The small town of Gansbaai, about an hour and a half from Cape Town, South Africa, is the Great White Shark capital of the world. Every winter scores of these ocean giants descend on the small channel between Dyer Island and Geyser Rock known simply as Shark Alley. Thousands of tourists follow the sharks every year for what has become one of the most popular tourist activities in South Africa, cage diving with the Great Whites. The experience of climbing into the chilly waters with nothing in between you and the apex predators of the sea is daunting but exciting. Watching first hand these majestic animals swim and chase after bait is a privilege and it, hopefully, instills in each guest the need for shark conservation and protection.
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Where to See the Greats
Ever since I was a child, I had a paralyzing, but certainly not uncommon, fear of sharks. I believed sharks were everywhere: the public pool, the lake, even down the bathtub's drain.
So you can imagine my husband's surprise when, in South Africa a few years back, I told him I wanted to go shark cage diving.
Despite my lifetime of fearing them, the first great white shark I saw on board the Marine Dynamics boat did not send a chill up my spine as I expected—instead, I was instantly in awe. I wanted to get in the water as soon as possible to be as close to these greats as I could.
Once submerged safely in the cage, I continued to be amazed by the creature's grace and prehistoric beauty. The ship operators practically had to drag me out back on the boat—I could've stayed there for hours, despite the cold temperatures, the rocking motion. My fears were gone.
In the end, I realized the necessity of these creatures to our waters, even volunteered with Shark Savers, an anti-shark fin and pro-shark conservation organization that has invigorated my passion for protecting the now-endangered creature from extinction. My meeting with the sharks that day, facilitated through the research-focused Marine Dynamics and their team of marine biologists, was nothing like the maelstrom of blood and horror I'd imagined it would be: peaceful and calm as I stared face-to-face with a toothy bull, I was reminded of how beautiful nature is, and yet how fragile too.
I am in a steel cage that is tied to the side of a boat. The 4mm wetsuit brings up the freezing water to almost tolerable and you never had a better sense of how big the ocean is until you are floating in the middle of it at eye level waiting to see a shark.
Shark diving in South Africa is big business and there is no shortage of controversy. In South Africa, the sharks are drawn to the boat by chum and are baited to come closer to the cage. The biggest question is if the act of baiting the shark changes their behaviors and increases the rate of shark attack on humans. However other considerations in regards to preservation are a shark that is caught for shark fin (e.g shark fin soup) is worth $100 USD. A shark that is part of the eco-system and enable the tourist industry is worth $2 million USD per year.
I dived with Marine Dynamics, a top-notch shop with a eco-tourism / conservation program as part of it.
Down there, just barely below the surface, a meter of visibility with 4 meter long Great White Sharks lurking about….your mind cues the theme song from Jaws and you make sure you keep all your fingers inside of the cage in eager anticipation for that close encounter that is about to happen.