Despite the fearsome appearance of the tunnel of teeth barreling at you in this photo, you’d be surprised at how gentle great white sharks are underwater. We would say this activity isn’t for the faint of heart, but Mike Corey from Kick the Grind believes that it is. Spending face time with the king of the ocean helps reverse the damage hollywood has done to it’s reputation.
At our rate of fishing 100 million sharks a year, our kids will be reading about this creature of the past in books. The Great White is a international celebrity of the animal kingdom, and despite the shock value of “Shark Diving”, no one has ever been seriously injured participating in it. Mike shares some of his tips on when and where to go diving with Great White’s if you’re planning to include it in your South African itinerary:
When to Go:
Toilets don’t spin a differently in the southern hemisphere, but the seasons certainly do. The South African Summer takes place from November to February, and winter is June to August. The weather of South Africa varies season to season, and also East to West.
The winter months of June, July and August are the best times to spot great whites in the Western cape. Personally, I find visiting destinations in the off season (or rainy season) much more enjoyable. Rain brings nature to life, and peppers the sky with clouds for great sunsets. (And there will be many of those on the Western cape) Conversely, during these same months the North East dries up and offers fantastic safari conditions. It’s the perfect opportunity for a shark diving/Safari vacation.
Where to Go:
Capetown is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, but unfortunately you’ll have to skip town to dive with the Great Whites. The two most popular locations are Gansbaai and Simonstown. Which should you pick?
Gansbaai is a 2 hours drive from Cape Town, and is known as the great white capital of the world. It has the best chance of viewing sharks year-round while cage diving. The Famous “Shark Alley” is between the penguin covered Dyer Island, and the cape fur seal covered Geyser Rock. It’s practically a shark buffet, and has been featured in most documentaries about the animals. The small bay in which it’s located offers little protection from the southern ocean, making the weather and waves here temperamental. During the late winter months whale watching can be done from land, and the beautiful “Garden Route” is in full bloom nearby. There are a few centres short of 10 offering shark diving, and prices are around 1300 ZAR (~145 USD) for the standard experience, plus around 40USD if you can’t arrange your own transportation.
Simonstown is a much closer 45 minutes from Cape Town, and boats head to Seal Island in the middle of False Bay. Diving with Great Whites here is seasonal, and the 3 operators only offer cage dives with them during the winter months. False bay is a larger, more sheltered bay which offers slightly better weather, waves, and visibility underwater. Where this location excels is in “Air Jaws” sightings where sharks blast out of the water as they ambush prey from below. Diving here is more expensive, but offers some pretty interesting package experiences to interact with other species of shark. Opportunities to dive with Great Whites in Simonstown are great when in season, but a little shy of Gansbaai.
How to Get There:
No matter where you plan on diving, all dive centres have some sort of transport arrangement that will pick you up and drop you off at your hotel in Cape Town. The option of renting a car and taking your time is a great option as well. It’s a beautiful part of the country, and there is lots to see on the way to either location.
What to Expect:
The seas of the Southern Ocean are very rough. 1.5 meter waves are the norm, and definitely shake things up during the voyage to your dive location. Sea sickness is common on the boats, so take the pills if you’re prone. Upon arriving, a member of your crew will begin to chum the water. You’ll probably witness this same man stewing up a miasma of rotten fish in a large bucket. It’s hard to miss the smell, and sharks definitely think so too.
If curious sharks decide they are interested in your delicious soup, the cage will be placed into the water. The shape of the cage is similar to a cigarette box that mounts flat to the side of the boat. Typically 4 or 5 divers don a mask, wetsuit and weight belt (no SCUBA or Snorkel) and perch on a steel bar about 2 feet into the cage. A crew member will have bait on a rope, and will encourage the shark to follow the bait in front of the cage. You don’t enter the water until the shark is beside the cage. Bubbles and flailing neoprene tourists scare sharks and they hesitate to come closer. When it’s time to drop into the cage, “DOWN” is yelled and you watch the shark pass as your hold your breath. Mix in some waves, a giant apex predator, and breath holding, and you’ve got yourself a heck of a shot of adrenaline.
This describes the most common form of Shark diving. Some operators offer more advanced dives with SCUBA, free floating cages, snorkels and other. These come at a higher cost.
Things to Keep in Mind:
If you are visiting in June to August, expect a daily high of about 20C winter in the Western Cape, and a 10C drop at night. Cool, but not cold. Breaking out your fall wardrobe a bit early would be beneficial. I would pick several layers of clothing over a coat, as it allows you to be as flexible as the weather.
On the boat you will be supplied with rain gear to stay dry. Packing a few extra layers than you think you’ll need is recommended. Remember you’ll have to remove the wetsuit on the way back, and the ocean breeze is definitely chilly as your zooming along still damp from the dive.
For those who don’t want to get as intimate as others, staying on the boat offers a great view as well. Sharks will frequently be within hand reach of the boat, and seeing a 6 meter fish from the surface really gives you a better perspective on the actual size of these animals than underwater
Also call a day or two in advance of your booking. Weather can punish the Western Cape in and the winter and cancel outings for the day. All tour operators I’ve come across have offered a free day if rain cancels your outing, and many even offer free days if you don’t see any sharks.
My background is in science, and my world revolved around facts. The truth is that shark attacks worldwide are rare, and other large animals like Elephants cause 5 times more fatalities a year than all species of sharks combined. While dangerous, it’s no question that the misplaced “ruthless killing machine” stereotype is helping to dig their grave. Sad, but by participating in activities such as this, you boost your own awareness of the animals. You also put some money in the pockets of those fighting for their conservation. I’ve spend a lot of time travelling adventurously; but diving with Great Whites is one of those memories that still makes me smile on a rainy Sunday afternoon far away from South Africa.