In Search of JAWS – Shark Cage Diving South Africa

| October 24, 2013 | 0 Comments
Poster for the 1975 movie JAWS

Poster for the 1975 movie JAWS

Despite the warm weather at sea that day, I was shaking like a leaf. I had just watched a Great White shark rip a hundred-pound tuna to pieces in seconds. I was now being asked to slide into a metal shark cage that looked as secure as a shopping trolley. I could even see the dark shadow of one shark patrol the water below me. Considering I have an acute fear of being eaten alive made this even crazier. Why was I doing this?

Ever since I watched the film JAWS as an impressionable ten-year-old, I have had a healthy fear of the Great White shark. After seeing what the man-eating star of that film did made me forever cautious when swimming in the sea. Yet, here I was, sitting on a boat off the coast of South Africa, about to go into a cage with the object of my fear. Despite my anxiety, something drew me to these creatures so I had decided to go and see if they were as fierce as I feared. What better place to look than in South Africa.

Gansbaai – Home for Shark Cage Diving

The small fishing village of Gansbaai is only two hours drive from Cape Town. Dyer and Geyser Islands, just off the coast, are home to a large colony of over fifty thousand seals and is thus a favourite feeding ground for the Great White. The deep channel between these two islands is known as Shark Alley and is acknowledged as one of the best places in the world to view the Great White. Boating companies run trips out to Shark Alley and shark cage diving has turned the small, sleepy village into a mecca for thrill-seekers from all over the world.

Piet Smal has been running shark cage diving trips for years and has appeared in many documentaries featuring the Great White. His knowledge and understanding of this ancient predator makes him an ideal guide. His company offers both half-day and full-day trips at sea with the sharks, watching them tear tuna bait apart and also getting into a cage to see them up close in the water. No diving experience is necessary as you can simply use a snorkel and mask in the cage.

“What we are dealing with here is a perfect engine…an eating machine. It’s really a miracle of evolution. All this machine does is swim and eat…” – Hooper to Vaughn on the beach. (from the film ‘JAWS’ – 1975)

Before setting out to sea that day, we all enjoyed a light breakfast as Piet briefed us on what to expect during the trip. After we finished, everyone had to sign an unsettling legal waiver of the type, “I will not press legal changes if I get an arm or leg bitten off…” Not what my nerves needed. We finally boarded the well-equipped cruiser and, with seagulls swirling above us, chugged out of the harbour in search of JAWS.

Once the crew found a good spot and dropped anchor, Piet cast crushed sardines called chum 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 kilometres away.  It didn’t take long for the first of the distinctive fins to appear. A group of four started to circle the boat, the largest of them being about four meters long and, according to Piet, well over two tonnes in weight.

Into The Shark Cage

Shark attacks tuna during shark cage diving South Africa

Great White shark attacks tuna during shark cage diving, Gansbaai, South Africa.

Piet attached a rope to a large tuna head and threw it into the water. One shark circled the bait cautiously for about five minutes before it unleashed its attack. The Great White has several rows of over three thousand teeth and made good use of them all as it tore the tuna to shreds. We all swallowed hard as Piet hauled in what was left of the mangled fish. “Right”, he smiled “time for you lot to get in the cage”. It was my moment of truth.

Piet threw some chum near the flimsy looking shark cage and beckoned me to jump in. My knees weakened.

“Don’t worry”, he shouted, “the shark may brush his nose against the cage but he’ll never attack it. They’re just curious.”

Yea, right I thought to myself. My heart pounded like never before as I slid into the cage. My feet found the floor of the cage and my vision adjusted just in time to see a Great White loom out of the shadows. It swam by slowly, seeming to be completely oblivious of my presence. To see this mighty and ancient creature up close in the water was a truly amazing experience. It glided with the absolute minimum of effort. It was magical, beautiful and about to become scary.

Great white shark attacks tuna during shark cage diving South Africa

Great White shark attacks a tune head during shark cage diving, Gansbaai, South Africa.

I headed to the surface to for air. Piet shouted at me to dive down again and look straight ahead. I dove down in time to see another shark glide past me with the same effortless ease as before. Suddenly, it turned and headed straight for my cage. With jaws agape, a dead cold stare in its eyes and showing rows of its deadly teeth, the shark brushed its nose against the cage before it swam away. I nearly let my bladder go at that point.

I burst to the surface like a cork with the rest of the boat gasping at what had just happened. By the time Piet had 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 into the cage twice more that day and continued to marvel at those amazing creatures of the sea.

As the trip ended and we sped towards shore, I felt thrilled to have finally met the Great White. It wasn’t the man-eating monster of the movies but one of the oldest creatures on earth and one of nature’s finest and most perfect creations. My fear had finally disappeared and been replaced by awe and respect. Still, I don’t think I’ll be swimming near Shark Alley in the near future. Just out of respect, of course.

Extracted from the book Cape Town to Kruger: Backpacker Adventures in South Africa and Swaziland by John Dwyer

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About the Author ()

John Dwyer is a travel writer and blogger. His first book High Road to Tibet: Travels in China, Tibet, Nepal and India became an Amazon best-seller. His latest book Klondike House: Memories of an Irish Country Childhood recalls his years growing up on a rural farm in Ireland.

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