One of my earliest childhood memories is of crawling around my parent’s bedroom and coming across a book my father was reading at the time, its cover horrifying and immediately changing my life forever. It was Peter Benchley’s 1974 seaside thriller, Jaws, and it ignited in me a passionate, sometimes even an obsessive lifelong endeavor to understand the often maligned Great White Shark.
There were encyclopedias, library trips, school projects, National Geographic specials and Discovery Channel’s Shark Week. For as long as I can remember, I couldn’t get enough. Quickly, my fear turned into a deep respect and an urge to get closer to these mystical creatures.
But most of all, I wanted to be the guy in the cage, eye to eye with the biggest carnivore in the sea. If there was ever an item to cross off my (chum) bucket list, this was undoubtedly it. A couple of weeks ago, my enduring dream was realized in the waters I’ve read about as a kid. I was finally the guy in the cage in Gansbaai, Western Cape, South Africa.
Here’s how it all went down (scroll down for the video).
Like skydiving, Great White Shark encounters aren’t included on itineraries by tour companies, leaving those interested to deal with the private outfits who operate them directly. Travel insurance companies won’t cover the activity either, all further adding to my excitement.
As we pulled up to a charming house a block from the ocean at the crack of dawn, my heart began to race and didn’t stop for the next five hours. We booked our trip with Kim the Sharklady, a revered local that prides herself on her shark research and conservation initiatives, as well as running one of the best shark encounter operations in the region, Sharklady Adventures.
Although I had done my homework to ensure our trip was an ethical one, that sharks weren’t in any way harmed or even fed for the enjoyment of paying spectators, I was relieved to notice Sharklady’s past guests. Besides Prince William and Brad Pitt, Jean-Michel Cousteau’s smiling face instantly put me at ease knowing we were in fact with the right people.
Kim herself was nowhere to be found but we met our captain and crew for the day and were briefed on proper shark cage etiquette. Like most dangerous rides, our arms and legs were to be kept inside at all times. The six-man cage allowed enough out-of-water head space for those in it to take a breath whenever they needed, eliminating the need for scuba gear, or even a snorkel. All that was left to do was to sign their waiver, dress up like seals (the shark’s favourite meal) in our wetsuits and go.
The Waiting Game
We headed out of the quiet bay on a picture perfect day, armed with a pile of cameras, some Gravol and our balls. The sea was calm and the sun was shining. We headed along the coast, past Dyer Island and the infamous Seal Island, both visible in the distance, set for an area aptly known as Shark Alley. They were all familiar spots from my studies. As we slowed down to take our position among the half dozen other boats doing the same thing, our deckhand began to chum a thick slick of fish oil and guts like breadcrumbs and we waited.
Carcharodon carcharias, White Pointer, White Death; whatever you call the Great White Shark, the mind immediately drifts to terrifying images of gaping jaws, blood-stained pink gums and rows upon rows of massive triangular teeth. That was the powerful reach of Benchley’s novel and Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster film adaptation a year later. Up until then, Great White Shark stories were contained to sailors’ tales and small maritime communities, but after the successful Hollywood film, every person would forever think about sharks every time they got in the water. Man’s fear of a maneater from the deep may have been around forever but we could all now put a name and face to our monster.
I was surprised at how relatively close to one of the area’s best swimming beaches we were anchored. We lowered our cage into the water and were given our seal suits. My binoculars scanned the waters around us incessantly and I casually chatted up the captain at every opportunity. We continued chumming and we continued to wait. And wait, and wait and wait.
Two and a half hours of bobbing on the shark-free ocean was beginning to take its toll and I secretly wondered how I’d cope if we’d come up empty. After all, like our captain kept reminding us, it’s nature and it’s never guaranteed. Earlier that month, we were told, a pod of Orcas (the Great White’s only natural nemeses) took up residence in Shark Alley, chasing the sharks away for three whole weeks. They only returned a week before our trip. I was concerned but positive – waiting.
Then suddenly, by the boat furthest away from us – THRASHING! My binoculars raced over the waves to glimpse the massive dorsal fin of what we’d all been after. It was go time!
Face masks were distributed as we raised our anchor to move closer to the action. We had been divided into three groups of six and the first group was told to suit up and to get ready. Luckily, I was in the first six and I sprung in to action.
One by one we entered the cage, all reacting to the chilly 15C water temperature with a stiff ‘Whoa!’ The deckhand tied a tuna head to the end of a long line that he’d throw out in front of the cage, never feeding but guiding the shark directly at us while the captain shouted instructions, indicating which direction the action was to come from. At his command, we’d take a deep breath, dip underwater and enjoy the show.
Out went the tuna head and in came our shark. Making a couple of near passes, it cautiously investigated us. The water may have looked clear from atop the ship but below the surface, the visibility was only about 3-5 feet. We couldn’t see the shark’s approach until the very last moment, when it appeared in its monstrous entirety, completely filling our view, effortlessly gliding by. I was amazed at how gracefully it moved through the water. How methodical and calculating it was instead of just instinctive. It was an utterly majestic creature and I screamed underwater.
On its third pass by my side of the cage I could tell it was a female, a 10 to 12-foot scarred beauty that I’ll never forget. I looked directly into her giant dark eyes and she into mine. My heart was full. It was everything I had dreamed about and more and I never wanted to leave. That was the impact she made.
Benchley himself admitted that his book had done more harm to sharks than he anticipated. The public fear-turned-to-panic began a series of culls whenever a rogue shark invaded a swimming beach. Through a better scientific understanding of the importance of the oceans’ apex predator, culls turned to nets to protect bathers, saving Great Whites from the Endangered Species List. Nets don’t discriminate though, and they took their share of cuter marine beings like dolphins and sea turtles and were eventually outlawed too.
The plight of the Great White Shark has come a long way in the past 30 years. Although they are still on the Vulnerable Species List, they are protected where they are most present, in South Africa, Australia and the Western U.S. There is a lot more awareness out there too, partly due to encounters like these. Whether you are a die-hard shark buff like myself, an adventure seeker or nature lover, this experience is for you. If you’re none of the above and are terrified by the idea, it’s for you too. To see sharks as more than just mindless killing machines is vital to their survival and the health of our oceans. Get out there!
Photo credits: Mike J. Quinto, Christina Lange and Daniel Nikulin
Video credit: Mike J. Quinto
Flights to Cape Town from Toronto don’t always break the bank. I flew with Star Alliance partner, Ethiopian Airlines, a one-stop flight aboard the Dreamliner (trans-Atlantic) for $1050CAD, all taxes included!
For those leaving from elsewhere or to find a fare on your preferred airline, check with the Airfare Experts.
While You’re Down There…
Take it up a notch! Sure there’s Great White Shark Diving but it definitely doesn’t end there. Southern Africa is a treasure trove of life changing experiences, no matter your interests. From safaris and sand dunes to hot air ballooning and world-class vineyards, exotic cuisine and a plethora of cultures, you simply can’t get bored here. My suggestion? Tour it.
I booked mine with On the Go Tours; a professional, small group adventure tour company that delivers on all levels. They cover South Africa extremely well and head both east and west from there. Combine their tours for one epic adventure or enjoy the active nature of a single journey. Their itineraries and inclusions immerse you fully into this beautiful continent, one stunning day at a time.