Shark cage diving! It's one of those adventure activities that elicits strong reactions from people. Mention shark cage diving and the response is one of awe and excitement, utter fear, or mild to strong disapproval - as can be expected from an extreme activity involving close encounters with this fearless and feared predator.
I decided to take the plunge and go diving with the great whites in Cape Town to find out what it's really like to get close to the king of apex predators...
What's it like to go Shark Cage Diving in Gansbaai?
In Cape Town the shark cage diving industry is a robust and flourishing one with tens of thousands of tourists taking the plunge every year. While shark cage diving wasn't at the top of my list of unmissable Things to Do before I Kick the Bucket, I did jump at the opportunity to get into the water with the world's most efficient predator.
Last week, I joined the growing ranks of 'mad people who have been shark cage diving' in Gansbaai - an unusual and inspiring way to get your heart rate galloping on a Monday (or any other day)!
Last week I went Shark Cage Diving and ...
It was pretty scary. As a relatively adventurous person with some adrenalin activities (skydiving, bungee jumping, abseiling, etc) under the belt, the shark cage dive with White Shark Ecoventures definitely qualified as an adrenalin kick-starter.
Getting to Shark Cage Diving Heaven - Gansbaai
Our shark cage diving guide, Wiehann, collected us from our various doorsteps in Cape Town and the nine of us set off for Gansbaai - one of the top five Great White Shark diving hotspots in the world. It took us two hours to cover the 160 km drive from Cape Town to Gansbaai - plenty of time to ponder over the impending dive. What would it be like to purposefully encounter the infamous apex predator first introduced to me as the terrifying star of the movie Jaws?
As Wiehann drove us through the Cape Flats and up Sir Lowry's Pass he told us a bit about the local history and other interesting trivia, as well as talking about the everyday battles people face in the townships. He immediately won my confidence with his direct and open approach, by not glossing over the less attractive aspects of Cape Town, and his driving was excellent which also helped.
Arriving at the little harbour (Kleinbaai) we met the other brave souls going shark diving and had a bite to eat (take it easy on the breakfast if you're sea-sick prone) in the White Shark Ecoventures dining area. Then we signed the indemnity forms claiming personal responsibility for ourselves and our stuff. As we scribbled on the dotted line, Wiehann shared some of his in-depth knowledge about white sharks and what to expect out in Shark Alley. It was mildly comforting to hear that we humans are not actually shark food - we're too bony to make it onto the menu, and that their diet consists mainly of other sharks, seals and the odd scavenge on a whale carcass. The most reassuring bit of information was that White Shark Ecoventures has been operating for over 20 years now and has a 100% safety record (sigh of relief).
Preliminaries aside we walked down to the sunny pier and climbed onto our trusty vessel. Onboard the 11-metre catamaran we were given a safety run-down, much like the ones flight attendants perform before take-off. Then our party of about 20 excited tourists, one skipper, two deckhands, a videographer and Wiehann as dive master (no partridge in a pear tree), set off out to sea. We motored some 10 km's into a gentle breeze of about 10 knots, which is apparently enough wind to help spread the chum in the water.
After 15 minutes or so, we stopped in a seemingly random spot and dropped anchor. Here the deckhands chucked some chum, a mix of mashed up pilchards and fish blood, into the water to attract the great whites and we waited.
Within minutes (it can take as long as an hour) our first prowling predator arrived. Having sniffed out the bloody chum trail the first great white had come to investigate.
Getting Down with the Great White Sharks in Gansbaai
Shark in the water, buzz of excitement in the air - the controlled dash to wrestle into wetsuits, booties and hoodies ensued. Several of us clambered eagerly to be one of the first five divers in the cage tethered to the side of the boat. Soon the first lot were kitted-up and being handed goggles as they were helped into the partially submerged cage in a flurry. Before you could say 'false alarm' - which it wasn't, the row of shark divers were bobbing, heads-above-water in the secured cage.
Every few minutes the watchful crew would shout the alarm, instructing the divers to go under and look left, straight or right to spot the great white swimming right past them. The deckhands intermittently threw out some tuna heads on the end of a rope, pulling the bait back in towards the boat to draw the sharks even closer to the lowered cage.
Looking down from the boat the rest of us could see the powerful movements of the sharks patrolling the waters and following the bait from above. Every now and then one of the great whites would break the surface, splashing and flashing some teeth, creating a wave of exhilaration in the cage and on deck.
After about 15 minutes the first group were hauled out of the nippy Atlantic waters and it was my turn to climb down into the cage with four others in various stages of anticipation. I was a bit nervous, but not too on edge, because being in the water looked like quite a tame experience so far. I wasn't expecting too much of an adrenalin rush out of the whole shark cage diving trip, but, how wrong I was!
