April, 2017: How do you feel about bobbing around in murky water waiting for a four metre great white shark to come in for a closer look? What about floating in a steel cage in freezing water for an hour or two? Neither were really high on my list but diving with great white sharks certainly got my adrenalin seeking wife pretty excited. In the end, the dreams I had the night before were as scary as things got. We had a fantastic time diving with one of natures greatest apex predators. Sure you may want to bring your brown undies, but cage diving with great white sharks really is a rather exhilarating and awesome experience.
There are few places around the world that offer cage diving with great white sharks but South Africa has to be some of the best value for money. You get first world safety and facilities, but with the weak value of the rand at the moment you also get relatively cheap prices (at least compared with somewhere like Australia). We (should I say Fi) researched a few places but ended up going with Great White Shark Tours at Van Dyks Bay, Gansbaai. They were number 1 on Trip Advisor, had lots of good reviews and were cheaper than some of the other companies. The other great thing about them is that they guarantee that every person will get to dive with a shark. Some companies give each person a certain amount of time in the water and if you don’t see a shark then tough. Great White Shark Tours rotates people through the cage as long necessary until each person has had there chance. And, in the event that no one sees a shark, you get a full refund. Winning!
We arrived early in the morning at the company’s office on Van Dyks Bay to be greeted by a pretty impressive buffet breakfast. Backing our seasickness tablets to sort us out, we hopped in as we signed away the company’s responsibility for us getting munched by a shark. Before long we donned an oversized spray jacket (provided by the company) and boarded the boat while trying to smile for the cameraman. As we powered out over a rolling swell, the gloomy skies and seeing a crew member prep the shark cage wasn’t really allaying my nervousness. I distracted myself watching another crew member feed a diving albatross (could have been a seagull) from the side of the boat. At least the bird was having fun.
Twenty minutes later the captain had found the spot he wanted. Our shark cage and a rank burly of old fish heads went over the side (a practice called chumming) to attract the local great whites. The anticipation built. The cage was a 4x2x1m steel contraption which floated just above the water line with space for 8 people. Group by group, everyone squeezed into 7mm wetsuits with a hood, weight belts and booties and then climbed down into the freezing, murky water.
The lid of the cage clanked shut while the crew started lobbing a rotting tuna head tied to a thick rope out into the water. As the tuna head got dragged back in and then tossed out again, rotten tuna juice dribbled down on our heads. Between chattering teeth everyone giggled nervously. Here we were floating in shark infested waters with our blood covered heads bobbing just above the water. A small gap in the cage just in front of our faces seemed like a yawning great cavern certainly big enough for an enterprising shark to squeeze through. What the hell were we thinking going diving with great white sharks?! A young girl diving with her father started balling. The poor thing was doing her best to strangle dad while alternating between crying fear at getting munched and crying indignation at getting pulled out of the cage.
Suddenly the crew yelled out that a shark was coming around the side of the boat. Now it was under the boat. Now in front coming towards us….the little girl screamed louder…DOWN DOWN DOWN…the crew yelled at us to get underwater. We ducked down, tried to hook our feet into the cage to keep us down while at the same time madly looking around to find the shark. The shark wasn’t interested though. All we could see was murky nothingness. All we could feel was freezing water slapping us in the face while we tried to console ourselves that the steel cage would do it’s job. The little girl wasn’t impressed and howled louder. This happened a few times with no real action. Diving with great white sharks wasn’t seeming all that scary after all.
Ten minutes later, the same again. Shark underneath. Shark round the side. Shark in……DOWN DOWN DOWN. This time it was all happening. Diving with great white sharks suddenly got plenty scary! The cage rattled and we got tossed from side to side. A flash of grey and white smashed into us. I could hear everyone screaming both above and below the water. The shark came back and smashed into us again as it battled to rip the tuna head off the rope. Then as quickly as it had arrived it disappeared. After a brief pause to comprehend what had just happened everyone started laughing and talking at once. The previously yelping little girl was now babbling excitedly to her mum above. ‘Did you see it…did you see it?’
We went through this a few times before getting the call that everyone in our group had seen a shark and it was time to get out. We clambered out, peeled off our freezing wetsuits and hopped into sandwiches and a few drinks. After being centimetres from a marauding great white, sitting in the sun up on deck felt ultimately calming. From the top deck of the boat we had an awesome view of the next group below us in the cage. In some ways, being up there was almost better as we could see the sharks in all their glory. We could see them coming around the side and see their full length as they lunged for the bait….or was it the people in the cage.
Eventually everyone on the boat had got there turn and had seen their shark. When the call went out for anyone wanting a second dive, I wasn’t super keen but got kitted up anyway and clambered into the freezing water once again. The same process as above was repeated a few times with sharks coming and going. Some would latch onto the fish head and thrash around like a deadly toddler’s tantrum. Others would just nonchalantly coast by seemingly trying to figure out how to have us for brunch. Then we encountered a new shark for the day and this guy was aggressive. From our waterline view we got a front row seat as this massive shark half jumped out of the water gaping mouth held wide open. It was amazing and quite humbling to have something so large and majestic yet so fierce and feared right there in front of us.
By late morning we had seen a total of 8 or 9 different sharks rating between 2.5m up to an enormous 4m. Everyone had seen their shark at least once except for the few poor buggers who succumbed to seasickness. We cruised happily back to the harbour to be greeted by trays of steaming hot pasta bake. After a morning spent being on the shark’s menu it was amazing to feast on a menu of our own while we watched the DVD of the days antics. As we drove out of the carpark we both realised that it actually diving with great white sharks been as scary as we thought. In fact, it could have been scarier. Still, it’s not something we’ll forget in a hurry.
The fine print: diving with great white sharks…
- Cage diving with Great White Shark Tours cost R1750 each including breakfast, plenty of onboard snacks and drinks, lunch, spray jacket for the day and all diving gear
- Don’t be muppets like us and forget your GoPro. Ideally bring some kind of mounting for it so you don’t have to concentrate on holding onto both it and the cage.
- If you have the opportunity, stay in Hermanus or somewhere closer to Gansbaai and drive yourself to the office. You can do the tour from Cape Town but it means you have to get up ridiculously early to meet the shuttle.
- Make sure you get hold of some good seasickness tablets. If you don’t know if you get seasick, take the damn things anyway. You don’t want this awesome and rather expensive experience to be ruined by needing to hurl over the side. We used Stugeron (active ingredient Cinnarizine) and they worked perfectly.
- If you do get seasick onboard, Impressively the companies in Gansbaai can all call up a boat to come collect you and take you back to land. At R500 per call out it doesn’t come cheap but if you’re really struggling you’ll pay any price.