Great white shark below the decoy seal cut-out

Cage diving: the logistics

Tony on the Marine Dynamics boat in the harbour at Kleinbaai
Tony on the Marine Dynamics boat in the harbour at Kleinbaai

Tony and I have wanted to go shark cage diving forever. We booked with Apex Predators in Simon’s Town, but the day before our trip the weather was looking so poor that we wouldn’t have been able to get in the water. Since that was what we really, really wanted to do, they rebooked us with Marine Dynamics in Gansbaai.

The Great White House, where Marine Dynamics is based
The Great White House, where Marine Dynamics is based

Gansbaai

Geyser Rock, off Dyer Island in Gansbaai
Geyser Rock, off Dyer Island in Gansbaai

Gansbaai is considered the great white shark capital of the world (by some, at least!). It’s just under 200 kilometres from Cape Town, and, like False Bay, boasts a rocky outcrop (Geyser Rock) brimming over with chubby, sleek Cape fur seals. There’s also a wild, small island called Dyer Island, favoured by seabirds- particularly African penguins – and a narrow, shallow channel between the two islands called Shark Alley… Also referred to as the MacDonalds drive-through for great white sharks. Unlike the sharks of False Bay, the Gansbaai sharks don’t usually breach (jump out of the water) after seals, so one doesn’t have the opportunity to view this behaviour on a trip here. In terms of reliability of shark sightings, however, Gansbaai kicks False Bay’s butt.

Geyser Rock in Gansbaai
Geyser Rock in Gansbaai

The launch site for the shark viewing trips is the tiny Kleinbaai harbour, characterised by jagged rocks and a big wave (yes) at the entrance on days with big southerly swell. You need to be an outstanding skipper to negotiate this little gap in poor conditions.

Kleinbaai harbour
Kleinbaai harbour

The cage diving industry

Cage diving boats at Kleinbaai Harbour
Cage diving boats at Kleinbaai Harbour

Shark cage diving is big business. Multi-million rand business. We were gobsmacked by the number of operators (eight in Gansbaai alone, three in False Bay, one in Mossel Bay), the size and condition of their boats, the number of tourists that each boat can handle (up to 40 at a time) and (not least) by what it costs to spend a morning with the sharks (we paid R1350 each – nearly $200). Lots of volunteers work in this industry – who wouldn’t want to see sharks every day? – making it even more profitable. (We actually found the volunteers really annoying in general – they had a knack of standing in the best viewing spots, relegating the paying customers to second row seats.)

Attracting the sharks

Chum! Yum!
Chum! Yum!

There was a recent revelation that certain operators were using sevengill cowshark livers as chum to attract the great whites. The idea that one shark must die so that I can view another one doesn’t sit well with me at all, so we made sure that wasn’t the case with the operator we used. Marine Dynamics is one of the most eco-friendly operators in the region. Marine Dynamics only uses fish oil, discarded sardines (crushed fish from the bottom of the catch), tuna heads, and other waste products that smell fabulous if you’re a shark.

The fish heads (bait) for the shark, with an attached cork for floatation
The fish heads (bait) for the shark, with an attached cork for floatation

The crew also tap sharply on the side of the boat, and run the engines – sharks are attracted to the magnetic field created by the motors. A lump of tuna heads on a cork, and a small decoy cut out in the shape of a seal are manipulated by bait handlers who use them to attract the sharks’ interest. Once a shark has approached the boat, it generally sticks around for a little while, playing (like a dog, I thought) with the decoy and bait. This industry is heavily regulated – the sharks are not supposed to be fed at all, and the bait line is not allowed to be draped over the cage. This protects the sharks from swimming into the cage, which (while it may scare the occupants) will hurt the shark.

Seagulls enjoying some chum
Seagulls enjoying some chum

On the boat

Securing the cage to the side of the boat
Securing the cage to the side of the boat

Before all this excitement can happen, however, one has to wait for a shark to come a-visiting. We waited for nearly two hours, during which time some of the group were violently seasick (more on this another time), it poured with rain, and the boat bobbed like a cork on the large swells and wind chop. I was loving the variety of birds that we saw – Cape Gannets fishing, a Common Tern, two Southern Giant Petrels (one of which was the rare white form), lots of characterful Subantarctic Skua, and a gorgeous little Wilsons Storm-Petrel that skimmed along the surface of the water like a little ballerina.

