Great White Shark Cage Dive in South Africa
The introductory video had me feeling like a panicked tuna. I was sitting with nine co-divers in a small restaurant in Hermanus, South Africa, having a light breakfast. A small screen in the corner of the room spat out an orgy of great white horror: enormous grey monsters came within inches of divers in cages; lids rolled back on black, unreasonable eyes; gaping, fantastic jaws seized everything in front of them with mechanical insistence.
Was I really going to confront decades of "Jaws"-inspired fear and get in the water with these predators? Watching the video, allowing my toasted cheese and tomato sandwich to go cold, my inclination was: nope.
Alluring & Controversial
Months later, in Malawi, I met an American girl who'd just come from South Africa. "Whatever you do," she cautioned, "do not go cage diving."
She looked at me as if I'd just slapped a baby chimp. "Because it's, like, the most totally irresponsible, environmentally destructive thing you can do," she said in disgust.
"C'mon now. The most irresponsible thing I can do? More damaging than poaching rhino? Clear-cutting primary forest? Crashing oil tankers in marine reserves?"
"Well, like, I don't know. You're totally teaching sharks to associate humans with food. Shark attacks have been on the rise since people started cage diving."
Robert attributed the rise in shark attacks to a growing world population and the increasing popularity of water sports. He also explained that, in the past, shark attacks were reported only locally – if they were reported at all; today, shark attacks are reported globally. "Sharks have been around for 60 million years," Robert concluded. "If anyone thinks we'll change their behavior in a decade or two, they're wrong."
The Atlantic Ocean was remarkably calm as we motored off the coast of Hermanus in a small, custom-designed cage diving boat. After 30 minutes we dropped anchor at "shark alley," an area popular with great whites. Robert affixed a basketball-sized chunk of tuna to a line with a large float at its end, and threw it off the back of the boat; first mate Johan prepared the chum, a mixture of blood and shredded tuna. But the real lure, Robert explained, was a bag of shark livers hung off the rear of the boat. The oil from these livers created a "scent slick" which sharks could detect from kilometers away.
My co-divers (two American girls, two British couples, an Australian, and two South African guys) and I sat in the sun on the bridge of the boat and waited for something to happen.
A vast dark form glided toward the boat. As it neared, the shape became more distinct, an 11ft (3.5m) blue-gray slab edged with white. Then the dorsal fin broke the surface, the enormous head rose out of the water, the vast jaws opened, and the shark clamped down on the bait.
The movement of a great white shark does not inspire panic. Watching the giant beast circle the boat, I felt more awe than fear, more admiration than panic. There was beauty in his assuredness. Even the eyes, black discs that, in photos, had always struck me as monstrous and mechanical, appeared benign and curious.
"Look off to starboard!" Robert shouted. "Another shark is coming!"
A new dark shape, bigger than the first, sped toward us with such speed and force that, for a moment, I thought it was an airplane's shadow.
"All right," Robert said. "Who wants a wetsuit?"
I'd envisioned shark cages to be maximum security affairs – thick titanium bars, triple-welded joints, and bulletproof Kryptonite locks. I was wrong. Slightly larger than a phone booth, our cage was constructed of thin aluminum tubing covered in wire mesh – a construction not unlike a gerbil cage.
If ever I needed some adventure travel insurance, it was now.
The cage was hung over the starboard side of the ship. Floats affixed to the cage lid kept the top six inches above the water. Two people could fit inside at once.
The underwater viewing worked like this: Robert and Johan attracted the shark to the bait, then dragged the bait toward the cage. When the shark came near enough, Robert would shout, "Get down!" The divers inside would then drop down and observe the shark.
The American girls volunteered to go first. Sturdy, brave gals, they leapt right into the cage and joked nonchalantly as they waited for the shark.
"All right, get down! Look toward the bait!" Robert cried.
Everyone on board shrieked as Johan lured the shark within inches of the cage; a torrent of bubbles rose up from the girls inside.
Johan and Robert lured her past the cage five or six times.
"There's no fear once you see the shark moving down there," the girls reported once they were back on deck. "It's just… beautiful!"
Sharks usually stick around for just a minute or two, Robert informed us, but this big girl was an exception. She hung around long enough for the South African guys and one of the British couples to observe her. I suited up and prepared for a look too but, just as it was my turn, she vanished.
An hour passed before another shark appeared – a slightly smaller female. She circled the bait a few times and then went for it.
"Ready to get in there?" Robert asked.
Robert helped me climb into the cage.
Even with a 7mm wetsuit on, the 59° F (15° C) water took my breath away. Teeth chattering, I stood with my head above the water and waited for Robert's cue. And waited. And waited.
The shark had disappeared. I climbed out of the cage.
I sat on deck for 30 minutes, waiting. Then I took off the wetsuit and waited some more. I chatted with my co-divers, ate peanuts, enjoyed the sun. Robert chummed the water behind us with fish blood. Seagulls swooped down and snatched bits of fish from the water's surface. It was a pleasant scene.
Suddenly there was thrashing off the stern of the boat. Johan shouted something in Afrikaans.
"Suit up!" Robert shouted.
It was a baby great white, 6.5ft (2m) in length. He gnawed frantically on the bait, tumbled around in corkscrews, and thrashed mightily.
"Look at him!" Robert said admiringly. "Just like any baby animal, young white sharks are really frisky and playful. Look at him go for it!" The shark bared his teeth and gnawed on the bait, providing my co-divers with classic photo opportunities.
I quickly suited up, leapt back into the cage, and then… nothing. The shark was gone.
The water felt colder than it had before. I waited. I shivered. Then I climbed back on deck.
We had just 30 minutes left on the boat. The Australian and I were the only ones who hadn't seen a shark from inside the cage. Our chances were dwindling.
"Okay, down!" Johan shouted. I went under as the shark charged toward the cage. He turned sharply just a foot away from me and glided out of view. I surfaced and took a breath.
Approaching head on, the shark opened his mouth wide, exposing rows of large jagged teeth. His eyes rolled back in his head. He clamped down on the bait. The water around us churned and went white.
The shark glided by, close enough to touch. His skin shone brightly in the clear water. His eyes, intelligent black discs, gleamed. I felt calm, reverence, respect. This was a beautiful animal. He made a 90° turn directly in front of me and, with a powerful, graceful thrust of his tail, shot off into the deep blue distance and was gone.