The brisk salt air of the South Atlantic Ocean nips as it fills the lungs, in contrast with the gentle swaying of the small diving boat. Twenty minutes out at sea from Gansbaai, an eight-man diving cage attached to the side of the vessel, is ominously lowered. ‘Remember, do not put your hands outside of the cage‘ shouts our guide over the sudden flurry of activity of squeezing into wetsuits. In seeing the immense shadow of a Great White Shark materialises next to the boat, the additional warning was unnecessary.
The small town of Gansbaai in South Africa, 100km south-west of Cape Town, is famed for its Shark Diving Tourism, as the entrance to Shark Alley, a seal colony home to approximately 60000 fur seals, and a relative buffet lunch for Great Whites. Many tour providers operate out of Gansbaai, with cartoons of sharks devouring body parts with the slogan ‘send more tourists’ underneath. A short introductory video, in a small kitchenette, reminds the 22 wide-eye tourists that these animals are wild, and not to be touched. As if we needed reminding!
Filling the top deck of the boat, in bright orange anoraks to protect from the bracing South Atlantic winds, we head out to sea and chum is released into the water. This concoction of fish, bone and blood created a white rose trail, and the boat slowly moves further out to sea.
The anticipation is palpable, a sense of nervous excitement. With a successful viewing rate with most tour operators of 95%, everyone knows what to expect without knowing what to expect. A shadow, approximately 3-4 meters long emerges next to the boat, and a dorsal fin cuts through the surf like a razor as the shark hovers beneath the surface. The sheer magnitude of the shark does not translate when watching documentaries. The boat is silent in awe of what is being seen.
With a substantial metallic clunk of the anchor and clanging of the eight-man cage into the sea lowering into the water, the boat fizzes into movement. As everyone is changing into their wetsuits, the shark is swimming nearby, politely curious at the activity and interest. One person climbs into the cage and moves along as it fills with eight people. Submerged in the cold water, the shark swims past, occasionally having a harmless nibble on the cage.
Shark Diving is not without controversy
With many opposition arguments highlighting the dangers of the association of human activity with food and baiting, Gansbaai is heavily reliant on this tourism and many conservation projects in place in the local community to ensure long-term survival of Great White Sharks, as well as the remainder of the other ‘Big 5’: penguins, whales, dolphins and seals. With some of the highest recorded natural activity in the world, improving our knowledge and education.
Sharks are beautiful animals, and if you’re lucky enough to see lots of them, that means that you’re in a healthy ocean. Just make sure you keep your hands inside the cage.