Subantarctic Skua
Subantarctic Skua

Marine Dynamics has a marine biologist on board at all times, and Oliver, our biologist, was able to identify the various birds for us and later to explain the shark’s behaviour. He was also occupied filling in a record sheet of which sharks we saw, what time, their dimensions, and how long they stayed with the boat. The company supports the Dyer Island Conservation Trust, and some of the proceeds from products and services provided by Marine Dynamics go towards funding the trust’s work.

In the water

Cage full of divers
Cage full of divers

Once the shark arrives everything is action. Seven people could fit into the cage at a time (the size of cages used by the operators varies – with Apex, only two can fit in the cage per viewing). Tony and I had brought our own wetsuits, booties, hoodies, masks and snorkels. Weight belts are provided, as well as all soft gear except for snorkels (people drop them and don’t know how to use them, so breath holding is encouraged). There are hand and foot holds in the cage, and big soft floats on top. The sea was extremely choppy so the cage was being banged around a lot and being inside it was like being in a washing machine. We wedged our heads against the float, our feet on the foot rest, and held on tight.

My foot and Tony's foot in the cage - look how clean the water is!
My foot and Tony's foot in the cage - look how clean the water is!

The bait operator shouts from which direction the shark is coming, and that is your cue to look in that direction. We had our heads underwater all the time with snorkels on, but the other customers just ducked down when a shark was approaching. The water was very clean (since it’s winter) so we could see the sharks well below us and from a distance as they approached. There was a school of fransmadam and hottentot hanging around in front of and below the cage, munching on the particles of tuna being scattered from the bait ball.

Tony on snorkel in the cage
Tony on snorkel in the cage

We had two opportunities in the cage, of about 20 minutes each. Seven different sharks visited us, and some of them stayed at the boat for over half an hour. They were all between 2.5 and just over 4 metres long. They are massive, graceful creatures with impressive teeth, enormous tails and pectoral fins like surfboards. Between turns in the cage we stood on the boat and watched the surface action, of which there is a lot. The sharks splash and manoeuvre with impressive agility. Some of the passengers didn’t go in the water at all – they missed seeing the shark completely submerged in its natural element, but there was still quite a bit to see from the boat.

Great white shark below the decoy seal cut-out
Great white shark below the decoy seal cut-out

Extras

On arrival at Marine Dynamics (0900 – the meeting time varies with the tide because the harbour at Kleinbaai is such a nightmare) we were served breakfast, and hot and cold drinks. After a briefing about the sharks and what to expect on the trip we were all issued with life jackets and roomy orange oilskins to keep us dry. I managed to put mine on over my Cape Union Mart marshmallow jacket and was snug and dry (if not stylish).

The reception and restaurant area (straight ahead) at Marine Dynamics
The reception and restaurant area (straight ahead) at Marine Dynamics

We were given snacks, water, lunch and towels to use on the boat, and the diving gear seemed to be in good condition – new 7 millimetre wetsuits with hoodies, proper diving masks, and decent booties. For an additional R300 we could purchase a DVD of the day’s events, produced by a separate company called FastTrax Marine.

The verdict

You have to do this if you love the ocean and its creatures. Seeing the sharks swimming past the cage was a breathtaking experience. The first time a shark appeared on the surface I choked up – couldn’t believe I was finally having an opportunity to see this creature in the flesh.

A shark comes visiting
A shark comes visiting

Yes, it’s expensive, and potentially uncomfortable (seasickness, cold, wet) but there are things you can do to mitigate much of that. Choose the operator you go with carefully, ask questions about their ethics (not just to them – check out their reputation in the industry as well), and choose the time of year that you go carefully. In both False Bay and Gansbaai winter is the high season for sharks, and what’s more the water clarity is excellent. Don’t go in summer – if any sharks DO show up, you probably won’t be able to see them in the pea soupy water!

Chilly, choppy winter morning
Chilly, choppy winter morning

We’ll have pictures of the sharks – actually the whole point of this experience – in a separate post to follow…

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Clare

Lapsed mathematician, creator of order, formulator of hypotheses. Lover of the ocean, being outdoors, the bush, reading, photography, travelling (especially in Africa) and road trips.

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