I just watched a video where a great white shark somehow manages to get INTO the cage.
Now, generally speaking, this kinda thing only happens in America, right? Right. So, being in good old South Africa, I decided to go shark cage diving and see for myself. I contacted Marine Dynamics in Gansbaai and set off to meet a marine biologist to get the low down on EVERYTHING you need to know about this adrenaline pumping activity.
If you haven't already seen it, here is the video of a cage diving adventure that could have turned into a nightmare! The Shark is lured towards the cage using bait and ends up inside with the diver. After a few agonising seconds, the shark exits through the roof and back into the ocean. Everyone laughs nervously and claps. Here it is:
By anyone's books that is pretty crazy stuff. Now lets get a few facts sorted out before we head off to Gansbaai.
- This video was NOT filmed in South Africa. It was NOT filmed in America either but off Guadalupe Island in Mexico.
- The shark was NOT aggressive but chasing after food at the end of a bait-line (you can see it at the beginning of the video).
- These trips are run for certified divers who go there specifically to film great white sharks.
- The holes in the cage are larger to facilitate the movement of photographic equipment like underwater cameras.
- No one was hurt (Thanks be!)
- At the time of writing over 9 and a half million people have watched the clip (19,746,992 views)
So all in all, this was a pretty freak occurrence.
The shark is in no way to blame. The diver concerned was a Chinese gentleman by the name of Mr Chan. When asked about the incident by the New York Times Mr Chan said that he went back in the water the next day "I felt so lucky," said the brave survivor, "why would I be scared?"
....well, because you just had a shark INside the cage that was supposed to keep the animal out? maybe?
I chose a company called Marine Dynamics. My reasons were three-fold:
- First they came highly recommended by friends and friends of friends.
- Second, looking at the different tour operators and their website, they had the most visible conservation status (they partner with Dyer Island Conservation Trust and are actively involved with data collection and volunteer programs around Gansbaai marine environment).
- Lastly, they guaranteed a real live Marine Biologist on board for the trip (the one on my boat was called Kelly and she was a constant stream of useful information).
Marine Dynamics made my visit incredibly easy. Overall I felt safe and assured with the staff, crew and guides. Everyone that I spoke to had a real sense of pride about the company. They took real pleasure in relaying information about how operations worked, the safety precautions, the sharks or even about Gansbaai itself. As well as being a Fair Trade organisation they are also Blue Flag accredited and have won a whole bunch of Tourism awards including the African Responsible Tourism Award 2016 (People's Choice).
Being me, I arrived an hour and a half early and took a walk down to the harbour to look at the boats and the cages. Already at 8:30 in the morning there was a commotion of boats setting off and other boats landing. A steady stream of tourists eyes glinting with expectation or with a look of knowing satisfaction as they returned. I asked a few people about the video and they'd all seen it.
Safety Regulations and Industry Standards
Over the past few years the shark cage diving industry has mushroomed. The DEAT Marine and Coastal Management department has issued concessions to 12 companys to run commercial cage diving operations. (Gansbaai 8, Mossel Bay 1 and False Bay 3). The industry, though booming, is small and very tightly regulated. Marine Biologist Alison Towner said that people think that because it is South Africa the rules and regulations will be soft. However it is exactly the opposite. Marine Dynamics functions under the safety regulations and standards of no less than three organisations.
Eight companies run shark cage diving operations in Gansbaai. Each one has their own boat and their own cage. Looking at them from the land I have to say they looked pretty strong. Welded metal bars across a frame with a sturdy floor and a movable roof. I chatted to a few of the crew members from different boats to get their thoughts and everyone seemed in agreement that it was 100% safe. As the Marine Dynamics crew pointed out in the briefing, the most dangerous part of the trip was the drive from Cape Town!
The combination of small industry, tight regulations and type of activity means that shark cage diving is paradoxically one of the safest adventure activities that you can do while on vacation in South Africa.
