Shark cage diving in Gansbaai: romancing the great white

Posted by Scarlet Nguni on 9 April 2014

Facing my phobia by going shark cage diving in Gansbaai profoundly changed my perspective on the most misunderstood of marine giants: the great white shark. While some might dismiss shark cage diving as an adrenalin rush, I was overwhelmed instead by peace.

Photo by Jon Meinking

Jaws aired on SABC when I was nine years old and living in Underberg, a little village in the Drakensberg two long hours from Durban, and the Indian Ocean. And yet I developed an extreme phobia of sharks, exacerbated by a wildly overactive imagination. My fear was so ridiculous I refused to bath for weeks because I was convinced an egg sac would travel through the cold water tap, grow into a massive bloodthirsty brute and eat me up before I had time to get out of the tub (yup, that bad: don’t ask about the time Ma Nguni flushed a cobra down the only toilet in the house).

The thought of getting into a cage and being lowered into the icy depths of the Atlantic made my heart rigid with terror. Which in my former life, would have been just dandy but 1x pituitary apoplexy put paid to my adrenalin junkie days and forced this marine wonder off my bucket list.

Through a series of fortunate events, I found myself aboard the Apex Predator, feeling exhilarated instead of scared – an unusual response for a Monday morning, en route to face my demons. And even though I got rather seasick (due to misty conditions hid the horizon, raising the queasiness quotient exponentially – pack your motion sickness tablets, no matter how strong your sea legs!) every aspect of the experience.

The boat ride out beyond backline was eerily beautiful, light fog lingering against the sleek surface of still fathoms below. I got to tick ‘penguin’ on my Marine Big 5 list leaving me with just the great granddaddy of the ocean: the great white shark. We waited for the sun to appear and the sharks to arrive as captain; owner and founder of Great White Shark Tours Brian McFarlane, prepared us to meet these ancient sentinels. Brian, like Quint (the captain in Jaws) used to catch great whites when it was still legal – until eventually he realized the innate value of these ancient creatures and decided to work instead to secure their survival. While much controversy surrounds the merits of going shark cage diving, I can attest to the transformative nature of this journey.

I expected the bloodthirsty brutes to appear in a furious feeding frenzy almost as soon as the chum stream hit the water, having fallen prey to the myth that sharks can ‘smell’ a single drop of blood from almost anywhere in the ocean. It took a good 30-40 minutes before delighted shrieks from the neighbouring boat alerted us to the imminent arrival of these underwater ‘celebrities’.

Somehow I was convinced into joining the first eight to enter the cage, fear proving as amorphous as early morning mist and quickly replaced by curiosity. Which the sharks seemed to match.

They approached slowly, with care – their movements calm and considered. Although clearly inquisitive, the juvenile seemed scared of the foam seal decoy and even veterans required patient and persistent coaxing to take the (proverbial) bait. So much for cold-blooded killing machines on automatic pilot (another myth, busted).

While we like to think we’re doing the watching, consider what the strange bobbing circus of overzealous goggled-eye aliens must look like to them. Again, instead of harbouring any overt aggression towards us, these powerful beasts felt distinctly gracious and almost gentle, allowing us to engage with them on ‘our terms’. Stretching my overactive imagination a step further, I could almost hear one great white sighing to another:

“Oh by Neptune, here are those silly earth-crawlers again. Come on Bob, I know it’s a pain in the tail but it’s our marine duty to swim a few laps and show them they’re the only monsters in the ocean to be feared…”

Because when I ducked below the surface and one of those magnificent creatures glided through the murky water past my nose, there was no fear. I was overwhelmed instead by an intense wave of awe and peace. Yes, peace. Up there with yoga and transcendental meditation, being privileged to see these graceful beings in the natural habitat is one of the most blissful ‘zen’ experiences I’ve ever had. I forgot my lifelong phobia and fell in love.

Going cage diving profoundly changed my perspective of great white sharks: I now see them as coy instead of cruel; elegant instead of evil; beautiful instead of barbaric. If anything I have greater respect for sharks in general and a wish to see them and their enviroment protected. Having seen how non-aggressively they engage, I’m compelled to conclude most attacks on man are simply unfortunate cases of mistaken identity.

And while some dismiss shark cage diving as a mere adrenalin rush, I see it as a powerful bridge between two worlds. A way to dispel damaging myths through direct experience. Shark cage diving operators help facilitate this and are an integral part of the conservation effort – for it is only when we can move beyond fear that we begin to move towards understanding. And it is through understanding that we begin to respect and protect one another’s sacred right to life.

Gansbaai has earned the reputation of the Great White Shark Capital of the world and is two hours out of Cape Town, making it a comfortable day trip. No certifications are required to dive in the cage and gear is supplied by the operator. You can also remain on the surface and observe from above, still making for an exciting encounter.

You may also like

yoast-primary -
tcat - Animal stories
tcat_slug - animal-stories
tcat2 -
tcat2_slug -
tcat_final - wildlife