The skipper, Hansie, helped me down into the cage and the chilly 15°C water. Standing on a cross-bar in the capsule-shaped steel cage I was up to my shoulders in the water, with my head comfortably above the surface. I found the metal bars of the cage surprisingly thin and the gaps between the bars alarmingly bigger than I'd imagined - yet all very strong and sturdy. The cages vary slightly between operators and some companies use light weights to reduce your buoyancy in the water. We didn't use snorkels, weights, scuba gear or flippers, just goggles - no diving experience required.
Soon a sleek male shark emerged. The spotters hollered from onboard and we gripped the bars running along the inside of the cage to pull ourselves underwater and peer at the aquatic beast. The underwater visibility was between 2 and 3 metres, which means we could see the shark quite clearly as it sailed silently through the water. For a few magical moments the shark was gliding only a few metres away from my eyes - an awesome sight!
But wait for it... before our 15 minutes was up, a massive (maybe 3 metre) white shark swam into the cage, right next to me! This big great white swam up and prodded the cage within feet of me! I found myself face-to-face with a shark, within arm's reach of the most powerful fish in the ocean. It's impossible to explain how electrifying this close-up encounter with a great white was - looking into its black eyes as it nudged the bars separating us! I got my adrenaline high, that's for sure!
Staring at the shark's impressive dental arrangement up close was an unbelievable few seconds that I will always remember. That Great White that came so close to me, commanded respect and a good dose of healthy fear. Of course, I don't know what was going on in the shark's predatory mind, but it didn't feel like a jaws moment with a frenzied killer. The shark seemed curious and calm, swimming up to inspect the movement and then move on.
In total, five young sharks, between 2½ and 3½ metres long (apparently quite small!) showed up while we were diving. The older sharks are about 4 metres long, with females being slightly larger than males, but the more mature white sharks are less inquisitive than their younger relatives. The longest great white shark spotted in the Gansbaai area was recorded at around 6,3 metres long, weighing in at about 1200 kilogrammes!
After a second, less heart-stopping dive, we made our way back to Gansbaai - a little cold, somewhat awestruck and very invigorated. Back on dry land we had a tasty lunch, watched the DVD of our shark trip (available for purchase) and found out more about the graceful great whites of the world's oceans.
After lunch we made our way back to Cape Town, stopping in Hermanus to watch some southern right whales lolling near the shore - the perfect end to an exhilarating day!
A Few Shark Cage Diving FAQ's
Some good things to know when going shark cage diving in the famous Shark Alley between Geyser Rock and Dyer Island in Gansbaai, about two hours from Cape Town.
Will you definitely see sharks in Gansbaai?
You're extremely likely to see Great White Sharks. Shark sightings can't be guaranteed, however, because these are 'wild' sharks swimming around in the ocean after all. Great Whites are surface feeders found close to the West Coast shores, where oxygen levels and water temperatures are slightly higher.
Of the 4 to 6 thousand Great White Sharks off the coast of South Africa, about 1000 are found in the Gansbaai area, making this the best place to see them.
How close do the great whites come?
This depends on luck really - as with all wild animal encounters. It's up to the animals to determine how close you can get to them (as close as the cage will allow in this instance). The chum attracts the sharks to the vicinity of the boat and then bait is used to draw the hunters closer. When I was diving most of the time the sharks swam past us about 2 or 3 metres away, except for the epic shark that swam right into the cage within an arms length of me!
Is Shark Cage Diving in Gansbaai Safe?
Yes, shark cage diving is a safe adventure activity. The shark cage-diving industry is regulated and operates according to strict safety standards, under well-enforced laws.
I love this statistic from Xplorio Gansbaai:
"The chance of being killed by a shark is one in 300 million - the chance of being killed by airplane parts falling from the sky is one in 10 million!"
Was the water really, really cold?
It's the Atlantic Ocean so the water is cold, but it was bearable (15°C) for normal mortals. You only spend about 10 minutes in the cage at a time and they give you thick wetsuits, booties and hoodies. If you choose to get back into the cage for a second round then the cold creeps in faster. On my second dip the guy next to me was so determined to see more sharks that he hung in there and shivered vigorously through the 15 minutes.
You can also go along on a shark cage diving trip without getting into the cage, watching the sharks from the rooftop viewing deck of the boat, from where you can get some of the best views of the sharks.
Why go Shark Cage Diving in Gansbaai, South Africa?
It is the place to get down with the great whites and lies only 160 km's from Cape Town. This means you can take a day trip to Gansbaai from the world renowned mother city, one of the top three tourist destinations in South Africa.