The Trip: Close Encounters of the Sharkey Kind
Marine Dynamics holds a pre-trip briefing where they tell you a bit about the sharks and what they do. It is really educationally driven and they take pains to point out the truths and the fictions.
Did you know for example:
- Great White Sharks actually have BLUE eyes
- They are very picky eaters
- You are more likely to be killed by a toaster
- The most dangerous part of the trip is the drive from Cape town
After the briefing we were bundled off to the boat wrapped in our fashionable bright orange plastic anoraks. Everyone was kitted with a life jacket and we were asked to remain seated for the journey. Off we went and 45 minutes later I was in the water with great white sharks. The water was cold but I was amply distracted by the presence of the sharks. As they came closer to investigate shouts from above alerted us to their location and we ducked down beneath the surface.
Things more likely to kill you than a shark
- Mosquito - 655 000 deaths annually (mostly Africa)
- Hippopotamus - 2900 people die annually in Africa
- Dogs - kill between 30 and 35 people annually (USA)
- Cows - kill about 22 people annually (USA)
- Horses - kill 20 people each year (USA)
- A vending machine – up to 40 people a year (USA)
I lost track of time, both in the water and watching these marine predators from above. They are MASSIVE, one juvenile male was just under three meters while the biggest was a sub-adult female at just over 4! At no point was I in any doubt as to who was top of the food chain. What did suprise me was the mood and demeanor of the sharks. These creatures are calm, collected and unhurried in their investigations. Not at all the frenzied killers I'd always assumed.
After a few hours, we headed back to shore for a debriefing and a conservation round up.If you want to know more about the dive itself with another first-hand encounter, you can read a more indepth account here.
Did I Feel Safe?
Yes. At all times I had a real sense that the sharks were the stars of the show and keeping them safe meant keeping us safe. From the word go the environment was controlled. There were deck hands to help you about the boat, volunteers to assist with wet suits and the marine biologist to inform about these evidently misunderstood creatures. The cage was secure and access was safe and easy.
But, these were all just precautions. Things to make me, the tourist feel safe. What really struck me was the animals themselves. They were not in the slightest interested in me, the neoprene-coated nibble. Marine biologist Alison Towner described how specialised the diet of the white shark is. The fact of the matter is that humans do not offer enough fat content to make us a worth while meal. It was a sentiment echoed by a local surfer who protested to me suggesting that the sharks were dangerous "I've been surfing these waters my whole life and there has never been an incident, they just don't care about us".
Did I feel safe? Absolutely 100%.
What about the Others?
Just to be sure I was not alone in this sentiment, I spoke to a few tourists who were just getting off the boats. This is a sample
I asked if they'd seen the video of the shark in the cage.
"Yes" said a grinning Roey Senn from Israel.
"And?" I asked, "weren't you scared?".
"Yes, a little... but I've always wanted to".
"Did the video put you off?" I inquired further.
"No, its a different cage!".
Simple as that.
Is Shark Cage Diving Safe?
Yes. There is no two ways about it. Over 80 000 people a year go shark cage diving in Gansbaai and incidents with sharks are practically non-existent. The Marine Dynamics crew was brilliant and feeling safe in the environment started from the moment I arrived. This is a fantastic opportunity to get up close with a creature you may never encounter in the wild. I would wager a perfect adrenaline filled activity to add to any bucket list.
Why go to Gansbaai?
Gansbaai is famous for the Marine Big Five. The Southern Right Whale, Great White Shark, Humpback Dolphin, African Penguin and the Cape Fur Seal. It is unique because it provides an opportunity to see all five in one place. The Dyer Island Cruises have been set up for this purpose exactly and boats will take you around the bay for your viewing delight. In terms of the white sharks, southern Africa is the only place in the world where they can be viewed year round. In addition to this it takes under 30 minutes to get to the dive site. Compare this with Guadalupe, an arduous 20hr boat trip or 3hours to Australia's Neptune Island. If you are coming to South Africa and you want to tick this Great White adventure off your list then Gansbaai really is the place to be!