When we were planning our trip to South Africa, one activity that came up as something we should consider was cage diving with great white sharks. Jaws was released when I was a little kid and has probably contributed to my growing up with a healthy fear of sharks. That I would get up at some ungodly hour in the morning and pay good money to be thrown in a small cage with strangers while some other strangers gleefully chum the water… Well, let’s just say it wasn’t an idea about which I didn’t have any second thoughts. But, what the hell, what could possibly go wrong.
Who gets eaten first?
After deciding that we both wanted to do this, our next decision was what to do with Ella. We briefly considered the possibility that we could take her along and keep her on the boat but, fortunately, we decided it made more sense for us to take two days for the trip by alternating who went and who stayed with Ella in Cape Town. Katy was the more keen of the two of us and I was the one with permission to drive the rental car, so it was a fairly quick decision that Katy would go first while Ella and I moved our stuff from our Airbnb apartment over to Kevin and Vanessa’s place. They graciously offered to let us stay there while they went back to Canada for the holidays. The one risk with this approach is that one of us would have a great experience while the other was either bored to tears or eaten by a shark. Fortunately, unless Katy is lying and she actually left the cage and had hand to fin combat with a shark in order to save another passenger, it seems we had pretty similar experiences. Fortunate for us because it’s just fair. Fortunate for you, because I’ll just tell the story once. So, how does one find oneself neck deep in cold ocean water in a cage with 4 strangers? Well, for us at least, it starts early in the morning, 7am for Katy and 5:30am for me. From there you drag yourself out of bed while trying not to wake everyone else. Sneak out to the street curb and wait. Then, when it pulls up, you hop in a strange van with with a bunch of your new friends. Two hours later you arrive at a building with a giant papermache shark on the outside.
Shark Side vs. Puke Side
After a quick breakfast, it’s time to get on the boat. Much to my surprise, this is not done by walking down to the water and stepping on a floating boat. Instead, the boat is waiting in the parking lot across the street sitting on a trailer. After a tractor comes along and backs the boat into the water, the trip starts smoothly enough. It isn’t long before you get outside the harbour and start to feel the swells. It’s at this point that we learned that there are two sides to the boat. No, not port and starboard, puke side and shark side. You see, while Katy and I aren’t prone to sea sickness it turns out that not everyone is so fortunate. So, it’s important to tell the pukers to aim themselves to the side of the boat that does not have a cage full of people. At the same time we received other useful tips and tidbits like, don’t touch the sharks. At the time, this seemed like just about the stupidest piece of advice I had ever been given. Seriously, don’t touch the 4 meter long great white shark that is swimming by. Should that ever be needed? Fully briefed we put on our wetsuits and bobbed around while we waited. Some kept themselves entertained by vomiting.
Down, Down, Down!
Then, suddenly, there’s a commotion and the first 5 people that are ready are told to hop in the cage. Inside the cage, you can’t see the sharks coming as well as they can from the boat above, so you have to rely on them to tell you when to look. When the grizly captain of the boat, who bears a certain resemblance to the captain in jaws, yells “down, down, down” you go under the water. Then, for just a moment you think there’s a mistake because you can’t see anything. Then all you can see is the huge shark gliding past. It’s surreal and not something I can really describe. We really should have bought that GoPro, but luckily someone on Katy’s trip did so I don’t need to describe it:
Ok, so the one in that video isn’t just “gliding by”. The thing is, it’s oddly less scary than I expected it to be, even when they are being a little more… active. I’m not sure if I just had faith in the cage or it was because the way shark moved was so graceful. Well, except when they’re attacking the tuna head that’s bobbing outside the cage. Over the course of our 2 hours on the boat Katy and I each saw 3 to 5 sharks all around 3 t0 4 meters long. (The record in that area being 6.3 meters.)
Is it Ethical?
Other than the risk of being eaten, one reason you might hesitate to go see the sharks is a concern that this tourist activity could increase shark attacks. It’s something we were asked about, and a fair question. Fair enough that there was actually a section in the Lonely Planet Cape Town where they had interviewed a researcher on the topic. The answer they got was pretty similar to the one that we were given by the tour company. First, there has been no correlated increase in attacks since the shark tours started. Second, the companies licensed to offer the tours are strictly regulated with regard to how they operate their businesses. Though they do chum the water to get sharks interested, they don’t actually feed them anything, so even if they did make the leap from boat to people, there’s no “reward” that would provide an incentive to start attacking swimmers. Whether you believe all that is up to you, but it seemed reasonable to us.
After swimming with sharks, we thought we deserved a drink. So, next we find out what it’s like to spend Christmas at a winery.