15 February 2006

Shark Diving in South Africa

John Dwyer visits Gansbaai and combats his fear and comes face to face with a Great White shark.

My fascination with the Great White shark began when, at the age of ten, I first saw the film "Jaws". I believe the craziest people in the world are those who actually climb into flimsy cages with monsters swimming around them. Yet there I was on the road to Gansbaai in South Africa, paying good money for the privilege of getting in the same flimsy cage with these beasts in a feeding frenzy around me. Had I gone mad?

The fishing village of Gansbaai is only two hours drive from Cape Town. Dyer Island, just off the coast, is home to a large colony of over 50,000 seals and is thus a favourite feeding ground for the Great White shark. The area is known as Sharks Alley and is acknowledged as one of the best places in the world to view the Great White. The small, sleepy village of Gansbaai has turned into a mecca for thrill-seekers from all over the world because of this.

Piet Smal of Shark Diving Tours has been running shark cage diving trips for years and has appeared in many National Geographic documentaries featuring the Great White. For 1,000 Rand (approximately €120), you can spend a day at sea with the sharks, both watching them tear tuna bait apart and also getting in a cage to see them up close. No diving experience is necessary and you can simply use a snorkel and mask to view the sharks from within the cage. Before setting out to sea that day we all had to sign an unsettling legal waiver of the form, "I will not press legal charges if I get an arm or leg bitten off..." Not what my nerves needed. We boarded the fishing boat and headed out of the harbour in search of Jaws.

Once out on the ocean, Piet cast fish and blood into the water in order to attract the sharks. The Great White's acute sense of smell can detect blood in the water from over five kilometers away. It didn't take long for the first of the sharks to appear. A group of four started to circle the boat, the largest of them being about four meters long and well over two tonnes in weight. Piet put a huge tuna head in the water attached to a rope and splashed it about. One shark circled the bait for about five minutes before it unleashed its attack. In an awesome show of attacking frenzy, it tore the tuna to pieces in seconds with its powerful jaws. We all swallowed hard as Piet pulled in what was left of the mangled fish. "Right", Piet smiled, "time for you lot to get in the cage".

The cage was not the reinforced-steel fortress that I had expected. Rather, it looked as if it were thrown together from old shopping trolleys. Piet lowered the flimsy-looking cage into the water, threw some blood and fish around it, and beckoned me to jump in. My knees were weak. "Don't worry", he shouted, "the shark may brush his nose against the cage but he'll never attack it. They're just curious." Cold comfort for me. With wet suit on, I climbed into the cage. Piet shouted at me to dive down and look left. I was just in time to see a Great White looming out of the shadows. Piet was splashing the bloody tuna near the cage and the shark passed within a few feet of me. To see this mighty and ancient creature up close in the water was a truly amazing experience. It glided through the water with the absolute minimum of effort. It was magical. Beautiful. And about to become scary.

I headed to the surface for air. Pete ordered me to dive down again and look straight ahead. I dove down in time to see a huge shadow glide past me with the same effortless ease as before. It then turned slightly and headed straight for my cage. With jaws agape, a dead cold stare in its eyes and showing rows of its deadly teeth, its nose brushed against the cage and then slowly swam away. At that point I let my bladder go. I came up to the surface with the rest of the boat gasping at what had just happened. By the time Piet helped me back into the boat, I was smiling broadly. Despite my fear, I was thrilled by my close encounter with the Great White and I wanted more. I got back in the cage twice more during the day and marveled at those amazing creatures of the deep.

It wasn't Jaws that had greeted me that day but one of the oldest creatures on earth and one of natures finest and most perfect creations. My fear of this creature was gone and had been replaced by respect. Still, I don't think I'll be swimming near Gansbaai in the near future. Just in case.

Source: Africa Shark Dive Safaris


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