Want to go eyeball to eyeball with a great white shark? Most of us are terrified of sharks, but a new South African industry is making good money by dropping people into the ocean, in a cage, to get up close to the big fish. And, at the same time, helping to preserve these ancient and magnificent creatures.
Sharks are incredible animals – the ultimate survivors. They evolved into the perfect predator a few hundred million years ago, remaining relatively unchanged ever since. Evolution works on the principle that you don’t mess with what works, especially if it works superbly. Great white sharks in particular reign supreme in the ocean; with no natural enemies, they’re untouchable.
Until we came along. Human beings, the Johnny-come-latelys of evolutionary development, are a new and deadly threat to shark survival.
Ironically, while most people have a deep-seated fear of these great fish – brought on by movies like Jaws and sensational news stories of the few (but admittedly terrifying) shark incidents that do occur – it is the sharks that are under constant attack from humans.
Millions of sharks are killed every year by shark nets, recreational anglers and commercial fisheries. Many of the last use only the valuable fins, cutting them off and throwing the definned sharks back in the water – sometimes still alive.
It’s the sharks that should be afraid.
Sharks have few natural enemies other than other sharks. Small sharks are eaten by bigger sharks, perhaps, but bigger sharks are not eaten by anything – at least not till they die of old age. Because there is naturally little mortality among mature sharks, they are slow breeders. As with apex predators on land, they breed late and produce few offspring, so if the big sharks are taken out, the population can’t recover for a long time.
In 1991 South Africa became the first country in the world to pass legislation to protect the great white shark, making it illegal to catch the fish in territorial waters. If a great white is accidentally hooked and cannot be returned to the water, it must be surrendered, whole, to a fisheries officer, and no part of the shark may be sold.
Despite this protection, poaching remains a big problem, says Steve Smuts of the South African Shark Conservancy. The jaw of a great white sells for up to US$80 000 (R800 000) on the black market, so there are more than a few unscrupulous people willing to take the risk.
In 2005, whale sharks and basking sharks were added to the list of protected species, but many other species remain unprotected.
But fins and jaws aren’t the only way to make money from sharks.
Humans are strange creatures. While most people are terrified of sharks, the animals are fascinating to them, and they really want to see one. For some it’s the adrenaline rush, for others it’s ticking off another adventure on the gap year list, and some want to see sharks for their own sake, for their beauty, vulnerability and rarity.
For those who want to get up and personal with a great white, there is no better place in the world than Gansbaai, near Cape Town in the Western Cape. This once-sleepy little fishing village is close to an enormous Cape fur seal colony, which becomes a seasonal larder for a large transient population of great white sharks. And these, in turn, support a burgeoning shark cage diving industry.
(While Gansbaai is the centre of the industry, there is also one operator in False Bay in Cape Town and one in Mossel Bay.)
Before the dive you are given a comprehensive briefing that includes essential safety information as well as detailed information about the sharks and the general marine environment. You then head out to sea in one of the big, stable cage diving boats.
The best time for diving with great whites is in the southern hemisphere winter, from about May to August.
At this time of year the sharks are found in Shark Alley, between Dyer and Geyser Islands, where they can snack on seal pups that are at just that perfect stage of development – big and fat enough to be worth eating, but still young enough to be easy to catch.
In summer the sharks move inshore, where the diving is a bit trickier, but still worthwhile.
Once at the dive site the crew lays a scent trail of fish oil and mashed sardines to attract the sharks – known as “chumming”. Bait is put out when the sharks appear, usually tuna heads or other fish, but the sharks are never allowed to actually eat the bait. It’s important that the sharks don’t start identifying the boats with a free meal.
You get a good look at the sharks from the boat and then, if you’re feeling brave, hop in the cage for a closer look. Eyeball to eyeball. It’s a rush.
Trips last anything from a couple of hours to almost a full day.
“I try to get out as early as possible,” says Mike Rutzen, of Shark Diving Unlimited. “I get out early and try to catch the animals when they’re active. Some days it’s early, some days it’s late. We’re hunting something we can’t see.”
There are eight shark cage diving companies in Gansbaai, seven based in the small harbour at Kleinbaai (Little Bay) and one in the main fishing harbour. When operators started in the early 1990s, it was a pretty hit-and-miss affair. No-one really knew what they were doing – and it was quite ugly for a while. Some likened it to a feeding frenzy – and they weren’t talking about the sharks.
It was clear that the industry needed to be regulated so Sea Fisheries – now Marine and Coastal Management, a division of the national Department of Environmental Affairs – stepped in.
In theory, every operator needs a permit, but the system works on exemptions – a kind of upside-down permit – as an interim measure until the permit policy is finalised. This can be stressful for operators, as it’s hard for them to do long-term planning when they have no assurance that they will still be in business in a few years.
Kim McLean, owner and manager of Shark Lady, has been operating in and around Gansbaai from pretty much the beginning, so she’s seen it all.
“The industry has grown steadily,” she says. “I’ve been around to see it grow though everything. I made all the mistakes for everyone to learn from. It’s okay – someone’s got to do it.”
When cage diving first started, aspiring dive operators would charter big fishing boats for the day, and operated out of tiny premises – some from “mobile offices”; their cars. At the time, Gansbaai was one of those little country towns with a bank, a petrol station, a take-away, a rather dismal general dealer – and a few fishing tackle shops, of course.
That’s all changed. The harbour at Kleinbaai boats a fleet of specially designed shark cage diving boats, you can find a decent cappuccino in town (a good measure of the affluence of visitors and residents) and there are a number of excellent guest houses.
The watershed between the old and the new, according to Wilfred Chivell, owner of Marine Dynamics, was when David Doubilet’s photograph of a Gansbaai great white appeared on the April 2000 issue of National Geographic. It was accompanied by a story by Peter Benchley, the man who terrified the world 25 years ago by writing the book on which the movie Jaws was based.
After that, Chivell says, the demand picked up, and the dive operators started cleaning up their act, becoming more responsible.
Chivell owns the Great White House, a combination of rendezvous for trips, restaurant and guest house. And McLean is adding the finishing touches to the White Shark Embassy, a restaurant and shop where dive groups can meet before trips and unwind afterwards. This town is booming.
And it’s not just the tourism infrastructure. The tourism dollar and euro has also paid for development in the Gansbaai’s poorer areas. A brand new soccer field has been built, and a new high school is under construction.
Today, the more responsible shark-diving companies are tying their tourism activities in with research to ensure good decisions in conservation legislation, as well as educational programmes in which they expose members of the local community to the beauty and value of the sharks and the marine environment in general.
Because the permit system is still being finalised, there is no way for consumers to judge the quality and dedication of the shark operators.
“If there was some kind of accreditation system,” says Lesley Rochat of the Save our Seas Foundation, “the people who are doing good work would get the business.”
In the absence of permits Chivell applied for and was awarded Fair Trade in Tourism South Africa (FTTSA) accreditation. FTTSA certifies tourism companies that display a commitment to community development, fair labour practices and environmental sustainability. Marine Dynamics is the only shark diving company to have applied to FTTSA, and he hopes that others will follow suit, as this would set a benchmark by which companies could be evaluated.
Chivell employs a full-time marine biologist on his dive boat, and has done ever since he started the business just over three years ago. As well as the shark diving, he runs the only licensed whale-watching boat from Kleinbaai.
Both the Great White House and the White Shark Embassy have dedicated lecture rooms where clients can be properly briefed before the trip, and where children’s educational programmes can be run.
Shark diving trips cost between R800 (US$80) and R1 500 ($150), which usually includes transport from and back to Cape Town.