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Cape Town - I have a confession to make: sharks fascinate me. Don’t get me wrong – I’m as scared of them as the next guy. If I ever had to meet a great white face-to-face in the wide open ocean, I reckon I’d get to dry land faster than Chad le Clos. But seeing them on Discovery Channel, they look quite graceful. In fact, if it wasn’t for that huge mouthful of razor-sharp teeth, they could possibly even be described as peaceful.
To see if there was any substance to my hunch, I travelled to Gansbaai in the Western Cape, a sleepy fishing village that is quickly being transformed into an adventure tourism mecca. Just off the coast lie Dyer Island and Geyser Rock, home to about 60 000 Cape fur seals, with the deep stretch of water between the two islands known as Shark Alley.
The two-hour drive from Cape Town, hugging the coastline, is absolutely stunning. The town itself, with every second business and hotel having some reference to the word shark, clearly thrives off its fame as the undisputed shark capital of the world.
Initially, I was very hesitant about shark cage diving. Most people, especially surfers, believe that the industry is to blame for attracting sharks to beaches, thereby increasing the number of attacks on humans. To make up my own mind, I decided to sign up with a company called Marine Dynamics. Not only are they one of the biggest and most reputable operators in the business, they are also very involved in protecting sharks.
They run an intern and volunteer programme, enabling up to 18 students to participate in education and conservation activities.
The company also holds Fair Trade in Tourism certification, and some profits from shark cage diving are used to fund the Dyer Island Conservation Trust. This trust has done fantastic work in protecting, conserving and educating people about the sharks, whales and penguins in the area.
But back to business.
We started off with a quick breakfast and safety briefing. Guests were informed that worldwide, sharks kill about five people a year, fewer than ants do (30), bathtubs (340), shopping (550) and toasters (600). In other words, the car drive to the destination was far and away the most dangerous part of the whole adventure.
It’s a short boat-ride out into the bay, and because whales and dolphins are often spotted in the area we kept a sharp lookout for them, but with no luck. The woman sitting next to me, Gill, had been dreaming of this moment since she was a child, so she was literally shaking with excitement by this stage.
In winter the boats operate close to Dyer Island and Geyser Rock, where the sharks hunt. In summer the sharks naturally migrate to shallower waters, so that’s where we went to find them. This is done because only sharks in the immediate vicinity of the chum will be attracted to the boat.
Once we arrived at the location the staff got to work. The cage was lowered into the water and tied to the side of the boat, while one of the staff prepared the chum (a mixture of fish and fish oils).
Contrary to popular belief, the chum doesn’t feed the sharks (as that would allow them to become dependent on man for food), but is rather just a scent to attract sharks that are nearby.
It’s also worth noting that mixing shark livers into the chum has been stopped, as any practice which encourages trade in shark parts is strongly discouraged. The two throwers prepare their attractions for the sharks, consisting of a wooden decoy seal and a small bait ball of fresh fish heads. These are attached to a rope and then pulled across the front of the cage, giving the divers in the cage a great view of the sharks.
It took only five minutes for the first inquisitive sharks to appear, so the first set of divers were quickly kitted up and sent down. Gill was in the cage before anyone could blink, and was soon squealing with excitement as sharks came into view. The water was a chilly 12 degrees, so even with the wetsuits on it took a while to adapt to the water.
The cage is built for eight people at a time, and is closed on all sides (just in case the sharks get a little too curious). The top of the cage sticks out of the water, and when a shark swims past the divers sink below the surface to see the shark eyeball-to-eyeball.
No diving experience is required, as swimmers pop to the surface whenever they run out of air. The marine biologists, interns and volunteers on the trip recognise most of the sharks by name, and possess a wealth of knowledge about everything shark-related.
When my turn in the cage came, I couldn’t believe how large and powerful these great beasts are in real life. A shark of 4m calmly glided past, and came so close I felt I could stick my hand through the cage and touch it (although this is definitely not allowed).
Each guest spends about 20 minutes in the cage, and during this time I must have seen at least six or seven sharks, all within 3m of me. While they are undeniably kings of the ocean, I was able to confirm my belief that they are graceful animals. Most of the sharks swimming past our cage seemed merely curious, almost as if just popping by to say hello.
Relaxing on the boat afterwards and comparing stories and pictures with the other guests was just as much fun. Our custom-built shark cage diving boat, aptly named Slashfin, is a double decker boat for 40 guests. We could sit on the top deck and look down at the sharks, with great photo opportunities.
Sitting on a comfortable boat, the sun shining brightly down on us, wind blowing through our hair and playful sharks twisting and turning through the water below – what could be better?
Even a seagull offloading a well-timed bomb on to me couldn’t take the smile off my face.
What you need to know:
The trip: Trips can be booked through the website, www.sharkwatchsa.com. Trips cost R1 400 (R800 for children under 13), and last three to five hours. A link to the footage of your trip can be bought for R100. Trips occur daily, and twice a day during the busy seasons.
What to take: Marine Dynamics provide safety equipment, wetsuits, towels and snacks before, during and after the trip. Take a camera (preferably an underwater one) as well as a hat and sunscreen.
Accommodation: Accommodation options in Gansbaai and Kleinbaai are plentiful. For more information, have a look at the Gansbaai Explore website (www.gansbaai.com) or the Gansbaai tourism website (www.gansbaaiinfo.com).
Volunteering: Have a look at the Dyer Island Conservation Trust website (www.dict.org.za) for more on shark research and other projects. This trust is also founded by conservationist and Marine Dynamics owner Wilfred Chivell. To find out more about intern and volunteering activities, see www.marinevolunteers.com. Note that this is a paying programme, and can be organised for as short as a week at a time (although at least a month is recommended). - The Mercury