits a bit longer than another.
Half an hour or so after we got into the water, the dive master was telling us to sit on the top rung of the cage so we didn't get too cold.
Of course, no sooner did we all climb up there (NOT easy while wearing a weight belt, let me tell you!), than a 3-meter (about 10-foot) shark decided to become a player.
We all dove back into the cage. And then it happened: the shark attacked Gladys the seal decoy, wildly thrashing above the water before pulling the decoy down to chomp and thrash some more below the surface right in front of us. Then she broke Gladys from her rope and breached on the decoy further out from the boat.
I had only been hoping to see a shark close enough to make out its eyes in the murky water, so this blew my expectations out of the water (pun intended). You can't hear it very well in my GoPro video, but I was squealing the entire time.
When I climbed out of the cage a few minutes later, all I could keep saying was “Holy shit, holy shit, holy shit.”
For the rest of our time out on the water, I sat on the above deck and watched a couple more sharks go for a fresh Gladys and thrash around in front of the cage. Interestingly, even though there were fish heads on a rope being used as bait alongside the seal decoy, it was the decoy that was hit more often by the sharks.
As I dried off in the sun and watched people climb out of the cage with huge grins on their faces, I began processing my thoughts on the shark diving experience.
It's true that I didn't like the chumming, or the fact that dead fish heads were also being used as bait. BUT, I couldn't deny that the crew did nothing but catch the attention of sharks that were already around Dyer Island. They weren't luring them in from elsewhere, nor were they hurting the animals in any way.
I've swum with a variety of marine animals in the wild before, including dolphins and fur seals in New Zealand and manatees in Florida. In all of those instances, we simply plopped into the water near the animals and then let them dictate how the encounter would go.
Even though the dive boat was chumming for sharks in this case, the cage-front encounters were, indeed, still left largely up to the sharks.
So what's the verdict?
The adrenaline was still running high when we headed back to shore, and so I waited until later in the day when I'd calmed down a bit to fully turn a critical eye on the shark cage diving experience.
So, should you go cage diving with great white sharks? The truth is, I still can't say.
On the one hand, I didn't like the chumming/baiting, and it's pretty clear that these dive companies make a lot of money from the sharks. Is that exploitation? It's hard to say since there's no proof that the sharks are actually being hurt in any way. But I would be very curious to see how these tours would fare if they *only* used the rubber seal decoy.
On the other hand, though, I'm not sure whether you can really connect shark cage diving to an increase in shark attacks on humans. The sharks that came around our boat were already out near Dyer Island, where they typically hunt. While a couple did go for the fish head bait ball, the majority of the sharks went for the seal decoy, which suggests they were just “hunting” normally, completely ignoring the boat, cage, and people in it.
You would also think that, if the sharks were becoming habituated in any way, it would be to associate boats with food. And yet that doesn't seem to be the case. (Granted, I'm not a scientist or shark expert or anything – this is just what I observed.)
And then there's the fact that encounters like this can help to dispel the myths and misconceptions that many people have about great white sharks. Every single person on that boat (including my dad, who didn't even get in the cage) left with a greater appreciation for and understanding of great white sharks. They are not mindless killing machines – they are beautiful, powerful animals that are actually in a lot of danger from people who want to kill them for their fins. I think seeing them with your own eyes makes you immediately more compassionate and respectful towards them – and perhaps moves you enough to do something to help them.
If it's between this and seeing sharks in small aquarium tanks, which is truly better?
I can't answer that question, unfortunately. But I can say that I enjoyed my shark experience, and really do think that tours like this have the potential to do a lot of good. Not just conservation-wise, either, but also by simply educating people about sharks. Because when someone sees with their own eyes that a great white shark is not out to eat them, hopefully they will go home and tell their friends and family that – and hopefully those people, in turn, will be able to separate Jaws from reality.
I can't 100% recommend shark cage diving to others since everyone has to make their own choices when it comes to activities like this. It's not as responsible an activity as I would like it to be, but I also did not find myself cringing at any point due to how the animals were being treated.
You can say I'm just trying to justify my decision here, and maybe I am. But after actually experiencing it for myself, this is my opinion. Take it or leave it!
PS – After I came home, I made a donation to the Dyer Island Conservation Trust to do my part to hopefully help protect these incredible animals. You can donate, too, to help build penguin nests, conduct shark research, provide environmental education, or rescue stranded animals.
IF YOU GO
If you decide shark cage diving is something you'd like to do, here's some essential info:
Give yourself enough time – No matter which company you end up going with, shark cage diving is dictated entirely by the weather. If the seas are too rough or the weather too bad, trips often get canceled. This is why it's a good idea to give yourself an extra day or two, in case your first trip is canceled.
Stay in Gansbaai – You *can* book shark trips from Cape Town, but this will usually include a transfer to Gansbaai, which takes about 2 hours one-way. If your boat is going out at 7 a.m., this is going to mean a very early morning for you. If you can, stay in Gansbaai instead. It's a very pretty little town on the ocean, making it a nice place to be anyway. (I recommend The Roundhouse Guesthouse – they'll even transfer you to/from Cape Town and can also help with shark bookings.)
Prepare for seasickness – Especially if you're prone to motion sickness (and even if you're not), come prepared. I took 2 Bonine tablets about four hours before we left, and wore my Sea-bands the entire time we were at sea. I didn't get sick at all, but A LOT of people on our boat did. The trick is to stay out in the open air and drug yourself up well in advance – tablets won't work once you already feel sick. You may also want to have some ginger candies like Gin-Gins on hand, in case you do start feeling queasy.
So what do you think? Yea or nay to shark cage diving?