Day broke over a cloudless, perfect South African sky. We couldnt have hoped for better weather. In the previous days we had seen southern right whales breaching in Hermanus Bay and now were intent on seeing another one of the oceans great creatures.
A shuttle took us to the skippers house in Gansbaai, south of Cape Town, where breakfast was waiting. After a few cups of coffee, we walked down to the jetty, the boat was loaded into the water and we were underway. Within 25 minutes we had reached Dyer Island, home to a colony of cape fur seals. As these creatures are a staple in the diet of many great white sharks, the body of water around Dyer Island is aptly named Shark Alley.
It was the sharks we had come to see, first hand, in their element, from the safety of a shark cage. Controversy engulfs great white shark cage-diving the world over. It is banned in the United States. South Africa, on the other hand, recognizes some benefits by allowing visitors to enter the realm of this apex predator. The most obvious is increased revenue for the tourism industry.
Another is when myths and misconceptions perpetuated by a sensationalist media and film industry are dispelled. As a consequence of Eastern medicine (which prescribes shark fin as an aphrodisiac) and people with exotic palates who pay top-dollar for shark fin soup, the finning industry is as lucrative as it is inhumane. Sharks are caught, their fins are cut off, and the fish are tossed back into the sea, often still alive. Human greed, vanity and gluttony can produce disgusting results.
Films like Jaws and Deep Blue Sea do not help invoke pity for these beautiful creatures. Instead, shark sport-fishing has become more popular. Over fishing, which reduces prey stock, and by-catch play even greater roles in endangering these animals. The tourist demand for jaws and teeth further encourages a black market for sharks. After years of indiscriminate and unbridled hunting, the great white shark is now a protected species.
At the heart of the cage-diving controversy lies the notion that such operations encourage sharks to associate humans with food. The boats go to the sharks natural feeding ground, such as a seal colony. A chum line of fish blood is set to attract the sharks towards the boat. Tuna heads are then used to draw the sharks closer to the boat. And then humans, protected by a metal cage, are dropped into the water with the sharks.
Having evolved very little over the centuries, the creatures are natures perfect water predator. Observing them in their natural habitat helps quell fears and promote understanding of the creatures.
And there are fewer than a dozen cage-diving boats chumming for sharks in Shark Alley, which isnt going to make much of a difference in a region where thousands of fishing boats have been tossing fish guts into the water for centuries. As well, every effort is made not to feed the fish. Of course, occasionally, a shark will get hold of the bait, but this is always unintentional on the part of the skipper.
All the shark diving operators are licensed members of the South African Shark Conservation, and all conduct research on these little-understood animals.
Some of the work done by South African Shark Conservation has found evidence that great white sharks are nomadic and do not frequent an area for more than a few days before moving on.
Not five minutes after setting our chum line our first shark came by. The cage was dropped in the water and Diane and I volunteered to be the first ones in.
As the shark splashed around the surface Diane hesitantly entered the cage and I followed her. At 3.5 metres, this was no baby. A number of times, it passed within a few feet of the cage, seeming to eye us curiously. Suddenly, it got a hold of the bait and began thrashing about. Its tail knocked the cage, and with the bait in its mouth we could get a good look at those razor-sharp pearly-whites.
As it dove, the rope attached to the bait wrapped around the cage, tilting and tipping us until much of the open top of the cage was exposed to the sea. If the shark hadnt let go of the bait, we might have been spilled into the ocean.
As we climbed out of the cage, more sharks arrived on the scene, making our exit from the water even more exciting than our entry.
We spent the rest of the day onboard while the rest of the group took turns being thrilled by these magnificent creatures.
On our way back to Gansbaai, we were still full of adrenaline from our encounter with these graceful and majestic animals. An unforgettable experience that left us with a respect, understanding and admiration for these awesome kings and queens of the sea.
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