This infographic sums it up brilliantly, comparing shark cage diving in Gansbaai with cage diving at other great white shark hotspots in the world:
This infographic was produced by Xplorio to showcase the incredible shark cage diving in Gansbaai
Another pro is that other marine life can be spotted on the shark cage diving trips in Gansbaai, including the Marine Big Five - whales, great white sharks, dolphins, seals and penguins. Dyer Island is home to a massive breeding colony of African Penguins numbering about 2000, Geyser Rock hosts about 40 000 Cape Fur Seals and this part of South Africa is famous for its whales.
Was shark cage diving a worthwhile adventure activity?
In terms of adrenalin, shark cage diving was totally worth it, especially with my few seconds of hair-raisingly close face-to-face time with one of these toothy fellas. Although I nearly crawled into my neighbour's wetsuit when the curious (sticking with curious) shark nudged the cage, I still felt safe from harm.
This is one of the most captivating and exhilarating things to do in Cape Town - watching these little-understood creatures swimming by is a rare chance to marvel at their power and grace. The shark diving experience is also enriching and educational... but, the adrenalin rush of getting up super-close isn't guaranteed in the same way that the adrenalin rush of abseiling off Table Mountain is pretty much a given. The shark cage dive is special as a whole experience - seeing this endangered predator in its natural environment is about more than heart-pumping action.
Is shark cage diving ethical?
There are still some unanswered questions about the ethics of shark cage diving in terms of the impact it has on natural shark behaviour and feeding patterns. Some fear that shark cage diving creates a connection between humans and food for sharks, by chumming and baiting (sharks are not allowed to be fed on shark cage diving trips). Another concern is that shark diving may interfere with the natural behaviour of sharks in the ocean.
Most of the shark cage diving operators contribute towards shark research or conduct their own research and support shark conservation, so many consider the industry as a whole beneficial, if not instrumental in protecting and understanding these mysterious big sharks.
When is the best time to go shark cage diving in Cape Town?
You can go shark cage diving in Gansbaai throughout the year, but the water visibility is best (clearest) between March and September, from autumn to spring.
From February to September you can go great white shark diving in False Bay, near Simon's Town, and from April to September in Mossel Bay on the Garden Route.
Choosing a Shark Cage Diving Tour Operator in Gansbaai - Cape Town
White Shark Ecoventures
I went diving with White Shark Ecoventures, one of the first shark cage diving operators established in Gansbaai. The company has a great reputation, measures 4,5 on the TripAdvisor review scale, and was awarded a 2014 Certificate of Excellence. Established back in 1992, the team has plenty of experience and is rated amongst the best shark cage diving operators in Cape Town. White Shark Ecoventures also founded the Great White Shark Protection Foundation, aimed at conserving great white sharks worldwide.
Based on my experience with White Shark Ecoventures, they offer a personal and excellent-value-for-money shark cage diving experience. The team was friendly, knowledgeable and competent - it felt like we were in capable hands. The catamaran, equipment and quantum vehicle used on the trip were in good shape and the dining / reception area was pleasant enough. There were light snacks and non-alcoholic beverages onboard and the breakfast and lunch were simple, but nice, accompanied by beverages (only instant coffee, I'm afraid). A videographer filmed the shark diving experience, and you can rent DSLR cameras or buy disposable waterproof cameras. You can take your own camera, of course, and you need to take your own towel.
This isn't the most exclusive and luxurious shark cage diving experience around. At R1650 per person (including transfers from Cape Town), their day trip is one of best affordable options.
Marine Dynamics Shark Tours
Another game team member from African Budget Safaris went shark cage diving with Marine Dynamics, top of the list on TripAdvisor, rated 5 out of 5 stars. They are also based in Gansbaai and affordably priced at R1850 per person on a day trip. Comparing notes, our shark cage diving adventures were pretty similar, the most notable difference being that Marine Dynamics takes a marine biologist with on their trips. They also use a decoy and bait together, without feeding the sharks.
My colleague's day trip included a more elaborate breakfast, unfortunately to be emptied into the sea by some of the queasy (luckily no-one got sick on my trip). The Marine Dynamics boat is a bit bigger and more luxurious, and the facilities more extensive with a fully serviced restaurant on site. Five people get into the shark diving cage at a time with both companies, but Marine Dynamics provides weight belts.
These are just two of the reputable shark cage diving operators in Gansbaai that we can recommend from experience, visit the Gansbaai Xplorio website to compare more shark cage diving tour operators. Also check out the Gansbaai tourism website to find out more about the seaside village and shark cage diving there.
TripAdvisor also features several shark cage diving companies under Things to Do in Gansbaai - a good place to compare reviews for shark cage diving in Cape Town too.
Already gone diving with the great white sharks or know someone with a thrilling tale? Tell us a bit about your shark diving experience and share some tips for those considering taking the plunge...