March 30, 2007 lia

Great White Sharks

Is shark cage diving inhumane? Yes — for the humans.

After barely a day in Cape Town, South Africa, Guillaume made the suggestion to join him and his friends Great White Shark cage diving.

-Apparently it’s a major tourist attraction for visitors to SA, and not to be missed.
-I don’t really do the not-to-be-missed-attractions thing when I travel.
-But it should be fun and the weather’s supposed to be great this weekend. Last time we scheduled, it was cancelled due to weather conditions. You should seize the opportunity.
-Sure. Let’s do it. As long as I don’t have to think about it or talk about it before hand.

Everyone has at least one irrational fear. I’ve seen people screech at the thought of a snake, despite never having met a poisonous one in their lives, and other common fears include bees, mice, and cockroaches – creatures infinitely more peaceful and evolved than people.

My one great irrational fear is of Great White Sharks. When I was in kindergarten, I accidentally stumbled upon a National geographic documentary on great white sharks that followed Sesame Street, and for more than two decades since, images of great white sharks swimming from every shadow in my bedroom, leaping from the taps in my bathtub and the drains in the swimming pool where I trained as a competitive swimmer for 12 years plagued me.

I would develop rules: as long as I’m not the last person out of the pool, the great white sharks won’t creep out of the drains and get me; as long as there is someone else on the same floor as me when I’m taking my bath, the great white sharks won’t pour out of the bathroom taps or jump out of the toilet; if I don’t swim in the lane next to the slide, then the great white sharks won’t come tumbling down the slide to get me.

When the time drew near, Jas and I packed the car and drove to Hansbaii to face our fears. But without Guillaume.

-I don’t feel like waking at 5am, and besides, I don’t know how I feel about the ethics of how the sharks are treated. Luring them in for tourists to photograph with under water cameras? Seems kind of inhumane.

Hypocrisy is something one has to deal with constantly while in South Africa, and my Great White Shark cage diving was just another example of my general approach in the country – just experience all that you can of your landscape, and ask questions later. It was a bit embarrassing actually – I’m quite the advocate for sustainable and responsible tourism, and had just spent 6 months in Ghana proposing Community-Based Ecotourism development planning, among other things. So we went with the most ethical of the shark cage diving companies, a company that has taken people the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt for cage diving experiences. True ethical laziness – using Leo and Brad to set your responsible tourism bar.

The experience was extraordinary and extremely exhilarating. But it was not what I had expected. Many tourists whom we met along the way asked us about the experience.

-It’s really worthwhile, and I’d do it again in a second, but mostly it’s 4 hours of misery interspersed with about 10 minutes of excitement. One of the blokes in our group said at one point ‘it’s not unlike watching paint dry’. Everyone’s sea sick, the deck of the boat is freezing from the wind, and the people in the cage are just lasting as long as they can before hypothermia sets in. And that’s in a full wetsuit, which, by the way, smells and is far too small for anyone over 150cm. It took about half an hour after docking the boat before I could feel my feet, and that was about 2 hours after I had gotten out of the water. But, when the sharks come, it’s awe-inspiring. They are truly fascinating creatures.

The cage is oval-shaped and open-topped, and is attached to the side of the boat. In order to last as long as I could in the water, I would sit on the top of the cage, and when the sharks would come, I’d wait till the last second and dive under the water to see them from bellow. This tactic allowed me to spend 45 minutes in the shark cage, though mostly sitting on top with as much of myself out of the water as I could manage.

The first shark, a small female of maybe 3 metres, circled around the cage several times, tugging at the bait as the shark experts pulled the bait towards the cage allowing us a closer view. As the bait was pulled up and over the open-topped cage, we were certainly given a close up of the fantastic creature. This was just the appetizer though.

The second shark was a massive male, 5.5 metres in length. He gave people above and below the water’s surface a show as he lunged out of the water for the bait. One of cage divers grew too cold, and I offered to take the corner cell of the cage so that the new diver could share a cell with his girlfriend, but he declined and took the corner cell instead. As the colossal male great white sped up for his attack on the unsuspecting line of bait, the shark expert pulled the bait towards the cage and we all dove under to witness the event from below.

I saw the enormous beast spring in our direction, and then towards the corner of the cage I had just offered to take. And then the great white did the unimaginable – he lunged over top of the open-topped cage and lept at the bait, now dangling in the air over the boat, and then dove back under the boat. I stayed underwater as long as I could, seeing nothing but water and bubbles, anticipating the site of blood. When I could no longer hold my breath any longer, I surfaced, half expecting to see only half a diver in the corner of the cage. Instead, he excitedly pulled himself out of the cage, clenching his camera up high, and triumphantly announced


I laughed a sigh of relief, and realised that I hadn’t actually been afraid of the shark. It didn’t feel like he would attack us, even if we had still been sitting on the edge of the cage when the bait went over head, rather than under water. In fact, great white sharks don’t like eating humans – they usually only attack surfers, and that’s because they think they’re turtles. Over the next twenty minutes, the massive male circled around a few more times for us, splashing those of us below with bubbles, and those above with water as he stormed off after failed attempts at trapping the bait.

When I finally couldn’t handle the cold a moment longer, the three of us who had endured the cold since we first cast the anchor climbed out. I changed, ate, and tried to warm my feet up enough to walk, draped myself in towels and watched the great white sharks play with the bait from the deck. As I sat there shivering and trying to prevent myself from vomiting along with everyone else, I was quite satisfied that the only inhumanity occurring on this trip was towards the humans, not the sharks.